Today’s post features an interview with Nina Studer, a UK-based historian. Nina focuses on the history of medicine and colonial medicine in Middle East and North Africa.
Nina recently authored ‘’The native is indeed a born addict, but so far he has not yet found his true poison’: Psychiatric theories on overconsumption and race in the colonial Maghreb‘ in the upcoming Fall 2022 issue of the Social History of Alcohol and Drugs. Find out more about Nina’s background, article and future research plans in this interview.
Please tell readers a little bit about yourself:
So, I’m a historian. And I’ve studied the history of the Middle East and North Africa, and studied Arabic. But I’ve always been interested in the history of medicine. So from when I wrote my masters, I started getting into colonial medicine. I wrote my PhD on how French colonial psychiatrists wrote about Muslim women in North Africa. And while I was doing my research on women, I came across all these bizarre psychiatric diagnoses that French colonial psychiatrists used for North Africans. For example, “tea-ism,” “coffee-ism” and “addiction to spices,” and all these bizarre things. I got really fascinated with these diagnoses because they were mostly applied to North Africans. And since then, I’ve just been fascinated by the topic of drinking – including alcohol and other drinks, soft drinks, etc, and how that was viewed, described and used in a colonial context to justify racial hierarchies.
What led you to writing this article that you are publishing in SHAD?
So French colonial psychiatrists believed that North Africans were “immoderate” in their consumption of anything, and immoderate in their behavior. So they were sexually immoderate. They were immoderate in how much they slept. They were immoderate in everything they did. But they were especially immoderate in their consumption. They believed that North Africans could get addicted to basically any substance. And I was trying to just delve into this idea of them framing North Africans as “born addicts,” like they just have to find the poison that suits them best and then they will be dangerous to North African society. I’ve been fascinated by this idea of how several races in the North African context were innately immoderate and that made everything that fell into their hands dangerous, even the most harmless substances, like tea for example.
Explain your article in a way that your bartender won’t find boring?
There was a colonial psychiatrist, Pierre Maréschal, who wrote about this idea that North Africans were “born addicts” and he said that civilized French people can consume all these substances without any problems, because we are civilized and we are moderate. So he equates moderation with civilization and these North Africans, these primitives, they can’t – and so any substance in their hands can turn them into addicts. They’re born addicts. And the problem with their addiction is that they always turn violent. I’ve taken this paper that he’s given as a starting point. And from there, I’ve just looked at the context of other people writing and other theories at the time, and I’ve incorporated it into the wider psychiatric theory of the primitive mentality of almost all Africans, that was propagated by the psychiatric school in North Africa called the École d’Alger, and which one of the core tenants of this school was the idea of immoderation shared by all primitives.
In this article I’ve been looking at the consumption of hashish, alcohol and heroin as the three substances that were most commonly described as harmful addictions in the North African context. And all of them are interesting to me because the French attributed nationalities to these three substances – so that defined hashish, or cannabis, as the North African substance, even though it was also consumed by the French, alcohol as the French substance, even though it was also consumed by loads of North Africans, and heroin as a foreign substance that was introduced into the North African context by outside forces. And these outside forces, knowing that the North Africans were born addicts, imported heroin in order to damage the French colony. So I’ve just looked at these three discourses and this hierarchy of addictive substances that they created in the North African contexts.
Did you uncover anything particularly interesting or surprising during your work on this project?
I’m fascinated by how much of a blank issue these addictions are for the French observers. So when it comes to, for example, hashish addiction, they believed that it was an aphrodisiac. So they believed that it made these North African men sexually active – and dangerous because of Black panic and these ideas that they have. They believed that the same substance made them lazy. They believe that the same substance made them violent, etc. So this showed me that it wasn’t really – as with so many of these topics when it comes to French colonial psychiatrists – psychiatry. They didn’t really write about what they observed, they didn’t really write about what they saw in their patients. They used a psychiatric diagnosis and just applied their colonial prejudice and adapted it to loads of very contradictory things. Obviously, the same substance can’t make you murderous and make you fall asleep, and make you sexually overstimulated. It can’t do the same thing. But for those colonial observers, it did, and it made sense that the same substance would have these completely different effects. So I think that’s the that’s what fascinates me about this topic, just realizing how much of a blank slate these substances were and how much was projected onto them.
What do you think are the most important takeaways from this article?
This idea of overconsumption and immoderation amongst contemporary discourses of Muslims is still present. For example, when it comes to alcohol, you will often hear people say, well, they shouldn’t drink so when they drink, they drink immoderately, they drink until they fall unconscious. So, I would like people to take away from reading this article that this is very much a racialized colonial mindset, that is still present today.