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Friday, March 18, 2005


Suicide in Palestine: Narratives of Despair

28 February 2005

Here is my translation of a book review written in German about Nadia Dabbagh's Suicide in Palestine, Narratives of Despair.

A question of honor: Suicide bombers in Palestine are heroes, suicide for personal reasons remains a taboo. Nadja Hahn interviewed the book's author Nadia Dabbagh.

Aisha was twenty-eight, when she took an overdose of pills. She had been raped by her brother for years and had already two broken marriages behind her. Her first husband had cheated on her and the second beat her. She decided to attack an Israeli female soldier with a razor blade. The blade was dull because Aisha didn't seriously want to hurt the woman. But the single sanctuary from her every day hell appeared to be prison. "I was immediately arrested and spent one year and eight months in prison. At the beginning it was difficult, but I could rest. It was better than outside. I would prefer to go back," said Aisha after her suicide attempt.

Israeli soldiers beat Abid so much when he was a teenager that epileptic fits were brought on. This made him unemployable. Without income there was no chance for marriage and children. "A man without work when he is still young takes money from his brother and doesn't have his own house; therefore can't live with a wife. That is no small thing. I am tired," said the twenty-four year old after he attempted suicide by overdose. His greatest wish, "If they would only arrest me and I could spend my life in prison, like my brother. That would be more honorable for me than to sit in the house."

Nadia Dabbagh tells stories like this in her first book published in London, Suicide in Palestine: Narratives of Despair. The daughter of a Palestinian refugee and a British citizen spent two years in Ramallah and Jenin during the course of her study of medicine at University College London, in an undertaking to tell about the effects of almost forty years of conflict with Israel on the mental health of the Palestinians. The book, on which her doctoral dissertation is based, is the first academic study of suicide in the Arabic world.

The author is not interested in the Intifada's many suicide bombers who resist the Israeli occupation; they gave their lives to attract the attention of the media, but in the people like Aisha and Abid, who want to take their lives for entirely private reasons.

"The stories of the women and men, whose suicide attempts that I looked into, tell about the stark reality of life in the occupied territories," says the young woman. "Their fate gives us a view in the possible seeds of the motivation in the heads of many suicides."

In detail she explains the difference between suicide and martyrdom in the interpretation of the important holy scriptures of Islam, the Koran and the Hadith. Anchored in modern Islamic thought: Who for the Holy War and the goal of the community dies, will attain Martyr status in Paradise. But who commits suicide because of the despairs of daily life, commits a great sin in Islam and brings shame to the entire family.

About three million Palestinians live in a narrow space; their freedom of movement is restricted. According to the Worldbank in 2004 half of the people live below the poverty level and a quarter are unemployed. In the past four years the average income sunk by one-third. Society provides no ear for those who succumb to the emotional stress that exists in such an extreme situation. In Ramallah, a city of 280,000 at the time of Dabbagh's inquiry were only two Psychiatrists.

Dabbagh was in the occupied territories between 1997 and 1999. After the Oslo Accords ended the 1991 Intifada, many Palestinians were employed by Yassir Arafat to administer the Palestine National Authority. These poeple, who returned to Palestine after Oslo, did not experience the Intifada, yet received the best jobs and enriched themselves through corruption. Because of that the hopes of improving their lives sank, say Dabbagh's patients.

As soon as they came to speak about the Intifada, several patients' eyes lit up, remembers the author. Many had fought during the intifada and spent some time in jail. In resistance they felt united through a common goal. When one travelled through the occupied territories one had the impression one was meeting many heros. "In hard times the people direct themselves to their hard side. If one finds oneself in war, one is not allowed to despair, one must fight."

Dabbagh's conversations with the 31 women and men that she interviewed after their suicide attempts, give a glimpse into the value system of Palestinian society. "Men can not fulfill their roles as men in society. As fighters and martyrs they receive recognition," concludes Dabbagh.

The meticculous academic records and Dabbagh's efforts to acquire suicide statistics form the slowest part of the book. More engrossing are the numbers, that she concludes describe the insufficient circumstance of public institutions in the Palestinian territories. Surprisingly entertaining are the adventures that she experienced to get information on the taboo subject of suicide--in hospitals, from practicing doctors, police stations and district medical officers.

Today, Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas have signed a new ceasefire agreement, which will possibly end the four year intifada. The challenge is now to use Dabbagh's investigative information to build Palestinian society again.

"One has to think about, where the next jobs will come and how the public institutions can be built rapidly. It is important, to educate social workers, nurses and doctors in psychology." This will help to give peace a realistic chance.

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