Trauma, Memory, and Identity in Contemporary English Literature Essay

Thesis Statement
The purpose of this thesis is to investigate the consequences of being Palestinian during the conflict that has taken place there since 1948. The trauma of living in such extreme circumstances has led to suffering and trauma for many Palestinians. Authors who lived through the conflict have channeled their pain into works based around the incidents they witnessed. So, this paper will investigate the human trauma that results from living in a war-torn country and the way this alters lives forever. The paper will analyses the trauma evident in various works of fiction which rely heavily on experience for their content. It also aims to dissect the identity of those who live as Palestinians, whether in their homeland or forced to live elsewhere.

There is a plethora of relevant literature based around the conflict in Palestine. Novels abound from authors who have firsthand experience of life in Palestine and they have used this experience to convey the challenges that inhabitants face as they attempt to live a normal life in an abnormal environment.

From studying that literature and researching the effects of trauma on human beings who live through extraordinary violence and restrictions. This information will be related to the works of fiction to extrapolate the consistencies between the representations in the novels and the research of scientists and psychologists.

Literature Review
There is much fiction written about the trauma and memory of such in relation to the Palestinian conflict since 1948. The novels are raw and provoke intense emotions as the reader understands the difficulties associated with life in a war zone, particularly from the perspective of children and families. This paper focuses on four novels based in Palestine written by British authors and uses professional psychiatric research to relate to themes in each work.

The first novel to be examined is Out of It by Selma Dabbagh. In Out of It, Selma Dabbagh recounts the experience of a family living in Gaza. Trauma is everywhere in the novel. The seige situation and the survelliance of the family are reminders of how difficult and challenging life can be for those living in what is essentailly a war zone. The story centres around Sabri, who is confined to a wheelchair as a result of the conflict, as his car exploded. His twin brother and sister deal with their living conditions in very different ways. Rashid seeks distraction through drugs and women, while Iman channels her energy into political activism. Rashid seeks emotional attachment and to find humanity where he can.

The second novel is The Mysterious Disappearance of Mustafa Ouda tells the tale of a boy in Palestine who is searching for his father and who faces his fears to try and find him. He feels that displacement of not having a home, compounded with not having the stable influence of a father in his life. He describes not having his father around as feeling like ‘he had nails running thorugh his heart’ (Masoud, p2) . The book gives a realistic picture of how families are trying to cope with everyday life whilst at the risk of war and death at every turn and how we all want security adn comfort even in such challenging circumstances. Brutal as the novel is, it is almost impossible to imagine the struggle that Omar faces when looking for his father and struggling with his loyalty to his country and the inability to forget where he comes from and that Palestine, with all its issues, is his home.

The third novel is Mornings in Jenin by Susan Abulhawa. The book describes how the women of Palestine hold thier families together despite the challenging surroundings. They hold the family together and the novel presents their view of life within the conflict ridden zone. She describes the checkpoints, the constant threat of violence and presence of soldiers, the poverty and deprivation, yet this becomes normality and the resilience of human beings comes through. The daily losses and threat of attacks take a huge toll on the soul. For a family struggling to stay together, cemented by love, the trauma that this leaves in its wake is not underestimated. ‘They had bombed and burned, killed and maimed, plundered and looted. Now they had come to claim the land’ (Mornings in Jenin p58) . Abulhawa writes poignantly about how the devastation affects those who live through such torment and attempt to pull together the threads of a normal existence. Reflection on what they have endured is painful but inevitable at times: ‘the reverse side of love is unbearable loss’. (Mornings in Jenin p220). Abulhawa’s work describes the resilience of the Palestinian people which comes at a price, they must suppress feelings of vulnerability and pain lest they become overwhelming. The aftermath of such coping mechanisms are often serious mental health implications for those who faced the situation with such stoic heroism.

The final novel is Elizabeth Laird in a Little Piece of Land tells the story from the story of Karim, a boy trying to live a ‘normal’ life in tumultuous Palestine. He takes comfort from football which soothes and comforts him. ‘The rhythm would satisfy and soothe him’ (Laird, 10). He talks of the challenges facing his playing football, soldiers on tanks outside his home. He has the same struggles with his brother as anyone little boy might. His mother still pesters him to do homework while he plays computer games and we get a sense of normality despite the trials outside his front door. Downstairs while Karim is playing his computer game, his father watches a tv report of a funeral of a victim of the Palestinian conflict (Laird, 14). In some ways Karim is grateful for the way the war dominates family conversation and avoids his parents talking about personal issue, but he is outraged when the school is destroyed (Laird, 35). The curfew imposes such restriction on his life and makes time outside reckless and exhilarating. Shortages of food and work make life very difficult. During their journey to the country he must witness his father being humiliated in front of the soldiers where the men are forced to strip and stand in front of the armed guards. The terror of such a situation is not lost on the family and it is only young Sireen who seems oblivious of the danger of the moment (Laird, 46). The memory of such a painful incident as this on the young Karim are almost impossible for us to imagine, however Laird describes the experience for Karim devoid of self-pity or the vulnerability of a young boy, he tries to protect his young sister and feels the humiliation of his father and suppresses hatred for the antagonists.

These novels all convey the difficulties that Palestinians face in their efforts to live in their homeland whilst enduring the horrors of an occupied land. Research from medical professionals indicates that severe trauma in children can have long lasting effects that last for their lifetime. For instance, Cook et al note that children who are exposed to extreme trauma can find it hard to make attachments and Van Den Volk reveals that these problems can be taken through to adulthood (p401). Children and adolescents who experience trauma can exhibit Disorganized Attachment Behaviors in adult life (Cook et al 2005).

Caruth recalls that trauma can affect memory by inducing amnesia or disassociation in adulthood and that there can be an inability to delve into the conscious mind to access the painful memories (1995, 152). It may be impossible for the victim to talk accurately about the experience because the incident has not been cemented in the narrative memory (155). So, the paper will focus on integrating research on the effects of trauma on memory and identity and relate that to the literature based in Palestine.
In the Mysterious Disappearnce of Mustafa Ouda, his deserted son describes his torture: Having to face such adult themes at such a young age, forces him to adopt coping strategies and face emotions and fears that are beyond his young years.on page 2 he says ‘there was so much destruction around me it forced me to grow up much faster’ (Masoud).

Lindemann describes trauma as ‘the sudden, uncontrollable disruption of affiliative bonds’ and affirms that cognitive and emotional responses are adversely affected. Omar is already affected by the trauma of his father’s absence and explains it through the narrative in the novel through the eyes of a child. Van Der Kolk implies that the psychological trauma experienced in childhood might have impacts on adult mental illness (xii). He highlights Freud’s research into adult psychological distress and determines that childhood trauma is a significant trigger (Van Der Kolk, 2003 1). Van Der Kolk also points towards the American Psychiatric Association formulating a new condition when identifying Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. This will also be investigated in the paper (Van Der Kolk 2003, 2).

Van den Kolk stipulates that ‘the trauma dominates the mental life of the victim long after original experience’ (Van Der Kolk 2003, 3) indicating that it impacts on memory in ways that may not be overtly obvious. Even if they are not in the conscious memory, they may be recalled through nightmares or feelings in adulthood. Susan Abulhawa’s novel relates to this theme, in the dramatic trauma felt by the characters, which will live with them and which is demonstrated in the adults who have lived through many years of trauma. Witnessing people dying as they flee from danger is a trauma that the Palestianians in her book experienced and which will haunt their memories if Freud and Van der Kolk’s assertions are correct.

Another theme which pervades Abulhawa’s and Laird’s novels is that of distraction of the mind under traumatic situations. This is evident when Karim focuses on football and when Amal feels no fear in the face of death and focuses instead on the soldier’s face, as he is potentially going to murder her. Many of the characters in the novels describe symtpoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, some of those being anger, anxiety, depression and dissassocation, according to Briere (1996). Evidence of these symptoms can be found in all the novels, and these will be examined in more detail in the paper. Impulsive and self destructive behaviours can aso be exhibited by children who have experienced severe trauma, and evidence of these behaviours will also be examined as well as ongoing behavioural and mental health issues which are an unwelcome consequence of enduring such trauma without a viable outlet for negative emotion. These are the poignant words of Susan Abulhawa: ‘An instant can crush a brain and change the course of life, the course of history’ (Mornings in Jenin P29).
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Works Cited
Abulhawa, Susan. Mornings in Jenin. 2010. Bloomsbury
Briere, John N, Ph.D. Trauma Symptom Checklist for Children (TSCC) 1996
Caruth, Cathy. Trauma. Explorations in Memory 1995. John Hopkins University Press
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Cook, Alexandra, PhD; Spinazzola, Joseph, PhD; Ford, Julian, PhD; Lanktree, Cheryl, PhD; Blaustein, Margaret, PhD; Cloitre, Marylene, PhD; DeRosa, Ruth, PhD; Hubbard, Rebecca, LMFT; Kagan, Richard, PhD; Liautaud, Joan, PsyD; Mallah, Karen, PhD; Olafson, Erna, PhD, PsyD; Van der Kolk, Bessel, MD. Complex Trauma in Children and Adolescents. Psychiatric Annals. 2005;35(5):390-398
Retrieved from:
Douglas, Kate. Contesting Childhood, Autobiography, Trauma and Memory. 2010. Rutgers University Press.
Dabbagh, Selma. Mornings in Jedin. 2010. Bloomsbury.
Fierke, K.M., Memory and Violence in Israeli/Palestine. Human Rights & Human Welfare, 2008 Volume 8.
Retrieved from:
Freud, Anna and Burlingham, Dorothy T., War and Children. 2015. Lulu Press.
Laird, Elizabeth. A Little Piece of Ground. 2003
Lindemann, Erich. Symptomatology and Management of Acute Grief. American Journal of Psychiatry. April 1, 2006. Retrieved from:
Masoud, Ahmed. The Mysterious Disappearnce of Mustafa Ouda.
Van Der Kolk, Bessel A., Psychologial Trauma. 2003. American Psychological Publishing.
Van Der Kolk, Bessel A., The Biological Response to Psychic Trauma. (In Post Traumatic Therapy and Victims of Violence, ed. Frank Ochberg). 2013. Routledge.
Van Der Kolk., Bessel, MD. Developmental Trauma Disorder: Toward a rational diagnosis for children with complex trauma histories. Psychiatric Annals. 2005;35(5):401-408.

Future Reading Bibliography
Antze, Paul and Lambek, Michael. Past Tense. Cultural Essays in Trauma and Memory. 2016 (eBook published). Routledge.
Gertz, Nurith. Palestinian Cinema: Landscape, Trauma and Memory: Landscape, Trauma and Memory. 2008. Edinburgh University Press.
Krystal, Henry M.D., Trauma and Affects. The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child

Volume 33, 1978 – Issue 1. 7 February 2017

Shalhoub-Kevorkian, Nadera. The Political Economy of Children’s Trauma: A Case Study of House Demolition in Palestine. Volume: 19 issue: 3, page(s): 335-342 July 23, 2009;
Thabet, A.A., Tawahina, A.A., El Sarraj, E. et al. Exposure to war trauma and PTSD among parents and children in the Gaza strip. Eur Child Adolesc. Psychiatry (2008) 17: 191.
Williams, Linda and Banyard, Victoria L. Trauma and Memory. 1999. Sage