Emile Bustani Seminar: "Medical Deserts, Oases, and Ruins: An Alternative History of the Middle East"

Tuesday, April 16, 2024 at 4:30pm to 6:00pm

Building E51, 345
70 MEMORIAL DR, Cambridge, MA 02142

The Emile Bustani Middle East Seminar is organized under the auspices of the MIT Center for International Studies, which conducts research on contemporary international issues and provides an opportunity for faculty and students to share perspectives and exchange views. Each year the Bustani Seminar invites scholars, journalists, consultants, and other experts from the Middle East, Europe, and the United States to MIT to present recent research findings on contemporary politics, society and culture, and economic and technological development in the Middle East.


"Medical Deserts, Oases, and Ruins: An Alternative History of the Middle East"

Joelle Abi-Rached

Mildred Londa Weisman Fellow, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study  

In this talk, Dr. Abi-Rached will present a history of the Middle East through the emergence of what she calls “medical deserts” (such as the ongoing desertification of Gaza through the dismantling of its healthcare system) and “psychiatric ruins” (most visibly today in Yemen, Syria, and Iraq). She will propose a typology and topology, or what she calls a “topohistory”, i.e. a way of making sense of these “places” of suffering and neglect, before diving into the history of psychiatric practice and thinking through the history of ‘Asfuriyyeh (the first modern psychiatric hospital in the Near East) and ending with a reflection on the current psychiatric landscape which looks increasingly like in late nineteenth century Europe, with its trend towards institutionalization rather than community-based practice. Of course, this tableau of ruins and deserts contrasts with the polished and state-of-the-art “healthcare cities” of the “high oil” petro-dollar economies of the Gulf. Dr. Abi-Rached will examine the social, political, and economic factors that have led us to this current wounded landscape of ruins and deserts. The talk is a meditation on ruins and “ruination” but also a call for a more critical reflection on healthcare inequities in that part of the world. 

Joelle M. Abi-Rached is a historian of medicine who originally trained as a medical doctor. For the past two years she served as a lecturer on the history of science at Harvard. Her monograph ʿAṣfūriyyeh: A History of Madness, Modernity, and War in the Middle East (MIT Press, 2020) was recognized by the American Association for the History of Medicine “for outstanding work in 20th century history of medicine.” She also coauthored Neuro: The New Brain Sciences and the Management of the Mind (Princeton University Press, 2013).

At Radcliffe, Abi-Rached is working on her next book project, tentatively titled “The Resilient Society: A History of Violence, Colonialism, and Our Psychiatric Present.” Drawing on psychiatric, medical, and scientific literatures as well as on conversations with various experts, the book proposes a new global history of trauma from the 19th century to the present.

Abi-Rached’s research has appeared in such high-profile journals as Nature Medicine and the New England Journal of Medicine and in publications such as Aeon, the Boston Review, and Le Monde. She has written reports for think tanks and the World Health Organization. She is the recipient of numerous awards, grants, and fellowships, including from Columbia University’s Society of Fellows. She was recently voted a favorite professor by the Harvard College Class of 2023. Abi-Rached earned an MD from the American University of Beirut, an MSc in philosophy and public policy from the London School of Economics, and a PhD in history of science from Harvard.


The lecture will be livestreamed.

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Events By Interest

Academic, General

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Public, MIT Community, Students, Faculty

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School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (SHASS)


history, Middle East, international studies, CIS, Bustani, Medicine



Center for International Studies


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