A mosaic of fragmented memories

Mohamed Khougali on the therapeutic dimension of oral tradition.

In humbler times, most days after my father came back from work, he would sit me down, and would break into a monologue – a history of Sudan, of the Dongola people and revolutions. It was, and still is, the bonding activity between us. Whenever the narration starts, there’s a mysticism that washes over, and suddenly a person becomes part of a continuum. The activity in itself is mystically charged, and healing. This phenomenon extends well beyond the parent-child dynamic… it’s an activity that’s practiced ubiquitously, perhaps due to its early attachment origins. 

In modern history, our North African corner of the planet has withstood harsh weathers, political uncertainty, economic disarray, neo-colonialism and more. Whenever persons from those parts are mentioned, it’s always within a wider sociological and particular narrative, often a political and economic study. Psychological analysis is rare. Are we missing the importance of stories?

A higher awareness

I remember working in a Sussex hospital, where a staff member from our corner of the world was taken aback when he saw a newly admitted service user. Later on, after having found that the service user was diagnosed with drug-induced psychosis (a controversial diagnosis), the staff member told me that the admittee was from a prominent Muslim family. That generations ago the service user’s family, and descendants, were protected with prayers, and that certain indulgences were the cause of his condition as a defence from not transgressing further (in Islam, mentally unwell persons are free from punishment). 

I must admit, at the time the statement was unpalatably fantastical. Yet in the literature around psychosis, studies suggest cultural differences exist in the presentation and interpretation of psychotic symptoms, and the course of illness and recovery. I remember thinking, the abovementioned service user and service provider come from the same cultural background, and maybe both adhere to the same world view. Maybe that was how both interpreted the psychotic symptoms. We would be wise to remember that in Sufi circles, a mystical sect of Islam that makes up a large portion of the Sudanese citizenry (and Sudanese history), persons presenting psychosis symptoms, such as visual and auditory hallucinations, are seen as transcending the material plane and having reached a higher awareness. They are then treated as such: a humanistic approach derived from acknowledgement of spiritual awesomeness possessed by the Sufi.

A platform to grieve and connect

Sudan to me now is a mosaic of fragmented memories of attending more funerals than I can count, weddings, and most importantly monologues. Take my uncle Tariq’s passing for example. I remember conversations with him, where his narrations reached beyond the scope of history, and into the future. When I talked to those struck with the tragedy of his passing, the central theme of our conversations was “I remember when we talked about…”. The oral tradition was cementing his place in the continuum of life. 

I remember having dinner with friends somewhere in Brighton, where the conversation of funerals came up. I remember saying nonchalantly “I’ve lost count of how many funerals I’ve been to since I was 17”. My friends were surprised, yet my experience isn’t particularly tragic or unique. In collectivist cultures, funeral (and other social events) are social obligations, derived from the ethos of collective grief. 

Here is where oral tradition comes in. Oral tradition acts as a platform that allows us to grieve and connect. More than that, to the listener and narrator it’s a mystical phenomenon that allows us to live entire lives and realities detached from our current ones. In that sense I’ve seen my uncle, and others who’ve passed, live multiple lives. More generally, in a country that has been plagued by, among other things, one of the longest civil wars in the continent, this seems to be the shared grievance technique. A form of collective therapy. Where some psychotherapeutic modalities stress the detriment of fetishising the past (or future), I believe oral tradition is different in many respects. Quintessentially, oral tradition is a collective activity, not an individualistic one. 

Stories at the centre?

Why do I rarely encounter psychological analyses of Sudan, of North Africa? Perhaps this speaks to the humanism of psychology, the person-centred approach that attracts so many to the discipline. In the sense that, the blanket metrics used to measure GDP and mortality rates detract from the experiential methodology so cherished in psychology. Perhaps more needs to be written, observed and researched about how collective trauma is handled in those parts. 

Beyond that, how should psychological intervention be implemented in these cultures? Here I give the example of oral tradition and Sufi treatment of psychosis, but there are so many more societies and phenomena. In this regard, psychology remains in its embryonic stages. I am confident that the ethos of the discipline, person centred and humanist, will add to the corpus of wisdom, treatment and humanity that is much needed today.

I’ve personally come to this conclusion recently; with the pandemic crippling global movement, and being separated from my significant other, who happens to be in Sudan, we rely mostly on calls. Occasionally, we engage in the therapeutic tradition; she tells me about her family’s history, I tell her about mine. We would talk about meeting next and what we’re going to do, even talk about the future. More than easing the anxiety of crippled mobility, oral tradition helped us develop emotionally. 

Perhaps this is the next wave of psychology. Perhaps, the next stage is ‘neohumanism’, with psychological clinics and research centres popping up, not just across the UK, Australia, Canada, but also in Palestine, Bangladesh and Sudan. And at their heart could be the therapeutic oral tradition, and the stories that people the world over live and breathe.

- Mohamed Khougali is a psychology graduate, black existentialist and Sudanese political activist. See his previous contributions to The Psychologist.

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