Lectures

Writing Life No. 7: An interview with Omar Dewachi

This article is part of the series:

Two years ago, I was suggested to take a look at the work of Omar Dewachi, an Iraqi scholar who, like me, has taken a deep interest in the entanglements between health and violence in contexts affected by protracted wars. His scholarly work and writing, produced from places as diverse as Iraq, Lebanon, the United States, and Canada, moves skillfully across disciplinary, geographic, and language boundaries. So does his music. Trained in classical Iraqi oud and Iraqi Maqam music, Omar has performed in numerous concerts and festivals in Europe, North America, and the Middle East and has experimented in various musical genres.

One morning in late October 2020, amid the Covid-19 pandemic, Omar and I met through video call, connecting the east coast of the United States and southwestern Colombia for over an hour. We exchanged reflections on the craft of writing, musical creation, and the tensions of academic work when it is undertaken from a position that oscillates between the so-called “center” and “periphery.” An edited version of that ongoing conversation is available here.

Omar’s writing (and music) space in New Jersey, US.

Lina Pinto-García (LPG): I will start by asking you what drew you to medicine, then to anthropology, and finally to music.

Omar Dewachi (OD): In a funny way, music came first. I was initially drawn to music at an earlier age, in my early teens. I never learned how to read notes, so I learned and played by ear. I think that conditioned something in me, especially the perceptual faculties in terms of my later choices in life, like anthropology, for example.

Now with medicine, I wasn’t really thinking of doing medicine. Originally, I was thinking of doing engineering. However, the 1990s Gulf War shifted a lot of my trajectories. Suddenly the whole country collapsed in terms of infrastructure, livelihood, and our future—that happened in my last year of high school. I chose to go to medical school then; it made sense at the time. After graduation, I worked at the Baghdad University Hospital for a year before I was smuggled out of Iraq and began searching for a career and a life somewhere else.

My family had left before me. My father had landed a job in Beirut, and the rest of the family followed. In Beirut, I practiced medicine as an emergency doctor in a private hospital. I wanted to end up in the UK or the US to continue my training, but I got somewhat disenchanted with my work and life trajectory as a doctor. One of the things that really shook me was the contrasted articulations of health systems in Iraq and Lebanon and the different ways in which I had to practice medicine. Iraq had, more or less, a socialized health system and a very advanced one until the 1990s. While health care was free, it was unavailable due to the impact of the Gulf War and sanctions. In Lebanon, private care dominated healthcare, and it was all insurance-based. Technologies and equipment were available, but the uninsured couldn’t afford to access the country’s hospital. I always tell people that Lebanon’s healthcare is like the US system but on speed because there’s no or very minimal legal protection for patients.

As I left clinical practice, I started training in public health. During my studies, I met a wonderful medical anthropologist from the US—Cynthia Myntti. Working with her introduced me to the craft. I later was awarded a scholarship from the American University of Beirut (AUB) to study anthropology in the US, and that is how I ended up at Harvard in 2001.

LPG: You have a truly transdisciplinary background, and this is reflected in your publication list. What implications does this have for your writing, for putting your ideas into words?

OD: I guess the training in all these fields had very different implications in terms of writing. In medicine, you barely really write. I began to invest more in writing while studying public health. But in anthropology, I had to undo a lot of this and learn once again how to write for different audiences, to develop different narratives and modes of argumentation.

The fact that I taught at the AUB in a public health school—where I had to constantly explain what anthropology is, what anthropologists do, and how you move and differentiate between empirical observations and abstractions—forced me to strive for clarity. And this is what I learned over the years. If you really want your work in medical anthropology to be relevant, you need to be clear, you need to be accessible to a broader audience.

LPG: You have written about what it means to teach from the periphery in terms of geography and discipline. I was wondering what advice you would give to people who are writing from the so-called “periphery.”

OD: The main thing is not to imitate what you read from the center. The main idea is finding your voice, finding your style, and telling a good story. You don’t have to worry about citing this or that big name. You can always engage with these ideas later on. Living in the periphery allows you to experience the world and have access to the everyday in that place that no one else living elsewhere has. It’s not just about using a particular concept because it is trendy. You know, five years from now, that concept will completely fade away, and people will stop working with it. But your words and your descriptions of a place will always be there because they provide insights into an experience.

I also think that, in the “periphery,” we must be very careful about trends that get shaped in the center and then spread like a contagion to our parts of the world. I think the Middle East and Latin America are two big places that quickly pick up what happens in the US or Europe. Even if we talk about decolonizing knowledge, a lot of that conversation is happening at the center, and a lot of it is just really rehashing what people in the center are saying about us. This is also the case for knowledge production in global and public health.

Ten or fifteen years ago, a friend from Beirut was at a conference in the US. All these Ivy League scholars were using the term “global health” when speaking about health problems in the south. He was somewhat confused about what people meant by that. He got the courage to stand up and say, “When I hear ‘global health,’ I think about you, I don’t think about me.” This is something that I experienced firsthand living in Beirut, as this term became so powerful moving from North to South, with so many implications. I keep telling that story because that’s really what it is. Even when we are in power, we have to be empowered by the discourse of the center. I find that to be very problematic.

It’s not just about people speaking about how we are marginalized. It is about giving us that space to say what we have to say in sometimes a completely different genre, different mode. We need to trust our own voices, our capacity to tell good stories, our informed observations, and analysis—even if it doesn’t speak to some kind of trendy theory. The devil is in the details. We should stop worshiping false idols. Just because they are trendy in the West doesn’t mean anything, to be honest. We do have the ability to theorize, write, explore, and think in ways that are more in tune with the realities of our contexts and our societies.  

LPG: Is there anything particular in the ways you approach writing about biomedicine and health care in relation to conflict and violence?

OD: When I started working on my thesis on Iraq, there was so much chaos, destruction, and unruliness in the present that it was hard to find a productive way of understanding what was going on. I ended up investing more in developing an understanding of the historical context of health care regimes, how they are done and undone, as a lens into the present. And that is something that I learned from reading people like Frantz Fanon, Eric Wolf, Warwick Anderson, and other anthropologists who were able to synthesize the present in relation to the unfolding of the past. That became a critical framework in both my public health work and my anthropological writing.

A lot of work on health in the context of conflict has been incredibly important theoretically. However, when it comes to relating that to your own fieldwork’s realities, it becomes very challenging. I think here is where the physician/anthropologist in me comes out. I need to understand, be immersed in what’s going on before saying anything about a place or a phenomenon. I needed to be open to all possibilities and not to be contained by this framework or the other. This openness has undoubtedly shaped the way I approached writing in the different fields I’ve engaged with.

In terms of war—I mean, I have known nothing else but war, to be honest. As someone from Iraq, I’ve lived in a warscape for a really, really long time. I feel my sensibilities towards working on conflict and in war settings have been definitely shaped by my own experiences of what it means to inhabit a place of prolonged instability, what it means in terms of loss, what it means in terms of social and ethical relations in the everyday, what it means to wound someone and be wounded yourself, what it means to carry grievances from the past and then to try to forget or forgive. As a field, anthropology provides us with tools to document such instabilities and move smoothly between past and present, between different localities and experiences.

LPG: What would you recommend to people writing about health and conflict?

OD: When I started working in Beirut there were so many people coming from these big universities parachuting down on us and immediately jumping into the refugee camps, telling us about conflict and how to understand and analyze things. But this has nothing to do with thinking of conflict as a process, as a condition. This is probably one of the main lessons I learned through my experience and research. War and conflict are not mere temporal events, with a beginning and an end. It is a complex lifeworld that needs to be understood and unpacked.

One of the problems one faces when studying conflict settings is that, often, everything gets reduced to the conflict. I am guilty of that sometimes and have been criticized for that on a few occasions. However, at the same time, the analytics of conflict is a powerful lens and an important departure to highlight the everyday, to think about vulnerabilities, change, instability, and temporality. I think it’s very important to be very reflective about that and be able to show that even though you are dealing with conflict, you are also dealing with the complexities of everyday life amid conflict. It’s not just about the victims’ suffering, the dead and the injured, which of course are important to highlight. However, it is also crucial to understand what exactly is being transformed, what new modes of relation and forms of life are emerging. It is the making and unmaking of these lifeworlds that is at stake.

LPG: I agree. Here in Colombia even if you try to investigate subjects and objects that are apparently unrelated to the conflict, you end up always encountering the conflict at a certain point because it such an environmental condition, so to speak. 

OD: Yeah, this is what I call ecologies of war. It is an ecology. It really affects your biological and social existence. It transforms everyday life, and this is what one needs to pay attention to.

LPG: What languages do you write in?

OD: Yeah, that’s a good question. You know, my main language at home and in the field is Arabic. That’s my mother tongue. For me, it’s a comfortable language even to write in—I guess it is easier for me to write in Arabic than English. I do publish in Arabic, although not as often as I would like. I guess it is because none of this Arabic writing is seen as contributing to one’s academic assessment. It is seen as a kind of “public engagement” or maybe “service” if you’re really lucky.

When I was living in Beirut, I did write in newspapers and published numerous reports for international organizations in Arabic. I also edited a special issue in an Arabic sociological journal called Idafat, bringing into focus the work of Ali Al-Wardi, one of the most important Iraqi anthropologist/sociologist from the 1950s and 1960s. I managed to get many of his students to write pieces for this issue, which I am very proud of. Having said that, most of my current writing and teaching is in English.

Sometimes I struggle with translating an Arabic word or certain experience. I feel that I need to provide a lot of context to my reader to convey that experience or the polysemy of the word. If I am writing in English about an encounter that happened in Arabic, sometimes it ends up being picked up differently in this other language. I struggle with why that experience was not easily communicated to someone else in English, while an Arabic speaker would understand what it has entailed. Someone who may not know the language, or the culture would fail to understand the implicit codes and issues. That is the extra work of translation.

LPG: What is difficult and what is rewarding about the act of writing?

OD: As academics, we do all kinds of writing. The writing that gets highlighted is the writing that we publish, but we also write proposals, letters of recommendation, and comments for our students—we are always dealing with our own writing and other people’s. There’s no escape from that, even if you’re not necessarily publishing.     

Over the years, I have also learned to write and publish with others. This is something we don’t do a lot in anthropology, although medical anthropologists do so. Sometimes I prefer that over solo writing because it allows for a kind of collective level of consciousness and consent that we don’t necessarily have when we are stuck in our heads.

I’ve also published a number of pieces with my students. I get them to work with me, sometimes even on my own ethnographic material. I usually ask them to work on a short historical review or a lit review. I see it as a mentoring strategy. It helps them understand the different processes involved in finishing a piece. Moreover, I really enjoy sitting in a room to brainstorm, discuss, analyze, and map the piece’s problems and sections on the board.

LPG: I would like to ask about the role of your music in your writing. What is transferred from your music to your writing and maybe vice versa?

OD: The analogy between music playing or performing and writing is very close to me, very close in my head at least. They are mutually imbricated and interacting with each other.

In both cases, you need to have a foundational understanding of the ideas you are working with. I have learned a lot from experimental and improv music. If you don’t know the basics, if you don’t have foundations in understanding ideas and understanding certain experiences, experimentation ends up being noise. For me, both music and writing are about storytelling and need to be thought through in terms of structure, content, and affect.

When I work through my writing, I am often thinking about music, intonation, rhythm, and flow. Sometimes, when I take a break away from the writing, I pick up my instrument, the oud. That helps me to clear my head and work through some blockages that I have when writing. More recently, and during the pandemic, I’ve begun to work with synthesizers and understanding sound and electronic music. Along with my long journey of learning Iraqi maqam music, this could end up being an ethnographic project that I would undertake in the future—something to move me away from working on war and conflict.

Lina’s writing space in Jamundí, Colombia.

Lina Pinto-García is a postdoctoral researcher at the Interdisciplinary Centre of Development Studies (CIDER) at Los Andes University in Bogotá. Trained as a biologist and STS scholar, she is currently working on a book project that explores the entanglements between biomedicine, public health, and armed violence in (post)conflict Colombia. Twitter: @linabeatri

Omar Dewachi is Associate Professor of anthropology at Rutgers University in the US. Trained as a physician in Iraq, his award winning book, Ungovernable Life: Mandatory Medicine and Statecraft in Iraq documents the untold history of the rise and fall of state medicine and the unmaking of healthcare infrastructure under decades of US-led wars, sanctions and occupation. Twitter: @khanabat


About the series

Writing Life focuses on the craft of writing in the social studies of medicine. Amidst the current challenges to making texts, this series invites scholars in our field to take time to reflect, in conversation with each other, on how to navigate and nurture their craft.

Each post in Writing Life delves into the black boxes of writing life, exploring the specificities of producing texts about the lives of those entangled in illness, care, pain, diagnosis, experiment, research, suffering, and recovery.  The spirit of the contributions is collaborative — an exploration through dialogue. In crafting the posts, authors also explore a research practice central to our fields – interviewing – and the work and art of transcribing and editing other people’s words.

The first instalment of this series is composed of 8 interviews which appear weekly in Somatosphere from December 2020. We openly invite further contributions to the series to appear later in 2021. Please contact series editors Anna Harris (a.harris@maastrichtuniversity.nl) or Denielle Elliott (dae@yorku.ca) to express interest. You may already have someone in mind to interview or be interviewed by, but we can also make recommendations.


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