By Samah Jabr
“I used to fly, but you broke my wings and locked me back in my cage.” This was the reproach of a patient who had just recovered from a manic episode during which he had jumped from the top of the 13-foot-high Israeli separation wall and broken both legs. His mania had been a temporary release from the social inhibitions, economic frustrations and political obstructions symbolized by the wall itself. The pills I had given him ended his colorful euphoric experience and thrust him back into a gloomy reality. No wonder he was dissatisfied with my interventions!
In a two-week period in May, seven murders were committed in Palestine. The victims were women, children and a mentally retarded youth. In my capacity as a psychiatrist, I have interviewed some of the accused perpetrators. To my surprise, they do not resemble the antisocial psychopaths who typically commit such ugly crimes. Most of those I have interviewed suffer from enduring humiliation and an injured sense of manhood. They live in conditions of mounting stress, experiencing the pressure of poverty in a society increasingly obsessed with material possessions and wealth. Such men lose their sense of honor and respect when they are unable to provide for their families; they struggle to regain the illusion of control through misogyny and acts of domestic violence as expressions of their manhood.
Humiliation, poverty and low social status have made some people in Palestine feel like losers and failures at life. They often attempt to medicate their frustration and anger with alcohol and drugs. And, just as many seek an altered state of mind through these routes, some try to soothe their injured dignity by projecting and externalizing their sense of powerlessness onto members of their families. Such people become abusive and some commit violent crimes. The structural violence, economic inequalities, and pervasive injustice that characterize Palestinian society under occupation have created a fertile psychological environment for sociopathy to grow.
We don’t yet have organized crime and gangs, but there has been a dramatic upsurge in violations of the law and in domestic violence. But policing Palestine more intensively and expanding security forces are not the answer to a phenomenon brought about mainly by a crisis of the spirit.
The establishment of a ruling class, binding social structures, and oppressive institutions exclude many people from sharing the fruits of nationhood. These exclusions establish criteria—at once widely recognized and covertly concealed—that determine who is heard and who is silenced, who is favored and who deprived. One example is membership in the right political party. If you belong to the proper political party and begin work in the proper type of job, your years of party loyalty will be counted as years of “professional experience.” This illegitimate arithmetic automatically conveys an advantage in employment and in promotions compared to those who actually have better credentials and work harder. The same system that greases loyal wheels will put sticks in the wheels of anyone who expresses opposition to or protests such a system.
Strange voices are liable to be heard in support of direct violence and structural violence, attempting to legitimize it and render it socially acceptable. We are informed, for example, that a murdered woman was disloyal to her husband; lawyers might say, “Of course, you are right—but you don’t want to get in trouble with the political elite.”
Our context is everything, of course: we experience strong emotions to our occupation by Israel. The national humiliation and the personal grievances suffered by the Palestinian people through our political and economic misery filter down into the conflicts in our daily lives. Our political parties have provided some people with a sense of belonging, and thus achieved an unprecedented psychological significance. Intense loyalty and highly emotionally charged participation in a polarized society seems to result in an atmosphere of destructive competition, unfair comparisons, hunger for power, and hatred. These strong emotions eventually have undercut our capacity for logical reasoning and ethical judgment.
The murder of the Palestinian soul is taking place, an annihilation of our spirit, expressed in a hunger to dominate the weak and to inflict our aggression on those who are smaller. We pass down our humiliation to a dumping ground of those who are unable to defend themselves, inducing in them our own sense of shame.
Our inner life is becoming empty. Our dreams are destroyed by structural violence or melted into a collective trance. Everywhere apathy and distrust is growing. Palestinians took to the streets to celebrate the triumph of Mohammed Assaf as the celebrated Arab Idol, but when we saw the reconciliation agreement sealed with embraces once again we were not impressed. There were no celebrations in the street.
We Are Born Free
New research in psychology and neuroimaging has revealed that human beings demonstrate an innate aversive reaction to inequality and unfairness. In the “ultimatum game,” where responders are given a choice to approve or to block a particular division of a quantity of money, it was discovered that people—regardless of age, gender or race—found unequal divisions to be aversive. It was also found that Blacks are more sensitive to unfair proposals when these were proposed by other Blacks!
But long before this psychological research, and the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights—“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”—Umar Ibn Al Khattab, an influential caliph who earned the title Al-Faruq for his fairness and ability to distinguish between right and wrong, rebelled against the social structure of his time by asking: “Since when have you taken people for slaves and they were born free?” French philosoper Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued that “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.” He also stated that “man’s natural sentiment of self-esteem is coupled with pity, the dislike of seeing fellow creatures in pain.”
The mildest Qur’anic teaching on the duty to oppose injustice is: “And incline not toward those who do unfairness” (Hud 113).
Thus, apathy toward injustice, crime and human pain is incompatible with our innate feelings. Apathy deviates from our natural humanitarian instincts, and is the result of a distorted process of education and conditioning. The outcome of programmed selfishness and egoism, it eliminates our capacity for spiritual growth, instead promoting compliance with injustice and submission to rigid authoritarian systems of domination.
Searching for Spaciousness Inside
What can we do to escape the bars of our reality? I have no wings and will not fly out—not even with a first class ticket! I remain here on the ground, searching for a human connection with equals who aim to nurture relationships of mutual respect and to co-create new forms of living together. I seek companionship in my long journey to decondition and deconstruct the forms of oppressions and injustice around me. I will find myself sometimes at a loss and in despair, but I understand that there can be a revival of hope even while recognizing disappointment; there can be fulfillment in surviving the heat of tyranny, a fulfillment that makes a person more willing to dedicate oneself to those who are marginalized and degraded in society.
The spirituality of Palestinian society has been one of the most important factors in our resilience and steadfastness. Spirituality can transform one’s sense of worth from unequal to equal, dismissing the social stratifications where “higher” beings exercise control over “lesser” beings. The current promotion of materialism and individualism within Palestine, however, is increasingly limiting the inner spaciousness that has helped us survive despite the cages imposed on us from without.
We are in the midst of a process of losing our traditional serenity and enlightenment, through our participation in this ongoing spiritual decline. For so long, we found meaning and nourishment in song, poetry, stories and prayers. Today, however, there is a deeper impoverishment lying beneath the surface poverty—an impoverishment for which materialistic answers do not suffice.
Our souls and our spirits are being injured and damaged. People assess their self-worth using the yardsticks of money, education and social status. We are imprisoned in our socioeconomic status, forced into repetition and boredom of the finite and the familiar, not realizing the great love, outstanding courage and lucid awareness that can endure in the minds and hearts of simple people. Love for ourselves, compassion for others, the liberation of our personal sense of agency, and the freedom to choose and develop sophisticated modalities of survival will restore our sense of independence and value in spite of the external cage.
– Samah Jabr is a Jerusalemite psychiatrist and psychotherapist who cares about the wellbeing of her community—beyond issues of mental health. She contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com. (This article was first published in Washington Report on Middle East Affairs – WRMEA, August 2014, Pages 24-25)