Showing posts with label craniopagus parasiticus. Show all posts
Showing posts with label craniopagus parasiticus. Show all posts

26 Dec 2018

Of Parasitic Heads and Archaic Torsos: In Memory of Islaam Maged (A Guest Post by Simon Solomon)

My frail and breaking sister 
I hold these memories in my aching arms.

I. The Numen of the Part-Human

In shifting horror into black humour with a splash of compassion, a dash of French theory, and a dollop of autobiography for good measure, the ingredients of Stephen Alexander's recent post concerning the terrible and strangely beautiful case of the fused Egyptian twins Manar and Islaam left us humanely stirred and poetically shaken. We are thus grotesquely grateful for this tragicomic Yuletide offering.

Given the acute rarity of this condition, Manar is apparently the only child to have survived - at least temporarily - her own beheading. Nevertheless, it is the role of her bodiless sister-fragment, the sacrificed Islaam, to which we feel peculiarly drawn. As might be surmised, the unstable ambivalence toward it/her attests to the undecidable mixture of uncanny in/humanity with which one looks upon such stupendously rare entities - or they upon us.

If Islaam was quite literally nobody, this apparently did not stop her from eliciting her sister's mortifying sibling attachment, as well as the love of her family. To that end, after she had been surgically removed from the autosite, she was given proper burial rites by her parents, who, to all intents and purposes, clearly viewed Islaam as a tiny child and not merely a genetic obscenity or clinical remnant.

However, whilst a functioning separate brain ensured that Islaam had a mind of her own, one doesn't need to be a doctor to see that, having no possibility of bodily autonomy, she would have been entirely incapable of a viable life. Moreover, since it appears that her continued existence might have exerted a toxic and ultimately lethal drain on Manar's well-being (in the weeks before surgery, for example, the latter suffered several episodes of heart failure due to Islaam, rotting alive with gangrene, channelling waste back into their her body), a decisive intervention was clinically crucial to save the hostess.

While it might seem luridly sentimental to some readers to interrogate such medical expedients, let alone mourn a lethal parasite, Islaam's identification and death rites nevertheless point to the way in which the ownership of a head (whether or not it comes with arms, legs and a beating heart to complete the ensemble) secures a human destiny. There would appear to be no way, one might say, of resisting the urge to put a name to a face ...

II. Of Rilke, Radiance and Sculpture (Or the Terrible Beauty of Being Born)

Islaam's haunting posthumous image - a dead head resting upon the failed promise of a noble breast - put me in mind of Rilke's famous ekphrastic poem, 'Archaic Torso of Apollo' (1908), written in the aftermath of his reverberating association with the sculptor Auguste Rodin, for whom he worked as a secretary during 1905-6.

The poet's charged visits to the Louvre, where he viewed the ancient sculpture, were the cultural departure point for his phenomenological exploration of aesthetic distance vis-à-vis classical fragments, in which the object, under Rilke’s modernist gaze, more than merely taking its Baudrillardian revenge, gleamed with its own radiant and transformative life:

We have not known the unconscionable head 
nor its eyes' ripening apples. And yet the star- 
cold torso burns still like a chandelier, 
in which his glances gleam and abide,

cut back merely. Else the bow of the breast 
could not deceive you and no smile join 
to the shifting softness of the loins 
toward their procreative centre, their phallic absence.

Else the stone might stand disfigured and dwarfed 
below the shoulders, diaphanous,
not glister like a bloodied hawk,

nor pour through all its contours, 
since, like the panoptical sun, there is no place 
it does not see you. Change my life, yours. 

- Trans. S. Solomon

If, as Rilke famously claimed, beauty is the beginning of terror, we would turn his poetic equation on its head: it is the terrible that initiates us into the beautiful.

Thus, as we read it, Rilke's sonnet commemorates the luminous power of creation's disappearance: the way what is not, what is missing, what has broken off or crumbled to dust, charges and animates an artistic composition with numinous power, to the point of ultimately driving the modern mind into a state of psychic rearrangement.

As the solar god of poetic music, Apollo is all-seeing like the sun. But he is also a god of dreams, appearance and illusion. Art, therefore, is inherently treacherous; as implied by Rilke's deployment of the verb blenden (to 'blind', to 'dazzle', or 'deceive') to describe the lucent charisma of the ancient relic.

The sacred head was, or is now, unerhört - ‘outrageous’, ‘scandalous’, ‘tremendous’. Like the sun itself, the head of a god, Rilke tells us, is something we could not have borne; now, sightlessly reborn, it is the torso instead that, literally and metaphorically, takes us in. This mystical antique is, in effect, a kind of headless hallucination, a decapitated game-changer. An acephalic Apollo inserts a rent in the rational.

III. With all Earth for a Body: The Afterlife of Islaam

If the name Islaam translates as 'the will of God', we can reinterpret its bearer as directed by a pure vector of fate, the expressive silence of cosmic necessity. (Islaam's head was literally unerhört, unheard, since she could not make sounds, though she could apparently blink, cry and smile.)

The poetic question is whether it is sentimental to mourn a part object, or whether there is a play to be staged about a human bloodsucker that was literally no more than a pretty face. In viewing Islaam's death as an event and not merely the rational operation of a clinical machine, we are returned to an immanent a/logic of sacrifice, a lucent horror incarnated by an impossible object - 'impossible' in the sense of being unable to sustain itself, to offer mortal satisfaction, or to entertain a future beyond its urgent expenditure.

Islaam's irremediable fate, in exemplary terms, was to die that another might live, to stitch the decision of death like a phantom skull into the remaking of a consanguineous body. As such, we would argue, her separation is the inseparable operation that signals the possibility of the sacred.

Remembering the stillborn lamb and its hacked-off head in Ted Hughes's astonishing poem 'February 17th', we fantasise about Islaam's caput mortuum placed on a burial mound, 'its pipes sitting in the mud, / With all earth for a body'. Or under the ground, where the roots of plants might lend the dead head the push of organic limbs and the soil pack her bones with black flesh.

But she was the gift to whom only death could be given; like the fire of Antigone, or a baby Christ. What Rilke memorably described as 'all the shame of having a face' was never less shameful, never more strange.

Author's Notes

The epigraph beneath the image of Manar and Islaam is taken from Paula Meehan's poem 'The Lost Twin', which can be found in her collection Dharmakaya, (Carcanet Press, 2000). 

For two alternative translations of Rilke's sonnet Archäischer Torso Apollos, by Sarah Stutt, and an interesting discussion of the work by Carol Rumens in her Guardian column (15 Nov 2010), please click here.

This post is dedicated to my sister, Lisa Thomas.

Editor's Notes

Simon Solomon is a poet, translator, critic and tutor. He is a professional member of the Irish Writers Centre, Dublin and serves as a managing editor with the academic journal Psychoanalysis, Culture and Society. He blogs at (and can be contacted via)

Simon appears here as part of the Torpedo the Ark Gastautoren Programm. I am very grateful for his submission of this twin text to my own attempt to discuss the case of Manar (and Islaam) Maged, entitled Heads You Lose and published on 23 Dec 2018 - and grateful also for his kind permission to slightly edit the post.  

23 Dec 2018

Heads You Lose: Reflections on Craniopagus Parasiticus (with Reference to the Case of Manar Maged)

Manar Maged displaying Islaam, her parasitic twin head, 
seemingly with pride and tender affection

I. Two heads are better than one ... 

I've never been convinced by this old English proverb: indeed, in my younger, more schizonomadic days, I thought the ideal was to be both headless and homeless and had a picture of André Masson's acephalic figure as a screensaver on my laptop.    

I was convinced that human life is debased when it becomes a purely head-bound affair and physical experience bartered away for mere representation; that freedom had to involve escaping from all utility and the tyranny of reason.

Now, however, I'm not quite so Bataillean and - without wishing to sound too Kiplingesque - I very much admire those who can keep their heads as all about are losing theirs. But I still don't believe that two heads are better than one; and certainly not when the second head is fused to the first, as in the extremely rare cases of craniopagus parasiticus.    

It might be fun to have an identical twin. It might even be amusing to be one of a pair, rather than one of a kind, and be a conjoined twin. Abby and Brittany Hensel, for example, seem happy enough and have learned to cooperate and coordinate with an astonishing degree of success, despite being distinct personalities.

But to simply possess a parasitic twin head, that doesn't sound terribly appealing or in any way advantageous to the autosite. So it's probably fortunate that the tiny number of infants with this condition are usually stillborn, or die shortly after coming into the world. But not always, as the following case reminds us ...

II. The Case of Manar Maged (and Islaam)    

After an episode of Oprah featured her story, the whole world was talking about the case of Manar Maged, an Egyptian girl born in March 2004 with two heads - the second of which, named Islaam, had a separate brain and could (rather creepily) display certain autonomous facial features, but fully relied on its sister's vital organs to maintain it's own existence. 

As this parasitic twin head endangered Manar's wellbeing - and also prevented her from being able to crawl or sit up properly - it was decided to operate and attempt to surgically remove poor Islaam. The long, difficult, and extremely dangerous procedure was successfully performed in February 2005 and little Manar was released from intensive care the following month.

Sadly, however, she developed hydrocephaly, followed by a serious brain infection, and died shortly before what would have been her second birthday in March 2006. As for Islaam, she of the enigmatic smile, who knows what became of her ...?     

Thanks to Simon Solomon for suggesting this post. His own unique take on this case can be read by clicking here. If ever a post deserved a twin, it's this one; though which part is the parasitic head is debatable ...