Dreams, Imagination and other Slippery Stuff
Though the title seems vaguely reminiscent of a Fleetwood Mac song, Amira Mittermaier’s Dreams That Matter: Egyptian Landscapes of the Imagination is both aptly named and timely. Published in the same year as the coup d’état that overthrew President Hosni Mubarak, Mittermaier’s work reflects an Egypt during “undreamy times,” where local and international political tension bubbles beneath the surface. But, Mittermaier’s focus Islamic dream communities in Egypt goes beyond the political, or even the visible, realm. Her emphasis that “dreams matter” depicts the ways that dreams have “significance in people’s lives and…an impact on the visible, material world. [Dreams] matter because they complicate the notion of a monolithic Islam, and they matter because they destabilize conventional understandings of the ‘real’” (2). Dreams, and the interpretive communities around them, also matter because they give significant insight into the imagination, which is moored in the barzakh, the realm between the spiritual and material. Mittermaier explores this in-between space not by interrogating the dreams themselves, but by examining the ways that dreams are narrated to interpreters and how those interpreters receive and respond to them. She is not so much concerned with what a dream means, but is instead concerned with what is does. She is also concerned with the wider dialogue in Egypt that contextualizes dream interpretation. These conversations hold implications for the ways that Egyptians imagine Islam, Science, and the European world. Conversely, Mittermaier’s exploration of imagination invites (presumably Western) readers to re-imagine Islam, Spirituality and the Arab world. In this way, Mittermaier’s work is profoundly ethical.
Broadly, Mittermaier’s work is an opportunity to rethink ethics and subsequently, to rethink our understandings of the “self.” For Mittermaier’s interlocutors (see questions), dream-visions do not come from the subconscious, as Freud posited. There are kinds of dreams that might come from the subconscious, but dreams visions come from outside the self and hold implications for the ways that live ought to be lived. The dream is given to her by God, by demons or by the dead. In particular, dream-visions from the dead hold significant weight for dreamers. These dreams often hold moral imperatives for the ways that dreamers interact in the waking world.
The dreamer is the medium for the message and the dream interpreter deciphers that message. Dreams situate dreamers into larger relationships between the living and the dead, visible and invisible, past and present. This is particularly evident through Shaykh Nabil, who frequently highlights the relational nature of dream interpretation. He is a “translator, cultural broker, religious expert, and moral guide” (81). Dreamers and dream interpreters must consider what these dreams communicate about these vast relational networks. The dreamer (the self) is deeply relational and dream interpreters assist in the ethical and moral navigation of those relationships.
Dream-interpretation ignites complex conversation in the wider Egyptian culture. Shaykh Hanafi’s television show on dream interpretation and its cancellation by the State illustrates that dream-visions are deeply contested in Egypt. Muslim reformers believe that dream-visions are nothing more than “superstition,” while the Egyptian government seems concerned that Hanafi’s interpretations may incite rebellion. If a TV show can cause such responses from reformers and the government, dreams clearly matter not only for Shaykh Hanafi and his followers, but also for the larger Egyptian society.
Mittermaier carefully posits that the tension surrounding dream-visions is more than a need to embrace European thought via Freudian psychology. In fact, Freud is just as contentious a figure as dream-visions. She depicts a fractuous relationship between psychoanalysis and dream-visions to suggest that her interlocutors push past an “either/or” understanding of Freudian psychoanalysis and Islamic dream interpretation. Both Freudian thought and Islam are remade and reconstituted through dream interpretation (200).
One final thread worth mentioning is Mittermaier’s emphasis on vision and sight. Mittermaier suggests that the Western world privileges ocular sight as objective. However, the cultivation of sight for dream-interpretation troubles the notion that sight is somehow morally neutral. In order to truly “see,” the dreamer must cultivate an inner sight that goes beyond what can be perceived with the eyes. This kind of vision is not a given, rather it comes through practice and teaching. Paradoxically, cultivating an inner vision does not necessarily mean that one will receive a dream-vision. Dream-visions often come to those who are unwitting participants in the dream landscape and while a dream can command the dreamer to do something, the dreamer always has the ability to reject that command (110). In other words, while the dreamer is a medium of sorts, she is not completely passive in a dream-vision.
Another emphasis on sight comes from Mittermaier’s exploration of mass media. For some of interlocutors, mass media is analogous to the unknown. Just as the bazarkh is made manifest through dreams, mass media makes the unknown visible through technology. Egyptian dream communities are uniquely positioned to use mass media because of their porous boundaries between “real” and “imaginary.” The two categories need no neat separation. Likewise, Mittermaier’s interlocutors don’t always distinguish between “near” and “far,” “absent” or “present.” As Mittermaier puts it, “Because my interlocutors are invested in communities that are not limited to physical encounters but that also encompass the dead and (in)visible beings, it is not surprising that they are also interested in media forms that in some ways exceed the limitations of ordinary space and time” (229).
In “Rehearsed Spontaneity and the Conventionality of Ritual: Disciplines of Salat,” Saba Mahmood’s interlocutors are Muslim women also based in Cairo. A part of the Women’s Piety Movement in Cairo, these women embrace ritual not as a given set of actions, but as a way of cultivating a pious disposition. As an embodied practice, prayer serves as a “tool or developable means through which certain kinds of ethical and moral capacities are attained” (844). Ritual is part of a pedagogical process in which the inner self is formed. This ultimately shapes external behavior. Just as Mittermaier’s dream-visions hold implications for the visible world, Mahmood’s understanding of prayer is an internal experience that is turned outward.
Some Thoughts and Questions
- Mittermaier’s emphasis on in-betweenness and imagination is incredibly ambitious because these spaces are so slippery. Her dialogic approach captures these unstable, ambiguous spaces quite nicely without capitulating to any sort of final, binding interpretation. By focusing on the conversations around dream-interpretation and the effects of dreams, Mittermaier enters into an ongoing dialogue that is likely not the same today as it was when she was doing fieldwork. Dreams matter or “materialize” in everyday practices and conversations. She cannot focus on the immaterial without focusing on the ways the dream materialize. However, this focus gives Mittermaier some distance from dream-interpretation. She differs from many of our other thinkers this semester in that she repeatedly emphasizes that she does not see what her interlocutors are seeing. She does not have a dream vision. She does not see angels or the prophet flying around. But, that’s not the point that Mittermaier is trying to make. She’s not concerned with whether or not these dreams are “real” for her interlocutors. She presumes that they are. However, does this presumption also create a distance from her interlocutors’ experience? Are there ways in which this focus on “matter” undermines her emphasis on that which is invisible and immaterial? Is this just Geertz all over again, but with a post-modern twist? I don’t think it is. But, I think it’s important to make some distinctions here.
- Mittermaier gives us a new term! No longer do we have “informants,” but instead “interlocutors” (see p. 23). Is this new term helpful? Problematic? What are its implications?
- Mittermaier’s discussion on the “Arab Mind” (40) reminded me of some of our conversations on Birgit Meyer’s Sensational Movies. Here, too, Western understandings of modernity provide the backdrop for her interlocutor’s conversations. But, Mittermaier is careful not to say that modern Western notions control the conversation. To what extent is she successful in pushing past a “Irrational Islam Vs. The Rational West” paradigm? Why does it matter?
- Given the role of social media in the Arab Spring, it might be interested to think through Mittermaier’s last chapter on mass media.
 I am writing with fever-brain on a complex book. The most slippery thing about this precis is that there’s no real central point to it.