Letters from Gaza by Hanan Abubashir

Hanan Abubashir is a 22 year old student living and studying psychology in Gaza who has asked for assistance publicizing the following statement. Please share it widely:

November 2018

“Thank God! The child was not with her.” by Hanan Abubashir

At 7:30 am on a Monday morning, I get a call from Zainab, my supervisor, asking me if I still want to join her in facilitating a psychological support group for traumatized women in Rafah – south of the Gaza Strip. I say “yes” – mainly because I am not yet fully awake. Fifteen minutes later I am outside, looking for a driver to Rafah while sending a text message to Zainab to please start the session on her own and I’ll join in the moment I arrive.
Zainab and I provide social and psychological support for women and children in Gaza Strip. The Rafah group, intended for women who feel they are suffering and overwhelmed, is scheduled to meet ten times. Fourteen women have signed up, women whose bodies may be health but whose souls bleed. “It’s hard for people to believe you are not okay when you are physically healthy, they simply don’t see what you mean”.
In 45 min, I enter the room where the group is meeting. Everyone is already there, so I say hello quietly and take a seat. Zainab has put her phone on speaker and everyone is listening to her conversation concerning a participant named Samah (made up name), who cannot make today’s meeting. There is a man on the other side of the line, so I know right away that something is very wrong with Samah – if she were well, she would’ve called herself!
The man tells us everything is alright. He is lying on the hospital bunk bed, we learn, and his wife Samah is on the bed just above his own, recovering from her surgery. I find myself disconnecting emotionally. I am not that curious about that person, I tell myself.
After the call ends, one of the women says angrily, “she should’ve known this was going to happen!” What is it that she might have done that they have no compassion for her, despite her illness? “Remind me to tell you during the break”, Zainab whispers. She then skillfully refocuses everyone by offering water and a 10-minute relaxation exercise.
The time runs fast and before I know it, Zainab is telling me Samah’s story: “ This woman was injured while looking for her husband at the Great March, but what’s different about her is that she wasn’t planning to participate in it. She was there to tell him that his mother passed out and was hospitalized – chances are, she had forgotten to take her medicine. Samah had a 4-week-old son. She packed a bag with everything the baby might need but as she was walking towards the fence, she realized she had forgotten the baby himself! There must have been too much on her mind. She panicked for a moment, trying to remember if she had locked the door. Should she go back at once or continue on her way? She decided to keep walking, planning on asking the first person she met to relay the news of her mother-in-law passing out to her husband, so she could go home immediately.”
As she kept walking, she soon met someone who told her that her husband had been injured. Forgetting everything else, Samah began to look for her husband – but before she found him, she herself was injured!
I was feeling dissociated and confused. How did all this happen??
Zainab somehow manages to maintain a positive view of the situation: thank God, she says, that the child was not with her!
Samah, her husband and his mother were all taken to the same hospital. What happened to the child, I wonder? The neighbors heard him crying, Zainab explains, climbed into the house through the window and took care of him that night.



June 2018

I have always hated crying for help.

You may have read about Gaza’s plight in newspapers or academic articles and you may have heard about the many deprivations we the Palestinians face, like having just four hours of electricity each day, three extraordinarily brutal wars, the almost always closed border crossings and so on and so forth.

We, as humans with the human bodies and feelings, before any kind of divisions human beings may create, are all trying to send a message from inside the box (Gaza) to the humans outside the box. Our signal is intended to be sent everywhere that humans live, it is meant for all who want to listen. I am not worried about whether or not you are receiving accurate information. But what I do truly worry about is whether you people are able to reach the feelings zone, to feel the emotion in our words and be touched emotionally by our incessantly flowing blood. Our actions and responses, personality and memories, anger and impotence are what we are, the conditions of our lives don’t just affect but also build us. How we deal with every single day in our daily life when there’s no war, emergency or crisis (the ordinary days!), like how we move on and rebuild ourselves after crises. I know I am not explaining it well but what is normal for me is what you fear could happen to you in the worst-case scenario, the worst nightmare you can imagine.

Let me see if I can give you a little example. For instance, you are returning happily from a close friend’s wedding and you suddenly hear loud noise. If you are Gazan, you don’t think of the possibility that there may be children playing or fireworks going off somewhere; you think, oh—the war is back.

Another thing I wonder about is our memory: how bad or good is it to be a person holding memories of war? What might it feel like to not have such memories? Can one know anything about war not having experienced one personally? For a good, kind person, is there a connection between war memories and aggressive urges (like the ones Freud wrote about)? Who has stronger desires to hurt others—we who experience war first-hand, or you who watch it on television?

When I am not consumed with these psychological questions, I like to travel in my imagination. I do this every day. I don’t need travel documents in order to be able to do this, nor do I need anyone to open the crossing for me. In my imagination, I can try to live like a normal person—one with dreams and hopes—unaffected by all the mess that has been forced upon me. I escape from dirty roads, tragic events, terrible history and a grim future by hanging out in empty places or by watching movies telling me what young people my age are doing in their lives. Movies show me what it looks like to be a normal person living a normal life and how I could possibly become one.

If I didn’t have my imagination and could not fantasize about my personal future—like the academic courses I am going to take, my career path etc.—I would probably head for the fence, as many have already done.

I just want to take you as a reader to new places hidden away from the reporters’ cameras. I may not be able to explain much but I hope that I managed to drop a few hints that can help open some ears and doors.

March 2019

Palestinian Reality Vs. Stanford Prison Experiment

In 1971, a team of researchers headed by a well-known psychologist by the name of Philip Zimbardo, conducted an experiment in social psychology that came to be known as “The Stanford Prison Experiment”. By means of this experiment, Zimbardo tried to show the darker side of de-individuation – a phenomenon occurs when individuals do not feel that they stand out as individuals, leading to a reduction of inner restraints against doing various prohibitions. In that study, 24 men judged to be physically and mentally stable and mature, were randomly assigned to either the role of “guards” or “prisoners” in a mock prison. Shockingly, it took a very short time for the guards to being stripping the prisoners, using sexual harassment tactics to humiliate them and put bags over their heads. Going to the toilet became a privilege that a guard could grant or deny. The worst abuses were performed at night, when the guards thought they were not being observed by the researchers. Ultimately, one of the “prisoners” felt that the only way for him to get out would be by acting as if he had gone crazy. He began, strategically, to play the role of a crazy person, but soon his craziness, too, became real, as he went into a fit of uncontrollable rage.

From Zimbardo’s view, many factors can lead to de-individuation, diffusion of responsibility being one of the most important ones. Here is some of his commentary about the experiment: “The study makes a very profound point about the power of situations: that situations affect us much more than we think. Human behavior is much more under the control of subtle situational forces – in some cases very trivial ones, like rules, roles, symbols and uniforms – and much less under the control of things like character and personality traits that we ordinarily think of as determining behavior.”

How does this all apply to the Palestinian situation?

Since 1967, Palestine has been known as the West bank and Gaza Strip, while the rest of the country became known as Israel. In 2006/2007, following Israel’s effort to empower Hamas as a way to weaken Fatah, these political parties in Palestine became involved a conflict – “the Fatah-Hamas conflict” that later divided the country into two territories. Hamas took over Gaza and Fatah ruled the West bank. Keep in mind that the people from the two territories were kept from visiting each other by Israel, which also blockaded Gaza.

Now, think of this situation as a kind of experiment, not unlike the Stanford Prison Experiment. As part of our experimental design, there are two separated prisons – “West Bank” and “Gaza”. The role of the guard has been assigned to Fatah in the West bank and to Hamas in Gaza. The prisoners are the people who live in these territories. Although the “prisoners” know that the “guards” are themselves very limited in the power that they are given, they take their authority seriously. Like the guards in Zimbardo’s experiment, the guards perform their worst abuses when they believe that they are not being watched. Meager privileges like jobs and the freedom of self-expression on social media are being manipulated by the guards, and that way the guards manage to convince themselves that they have some power. Astonishingly, the people now playing prisoners and guards are one another’s friends, family members and colleagues, with no prior history of hostility towards each other. All are living under the control of the same occupying power – Israel.

Palestine’s political parties were initially meant to serve the people, but the good feeling of having power, that the party leaders have gotten used to, has turned the situation upside down.

Forgetting that you are no more than a player can lead you to lose the game. Obedience to authority, foolish acceptance of the rules and the fear of punishment have superseded in importance the human principles of decency and solidarity. The party leaders seem to have forgotten that the ideas at the core of their respective parties are more like road signs, for the road whose route has since been revised.

Let me conclude with a quote from a member of the research team that conducted the Stanford Experiment: “They’re supposed to be together as a unit, but here they’re abusing each other because I requested them to, and no one questioned my authority at all, and it really shocked me.”

Hanan Abubashir would welcome emails from friends and colleagues around the world. Her email address is pal.hanan@hotmail.com