by Tobie Nathan [1]


in Eliezer Ben-Rafael and Yitzhak Sternberg, with Judit Bokser Liwerant and Yosef Gorny, Transnationalism: Diasporas and the advent of a new (dis)order. Boston, Brill, 2009.


“Diaspora” implies the notion of identity — as far as I’m concerned, I’d prefer to call this “thing” a nucleus. Indeed, in order to recognize that a people, located in a “homeland” both real and mythical, can become dispersed through centuries of migration, one first needs to acknowledge its permanence. Your discussions were in fact largely fueled by the acknowledgment or radical refusal of such permanence. One might be tempted to think that being a trained psychologist, I might have a more precise idea of the personal category referred to as ethnic identity, or belonging, or simply a person’s identity; in any event, that which guarantees his or her permanence in time.

Tobie Nathan

Identity, a self-evident category, nevertheless seems impossible to define, enmeshed as it is in inextricable ideological networks: national identity, ethnic identity, biological identity, family identity, psychological identity, personal identity, idiosyncratic identity…. Perhaps one might prefer in its place the concept of belonging or membership, allowing for the following statement: “I am a Frenchman, a chess player, an alumnus of the August Renoir High School, a member of the French Psychological Society, of the Bujumbura Rotary Club, and of the Association of Healers of Abomey”…

From this perspective, it would be easy to describe multiple, unstable identities subject to change within a lifespan, attributing equal value to each. If the first way of defining identity at the junction of institutional categories, in the manner of a descriptive sheet, is relevant to police work or to customs officials, the second way, pertaining to the multiplicity of belonging or membership, is similar to the journalist’s point of view, a chronicler of passing time… However, we all know this isn’t the way of the world… Identity, in the common sense, is not like a passport photo: it possesses considerable power… We are all aware of the fact that identity issues, at once asserted, enthusiastic and frenzied, shake the world and capture minds. Identity, almost in the sense of the word’s literal meaning: being what one is and nothing else. Yet the question remains: who can claim to be whom or what he or she is and nothing else…? When I question my Yoruba friend from Benin, Lucien Hounkpatin, whose family is from Porto Novo, when I ask him “Are you Yoruba?”, his answer is: “I’m a crocodile”… And if I ask myself a similar question, I have to admit that, in this very restrictive sense, to the Jews, only God has an identity, He alone is what and who He is and nothing else, He who precisely introduces Himself to Moses in the following way: “I am who I am [2]” (or “I will be who I will be”) and whose name, the tetragrammaton, YHYH, is a conjugation of the verb “to be”…

Thus, we are faced with an aporia: in order to account for transnational diasporas, we need the concept of identity — a psychological concept —, yet this very notion of “identity” slips from our grasp as soon as we attempt to define it. In addition, today’s world has further confused the issue, as if the world were saying: it is impossible to consider identity, meaning permanence, simply as a kind of essential nature, as in “I am a crocodile”; it must be considered first and foremost as a plan or a project, in other words the projection of one’s being into a becoming. “I am taking on this project — a life plan or a political project — that defines a destiny for me from which I can infer my past”. Looking at the world in action, such are the processes at stake...

I will develop my argument by addressing three dimensions that I will finally attempt to bring together: naming practices, attachments, and therapies. I will show that in order to determine people’s identities it is much more reasonable to turn to the non-human beings characteristic of the worlds they come from than to rely on their own assertions. This approach will also shed light on surprising attachments of people who otherwise appear perfectly adjusted to modern society, namely their attachment to beings, things, rituals and forces typical of bygone worlds and times and yet which unexpectedly crop up again with the strength and passion of mysticism.



Under the influence of popular psychology, circulated by the media, it seems natural, nowadays, to think that a person’s is the result of his or her parents’ fancy. Freud, for example, chose his children’s names to honor his masters. Such was, one is tempted to think, his own idiosyncratic fancy [3]. Thus, he named one son Martin in honor of Charcot (whose first name was Jean-Martin), another son he named Ernst, in memory of Ernst Brücke, his master in neurology; he named his daughter Mathilda, after Joseph Breuer’s wife, etc… This type of practice is currently so widespread that it has become commonplace for mothers to suggest such and such a more or less exotic name for their future baby because they find it “pretty” or because “it sounds good” or because it sits well with the family name… Yet, working with African populations has taught me the extent to which the choice of a child’s name is a complex project, a process in which what is at stake is, explicitly, the construction of a person.

Tobie Nathan (ed.),
L'enfant ancêtre
. Grenoble, La Pensée sauvage, 2000
My first surprise was the realization that in the societies from which the families I treated were from, a child wasn’t given a name: rather the newborn baby’s name had to be discovered. In other words, the newcomer to a family, but also to a lineage, or even to a village, this new arrival already has an identity. Her or she is a person, not a piece of clay or a “tabula rasa”, even though at first, and for a few days (usually the first week), he or she is still a stranger. She will have to be identified, her name revealed and not “made up” according to the whims of this or that relative. In effect, these societies behave towards the newborn child as they would towards a visitor: “who is he? Why has he come to us?” Questions such as these primarily inform the naming process. But how does one find out the name or a visitor who can’t speak, at least not in the language of his hosts? Well, most of these cultures posit that in the absence of an utterance from the visitor’s mouth, the name can nevertheless be discovered by scrutinizing the baby’s environment. Indeed, the newcomer’s name has necessarily stamped itself in the course of events. What happened to the mother during the pregnancy? What happened in the immediate environment, in the family, in the village, ever since the child exhibited his or her wish to come into the world — in other words, since the first signs of the pregnancy? Hence some people are named “Much suffering”, others “So many dead!”… others still “The undertaker has been very busy”…

Consider, however, that such names don’t merely identify an individual, they enfold the person and outline her destiny. A name of this sort is therefore also, above all else in fact, a divination. More so: it is able to divert and alter misfortunes foretold by events before and during the pregnancy. Indeed, such names are known to have protective and deterrent powers. Most of the time, they aren’t immediately comprehensible. For example, in Kikongo, the name Mampassi (literally: “hardship”, “pain”) refers to an implicit statement: “the pains of childbirth were in vain…” In other words: “what was the use of going through so much pain only to see the child shortly pass away?” The rationale is to indicate in the child’s name that he is doomed, destined to die, that sorcerers (Ndoki in Kikongo or Lingala [4] ) will end up “eating” him. But the reality of things is even more complex since making public the fact that the child will die because of the evil deeds of sorcerers is expected to deter those very sorcerers, unmasked by their victim’s accusatory name, from approaching the child. It is as if making explicit someone’s destiny could divert its course. This way of naming is therefore remarkably polysemic. Such is the naming tradition in matrilineal contexts, like that of the “Kongo”, for example, though its practice is gradually disappearing. A person’s name, here, isn’t in any way an identification tool; it has a protective function for the individual and is all at once:

1. an acknowledgment of his or her essential nature,
2. and a kind of divination, one of whose main characteristics, as with any divination process, is that it is intelligible only once the predicted destiny has been accomplished,
3. a protective device against the dangers identified by the divination.

This is nothing new. Similar naming practices are already referred to in the Bible, regarding, for instance, Jacob’s and also Joseph’s children. Here is an example: “and Leah conceived and bore a son, and she named him Reuben, for she said, ‘Because the Lord has seen my affliction, for now my husband will love me.’” [5] The first part of Reuben’s name is easy to comprehend: the Hebrew reu refers to the verb ra’a, « he saw ». But the second part of the name requires an interpretation or commentary, Rashi’s for instance, a famous commentator of the text, for whom Reuben is the condensation of « Look (Reu) at the difference between my son (ben) and the son of my father-in-law. » Because, unlike the son of her father-in-law (her husband), Leah’s own son will love her. The name Reuben, according to this interpretation, is a reference Leah’s humiliation as Jacob’s first wife, yet less beloved by her husband than her younger sister Rachel, Jacob’s second wife. The child’s name should thus be understood as the condensation of an entire sentence and its meaning is liable to be uncovered by one who knows how to unravel it. Be that as it may, by indicating in her child’s name the dangers that threaten him because of his mother’s suffering, Leah all at once:

1. acknowledges, designates and compels her son,
2. predicts a certain destiny for him,
3. tries to protect him from the violence inherent to this destiny.

The very common name Habimana, in Rwanda and Burundi, which can be translated by “Thank God!” is also the abbreviation of an entire sentence I was able to identify many times during my stay in Burundi and Rwanda. “Her mother was on such bad terms with her grandmother and he nevertheless managed to see the light of day… habimana, “Thank God!”

Here is an example of the way in which certain distortions of the naming process sometimes appear among these same populations once they have immigrated to France. A Congolese family who went through a series of ordeals after immigrating, culminating with the decision by child protection services to place their first child in foster care, had a second child three years later. To the amazed civil servant in charge of registering the newborn child’s name, the father declared he wished to name his son: “Human Rights-Freedom”. The hardship his family had experienced since his arrival in France, particularly during his wife’s last pregnancy, had led him to conclude that such was his child’s name, since social services had, in his opinion, neglected his rights and freedom. From a strictly cultural point of view, the father was applying a child-naming rule in keeping with the cultural practices of his group. Indeed, as we have already seen, the Bakongo name the child in reference to notable events during the pregnancy. Yet in this case, the father attempted to do so :

1. outside his group,
2. in a solitary manner,
3. and explicitly.

Let us dwell a few moments on this last point. Names chosen in this way, at once deterrent and protective, are generally kept secret — sometimes the person who carries the name itself doesn’t know it. Indeed, though these names do contain a message, the message is not addressed to the person’s human environment but to the invisible beings surrounding him. Thus the implicit phrase in the name Mampassi given to a Congolese child is not directed towards other humans, but towards the ndoki, “sorcerers” in both Lingala and Kikongo, those sorcerers with two pairs of eyes, so as to divert them from the child… “Human Rights”, in contrast, is a name addressed to social workers and civil servants who, at least in our present state of knowledge, are not supernatural beings…

The way in which, in African villages, severely disturbed children, presenting with disorders that, in the West, would be considered either psychotic or autistic, will guide us now, helping us to move forward in our thinking. In many African societies, the behavior of certain children unable to speak at age two, three, four, — sometimes even fifteen, or who never acquire speech — is considered intentional. My wording here is not entirely satisfactory: indeed, I’m not sure Africans would agree it accurately reflects their judgment, that they actively consider these children in this manner. However, according to my observations, in the presence of such children, in their interventions to change the course of things, they act as if they thought in such a way. It appears, therefore, that to them — or rather to their culture —, these children are not only badly disposed towards their families, cultural groups, probably towards all of mankind, are not only mean persons, but what is more, that they are united and organized in gangs. In Senegal, such children are referred to as nit ku bon [6], which literally means “bad person”. A very well known example is found in Benin: the Yoruba refer to such children as abiku, from abi, “to be born” and ku, “to die”. Thus they are referred to as “to be born and to die” which can also be interpreted as “dead-reborn” since such children are born, are loved by their parents and die before the age of one, in order to make their mothers sad. It has been observed that such children like being born prematurely and, if they are not protected according to very specific procedures, they suddenly pass away, always mysteriously. Elsewhere, such children are called, for example among the Serer, “the child who comes and goes”. Children of this nature are generally known to have a sharp and critical outlook towards their environment. Several stories report their thoughts about human beings:

“Oh! Is the world of humans like this? I didn’t expect it to be so rotten. I imagined the Earth very differently. I’m going back to where I came from!” [7]

What is important here is to note that this type of conception informs “therapeutic” interventions applied to such children. Because the abikus form a group, and because they are badly disposed, or in the least, condescending towards humans, the rationale of the therapeutic intervention is therefore to separate the child suspected of being an abiku from his fellow abikus. One idea informing the treatment of children such as these is the giving of a specific name at birth if their nature has been identified early on, or the changing of their name if their nature is discovered later. For example, they may be given derogatory or even outright vulgar names in order to dissuade other abiku children from approaching them. Thus, a child may be given the name Ekudi, meaning “broken calabash on a garbage heap”. But giving him a very meaningful name can also influence an abiku’s character, in order to strengthen his will to resist the call of other abikus. For example, the name Malomo, meaning “not to leave”, may be chosen to give the child the strength and desire to resist the mermaids’ song of his fellow abikus, to stay despite the enticement of his accomplices; or Banjoko, “remain seated and calm”. Hence, advice can be included in the child’s name; another example is the name Iledi, “The earth is closed, blocked” implying that there is no point in trying to be buried.
Such names, typical of both naming and therapeutic practices, reveal the theory of identity active in these African societies, a theory which can be outlined as follows:

1. a person’s identity is hidden. It is useless to search for it by way of objective categories, or in the person’s own self-perception, or in the gaze or words of others. And if it were incumbent on us to conceptualize it, it should be defined as this person’s destined impact on the world.
2. Identifying someone is a far cry from singling out an individual from within a classification; identifying someone always involves an act of divination.
3. Such an act is never without consequences. It may facilitate the expression of the person’s destiny, or on the contrary, hinder it. This is why identifying facts or elements are hidden from common humans, sometimes even from the person’s closest relatives.
4. Hence, the names that most accurately specify the person, those that are most proper to him or her, setting the person’s destiny, are most of the time kept secret.

It also becomes clear why, in these cultures as in many others (the same principles are found in the Middle East, in India…), changing a person’s name is one of the most powerful therapeutic tools.

One last point: in such a context, the popular idea according to which a person’s name influences that person and may even determine his or her actions (don’t name your son Napoleon, for example) is mistaken. Rather, the argument is that naming is an act of divination involving the dynamic complexity of any divination process, according to the triptych prediction, prescription, protection — three characteristics any divination process must include.

Considering the rationale inherent to naming practices in certain African societies, identity is far from being an essence or nature. A given individual’s identity should be considered not as a set of facts about the person which may be collected thanks to a series of questions, but rather as the result of an investigation of changes in the state of the world. Such an identity, such an analysis of the world, must be read by seers whose enunciations will allow a person’s destiny to be accomplished or on the contrary hinder its accomplishment or curb its course.

Hence, the naming process implies an entire group, its history but also perhaps above all an individual’s path as it is being accomplished, what I will call his project — the projection of his being into a becoming.

To say of someone that his name is so and so, certainly isn’t to take a stand on that person’s specific essence, but it is always a prediction on the state of the world owing to that person’s existence.




Illness is sometimes an individual manifestation wherein a person’s identity is revealed both to the person and to his or her family and friends. This is true more particularly of disorders classified in our regions as psychiatric and on which I would like to dwell for a moment.

Many cultures around the world consider that there are beings — we will call them “beings” —, non human beings, that are able to take over people’s bodies, occupy their mental processes, impose on them certain behaviors… The existence of such beings is well known, and they are presumed to be the cause of disorders affecting individuals as well as families, dwellings, sometimes even entire villages[8]. In Arabic Muslim traditions, they are referred to as djinn (plural: jnun). Their presence is detected through their effect on the world.In Morocco, people say that at noontime, the jnun throw stones onto the roofs of houses. Attracted by blood, they may be prone to follow a woman as she leaves the butcher shop; they may even hide in the drops of blood fallen from the paper in which the meat she has just bought is wrapped.

Tobie Nathan,
Du commerce avec les diables (avec, en annexe, un texte de Vincent Crapanzano : "les jnun". Paris, Le Seuil - Les empêcheurs de penser en rond, 2004.
They are able to go through walls, including very thick ones. Usually, they live in places uninhabited by humans: the foundations of abandoned houses, garbage dumps, water pipes, fallow fields, treetops, the bush… In Mali, not far from Bamako, I once met an elderly Bambara healer who lived in a small hamlet of a few houses in the middle of the bush. He claimed that he was the only person who could live there because the place was owned by spirits. Each time a family had tried to settle there, fires and other such catastrophic events had plagued the settlers forcing them to leave. It was an obvious fact that he only had been accepted by the true owners of the place. These beings are part of the “natural” world, so to speak, and their existence is confirmed by innumerable stories, testimonies, texts, memories. Their ecology is pretty well known and organizes the behavior of humans. Thus, it is advisable not to go out at noon. It is also best to avoid letting blood drop to the ground, or to step over or into a pool of blood. One must also be careful when pouring boiling oil down the drain, lest one should scorch the jnun who might be in the pipes. Hence the phrase Destoor ya s’hab el ard (“Pardon me, owners of the ground!”) uttered before pouring out the oil used for frying[9]… Such is the context in which it may happen that non-human beings cross paths with humans. The Malian healer with whom I got into a rather technical discussion on the ways of healing illnesses caused by the jnun, asked me how I managed with them in Paris, given the fact that, in his opinion “those big cities where people from all over live together, one on top of the other, they must be full of devils!” Thinking back on his remark, many years later, I’m now convinced he was right!

Hadra is a twenty-three-year-old student with a pretty face and an open smile. She wears an elegant wool suit. An alumnus of the University of Rabat where she successfully completed a Masters in History, she is currently enrolled in a Masters program in Political Science in Paris. She looks frightened: she is recovering from yet another episode followed by a month-long stay in hospital. She describes how she collapsed: she was at the University, talking with friends when she suddenly felt a tingling feeling in her fingertips and a warm feeling spread throughout her body, an unpleasant warmth first in her head while her feet felt frozen. No, she couldn’t remember what they had been talking about, except that it wasn’t anything special, “the kind of things you talk about with girlfriends”… Hadra isn’t married. For some time now, people in her family have been wondering about the fact that she is still single, especially given the fact that her younger sister is already the mother of a charming two-year-old little girl. Hadra has consistently rejected the young men she has met at the university as well as the prospective spouses introduced to her by her parents. Before considering marriage, Hadra wants to finish school. This isn’t the first time Hadra has collapsed in this way. When she was fourteen, she suffered from “episodes”, almost on a monthly basis, a kind of convulsive episode from which she would awaken with no memory of what had happened. Epilepsy had been suspected. Later, the episodes stopped, as suddenly and mysteriously as they had appeared. At the time, the doctors had attributed her episodes to puberty. At age 18, Hadra had collapsed once again. It was during a birthday party for one of her friends. She had been dancing, spinning, singing at the top of her lungs… whirling around with delight. But then she collapsed and remained unconscious for hours. This time, her parents blamed their daughter’s episode on exertion. She had just finished taking final exams for her high school diploma and had studied unreasonably. Six months ago, in Paris, in the courtyard of the University, she didn’t know what to make of it, but the episodes had started again… repeatedly, to the point where the last one took place when she was alone, in the room she rented on the top floor of her building. She had subsequently traveled back to Morocco. This time, her mother took her to see Leila A’isha, the healer. The dark-skinned old woman, originally from the Southern part of the country, interrogated her shells. Then, directing a suspicious gaze towards Hadra, she asked:

- Didn’t you dream about a man?
- Yes, admitted Hadra, I dreamt about a black man!

He had approached her and smelled her. Like a kind of animal… a bit like a dog… In the healer’s mind, there was no doubt: a therapeutic intervention was urgently needed. The old woman set out to organize a Lila for Hadra, a therapeutic “night”. On the designated afternoon, the men had all convened in the courtyard of the rich-looking house located in a posh neighborhood in Casablanca: tall, black men with musical instruments, three-cord violins, tambourines and rattles. They sacrificed a good-sized sheep outside the house. At that moment, Hadra had not felt well, especially when the sacrificer had put some of the sacrificial animal’s blood on her forehead. When night fell, the entire Gnawa troop had arrived: black musicians, mluk masters, psalmists, dancers, seers… The drums had begun their litany, endlessly repeating the same three-beat rhythm. Around midnight, members of the congregation, the healer’s assistants, started to collapse into trance states (tah bel hadra). And when the musicians started their fifth series of rhythms, when they struck up the song of a certain dark-skinned djinn by the name of Sidi Mimoun, it was Hadra’s turn to collapse into a trance. But this time, it was not just an “episode”. She collapsed, how should we say… in an orderly way, miming in her suffering the gestures everyone recognized as those of the djinn, Sidi Mimoun, precisely. She spoke during her ritual episode, with a voice unlike her own. She sang also, melodies and words she had never known before. The old woman and her assistants immediately surrounded her, stroking and supporting her. There was no need for words: the ritual had diagnosed her. Hadra had been taken by a djinn, a melk, in other words, and literally, “an owner”. Afterwards, things had gone back to normal, she had come back to Paris, and now the episodes had started again… The fact was her master needed care; her owner needed to be fed!

Now, let us step back a little. If someone (say a journalist or a researcher for example…) had questioned Hadra before her Lila, had questioned the young woman studying in Paris, sharing the same interests as her fellow students, she most likely would have answered:
1. that she was a young woman of her time and that her Moroccan nationality was secondary in the definition of her identity;
2. although she wasn’t against religion, she wasn’t really a believer and certainly not observant;
3. and that in any case, she didn’t believe in the “evil eye” (el ayn), nor in spirits (jnun), nor in the devil (shaytan) all of which she viewed as popular beliefs typical of rural populations.
After the events briefly summarized above, Hadra now says things like: “up until then, I didn’t believe in the existence of spirits, but now I do!” or “the jnun do exist, in fact they are even mentioned in the Koran”, or else: “even the Prophet met them… and converted a whole tribe!”… [10]
Thus we are led to conclude that Hadra’s “identity” — Moroccan certainly, but more precisely member of an ethnic group, of a tribe, and now of a congregation of possessed people —, was revealed solely through the manifestation of phenomena which we must admit as pathological in nature. Here, it is therefore an illness and its treatment that reveals the person’s identity.
But the identity which is most interesting to the people around Hadra is much more that of the dark-skinned djinn than the young woman’s. And this is one of the most surprising paradoxes of identity: Hadra’s most intimate concern, troubling her almost to the point of obsession, is in fact the identity of another, of a demon, a spirit, recognizable only amidst a collective.

We live in a world that has, in a very short time — say in the course of the past twenty years —, both considerably opened up and extraordinarily shrunk. The loss of sovereignty of nation-states, their impossibility to act alone on the international scene, but also the gradual erosion of the status of the very notion of nation-state (who today can seriously claim to be a nationalist?) has led to the… appearance? or should I say the reappearance? or simply the revelation? I’m not sure which is the right term to use here… of solidarities based on identity that have taken everyone by surprise: journalists, politicians, and researchers. These transformations have come about thanks to very perceptible vectors, namely the considerable development of means of communication and information. It has become easy to travel and to communicate, often almost in real time. So much so, that emigration is no longer quite the same as it was some time ago.

It is no longer possible to simply “assimilate” or “integrate”… new arrivals considered severed from their group of origin. Indeed today’s immigrants stay in touch with their nucleus, thanks to the telephone which is now almost free, thanks to the web; they exchange videotapes, photographs, instant messages and webcam conversations with their relatives; they watch their national television channels thanks to satellite TV (I met several people who managed not to learn a word of French after 20 years living in France). Obviously, such opportunities to maintain and preserve family and cultural ties spectacularly reinforce the awareness of belonging to a same people, despite physical distance. It is as though the world were establishing this vision of identity as a project.

Needless to say, such closeness now makes it possible to generalize to the entire world that which up until recently had been the exclusive specialty of certain peoples, diaspora experts, such as the Jews, the Chinese, the Yoruba of Benin and Nigeria or the Armenians. Let me remind you of the extraordinary story of the Man clan, studied by James Woody Watson, whose members claim to be descendants of one single ancestor who lived near Canton six centuries ago. Thousands among them have spread out across the planet, in England, Canada, the Netherlands, Belgium or Germany. Many no longer speak Chinese and have married spouses from the host country. Yet they are nonetheless carrying out a clan-type family “plan” or “project” (in the sense I mentioned earlier). Within this group, certain marriages are organized according to tradition and economic relations are constantly maintained beyond national borders. Some have returned to the original villages in China, where they are restoring cemeteries and building new temples to their ancestors in order to organize traditional rituals [11]. Other similar examples are the well-documented gatherings around Yoruba and Ibo kings in Nigeria bringing together immigrants, sometimes millionaires, from Western countries of immigration.
Present-day sociologists and political scientists, aware of these phenomena, now speak of the existence of “transnations” or of “long distance nationalism”. And we are in effect witnessing political lobbying of international institutions in favor of group identities that are independent from given states.

Inspired by such terminology, I have described what I termed “long distance attachments” that dynamically reveal their existence through complex psychological processes observable only in the very specialized context of pathology and therapy. Such specific expertise has allowed me to describe in detail the mechanisms around which those identities resistant to distance in time and space are organized. Indeed, it is often illness — especially mental illness — that reminds the individual of his or her attachment to his or her nucleus. Because, when a man from West Africa, for example, presents with symptoms of mental illness in Paris, it often happens that at the end of his treatment, he comes to the realization that he has been captured by the village ancestor who is forcing him, through his illness, to return to his home village in order to perform certain rituals. Thus, the internal compulsion that guarantees identity often results from the action of invisible, non-human, beings: such as spirits, ancestors, or gods… Hence, at the close of this discussion on diasporas, I have come to think that the interesting question isn’t “who am I?” but rather “to whom do I belong”, “to whom”, meaning “to which invisible non human being?”


[1] Professor of Clinical psychology and psychopathology. University of Paris 8 — France.

Translated from the French by Catherine Grandsard. A longer version of this article was published under the title A qui j’appartiens? Regards ethnopsychiatriques sur les mouvements de l’identité. In Tobie Nathan, A qui j’appartiens ? Ecrits sur la psychothérapie, sur la guerre et sur la paix, Paris, Les Empêcheurs de penser en rond, 2007.

Catherine Grandsard, the translator

[2]. eyeh asher eyeh, “I AM WHO I AM. Say this to the children of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you’” Exodus 3:14

[3]. Didier Anzieu, L’auto-analyse de Freud et la découverte de la psychanalyse. Paris, P.U.F., 1975.

[4]. A clinical case of « cannibalistic sorcery » is reported in Tobie Nathan Nous ne sommes pas seuls au monde. Paris, Les empêcheurs de penser en rond, 2001.

[5]. Genesis 29 :32

[6]. Zempleni A., Rabain, J. 1965. « L’enfant “Nit Ku Bon”, un tableau psychopathologique traditionnel chez les Wolof et les Lebou du Sénégal ». Psychopathologie africaine, 18, 3, 329-441. Wolof proverb: Nit ku bon jiko mat na moytu — « A bad man must be avoided». A broader review of this theme in Tobie Nathan (ed.), L'enfant ancêtre. Grenoble, La Pensée sauvage, 2000.

[7]. Tobie Nathan, Lucien Hounkpatin, La guérison yoruba. Paris, Odile Jacob, 1998.

[8]. Such a definition is notably as valid to a researcher in biology as to an anthropologist.

[9]. See Tobie Nathan, "Pardon, ô propriétaires du sol !" Preface to Sybille de Pury, Traité du malentendu. Théorie et pratique de la médiation interculturelle en situation clinique. Paris, Synthélabo, Les empêcheurs de penser en rond, 1998 (republished under the title « Comment on dit dans ta langue ? » in 2004.

[10]. Regarding possession by jnun, see Tobie Nathan “The Djinns: A Sophisticated Conceptualization of Pathologies and Therapies.” In Integrating Traditional Healing Practices Into Counseling and Psychotherapy. Edited by Roy Moodley and William West. Thousand Oaks, London, New Dehli: Sage Publications, 2005, 26-37. See also Vincent Crapanzano The Hamadsha. A Study in Moroccan Ethnopsychiatry. Berkeley : University of California, 1981.

[11]. See an article by Stanley Tambiah, « Transnational Movements, Diaspora and Multiple Modernities. International Movements of People and their implications » ; Daedalus, hiver 2000, 163-194 (cited by Bordes-Benayoun & Schnapper 2006). In the same line of thought, Ernest Sin Chan (2005), in his important study of the Hakka Chinese in Polynesia, reports similar facts, emphasizing the importance of pathologies and therapies in the preservation of the original identity.



Tobie Nathan — Professeur des Universités. Conseiller de Coopération et d'Action Culturelle près l'Ambassade de France à Conakry.

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