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Durham University

Open World Research Initiative (OWRI)

That Disease: Cancer in the Arab World

In Arab culture, cancer has been the disease with no name. It was, and sometimes still is, euphemistically called 'heydek al-marad': 'that disease'. But how has cancer been narrated and dramatized in the region? What are the metaphors through which it has been thought and imagined? What is its place in the broader social, cultural and political history of the region?

This project will seek to answer these questions by offering the first cultural history of cancer in the Arab world (the Levant, Egypt and the Gulf) from the start of the 20th century until the present. Its objective is to map the production and reception of cancer discourses, accounting both for national specificities and for the emergence of transnational dynamics.

To this end, the project will explore the ways in which cancer is represented in a range of different cultural forms including both literary texts (autobiographies, novels, short stories) and popular media (film and television, newspapers, magazines and blogs). The aim is to highlight the social, cultural, gendered and political meanings that have shaped understandings of the experience of cancer in the Arab world, both historically and in the present, as well as across different national contexts and pan-Arab frameworks. The project will also seek to enable comparisons with cultures of cancer in Europe and North America.

A key part of the project is the performance of a play titled 'I am waiting for you' (وصفولي الصبر), written by Dr Abir Hamdar and based on interviews with cancer patients. The performance, co-produced by Dr Hamdar and the Lebanese director Lina Abyad, premiered in Beirut in July 2017. This was the first instance in which cancer was performed on the Arab stage to an Arab audience.

For more information about this project contact: