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Wasseem El Sarraj

Wounds yet to heal in Gaza

Such are the contradictions in life. Resilience is the norm (AFP)

Date of publication: 4 December, 2014

Gaza is a place of seeming contradictions: there is laughter, happiness and beauty amid deep and profound suffering. A socially constructed narrative that creates a common sense of right and wrong helps, binding together the community and individual.

Intuition, or a strict diet of western media, would have us believe that all Palestinians must be traumatized, in shock, emotionally dysfunctional. No life can exist in a place as bruised and battered as Gaza it would seem. But, as anyone who knows Gaza will attest: it’s a place of stark contrasts: laughter, happiness, beauty, coupled with deep and profound suffering. Such are the contradictions in life.

This goes against many traditional conceptions about resilience. Brian Barber, a leading scholar of youth and

     Resilience means that, often with the help of others, we are resourceful in moving forward

- Brian Barber

political conflict, and who is now working on a book about the lives of Gazan families he has known for 20 years at New America , tells me: ‘Contrary to presumptions that resilience is a rare quality of a fortunate minority, we have learned that resilience is actually the norm...a lot of people have spent time trying to find some magic secret inside people in order to unlock the secrets of resilience..[when ]in fact it’s the opposite: people are naturally resilient”.

“Crucial further,” he continued, “is to recognize that resilience does not mean resistance. It is not the case that we are not impacted by the adversities that confront us. Rather, resilience means that, often with the help of others, we are resourceful in moving forward in the face of the often extremely painful challenges we face.”

A wedding, a birthday, school graduation, buying a new pair of trousers, cooking maqloba (a famous local dish) for friends and family, visiting the mosque. This is life. These are the sustaining rituals that people endeavor to maintain immediately after — even during — times of war. Of course there are situations that can conspire to undermine a sort of natural balance of conditions more nurturing for resilience. Brian Barber’s comparative work has shown that, for example, Bosnian youth who endured the siege of Sarajevo in the 1990s were consumed with troubling emotions, such as anxiety, depression, and despair whereas their counterparts immersed in the first Palestinian intifada were not.

Social and political narratives

Dr. Barber attributed this difference to the availability of compelling social and political narratives that explain and give meaning to war and conflict. Bosnian youth were utterly surprised by the onset of their war and had no way to understand or participate in any meaningful national narrative. In contrast, for Palestinian youth of the first intifada — just as for all Palestinians during the war this summer — the conflict was entirely explicable. Palestinians know their enemy. All have heard the historical accounts of the raw harshness of the occupation. These memories have been passed down through generations. Indeed, by now most Palestinians, young or old, have their own personal experiences of being harshly controlled and humiliated. For them, it is clear: Israel is the occupier; Israel is the one taking our land, depriving us of our rights, demolishing homes, killing and torturing my relatives.

Israel’s behaviour is predictable, never veering from itself. It’s from within that context that a socially constructed sense of right and wrong can be discerned. One that has a hold over survivors of occupation and war that psychically binds together and protects both the community and the individual.

A more familiar example would be 9/11. I was in my late teens and far less politically aware, but it was clear to me back then that America would fight back: it would take vengeance on the criminals who killed its unarmed civilians. George Bush Jr was standing at ground zero conveying a message of solidarity before someone from the crowd shouts: "I can't hear you,” George Bush replies with a sense of serenity and self righteousness: “I can hear you; the rest of the world hears you; and the people who knocked down these buildings will hear all of us soon”.

The crowd erupts. At that moment it must have felt good for many, not all, Americans, particularly those who lost family, to hear such clarity. A narrative emerges almost immediately after 9/11 that permits Americans - because their leaders say so - to feel mostly ok about feeling murderous, feeling vengeful.

Chocholates and alternate reality

After Operation Pillar of Defense (2012), I remember returning to my work in Gaza at a well-known American NGO. We were called into the meeting room, where the perfectly nice American Chief of Party sat us all down and began to reassure us all that the NGO would “be there for you” and would grant its employees things that the state could never provide. These remarks went down well. There is no safety net in Gaza: your employer is a de facto provider of welfare and as such has a hold over its staff members.

The Chief of Party then produced a flip chart, pointing to “dips in organizational productivity” that have been “globally” noted in the aftermath of “natural disasters” such as earthquakes in Haiti. I wasn't sure what was more insulting — the dips in our NGO’s productivity thus described, or the individually wrapped chocolates that were handed out to us by expats returning from the relative comfort and safety of Jerusalem.

It’s not that chocolates are not nice. It’s that these humanitarians occupy an alternate reality to the people they are helping. Psychologists, trauma specialists and psychosocial workers are parachuting into Gaza to provide ‘emergency relief’ before they satisfy their other urge to ‘work on Syria’. It’s an experience that mostly satisfies the professional need to pepper ones CV with disaster and the personal wish to accumulate ‘life changing’ stories to casually tell at dinner parties.

Their language does not fit. Their language is not one of solidarity but one that stems from technocracy. The international community’s collective failure to deliver both genuine emotional solidarity and indeed basic material goods is rarely reflected on. The failure cannot be truly believed: too much has already been invested.

Trauma is Greek for wound. Gaza’s wounds are unhealed. They are unhealed, not because not enough mental services are available. They are raw, however, because the source of those wounds is not found within the individual, but in the continuing strangulation of their freedoms and opportunities and the violation of their dignity. It is the struggle for such obvious, such inalienable, political rights which paradoxically promotes resilience. 

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