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28 June - 4 July 2001
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Magister ludiPsychiatry and mysticism, science and poetry: he brings opposites together, and makes them one
Profile by Samia Abdennour
Can one "profile" a person whose job is to "profile" others? Yehia El-Rakhawi is multi-faceted. He is a psychiatrist, writer, critic and poet. When I met him a few years ago, it was in his capacity as a member of the Committee for Scientific Culture at the Supreme Council for Culture. This committee comprises eminent personalities (in medicine, agriculture, art, journalism, engineering and linguistics) with different ideologies and ways of thinking, who all somehow manage to work in complete harmony. Their aim is to propagate science and accurate knowledge and to fight charlatanism and superstition. Dr El- Rakhawi was one of the committee's first members.
From early childhood, El-Rakhawi has lived a rather uncommon life and shown a marked independence in his way of thinking. His mother proudly gave birth to five boys before begetting two girls. To avoid the envy of her sisters-in-law, who were not so lucky with their offspring, she pretended that Yehia was a girl and called him Sawsan. When he was around four, and two of his brothers had died, his mother allowed him to "uncover my true gender, by removing the clip earrings I wore and happily tearing off my dress," he remembers. He categorically refused to go to school until the age of eight, and his father agreed to let him remain at home, teaching him only numbers and arithmetic. Young Yehia proudly kept record of his mother's household expenses, "which amounted to nearly three pounds a month."
He spent his days roaming the village, playing with other children and walking along the canal with Sheikh Ismail, who spoke of things beyond the villagers' understanding and was therefore treated as a madman. To Yehia, Sheikh Ismail was quite sane, and the young boy enjoyed the outings and the conversation, which led him early in childhood to realise the danger of taking things at face value, as well as the importance of forming his own judgement and respecting those society had classified as insane.
When he finally began going to school, he was in for an unpleasant experience. He found himself in class with boys much younger than him, and, while his older brothers enjoyed a happy standing both in their studies and extra curricular activities, Yehia was slow and clumsy. "I had to put in extra hours of study and pass more exams than the other students, to arrive at the same level of schooling as children my own age. This gave me an inferiority complex," he asserts.
photos: Randa Shaath
'I shared with my patients their exposure of their innermost self, and, willingly or unwillingly, went along with them. This became my personal growth, existence and consciousness'
His father, a teacher of the Arabic language, was transferred to a different town every four years. He would take the entire family with him, always returning to the village for the summer holidays. This somewhat peripatetic life gave young Yehia a wide and interesting perspective on the different habits and norms prevalent in various rural areas -- a vision that greatly affected his choice of a career later on.
As a teenager, he tried to dabble in literature, and by 15 was writing short stories. Then a friend gave him a book by an author named Naguib Mahfouz. Its impact was immediate and far reaching. "After finishing Khan Al-Khalili, I searched for and read as many of his books as I could lay my hands on. The novels spoke to me as living people: I breathed with the characters, sharing their food, thoughts, beliefs... This feeling is still with me today, so much so that, in my weekly article in Al-Wafd newspaper, enumerating the names of the party's VIPs, I mentioned Saad Zaghlul, Mustafa El-Nahas and Sayed Ahmed Abdel-Gawad [the Wafdist protagonist in Mahfouz's Trilogy]. I firmly believe that Mahfouz is a genius. He greatly affected and was instrumental in shaping the minds of most of my generation," El-Rakhawi says.
It was only in 1972 that El-Rakhawi met Mahfouz in person for the first time. He had read The Thief and the Dogs and was intrigued with the way the main character had solved his personal crisis through Sufism. The author assured him that, "while he did not deny that Sufism can be an individual solution, individual solutions are not real." El-Rakhawi remembers: "I was frustrated. Although I have no direct relationship with Sufism, it seems to be parallel to my belief with respect to its transcendence of religious differences. It is wholeness, and extension to an open end of real experience, not to an adopted one."
Of their relationship today, El-Rakhawi says: "Mahfouz's effect on me has no boundaries. In Sufi terms, he uses his knowledge as murid [seeker] and I consider him my sheikh [guide]. Through his encouragement, I joined the Harafish, a select group of friends -- among them Tawfiq Saleh, Gamil Shafik, the late Bahgat, Ahmed Mazhar, Adel Kamel -- who meet every Thursday at Saleh's house. Unfortunately, due to poor health, deaths and travel, this group has dwindled to only three people: Mahfouz, Saleh and myself."
El-Rakhawi brings the same twist to medicine, which he studied with special interest. "I was not prepared to be a mechanical or physical doctor. I decided that my place in this field was in psychological medicine, which could be a link between a purely materialistic approach to the human body and the holistic integration of the soul."
In his practice, El-Rakhawi experiences his patients' existence personally. "When I started to practice psychiatry, I could not regard it as an external duty or profession. I shared with my patients their exposure of their innermost self, and, willingly or unwillingly, went along with them. This became my personal growth, existence and consciousness."
He has amassed vast amounts of information on psychotic behaviour and believes that these cannot and should not be restricted to, or rather imprisoned in, scientific methodology. "Trying to find a solution to this impasse, I knocked at every door: writing and publishing in any form -- literary, artistic and poetic, in both classical and colloquial forms." A few lines in a textbook by his professor of endocrinology, Paul Ghalioungui, have been etched in El-Rakhawi's mind ever since he read them in his fourth year at the university. They have served as a guide to his work: "Life is short. Art is long. Experience is fallible. Opportunity is fleeting. Judgement is difficult"
Now that he is nearing 70, he has to remind himself not to let the opportunity of recording his experiences pass; he would like to give his judgement, and his life, longevity through art. He has written several books, all of which serve one main purpose -- "to transmit what I believe is a message from a patient, or from myself, which I found impossible to convey through the methodological attitude in traditional, solid, limited scientific methodology."
El-Rakhawi's knowledge of the Arabic language is great. One of his earliest works, written in classical Arabic, dealt with psycho-pathology. In verse form, it tackles the "how" of symptom formation, not the "why." El- Rakhawi's aim in writing this book was to prove that the Arabic language -- which one side of a heated debate considers inappropriate as a means of transmitting scientific and technological information -- is in fact capable not only of conveying science, but of doing so in an artistic form. Skimming the book, the late poet Salah Abdel-Sabour praised it as an artistic work, not taking into account El-Rakhawi's aim or the point he was trying to make regarding the potential of classical Arabic. "To prove my point, I promised him I would write an interpretation of this work." He considers the 1,000-page result of this self- imposed challenge, entitled Sirr Al-Li'ba (The Secret of the Game), his masterpiece; it won him a prestigious state award in literature.
El-Rakhawi has also written several volumes of literary criticism, starting with Salah Jahin's Ruba'iyat before moving on to works by Fathi Ghanem, Salah Abdel-Sabour, and Mahfouz himself. "This," he says shyly, "is one of my least known activities."
Leaving his family in Cairo in 1968, El- Rakhawi travelled to France as a guest of the Centre International de Stage. For a year, he lived with other professionals from the Third World (Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Eastern Bloc). Mixing with representatives of different cultures and professions, he found his outlook on several aspects of life greatly enriched. "That trip was a real station in my life: it allowed me to revise my career, my orientation with regard to psychiatry, human beings, religion and other elements," he remembers.
Back in Cairo, El-Rakhawi undertook a new experiment, which he felt would allow him to grow closer to his children. With four other families residing in the Muqattam, he attempted to organise a commune. The experiment, however, was not destined to succeed, and El- Rakhawi took his children and those of the other families on an extended trip to Europe instead.
El-Rakhawi does not like the word hobby. He says that work is his hobby, but asserts that his most pleasant pastime is travelling. This he does by car, by boat or on foot -- never by plane. He also loathes five-star arrangements; he prefers camping, which is why he enjoyed his European trip with the children.
El-Rakhawi's wife is the lovely Fawziya, who was a social worker when they married. To help her husband run his hospital, she studied psychology, specialising in group psychotherapy. They have four children -- two psychiatrists and two psychologists -- all of whom work with their parents.
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