Cultural PTSD: The Bond That Weaves Us Together
Alexandra Markus was born and raised in Montreal, Canada. She has a bachelor of science in physiology from McGill University and will be starting a master’s degree at Columbia in the fall.
Ryan Bellerose grew up in the far north of Alberta, Canada with no power nor running water. Ryan was unsure if his real name was “Go get water!” or “Go get wood!” In his free time, Ryan plays Canadian Football, reads books, does advocacy work for indigenous people, and does not live in an igloo.
Chloé Valdary is a consultant for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America and a Fellow at the Lawfare Project. She recently graduated with a degree in International Studies Major at the University of New Orleans.
Medea Jaff was born in Iraq, and raised in Ireland and England, U.K. She holds bachelors and masters degrees in Molecular Medical Microbiology from Mustansiriya University in Iraq and the University of Nottingham in the UK, and has done research at University of Nottingham in England.
Four people. Four distinct cultures. Four unique experiences. Yet we share a common thread: we all live through the effects of Cultural PTSD.
My name is Alexandra Markus and I am a Jew. Throughout our 4,000 year history, my people were incessantly oppressed, enslaved, expelled, colonized, slaughtered, and ethnically cleansed. We are a religion, a culture, an ethnicity, and a people. Most of our holidays, including Chanukah, Purim, Passover, Yom Ha’atzmaut, Tisha B’Av, and Sukkot are about giving thanks to God for enabling us to survive all the colonial powers that tried and are trying to kill us. Sometimes it even feels like Judeophobia is part of human DNA – think of any colonial power that existed and you can guarantee that we have been badly abused under their power. Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Babylonians, Arabs, Ottomans, Persians and Europeans are just some of the many examples. In our holy book, the Torah, God says we are the “Chosen People,” but after hearing about our history, many of us wonder why He couldn’t have just chosen someone else.
My name is Ryan Bellerose, and I am a Métis. My people have had several run ins with the government. In the late 1800’s, we fought openly with them twice and continue our struggle for equality in Canada to this day. We have been expelled from our homes, we had our indigenous status questioned and denied and we have been attacked for going against the assimilation policies of the government. My people have been oppressed and marginalised for our entire existence but we chose the infinity symbol as our own because we know we are eternal.
My name is Chloe Valdary, and I am a Black American. Though we have come very far in our struggle for civil rights in America, there are still challenges we face with regards to race relations, poverty, and community development here in the country. For over 200 years, we were enslaved, disenfranchised and marginalized, and legally barred from being integrated within American society.The concept of what freedom truly means has been a hot topic of discussion and debate especially in light of recent developments entailing alleged acts of racially motivated police brutality in Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland. This debate is poised to continue into the near future.
My name is Medea Jaff, and I am Kurdish. The Kurdish nation is known as the largest stateless nation in the world. Our land and people have been divided, becoming part of Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria. The total population of Kurds is close to forty million. Throughout the thousands of years in which we have inhabited our motherland Kurdistan, we have faced a tremendous deal of animosity from neighbouring nations. Acts which range from banning our language, prohibiting the printing of our history, hijacking our traditions, banning the use of the word ‘Kurdish’, obliging us to live on our own land as stateless people (meaning we are not considered citizens of that country, as was the case in Syria), to more physical acts of aggression which include imprisonment, torture, public executions, and ethnic cleansing campaigns.
As you can see, we all share a common bond of having been brutally and continuously oppressed for at least six centuries. We have many things in common, but also many differences, as our experiences, while alike, are distinct. Some of us have suffered chronically: continuously over a long period of time (Jews, Kurds) while others have suffered acutely: the onset of our oppression was sudden, brutal, and caught us by surprise (Métis, African Americans).
In order to understand these differences, we need to understand what PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) is in the first place. In the DSM V, which many consider the “Holy Bible of Psychiatry,” it is characterized by having experienced, witnessed, or heard of a traumatic event happening to either us or someone close to us. Given our ancestry, among Jews, African Americans, Métis, and Kurds, there is pretty much a guarantee that every single one of us is descended from trauma survivors on all sides. The behaviours that manifest from PTSD are the following:
From DSM V:
[The behaviours] are described as re-experiencing, avoidance, negative cognitions and mood, and arousal.
Re-experiencing covers spontaneous memories of the traumatic event, recurrent dreams related to it, flashbacks or other intense or prolonged psychological distress.
Avoidance refers to the persistent effortful avoidance of distressing trauma-related stimuli after the event: Either trauma-related thoughts or feelings or trauma-related external reminders (e.g., people, places, conversations, activities, objects, or situations).
Negative cognitions and mood represents myriad feelings (fear, horror, anger, guilt, shame), from a persistent and distorted sense of blame of self or others, to estrangement from others or markedly diminished interest in activities, to an inability to remember key aspects of the event.
Arousal is marked by aggressive, reckless or self-destructive behavior, sleep disturbances, hyper-vigilance or related problems. The current manual emphasizes the “flight” aspect associated with PTSD; the criteria of DSM-5 also account for the “fight” reaction often seen.
Alexandra Markus (Jews): This symptom manifests itself in many ways, both literally and symbolically. Even my grandparents who didn’t experience the holocaust or pogroms like their ancestors but did experience extreme antisemitism in Catholic Québec, have flashbacks and traumatic memories. My grandfather remembers being known as the strong kid, the one who used to beat up anybody who tried to pick on his Jewish friends (unfortunately a common occurrence). My grandmother remembers signs all over the city that read: No Jews or Dogs Allowed. When I volunteered at a Jewish nursing home in high school, I remember hearing the residents scream in terror while experiencing holocaust flashbacks. One woman, a holocaust survivor who looked to be about in her late 80’s, frequently exclaimed, “my baby died!” before bowing her head, clearly re-experiencing and mourning the loss. As for the symbolic component, this symptom is an integral part of Jewish religion and culture.
Just think of any Jewish holiday: They tried to kill us, they couldn’t, we cry, let’s eat. Every Jewish tradition is centered around remembering our suffering at the hands of some colonial ruler or another. Holocaust remembrance day is a big deal among Jews, as it should be. We should never forget where we came from and what we’ve been through, even though history somehow keeps managing to repeat itself no matter how many times we read the Haggadah or curse Haman during communal readings of Megilat Esther. This tendency to reminisce about our suffering over and over again is a “chronic” coping mechanism, a catharsis that reminds us of what we’ve been through and strengthens our resolve to rise above the hate.
Ryan Bellerose (Métis): I see this in the inherent mistrust that most Indians have for authority. Sadly much of the trauma that our people went through was caused by people in positions of trust and authority: priests, nuns, teachers and principals. It makes it extremely difficult to tell someone to trust when you yourself has trust issues due to family having been heavily abused in residential schools and on reserves. Many Indians, especially Metis, simply cannot trust authority as when we did; it never went well for us.
Chloe Valdary (Black Americans): Though slavery has been abolished, the reality of the history of slavery remains an indelible aspect of our identity as black Americans. The conversations we engage in even today over issues pertinent to our community are almost always discussed with the memory of slavery and it’s affects on our community. For example, the concept of ‘White Privilege’ — which is a recent concept developed in academia — is one that is a product of the history of racism in America. Ironically, the notion of ‘white privilege’ when drawn out to its logical conclusion, posits that latent biases can effectively hinder us from being successful. Yet our people have proved more than once that we can accomplish anything when we put our minds to it — regardless of the obstacles in our way.
Medea Jaff (Kurds): Throughout our existence we have experienced betrayal from many who claimed that they are allies or friends of our nation. These continuous acts of betrayal have instilled in Kurds a sense of suspicion of the intentions of those whom we deal with. This has been so frequent in our history, that we have an old Kurdish proverb that says, ‘No friends but the mountains’. This refers to the mountains in Kurdistan, which have been our refuge for thousands of years.
On a more personal level, every Kurd feels as though we are being interrogated, and could at any moment be taken away to a dungeon, never to be seen again. I remember in an appointment at a government office in Baghdad in Iraq, the ministry officer (an Arab-Iraqi) had my file in his hand, pretending to read the details as if for the first time, he then looked at me and slowly said these words, “So, you are Kurdish”. He said it in cold quizzical tone, dragging his words slowly; I felt that I was going to be arrested at any moment, as many had been before me, for no reason but that of their ethnicity. Another incident that happened to me personally was when visiting the old bazaar in Istanbul-Turkey, after hearing where I’m from one Turkish shopkeeper showed so much hate on his face that I wanted to run away before he decides to hit me.
Like the Jewish people, Kurdish celebrations are themed as a celebration of freedom. During our new year celebrations on the 21 March of every year, re-enactments are performed of the ancient tale of the Kurdish woodcutter who killed a tyrant in those times, bringing peace and freedom to our people. As a people we celebrate life, and regard each day as a precious gift, because we have never forgotten what generations of Kurds before us in the far or recent past have gone through.
Jews: In the Jewish community, here is a huge emphasis on conformity, not simply because we are at our core a collectivist, Middle Eastern culture, but also because we don’t want to stand out, just in case we are considered by others to “stand out in the wrong way.” We are one of the most law-abiding cultures that exists because we are so afraid of drawing negative attention to ourselves and are taught to do whatever authority tells us to do, even if it’s not necessarily what we want to do. The reason for this hypervigilance is that our ancestors learned very quickly that Jewish lives only matter to other Jews, and that we are expected to meet higher standards because people have always been quick to use Jews as scapegoats, whether we did something wrong or not.
Another common mechanism is ghettoization. There are some suburbs in Montreal that are over 90% Jewish, and many Jews have no close non-Jewish friends. It’s not that they’re mean to non-Jews, they just have a hard time allowing them into their inner circle because of our persistent history of betrayal at the hands of non-Jews we thought were loyal friends and neighbors we could trust.
Another manifestation of avoidance is in Israel advocacy. Many advocacy organizations urge us to avoid mentioning the conflict and instead focus on why Israel is basically a paradise on earth for women, gays, food, and the like, worried that any mention of the conflict outside of the Jewish community will attract negative attention that will put targets on our backs. A lot of it is paranoia, the kind of paranoia that only comes from a collective history of trauma and an almost superstitious need to avoid it.
Métis: I see this in the typical Indian method of avoiding conflict. A lot of Indians are very leery of conflict. They know that usually it hasn’t ended well for us. They will actually tell their kids not to stand out in any way because “the highest tree is the one that gets cut down.” If nobody notices us, they won’t try to kill us. We do not tend to involve ourselves in other conflicts as we feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of our own struggles.
Black Americans: We sometimes avoid introspection that is without racial bias. In other words, many of the problems we face in our community — when discussed on a national level — are always framed within in a racialist lens. Crime; Poverty;etc. Everything can be traced invariably back to the ‘White Man.’ Yet this is both false and stifling because we often end up prescribing solutions to problems that do not rectify the situations we find ourselves in. We complain about being held back by societal institutions when often our pseudo-scientific analysis of our problems contribute to them.
Kurds: I believe that the issues we tend to avoid as a culture are all related to sorrow or death. This is partly due to our ancient traditions which focus on embracing life and happiness; and partly due to the effect that sorrow and death have had on us, triggering memories we would rather forget. We suffered greatly from discrimination; in fact we are still suffering from it in most parts of Kurdistan. The only part which has semi-autonomy is southern Kurdistan which has been part of Iraq since 1920; and in this region Kurds have created a safe haven where people of all ethnicities and religions can live in peace and harmony, and enjoy equal civil rights.
Negative Cognitions and Mood
Jews: This particular symptom category manifests in different Jews differently, but in the majority there is a sense of acute awareness of how we are perceived. A lot of the things I discussed above about Jews being hypersensitive to how we are perceived and do whatever they can to keep themselves and other Jews quiet in fear that any noise will make them a moving target relate to this symptom of PTSD (fear, shame).
Most notably, many Jews live in constant fear that people are out to get us. I call it the metaphorical “bomb shelter.” A lot of the stereotypes about Jews keeping to their own kind, which I discussed in the “Avoidance” section, has to do with this huddling together in the “bomb shelter,” perpetually fearful that the coast is not yet clear.
There is also a contingent where self-blame is an issue: where Jews always blame themselves for issues that other people cause. This symptom is endemic in J-Street, a masochistic organization, run by American Jews, that loves to blame Israel, America, and the Jewish people for everything that goes wrong in that region. Self-blame or guilt is especially rampant among young Jewish college students who lean left and have no problems joining the demonizers and internalizing the antisemitism around them because “we Jews must change Israel from within.” Very seldom do you see a left-wing Jewish nonzionist, azionist, or postzionist actually blame Palestinian leaders for the deaths in Operation Protective Edge and prior conflicts: it’s always Israel.
A lot of this inability to recall key features of our history is also due to a lack of cultural awareness that stems from efforts to assimilate and become the “good Jew.” The most damaging oversight frequently observed in Jewish youth is that of the history of Israel and the Jewish State that would vindicate us if only they cared to learn about it. This ignorance and haste to blame themselves is often a coping mechanism. There’s also Jewish Guilt. Need I say more?
Métis: This is a rough one, because it manifests in too many ways for me to list here. It is also important to understand that Indians are not one nation with many tribes. We are many nations with many tribes, so speaking of us a monolith is usually not accurate. So I will concentrate on the main issue that is common with all of our nations – lateral violence. In days past (not that far back), if one Indian committed a violent act on another, it was ignored by the government. This somehow became more acceptable. Indian women are among the most abused population on earth – the levels of physical, mental and sexual abuse are truly staggering. It is difficult however to say anything because often when an Indian speaks out about it, they are not perceived as trying to solve a social ill by identifying it – they are perceived as attacking their own people.
African Americans: We tend to inadvertently internalize victimization. Take for example the First Lady’s recent comments regarding museums and the apparent intimidating effect these museums have on people of color. Mrs. Obama contended that people of color who look like her felt less-than-comfortable in going to these museums; yet such an assertion suggests that we have a collective feeling of a lack of self-worth. Such a sentiment is not something to be lauded but to be corrected. Yet Mrs. Obama spoke about such things as though they were something to be praised. If we are to be empowered, we must be cognizant of all that we are and all that we are capable of achieving. Being intimidated by art — if that is even the case — is a tragedy.
Kurds: One of the effects of being persecuted generation after another by other nations is having a sense of inferiority when facing those nations. As an example, Arabs who work in Kurdish cities are treated with more care and respect than if they were locals. Perhaps this is why I’ve heard many Arabs describe Kurds as naïve or simple. A case of Stockholm Syndrome perhaps? It may probably be just that. The same behaviour is noted in Arabian countries in their dealings with nations that had ruled over them in the past. One of the factors which has led to this sense of inferiority is the emotional attachment that Kurds feel towards the religion they were born into; many times in discussions on preserving the Kurdish language and returning to the use of the Latin alphabet rather than the Arabic one used since Islam became the predominant religion. In these discussions, the religious Kurds tend to prefer Arabic lettering, since it is the alphabet used in the Islamic holy book. So, again it’s back to Stockholm Syndrome, feeling an affinity and familiarity to one’s oppressor. Having said that, it has not made the Kurds less patriotic, in fact we tend to be outspoken and active in defending our nation and way of life.
Jews: Jews are definitely not aggressive or irritable physically in general, although we do have a reputation for sometimes having “chutzpah,” which can roughly translate to “balls” (or ovaries, if that applies to you). Our aggression is often under the table rather than overt, because of Categories B and C. We don’t want to rock the boat, but we have within us an aggressive drive to succeed and do well for ourselves, as a mechanism to hopefully contribute enough to society to become “worthy” enough to avoid getting killed.
This drive is the real Jewish conspiracy – we work our butts off because we know we have a history of needing to work way harder than non-Jews to get to the same place in life, and we got used to it and passed down our work ethic to our kids. That fire in our bellies has contributed to some of the greatest inventions mankind has ever seen, as manifested by a whopping 22% of Nobel Prizes for a people who comprise only 0.18% of the world population.
Hypervigilance is also a huge part of our culture. We have security everywhere, and take it very seriously. I couldn’t even hold a Federation-sponsored Jewish event without them making sure we had appropriate security in place.
Even at the micro-level, Jewish parents are known to be particularly overprotective of their kids. The codependent Jewish mom-Jewish son stereotype might be an exaggeration, but like most stereotypes, it has a grain of truth to it. Okay, maybe a bit more than just a grain. Regardless, that’s why we do so well in school, because our parents don’t give us any other option.
As for the fight or flight response? We Jews are pacifists by nature, we avoid conflict as much as we can, especially with non-Jews (as evidenced by the above examples), so our first impulse is definitely to “flight” rather than “fight” and only fight when we absolutely have no other choice. In Jewish-only circles, however, we tend to feel comfortable enough to “let it all out” and seem to relish lively debate – as the saying goes, two Jews equals three opinions.
Métis: Metis in particular are quite different from many Native peoples – we tended to be more aggressive, less passive and much more likely to attempt to integrate. This may also stem from the fact that many Metis can “pass” especially in today’s multi-ethnic Canada. This gives us an advantage as often we are not visibly different from mainstream Canadians. The residential school experience has affected all Indians and has resulted in parents who generally go one of two ways: the huge helicopter parents who won’t even let their children out of their sight, or the parents who simply do not care or know how to properly care. Metis people have serious community issues but you can see that certain individuals have a powerful drive to succeed. However the sad truth is that many Metis who do succeed often have to leave their homes to do so, and if they return, they do not stay for very long as their drive is often seen as “trying to be white.” It is a truly difficult situation for a bridge people as we are looked at as Indians by white people and as “white Indians” by many Indians.
Black Americans: We are very much vested in protecting our people from the effects of racism, both real and perceived. This is a product of our history of struggle in this country. Indeed, the very idea of ‘struggle’ has come to be identified with ‘being black.’ As a result, we passionately celebrate our own culture and confront any who would treat us as inferiors.
Kurds: Being under constant threat from all sides has given Kurds no time to reflect properly on how past events have affected us. We are still very much in the middle of our age-old struggle; however, one can still identify certain emotions that run deep in the Kurdish psyche. Always on stand-by, we are quick to take action when under threat; sleeping with one eye open, so to speak. In the latest events in the Kurdish regions of both Iraq and Syria, Kurds from all four parts of Kurdistan joined forces to fight the new invaders, the ‘Islamic State’. From teenagers to the elderly, both male and female, everyone headed out to battle. In the sense of ‘Flight’ versus ‘Fight’, I would say that to fight is our first impulse; we turn off all other senses and focus on protecting the people and land that we love. This strong sense of survival has been the reason why we still exist in spite of being surrounded by enemies who have inflicted a great deal of pain on us, and it’s the reason why our language still exists.