Translating oblivion

Until recently, modern research into trauma concentrated on cases in the ″white″ and Western world, taking as its point of reference everyday realities in industrial societies. But which forms and kinds of traumas develop in colonised or post-colonial societies? By Stefan Milich

By Stephan Milich

Usually trauma is perceived as a single biographical or historical event, resulting in damage to a person′s or society′s organism, self-image and mental disposition. The event is over, but its effects still disturb the life of the individual or community and ask for treatment.

If the makers of this theory, however, had from the start also devoted attention to people suffering from a colonial situation or its consequences, in which traumatisation and the struggle for survival had at times become the norm and not the exception, another concept of trauma might have become more prominent.

This other understanding of trauma would not so much be centred on the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, but rather concerned with forms of cumulative or manifold traumatisation.

Fanon as a starting point

A text from the early 1960s, based on an Arab society under colonialism, could have played an important part here. It could have steered research in a direction that would have done greater justice to other global realities.

In ″The Wretched of the Earth″ (1961) Frantz Fanon undertook an initial categorisation of trauma in the Arab world and warned against the harmful long-term consequences of colonial violence by pointing out that, in colonial contexts, violence and trauma had become the normality. The first three pages of the fifth chapter constitute a direct attempt at comprehending the experiences and reality of French colonialism in Algeria as trauma.

For Fanon, colonisation was not just ″a great supplier of patients for psychiatric clinics″ – which still have not been built to this day because of a lack of both resources and awareness – it also resulted in ″unhealable wounds, inflicted on our peoples by the scourge of colonialism″.

In his thoughts on ′psychological disturbances′ and case studies of affliction among both Algerians and French, Fanon does not, as would still be usual today, define a trauma as being caused by a unique violent event but rather as ″the sum of harmful stimuli″ that lead to the ″breakdown of the colonised person′s defence mechanisms″. According to Fanon, the main trigger appears to be ″the brutal and pitiless atmosphere, the general prevalence of inhuman practices and the inescapable impression of experiencing real apocalypse″.

″The Wretched of the Earth″ by Frantz Fanon (first edition, published by Grove Press)
The original classification of traumatisation in an Arabic context: although Frantz Fanon warned about the damaging long-term consequences of colonial violence in ″The Wretched of the Earth″, by pointing out that violence and traumatisation had become the norm in colonial societies, both European psychologists and Arabic intellectuals failed to give the subject sufficient subsequent attention

The path entered by Fanon was not seriously pursued either by European psychologists or by Arab intellectuals in a way that would have permitted a precise evaluation of the complex consequences of traumatic colonisation in the decisive phase of post-colonial independence and the rapid establishment of dictatorships and new oppressive systems, as for example in Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, or Syria.

Instead, alongside the post-traumatic repercussions of the Shoah, international trauma research focussed primarily on American Vietnam veterans and, more recently, 9/11 (with the exceptions of South Africa and Rwanda, frequently mentioned as non-European reference points) – as if only the traumata of ′white people′ around the world were worthy of investigation.

In recent years, the call for a ″decolonisation of trauma studies″, a term coined by Michael Rothberg, became louder. Jose Brunner, for instance, gives a description of a traumatic situation similar to that given by Frantz Fanon more than fifty years later in his monograph ″Politik des Traumas″ (The Politics of Trauma).

Referring to work done by Palestinian psychologists, he writes: ″The occupation itself has mutated into an active, permanent and all-embracing stressor whose inescapable violence permanently traumatises the Palestinian population.″ From this perspective, post-colonial ought to be partly replaced by colonial. And as in the Palestinian case as well as in many Arab and other post-colonial societies, a recovery from a violent past is prevented by continuous cultural, economic and political interference from outside.

State of emergency as normality

Trauma can thus no longer be viewed today as a single event. In many societies in the Middle East and in other regions too, it must be seen as a state of emergency which has become normality. A definition of collective trauma could be formulated as follows: if a considerable number of individuals (and families) within a society are traumatised, this can lead to initially imperceptible, suppressed or ignored disturbances, to changes in behaviour and attitudes, which become the social norm and for a long time prevent the affected society from recovering a kind of equilibrium, even though the traumatising sources and causes do no longer exist.

All possible means must be deployed to resolve this situation, in order to bring healing and an end to violence. This urgent demand has been a common motif in contemporary Arab poetry of exile since the 1980s, especially in that of writers from Iraq and Palestine. Not only psychological research into trauma and socio-psychological perspectives but also Arab literature, art and cultural scholarship, with its work of interpreting and creating understanding, are faced with the task of throwing light on the concealed and not easily accessible mechanisms, forms of expression and consequences of trauma.

The role of literature

Modern Arab literature has since long taken up two of Fanon′s concerns: the problem of the disintegration of identity as the result of external intervention and the mechanisms of dehumanisation by repressive political systems together with possibilities of recovery by way of literary expression.

However, unlike in European, American and Israeli literature and scholarship, trauma (usually translated into Arabic as sadma nafsiyya) has scarcely been an object of immediate interest up to now, even though in the second half of the twentieth century some poets such as Mahmoud Darwish (Palestine) and Saadi Yusuf (Iraq), as well as writers like Sonallah Ibrahim (Egypt), Ghassan Kanafani (Palestine) and Elias Khoury (Lebanon) took this as a leading theme and basis for artistic narrative and metaphor. That has conspicuously changed in recent years – certainly driven by the ′memory boom′ in international scholarship, but also because of the violence afflicting the region, such as in Gaza for instance.

For over two decades now, more and more prose texts, poetry and plays by male and female authors from various Arab countries have been part of a trend towards combining documentation and fiction. They refer to traumatic events or everyday circumstances and find convincing narrative expression for this. (This also applies to Arabic cinematic output, with films such as "Atlal" by Ghassan Salhab or "Underexposure" by Oday Rasheed.)

This new Arab literature of trauma instigates reflection about appropriate possibilities for literary writing during and after human catastrophes and under traumatic living conditions (and the difficulty of depicting and narrating these adequately), thereby both raising the issue of literary texts′ referentiality in the context of modernism and its collateral damage, while at the same time challenging the West′s position of hegemony.

Syria as exemplification

At the centre of the novel Hurras al-hawa′ (Guardians of the Air – 2009) by the Syrian writer Rosa Yassin Hassan, born in Damascus in 1974, is Anat Ismail, who works for the Canadian embassy as an interpreter in interviews with traumatised asylum-seekers from various Middle Eastern and North African countries.

Years earlier she had met Jawad, a leftist opposition activist. They had only just become a couple when he was arrested and, as a political prisoner, vanished into Syrian jails for fifteen years. After his release it soon becomes clear to them both that the period of separation has left profound wounds. Fatefully, the couple find themselves unable to speak about these changes and the new needs they have as a result. Jawad increasingly withdraws into himself and one day he decides to migrate to Sweden, confronting his wife with a difficult choice. Either she comes with him to Europe and becomes an asylum-seeker herself, or she stays behind on her own. Anat decides to remain with her father, who has a heart condition and in the night of her husband′s departure she becomes pregnant. During the months of her pregnancy she recalls key events in her life, tells her family story, especially that of her father and of her mother, who, confined against her wishes in an intensive care unit, dies an inhumane death as a result of cancer. Anat also recollects what happened to other couples, friends who similarly came to grief as a result of the invisible consequences of political detention, brutal torture and years of separation. Increasingly solitary, she gives birth the day her father has a third heart attack. His fate and the future of the other main characters are left open and the novel ends with the young mother sinking into a deep sleep where all her worries and anxieties are, for the moment, relieved.

As in several other recent Arab prose texts (for instance, Hassan Blasim′s story ′Documentation and Reality′, al-Arshif wal-waqi′), the deathlike state of sleep – and thus a short-lived forgetting – becomes the last remaining means of healing and a way out of an agonising reality. Like her Canadian superior, Jonathan, who essentially makes the decisions about the asylum applications, Anat′s work makes her a witness to numerous accounts of the individual suffering experienced by refugees from the Mashriq and North Africa, victims of dictatorship, civil war and rape.

In this setting the author succeeds in weaving into the narrative various stories of trauma as a reminder of invisibility and ′silencing′, so as to describe as tangibly as possible the consequences for those affected.

"Les Gardiens de l'air" (Guardians of the Air) by Rosa Yassin Hassan (published by Sindbad)
A cycle of terrorism and violence: although Hassan‘s novel was published before the Syrian civil war broke out, it demonstrates impressively what people go through who fall foul of a repressive political system, either in the form of lengthy prison sentences or as asylum seekers holed up in an embassy, with vague hopes of freedom and a new beginning

Soon, however, the young interpreter, excessively preoccupied with the feelings and affects triggered both by her own story and by the traumas of others, can no longer cope with the challenges of her work. She senses how the boundaries separating her from the refugees′ stories are becoming increasingly blurred, with their traumas duplicated in her own existence, as the world is transformed into ″one great torture chamber″.

The last interview described in the novel – with Fathia, a proud and attractive Iraqi Kurd – sparks off in the young, overwhelmed interpreter an inextricable amalgam of admiration, hatred and feelings of inferiority, which in psychoanalyst terms could probably be called a form of ′counter-transference′ and which ultimately leads Anat to hand in her resignation.

This secondary traumatisation leads to assistants or other helpers in such situations being no longer capable of coping with their own problems when the feelings of the traumatised become, as it were, ′contagious′. Towards the end of the novel Anat′s Canadian superior Jonathan admits to her that ′he will never forget what he has experienced here; he will never be able to get over this bitter experience. He may well have to go to a psychologist for the rest of his life in order to feel somewhat safe again.′

As far as I know, Rosa Yassin Hassan is among the few Arab novelists in using knowledge of psychological trauma and incorporating it into the narrative – albeit sometimes a little schematically. Interestingly, however, the author avoids ascribing explicitly traumatic symptoms to the Syrian characters in her book.

That becomes particularly clear in Anat′s retelling of her family story, which is full of potentially traumatic events (too early marriage for her mother Jamila, early death for her sister Saniya and the suicide of her daughter Sabah), but these are not viewed as traumatising in the same way as refugees′ experiences. Nevertheless, these events in the lives of family members exert a lasting but invisible and uncomprehended impact.

Breakdown of normality

The novel Hurrās al-hawā′ is not just to be read as a settling of accounts with the politically-generated conditions of life in Syria and the oppressive dominance of the Ba′ath Party. The fact that the protagonist can no longer master her task of mediating the traumas of refugees from Iraq, Sudan and other countries from the region, because the shocks and burdens in her own life exceed the limits of her capacity to cope, finally leads to a breakdown of the always precarious but hitherto maintained dividing-line between Syrian ′normality′ and traumatic circumstances in the Mashriq and North Africa.

Through the interviews the interpreter becomes increasingly aware that invisible wounds to the psyche are not officially recognised, neither in the case of the Syrian wives of political prisoners nor that of traumatised refugees who must demonstrate external, visible bodily harm in order to be granted official asylum.

′Bodily symptoms were constantly described in medical reports by expert witnesses. […] However there were also many refugees who had been mutilated, their innards torn and their psyches profoundly damaged without any kind of trace being left on their bodies. Their chances of asylum were thus greatly reduced. Everything they recounted was from the start shadowed with doubt. […] The problem is that we are only convinced of misfortune if it has left bodily traces. […] But who asks about the psychological wounds many women like myself have suffered?′

According to my interpretation of the novel, it is not these visible wounds that play the decisive part in the breakdown of relationships, in people whose existence and human worth is called in question and who struggle hard, after a period of imprisonment or illness, to find their way back into life. The continuation of violence and further damage appear to shape more likely the future than overcoming the vicious circle of violence and recovery.

Written in 2009, this novel seems to be a sombre presentiment of the events that got under way in 2011 when the Ba′ath regime staked its survival on an escalation of violence, taking Syria into war and a catastrophic refugee crisis. A land which itself once took in refugees has become the country with the largest number of refugees in the world. That current development has already been described by Rosa Yassin Hassan in a new novel, Alladhina massahum as-sihr [Those Touched by Magic], published in summer 2014 by Riyad El Rayyes (Beirut).

The psychological impact of decades of Assad′s dictatorship and the brutal suppression of the Syrian revolution must be comprehended on both the social and the individual level if new, disastrous developments are to be avoided.

In an interview with Dima Wannous, the author expresses concern about the current situation, which already carries the seed of more destruction: ′What truly fills me with anxiety is the fact that all this death has become a normal daily occurrence and thus seems acceptable and legitimate. […] All this killing in Syria has so intensified the hatred in people′s hearts that it will not easily be made to disappear again.′

Stephan Milich

© Fikrun wa Fann 2015

Translated from the German by Tim Nevill

Stephan Milich is an Arabist at Cologne University. His work focuses on modern Arab literature and poetry.