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Living with Unimaginable Trauma

October 19, 2011

First of a series of posts from the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, 5-9 October 2011

“The only problem in the world is the concern with purity”, says Chris Abani, the Nigerian writer now living in America. “We strive for racial, ethnic or class purity, when actually we are all mongrels. Our identity is always in flux, never a destination.”

“How similar Jewish and Palestinian people are,” says the Gazan gynaecologist Izzeldin Abuelaish, talking of the time he worked in Israeli hospitals. “When a woman is in labour she just wants a safe delivery – ethnicity does not matter. It’s not: From where are you? It is: Who are you?”

Of the many fine speakers at the recent Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, these were the two who had the biggest impact on me.

Chris Abani was imprisoned at the age of eighteen, because the Nigerian government believed that a novel he had published was the blueprint for an actual coup. He was jailed several times and suffered horrific torture. When finally released from death row, he was broken by months of solitary confinement. “So much of what we are is what is reflected back to us by others,” he says. He had to learn to speak again.

How does one deal with such trauma? Not by forgetting it, or trying to cure it through therapy, he says. Rather, healing comes by living one’s life in the world, putting the trauma into perspective, alongside beauty and connection. It helped that he was a writer before he was imprisoned. He also sees a role for religion, not as orthodoxy, but as a language for processing experience.

During the Israeli invasion of Gaza in 2009, Izzeldin Abuelaish was one of the few Gazans talking to the outside world, through an Israeli journalist, about what was happening. Then an Israeli tank approached his house and shelled it, killing his three daughters and a niece and badly injuring others. (Link here for a detailed description of this terrible event and its aftermath.)

Dr Abuelaish rejected hatred and revenge, remained dedicated to peace, and argued that understanding and dialogue are more powerful than counter-violence. As a memorial to his daughters he established the Daughters For Life Foundation (link here) to provide scholarships for girls and women in the Middle East. He wrote a book: I Shall Not Hate.

I came to Dr Abuelaish’s session expecting a gentle man. I was wrong. He is full of anger, anger at what happened to his daughters, outrage at what is happening to Gaza, “the largest prison in the world”, where men, women and children are deprived of everything, living with the world’s unsafest water and the highest rate of disability. (The inadequate health service could not treat the thousands of Gazans seriously wounded in the war, so there were many amputations.) He is full of passion for peace, for Israelis and Palestinians to come together. He is a powerful, forceful speaker who shakes up his audience, challenging us to do more than just talk. At the end of the session everyone in the large audience stood to applaud him.

Like Chris Abani, Dr Abuelaish deals with the memory of unimaginable trauma by living in the world, moulding the pain into a force for peace and understanding.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Ritamay Roberts permalink
    October 19, 2011 1:43 pm

    That’s food for thought, Bryce, food that really needs to be chewed and moved about and considered … thank you.


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