A Palestinian woman mourns near the bodies of Palestinians killed in Israeli strikes on houses, at Abu Yousef al-Najjar hospital in Rafah Image Credit: Reuters

What goes on in the collective consciousness of an enslaved, colonised, occupied or otherwise oppressed people’s collective consciousness as they struggle to escape the slave-master’s, the coloniser’s, the occupier’s or any other oppressor’s boot long placed on their neck?

Search me, you say. I haven’t got the foggiest idea, you add, about psychohistory, the discipline that seeks to interpret historical events with the aid of psychological theory. Go ask the victims of such abuse to tell you what the answer is.

OK, I’m one such victim and I’ll tell you — as a Palestinian well over two million of whose people are, as we speak, enduring the most retributive assaults ever inflicted on a human community in modern times, an assault whose orgiastic frenzy shows no sign of let-up, one that has not just reshaped the politics of the broader Middle East and shaken world diplomacy but become an inflection point in history.

So, I’m glad you asked. To know what is going on in that collective consciousness you begin — you must begin — with those catastrophic events in 1948 that led to the dismemberment of Palestine and the dispersal of its people.

And look, Palestinians do not see these events, which they call the Nakba, as a mere passing, albeit tragic, instant in their history, but rather as an epistemic framework through which they judge their condition in the present. The Nakba is a structure, an ongoing process — like the “structural racism” endured by Black folks in America — evidenced daily in the lives they live, whether under occupation or in exile, with the miseries of Gaza as its latest manifestation.

In short, the passions that animated our past continue to impact how we internalise the traumas of our present.

Read more by Fawaz Turki

The past, as the bard put it, is prologue, which stands for the idea that a people’s history sets the context for how these people reflect on their own meaning in the present. In the Manichean divide that separates occupier and occupied in Palestine, the occupier has tried and tried, and then tried some more, to strip Palestinians of their humanity, their agency, their sense of self, till there was nothing left in there that would’ve enabled them to link the actualities of their past to the potentialities of their future.

This is as good a time as any to bring in Frantz Fanon here, who remains as freshly relevant today as he was in the 1960s, and of whom a fascinating and scrupulously researched biography, The Rebel’s Clinic: The Revolutionary Lives of Frantz Fanon, by Adam Shatz, was published earlier this month (though still no match to Irene Gendzier’s 1973 Frantz Fanon: A Critical Study).

Fanon called this process of dehumanisation le processus de chosification, or the process of objectification, that is, the turning of a subjugated people into things, “choses” — or, if you will, in the words of Yoav Gallant, Israel’s defence minister, into “human animals”.

A domain of oppression

The reaction by the victims of this process, according to Fanon, is predictable — they find themselves driven, at one “extreme point”, to see the infliction of “revolutionary violence” on their tormentors as a redemptive act that “cleanses” the victim of his sense of shame, humiliation and inferiority. And, let’s remember, Fanon was a psychiatrist who treated Algerians psychologically maimed by their colonial experience during the Algerian Revolution and thus was familiar with the psychopathology of colonialism as a domain of oppression.

This theoretical view by Fanon, which he advanced in his iconic work, The wretched of the Earth (Les Damnes de la Terre, 1961) was championed by Jean Paul Sartre in a preface he wrote for the book. A lot of public intellectuals, including Hannah Arendt at the time and in later years Edward Said took issue with it, though they seemed to agree with the contention — not exclusively Fanon’s — that the violence committed by the slave to break his chains is of a different order from that committed by the slave-master to subdue him.

The “extreme point” referenced by Fanon comes at that juncture when the oppressed fail in convincing the oppressors that that are deserving of the right to human dignity and agency in their lives, an extreme point where, having failed to persuade by force of logic, they now will persuade by force of arms.

Recall how in 1959, for example, in Guinea, the killing of striking dockworkers by Portuguese police had persuaded the poet and activist Amilcar Cabral to abandon diplomatic negotiations and embrace guerrilla warfare. The following year, Nelson Mandela, a disciple of Gandhi, led the African National Congress into armed struggle in response to a massacre of Black South Africans in Sharpville by the apartheid regime.

These revolutionaries posited their revolutionary violence as a kind of therapy, an antidote, as it were, to the poison secreted into their veins by those who chose to reduce their humanity to a fragment.

“As you and your fellowmen are cut down like dogs”, Mandela wrote at the time, addressing his people after the massacre who were abjectly living under apartheid, “there’s no other solution but to adopt every means available to re-establish your weight as human beings”.

In Palestine occupation is a sonorously sordid word that spans a whole gamut of villainy, yet that villainy is but a mere interlude in that saga we call the Nakba, a saga that tells of three generations of Palestinians who went from childhood to ripe consciousness as a deracinated people living in exile or as a subjugated people living with boots over their necks — and in Gaza today with 2,000-pound “bunker-buster” bombs dropped on their heads.

This ongoing saga we call the Nakba is the landmark, the epistemic framework, I say, by which our culture, our habit of spirit and our conjectures on meaning find their bearings.

It is a landmark anchored in the belief, central in our Holy Texts, that for every oppressor a day will come.

— Fawaz Turki is a noted academic, journalist and author based in Washington DC. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile