Ghosts of conflicts past, present and future

By Khaled Diab

With all the wars and conflicts raging in the , collective trauma carries very serious consequences for the region.

Thursday 3 September 2015

It is well-known that traumatic experiences leave lifelong emotional and psychological scars in their wake. Some scientists even suggest that trauma causes genetic changes in the victim. A contentious new study goes so far as to imply that these genetic mutations can be passed down from one generation to the next, making trauma hereditary.

The researchers focused on 32 Holocaust survivors and their offspring, finding evidence of the “epigenetic inheritance” of stress. “The gene changes in the children could only be attributed to Holocaust exposure in the parents,” said Rachel Yehuda, who led the study.

While some scientists have applauded the research, others have greeted it with scepticism. “The very idea of transmitting trauma makes little sense,” writes Frank Fureidi, a sociologist and author. “People either directly experience trauma or they don't.”

Even if genetic change is hereditary, this is largely irrelevant, Fureidi argues, because people are far more than their genes. “Identity formation is a cultural accomplishment,” he observes.

Whether or not severe trauma is genetically transmitted is a fascinating scientific question, but an issue which affects the individuals in question. However, what seems clear is that collective trauma is transmitted culturally and profoundly affects a society's cultural and social DNA.

Nearly seven decades on, the Holocaust still casts a long shadow over the Jewish and Israeli collective psyche and its trauma is scorched deep into Israel's national identity – even if its is abused by one side for political gain and downplayed by the other due to political pain.

In the early years, the Holocaust was a cause of direct and profound trauma and for the survivors of the death camps and those who came into contact with them, but it was also a taboo subject enveloped in silence. As the survivors gradually die out, their place is being taken by the ghost of traumas past, i.e. memory.

This historical trauma is behind what you might call Israel's power dysmorphia: despite possessing the most powerful army in the region, many Israelis do genuinely believe that they are the weaker party and the victims.

Meanwhile, Israel's victims, the Palestinians, have their own historical trauma to contend with, that of the Nakba (“Catastrophe”), the Arab defeat in 1948 and the creation of the new state of Israel, not to mention the British and Ottoman imperialism which preceded it. As most Palestinians at the time were farmers, the land assumed romantic proportions. “As the women walked back with the oranges, the sound of their sobs reached us,” wrote the celebrated Palestinian writer and activist Ghassan Kanafani in his classic 1958 collection of short stories, Land of the Sad Oranges. “Only then did oranges seem to me something dear.”

And as that land has shrunk, and defeat has pursued defeat, and begot further exile, the collective trauma has only been magnified with the years, especially in Gaza, where constant and repeated war and isolation have left most of the population shell-shocked and teetering on the edge of psychological collapse.

And like a phantom in the dark recesses, these historical and contemporary traumas are a significant psychological factor in the failure of efforts to resolve the conflict – as they are and have been elsewhere. For instance, a century after the systematic Ottoman mass killings of up to 1.5 million civilians brought the Armenian people close to extinction, the collective trauma is a defining feature of the modern Armenian identity. Moreover, Turko-Armenian relations are still poisoned by Turkey's refusal to acknowledge, let alone apologise for, what the majority of non-Turkish historians regard as a genocide.

Sadly, in the Middle East, collective trauma is not just historical. The upheavals, wars and conflicts that have spread like wildfire over the past few years do not bode well for the .

In , like Iraq before it, the has distressed the entire population and created a lost generation of children whose trauma is likely to shape their entire lives. Long-term effects include the potential of violent behaviour, hooliganism, drug abuse, and health problems. Severe trauma is also fertile ground for extremism because it answers the basic human need to “make sense of a very nonsensical situation”.

This nonsensical situation has even awakened dormant traumas and grievances and let the genie of Syria's “hidden sectarianism” out of the bottle. Islamists have the trauma of Hafez al-Assad's purge of the Muslim Brotherhood and the 1982 Hama massacre to fuel their rage.

Alawites, though the bulk of them are poor and are no great fans of the regime, have been manipulated by Bashar al-Assad, who exploits their memories of persecution in Ottoman times and the fact that Islamists consider them “infidels”, to lay down the lives of up to a third of their young men.

Trauma is also haunting that are not experiencing civil war, but have gone through revolutions and counterrevolutions and anti-revolutions. This is the case in . “The shock and awareness of the pervasiveness of death and the cheapness of life… raises massive existential questions that not only throws the personal, but also the previously existing social order, upside down,” explains the University of Amsterdam's Vivienne Matthies-Boon, who is studying the effects of trauma on 18-35-year-old Egyptian activists of all political stripes.

“Revenge was a big issue for all sides,” she adds ominously. “But trauma-induced revenge also leads to more trauma.”

Matthies-Boon has found that those who were best able to avoid (self-)destructive behaviour where the ones with an artistic outlet or a strong faith system. But, worryingly, Egyptians who have been through such traumatic experiences receive little support and many are, Matthies-Boon discovered, reluctant to talk about their trauma, which is an essential part of coming to terms with it.

What the long-term consequences of millions of traumatised people will be for the region is impossible to gauge. But handled inadequately, it could take generations to overcome and could also create untold intractable situations and conflicts.

We need desperately to find ways not only to treat the millions of individual cases but also to formulate effective approaches to tackle collective trauma, with its memory- and emotion-distorting outcomes.

The future Middle East should remember. But it must build a memory based on fact and reality, to ensure this sorry state doesn't occur again, not on national, sectarian and factional myths. While forgetting is not a wise game, forgiving past pain for future gain is essential if fruitful coexistence and a modicum of trust between the region's diverse peoples is ever to be restored.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 27 August 2015.


  • Khaled Diab

    Khaled Diab is an award-winning journalist, blogger and writer who has been based in Tunis, Jerusalem, Brussels, Geneva and Cairo. Khaled also gives talks and is regularly interviewed by the print and audiovisual media. Khaled Diab is the author of two books: Islam for the Politically Incorrect (2017) and Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land (2014). In 2014, the Anna Lindh Foundation awarded Khaled its Mediterranean Journalist Award in the press category. This website, The Chronikler, won the 2012 Best of the Blogs (BOBs) for the best English-language blog. Khaled was longlisted for the Orwell journalism prize in 2020. In addition, Khaled works as communications director for an environmental NGO based in Brussels. He has also worked as a communications consultant to intergovernmental organisations, such as the EU and the UN, as well as civil society. Khaled lives with his beautiful and brilliant wife, Katleen, who works in humanitarian aid. The foursome is completed by Iskander, their smart, creative and artistic son, and Sky, their mischievous and footballing cat. Egyptian by birth, Khaled's life has been divided between the Middle East and Europe. He grew up in Egypt and the UK, and has lived in Belgium, on and off, since 2001. He holds dual Egyptian-Belgian nationality.

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