I remember the situation well. I was in the second grade. The classroom walls were jam-colored, the seats beige. We had just returned from recess, the lights were still off, and my friend Fuad had done something to wrong me.
I’m not sure what he did, but I recall a vague sense of betrayal. It was with hesitation that I pondered ending our friendship. It would’ve been simple. Us seven-year-olds had an idiosyncratic language system for the occasion: you ended a friendship by raising the pinkie to say خاصمتك. Alternatively, you began a friendship by raising the thumb to say صاحبتك. These were the decisive signifiers, sealing or rupturing bonds in that primary school in Amman. The effects were as concrete as they were immediate. We used those fingers like a judge did a gavel.
I eyed Fuad, mulling over the best move. I had to act before the bell rang and class began. I called his name and stood up in my chair. I was about to give him the pinkie and end our friendship then and there. The air was still. The other seven-year-olds turned their heads. I glanced around. The teacher glared impatiently.
Fuad looked back at me, alarm in his eyes. My hesitation intensified: maybe the pinkie would be extreme…Besides, I didn’t want to cause a scene and be bad. Maybe there was something to preserve about my friendship with Fuad. I’d just go halfway, something in the middle between friend and foe, between thumb and pinkie. The middle finger it is.
The teacher shrieked:
“Aziz! What in the world are you doing?”
“What did I do?”
“Shame on you. Where did you learn that?”
“What? It means half- خاصمتك, half- صاحبتك.”
“You know exactly what it means!”
And so, in that middle-class school with middle-class morals, a meddlesome boy raised a little middle finger.
In my moment of inventiveness, my seven-year-old self thought I was setting a sophisticated boundary. But my teacher’s reaction puzzled me. I saw that there was something shameful about my spontaneity, perhaps even about me.
My teacher failed to mentalize me. She reflected to me an image of myself that was jarring, a projection I could not metabolize. It left me with a strange aura: I was shrouded in obscure badness. Here is an adult, far ahead of me in years and wisdom, who knows that there is something unspeakably bad about me and insists that I know it too. A pressure accompanied the aura and hailed me to identify with it, to assume the jarring into my being.
I would become more intimately familiar with this aura over the years. Within my family, I was destined for mischief. Although I redeemed myself by being studious, everyone knew I was up to no good. My aunt said she knew it from the way I observed my surroundings: mischief was in my eyes. I wondered if it was in my brother’s blue eyes, too. It didn’t seem like it. He inherited those eyes from our Slovenian grandmother, and they were adored all around. My amber eyes telegraphed trouble; his blue eyes telegraphed purity. Many nights as an adolescent, I shut my eyelids in intense prayer, asking God to make me look like my brother. To make me good.
But the badness wouldn’t go away; it would be augmented through various consonant dynamics, reproduced relentlessly and pervasively on a broad social level, always seemingly saying something similar: you are trouble; you are a nuisance.
Growing up as a Palestinian in Jordan, I was a nuisance. Not far from our apartment, demonstrations would be held outside the Israeli embassy. The baton-armed Jordanian gendarmerie would act swiftly to repress them, crushing handfuls of skulls in the process.
In the movies I saw and the video games I played, the Arab was the brute to be killed. The news on television routinely showed us dying. In a world that haggled over the value of human life, ours were clearly expendable. In this context, the aura of obscure badness began to contour, and a signifier emerged to clarify the nameless wrong I felt: I must be a terrorist.
In Black Skin White Masks, Frantz Fanon explains that society is structured in such a way as to allow for the achievement of collective catharsis and the channeling of its aggressive impulses. Those positioned to bear the brunt of this aggression are caught in a logjam. The child’s ordinary impulse is to identify with the “good guys,” and in the representations, games, and narratives of the colonizer’s culture, these are invariably the colonizers. Consequently, the colonized children find themselves libidinally turning against themselves.
This is to say, when your world is not good enough, you will be alienated from yourself.
When I traveled to America for the first time in the year preceding Trump’s election, I discovered that the casual question about where I’m from rarely yielded a casual answer. The answer put people at unease. It turned friendly exchanges hostile.
“There’s no such thing as Palestine!” retorted one blue-eyed man, who, after introducing himself as Latvian a minute before, now revealed that he had served in the Israeli military. He was left frenzied on that Manhattan sidewalk, and the history of Palestinian erasure played through my mind. It’s a history of Zionism.
The founding father of Zionism, Theodor Herzl, wrote a letter in 1902 to Cecil Rhodes (one of the most famous colonialists of his time, in whose honor the white-supremacist colony Rhodesia was named):
“You are being invited to help make history. That cannot frighten you, nor can you laugh at it. It is not in your accustomed line: it doesn’t involve Africa, but a piece of Asia Minor; not Englishmen but Jews…How, then, do I happen to turn to you since this is an out-of-the-way matter for you? How indeed? Because it is something colonial.”
In other writings, Herzl revealed the quintessentially colonial binary undergirding his plans for Palestine: “We should there form a portion of a rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism.” And so, recent European Jewish immigrants to Palestine would establish an exclusive Jewish state in a land populated by Arabs. Settler-colonial logic was in order: the natives would have to be eliminated to bring the settler into being.
In 1948, my grandfather was expelled from Palestine along with around 750,000 other Palestinians. His town, Al-Manshiyya, was destroyed along with 530 other towns. Zionist militias forcibly displaced 85 percent of the indigenous Palestinian population from the area that became the state of Israel.
This is the Nakba. It means “catastrophe” in Arabic, and it does not exist in the world’s consciousness. The state of Israel has laws that ban the use of the word from textbooks and prohibit institutions from commemorating the Nakba. The Nakba is not an event in the past. It persists in the ongoing displacement of Palestinians.
As a descendant of refugees, my history is marked by the Nakba. Dispossession is simply an ingredient of my identity. And yet this identity, so saturated with pain, I came to realize is a nuisance to others. Palestinian pain is unacceptable, to say nothing of Palestinian anger.
Two thousand miles away from that Manhattan sidewalk and seven years later, a nursing aide at a New Mexico hospital wanted to know where I was from. I told her I’m Palestinian. Without missing a beat, she immediately asked: “Why do you hate us?”
I was baffled. After speaking to colleagues, I found out that she was neurodivergent. She was simply saying the collectively “quiet part” out loud.
The aura reared its head. Terrorist. Even in scrubs, I cannot be trusted. My pastimes are probably flag-burning and Jew-hating.
Whenever I’m asked where I’m from, irrespective of how unsuspecting and innocuous the interlocutor is, an anxiety arises. It signals danger. It demands I say “Jordan” and make things easier for everyone.
Speaking of Palestine summons a powerful affect. This affect is often defended against through unconscious processes that cast Palestinians as threatening and barbaric and demand they erase themselves. Processes where the externality of the colonial structure enacting Palestinian erasure is encountered in the interiority of the individual.
The demand for Palestinian erasure arises from a larger socio-historical structure, present mentally as a blueprint that maps out people’s presupposed positions in the world. Positions imposed historically through violence and valued differentially according to colonial logics. This map is unconsciously pulled upon to be reproduced externally, in an injurious gesture echoing the original colonial trauma that birthed the world attempting to be reproduced.
Being Palestinian, then, is trouble after all. Our history is not just the Nakba but a long struggle against imperialism and colonialism, predating the Nakba. A Palestinian, as Ghassan Kanafani says, is a cause. A commitment to justice and liberation everywhere.
When your world is not good enough, you will be alienated from yourself. You join the struggle to remake the world, to return to yourself.
- Abdel Aziz Al Bawab, MD, is a psychiatry resident at the University of New Mexico, where he is also the chief resident of psychotherapy. He is a psychodynamically oriented psychiatrist and recipient of the fourth annual Austen Riggs Award for excellence in psychotherapy. His interests include the social unconscious and liberatory approaches to clinical practice.
- In light of the recent changes in the world, Dr Bawab wrote a letter to ROOM readers, which can be found here.
ROOM is entirely dependent upon reader support. Please consider helping ROOM today with a tax deductible donation. Any amount is deeply appreciated.