Writing Life No. 18: An Interview with Stefania Pandolfo

This article is part of the following series:

The anthropologist Stefania Pandolfo approaches ethnography as not just the depiction of a world but as what addresses and displaces both the writer and the reader, where ethnography itself becomes a site of transformation. Our conversations since 2014, first as she was completing revisions on her book Knot of the Soul and then as I was writing my dissertation, and after, have centered on historical trauma, Islamic traditions, the ambivalence of desire, and a writing of the soul.

I approached her for this Writing Life conversation after revisiting an email exchange we had in 2018. I had been conducting fieldwork with Syrian refugees and Muslim humanitarian organizations in north Jordan while the Syrian regime bombarded rebel militias just across the border. My friends and interlocutors listened through the days to low and steady explosions in the distance, praying for their families fleeing to the desert and cursing the regime for its unremitting brutality. At night the ground shook and orange flashes lit the horizon. I returned to Amman disoriented by these encounters. I wrote Stefania a series of messages struggling (among other things) for a writing that did not instrumentalize or sensationalize or sanitize violence; and for a writing that did not simply assume and narrate either a continuity or a rupture in the Islamic tradition or the Muslim community. I felt there was something in her ethnography that offered an alternative relationship to such questions. These themes prompted our conversations written, revised, and rewritten below, which we conducted intermittently over Zoom, e-mail, and WhatsApp in Spring 2021.

Figure 1: Stefania’s desk at home

Basit Kareem Iqbal (BKI): When I had written to you in 2018, deeply dissatisfied by ethnographic modes of presentation, you had replied that “it is important to keep one’s hesitation alive, to try to inhabit that space.”

Stefania Pandolfo (SP): I remember that email, just re-read it, I felt the urgency of your message, and my responsibility in replying. I was imagining you there, watching the videos you had sent me (bags of bread on the dusty ground, people exhausted, anxiously gazing at the horizon). I was feeling the friction between our more conceptual conversations, about time, transmission, and tradition in Islam, and the trial of these events, which echoed nonetheless the trial of suffering in the Muslim apocalyptic literature you had been reading. And yet now it was as if a genre, even a catastrophic one, did not suffice to contain the events, and a “trial” as such was in front of you, unmediated. My reply was theoretical, because you think speculatively, and at some level I do too, and our conversations are often speculative; but also because it was a way to carve a breathing space. I had said that it is important to stay with one’s hesitation, and even disorientation, in their difficulty, and to attempt to think from them; because it is from that place that a different kind of listening and another angle of vision become possible. This is what I had learned from a practice of psychoanalysis in ethnography, and from my work with Quranic liturgical healing.

One way these conundrums have come up for me in my work is through the difficulty of writing the experience of patients and psychiatrists in the psychiatric hospital (in Morocco, where I did research for many years). How to write without making madness sublime, but also without deflecting it into a medical sociology? How to listen and make space in writing for that “difficulty of reality” (to borrow Cora Diamond’s phrase)—as it leads to a confrontation with an unknown that cannot be approached or resolved through positive knowledge, and calls instead for a form of thinking/writing traversed by the activity of the unconscious. For me, at the hospital, making space for that difficulty meant registering a hiatus, an incapacity, allowing for a coming-apart, of the subject and the project, for something else to be heard, even in the writing. The opening words of de Certeau’s Mystic Fable: “ce livre se présente au nom d’une incompétence, this book is written from an incapacity.”

For you, on the other hand, the questions of writing violence and confronting what some described as a coming-apart of the Muslim community were felt acutely as you were working with humanitarian organizations in the midst of the Syrian war. In your fieldwork you were documenting all sorts of things (aid work, the site of a refugee camp, events of violence, practices of care, etc.) but your encounters exceeded that accounting. You were registering ambivalence, derealization, confusion, discontinuous experiences that resisted any simple representation. How to be faithful to those experiences, for both you and your interlocutors, without reducing them to a pre-given framework, however valuable, without archiving them away and without being destroyed by them—but instead allowing them to resonate and guide you into another way of listening and writing? This is not just a strategy for coping with trauma, but another way of encountering the world, in both research and writing.

I was thinking of Freud’s 1915 essay written at the beginning of World War One, “Thoughts for the Times: On War and Death,” which remains such an important text for me. It opens on a scene of disorientation. Freud takes the reader, ironically and lucidly, through the disillusionment of war, the hypocrisy of modern states, the collapse of culture, the violence of the drive, the ambivalence of attachment, the confrontation with death, in the modern West and in different ways in other cultures more capable of mourning, to urge us to think from that space of ambivalence and unknowledge, a space of ethical struggle, confronting the psycho-politics of our own implication in war, and the activity of what he calls the unconscious.

BKI: That is a helpful way of redescribing my sense of incapacity as well, from which I had written to you then: to inhabit the space of hesitation differently, hesitating not just against the temptations of moralism or polemic, or because analytic concepts are inadequate, but in search of another way of listening. I might even say that this approach—more than a method, less than a theory—is what unites your work across quite different sites. For instance, Knot of the Soul engages struggles in the psychiatric hospital, figural and theologico-political movements, and the dramaturgy of Quranic cures. How do the questions you ask change, across these sites, in order to register such a hiatus in their writing?

SP: In the hospital, inhabiting the hiatus meant to open a space of waiting for something to “arrive”, to present itself. I didn’t set out to study just the disciplinary structure of the clinic, nor the institutional history of Moroccan postcolonial psychiatry (although the clinic is also all that). I set out with different questions: what is it to register an experience of madness? And how to inhabit culture in its aftermath? I met patients and psychiatrists in that suspended space, where multiple claims and voices emerged and could be heard, voices recalcitrant to description, or even inscription, which refused to occupy the place of the object of study and instead asked back troubling questions, and the dilemma of the psychiatrists, in their own lives, in the midst, as well as my own. That is a vulnerable place—and not exactly one of knowledge. Nor is it strictly one of critique.

When in 2003 I started to work on undocumented migration in Morocco — “burning” (l harg in vernacular Arabic) — I did not want to study migration per se, but its inner experience, and the world as seen from the perspective of those who prepared for and attempted to “burn.” There was a mound overlooking the freeway to the border, where some of the youth I talked with sat at night. I used to tell myself that I should try to see the world from that mound, in the silence of those nights, interrupted by the rumbling of trucks traveling to the North, with their cargo of jeans made for export in Moroccan textile factories. I lived in Rabat at the time, as I have for extensive periods, for reasons that are also biographical. I was trying to understand what I acutely felt as the adjoining presence of incommensurable worlds within the city, which had a direct effect on my own life. Especially in the aftermath of 9/11, the war on terror, the amalgams of poverty and terrorism/radicalization that was made by the media and in scholarly and political debates all around. I wanted to testify to the insistence of forms of life which eluded and challenged that frame, and had a capacity to produce thinking and critique and a generative space of imagination. A vision of the night, responding to the request of the youth (to me), to convey their world, their desire, their reasons, their claim—seeing the world through their eyes, and the neighborhood, the city, hijacked in the very grids of their imprisonment. And there, the eschatological vision emerged vividly in some of our conversations—burning, crossing the “strait” passage to Europe, and the “narrow” passage to the afterlife and the chasm of Hell—not in the future, but in the here and now. This is different from studying migration and its trans-border movements sociologically, or from providing an anthropological critique of border policies. It is not opposed to that, but at a kind of obverse relation to it. How to write all that was crucial. I tried at once to listen and recount the Burners’ world on its own terms, in its own concepts (e.g., al-qunt is not exactly despair), and explore through writing the imaginal space of that other side, that vision of the night, and the dreams born of it. When I encountered Leïla Kilani’s extraordinary film Tanger, le rêve des brûleurs—in its formal aesthetic search, and in its capacity to listen and convey the voices and the world of the Burners as both compelling and impossible to appropriate—I met the mirror image of what I was trying to do. And now Leïla and I have a project of continuing that work together on the other shore of the Mediterranean.

Finally, with the Quranic cures and in my dialogue with the religious scholar and therapist I call the Imam, a difficulty of reality takes front-stage as divine “trial” (ibtila’), as a confrontation with illness and with the violence and the potentiality of desire, which I attempt to write as a dramaturgy of the soul. This is a back and forth between a medicine of affliction and jinn-possession—a scene of torment and cure—and a spiritual topography, where the nafs is at once a theological concept and an always-precarious being at risk. A being at risk from which spring insistent and troubling questions. Attempting to evoke the dramaturgy of the soul in the space of the Quranic cure (ruqya) made me see more clearly that the ethnography itself was not just the phenomenological outline of a world, but a production or perhaps disclosure of the soul, in the very process of listening and writing. The poetic form of the text had to do with that.

In relation to the problematic of the nafs/soul, let me go back to what you called, in one of our conversations, the question of the archive. The Imam speaks from an Islamic tradition which (however much it is fragmented and put into question, including by him) is both a source and a resource, in the present; and however much the recourse may be eclectic and inventive, the tradition does have a certain coherence, within which he is situating his own speech as part of a collective chorus. There the religious texts are fundamental: a figure such as al-Ghazali is not just a twelfth-century author in the library of the tradition but is mobilized in one’s life, through his depiction of the struggle of the soul and the way he describes the ethical and yet traumatic “undoing” of the subject through the remembrance of death. But if that is the Imam’s relation to the tradition, what is my responsibility in writing our exchange? And there is a hesitation before the library of the tradition as well, which should not be disavowed. This doesn’t mean that the tradition is dead: it can be “withdrawn”, as Jalal Toufic says; or, as you wrote about the images of destruction at the Syrian border, it can have ruination as one of the modes of its life.

BKI: Let’s again step back a little. Your two books have distinct literary styles: Impasse of the Angels is composed as a polyphonic dialogue while Knot of the Soul works through a series of ethnographic cases. But it seems to me there is also a continuity in approach across these books: ethnography as attentive listening.

SP: Attentive listening is a way of tending to what Freud called “the Other Scene”, at once here and elsewhere. Ethnography as a listening, yes—but a listening that does not try to fill in a missing history, and instead attempts to listen to the voices of the absent and engage with them (ethically, politically). Writing in Morocco meant writing under the gaze of a colonial history. We talk these days about decolonizing anthropology, but the first postcolonial generation in the Maghreb was already vigilant and wary about the enterprise of description, aware that any kind of knowledge would be used against the ones described. How then to be open to the alterity, possibility, and transformative capacity of other worlds, yet not to participate in that project of knowledge? And what does it mean, as it comes differently for each of us, to do ethnography in a community that is close to you or has become part of your life?

From the beginning, this meant that I was searching for another writing, including in early postcolonial Maghrebi literature and poetics: for how to write without re-producing “anthropological difference”. This is what Abdelkebir Khatibi in Maghreb pluriel called “pensée autre,” tending towards “another thought,” not a thought of the other as known and describable, locatable, classifiable. That is the question that haunted Impasse of the Angels, seeking a writing that deconstructed, dislocated anthropology. It is also a writing that refuses, as in Knot of the Soul—whose characters refuse to be fixed in place, to occupy the position of suffering, even when their lives are tragic; who refuse to stage the meaning of things for the reader. Instead they address the anthropologist and the reader with an impossible question: “`arfti `ashna hua l-humq, do you know what madness is?” That is, you can’t know, you as you cannot know, but if you want, learn to tend towards it.

BKI: Your chapter in Crumpled Paper Boat, a book which gathers different “experiments” in ethnographic writing, begins by following Blanchot’s description of the space of literature, invoking a kind of writing that becomes a site of “passage” in which the subject recedes (94). For Blanchot the task of the poet – maybe also, of a certain ethnographer? – is not to cleanly cut through the appearance of things, but to attend to their opacity in a different sense, without trying to represent or capture the impossible, but rather to allow for the possibility of impossibility. And you say the relationship between the literary and trauma “summons” the practice of ethnography.

SP: I find it difficult to theorize the way I work and write. At one level I just do, in a kind of artisanal style, make my way through complex questions often impossible to answer, voices, lives, feelings, thoughts, places, spaces, theories, experiences, without trying to master them but attempting to listen and find a pathway in their midst—the way we are in our lives, never really above, always caught somewhere, in the middle of something.

Two figures of being in the midst come to mind. One is from the oral poets I wrote about and with in Impasse of the Angels: “a good poet knows how to follow the path that words take without losing his way”, an old poet told me, who saw the craft of “words” or “poems” as a way of inhabiting and navigating the sea of words and sounds, or as selecting and arranging fruits in a basket full of dates. And there is the “wound” (jarah), from which the song comes forth, which gives force, form, and direction, and which is repeated every time the poem is sung, “my entire being wrapped in the words.” This is a matter of finding the form, in a way that does not imprison the voices in a cast.

The second figure is Freud’s, again from his “Thoughts for the Times,” of a disorientation without horizon, with the suspension of moral certainties, the encounter with a destruction in which we are also directly implicated, however far the war front might be from our homes. There we are “standing too close,” he says, where the experience of perplexity and fear, loss, withdrawal, rage, madness, and revolt, are aspects of a real that is impactful as it is elusive.

Writing is both a sensory and a conceptual process for me, and the “tending” I have been evoking transforms in the process both the subject and the writing. But there is a sense of inadequacy that comes with it, and this is why it is arduous, sometimes despairing. In Knot of the Soul I tell the story of a man in Rabat who painted the walls of his apartment when he was in an altered state, a mad state, and when he returned to a shared perception of reality he whitewashed the walls. The paintings were witnesses of his visions, as he explained them to me. In 2005, he gave me the wooden door of his apartment where he had painted the story of his life, he couldn’t keep it and didn’t want to erase it; but he asked me to hold on to it on his behalf, as an amana, what may be translated as a “temporary consignment,” but which has a theological resonance, as something entrusted by God, such as our lives. I came to think of my ethnography as composed in a similar way, through scenes that are visualizations, “bridges” or “passages” (ta‘bir), which at once grant access to a world, and uproot one. I cannot write from outside such a scene.

There is also a resistance of the real in what I write. Borges writes with extreme detail but without giving the context of these references, with (for example) determinative articles introducing characters who had not yet been presented and who will not return. You don’t know who she is—she is coming from another scene that you don’t know—and you will not be able to enter that scene, no matter how much context you give. Seeking to inhabit the world of the other in a way that is not appropriative, that takes you out of yourself—it means that my own life becomes the terrain of the writing. But I’m not sure if that is still “ethnography”.

Figure 2: Basit’s desk at home through two years of alienating Zoom life, children’s cardboard construction projects just out of frame

Basit Kareem Iqbal is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at McMaster University. His book manuscript in progress, based on fieldwork with refugees and aid workers in Jordan and Canada, is titled God Gives Relief: Tribulation and Refuge after the Syrian Revolution.

Stefania Pandolfo is Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of Impasse of the Angels (1997); with Anne M. Lovell, Veena Das, and Sandra Laugier, Face aux désastres (2013); and Knot of the Soul (2018). Her current book project is tentatively titled “Art/Cure”.


Blanchot, Maurice. The Space of Literature. Translated by Ann Smock. Nebraska, 1982 (French 1955)

Borges, Jorge Luis. Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings. New Directions, 1964

de Certeau, Michel. The Mystic Fable: The Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Translated by Michael B. Smith. Chicago, 1992 (French 1982)

Diamond, Cora. “The Difficulty of Reality and the Difficulty of Philosophy.” Partial Answers: Journal of Literature and the History of Ideas 1, no. 2 (June 2003): 1-26

Freud, Sigmund. “Thoughts for the Times: On War and Death.” In The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, edited by James Strachey, 275-301. Hogarth Press, 1957 (German 1915)

al-Ghazali, Abu Hamid. The Remembrance of Death and the Afterlife: Book XL of the Revival of the Religious Sciences. Translated by T.J. Winter. Cambridge: Islamic Texts Society, 1989

Khatibi, Abdelkebir. Plural Maghreb: Writings on Postcolonialism. Translated by P. Burcu Yalim. Bloomsbury, 2019 (French 1983)

Kilani, Leïla, dir. Tanger, le rêve des brûleurs (Tangier, the Burners’ Dream). Vivement Lundi!, 2002

Toufic, Jalal. The Withdrawal of Tradition Past a Surpassing Disaster. Forthcoming Books, 2009

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 installment of the series appeared weekly in Somatosphere from early December 2020 and the second from June 2021. We continue to openly invite further contributions to the series. Please contact series editors Anna Harris ( or Denielle Elliott ( to express interest in contributing to series 3.

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