This is the introduction to my upcoming book to be published mid-2019 that involves creative short-stories based on real events experienced by women at Aida refugee camp, West Bank, Palestine.
It was so exciting, so many various thoughts raced through my mind about the past, present and the future from I have no pads all the way to I can now have children. Only one week before flying out to Tel Aviv and my menstrual cycle finally returned. You may be wondering why I would start on such a personal subject and I can assure you it will make sense when you reach the end of reading this introduction.
For a number of years, I have had FHA stress-induced anovulation and the return after so long was an indication that I was finally improving. It was rare enough having amenorrhea for such a long time and it only proves just how much emotional stress I was under these last few years.
It started when I had a car accident back in 2015 after months of being bullied by a young man at work. I liked him with a gentleness and distant affection as a friend would, so when he mistreated me and did so regularly over the course of our employment together, the emotional effect was catastrophic. One word to describe him? Cruel. He mischievously slandered me, undermined my intelligence and insulted my appearance, but the worst was his continuous use of indirect threats of violence. I came to believe that he may one day attack me or even rape me that I experienced it – in my mind – over and over again as I fearfully re-enacted possible scenarios in order to protect myself from them ever occurring. I would tell myself ‘make sure you don’t come into work early or walk alone, otherwise…’ before a sudden image of him attacking me would take place that I would shake off, or ‘don’t go to the park because he may follow you and…’ leaving me constantly watching my back and afraid.
He initially seemed like an interesting person, intelligent and someone that I could see myself having great conversations with and I guess that is how it starts. When you like someone, you want to imagine having a joke with him or a drink and chatting about things, maybe even a kiss. I was left with those terrible thoughts instead. He was far from gentle and no one wants to be treated by the person that they like in such a way. I had no idea how to respond to his aggression, no idea why anxiety had quaked through my body leaving me sleepless and shaken, and no idea how to control the memories of a difficult childhood that returned to haunt me. To add insult to injury, I wasn’t sure why I liked him; was I drawn to him because he was familiar given that I have previously been treated poorly by the very people that I loved and I was simply accustomed to it, or was there something about him that I felt was genuine?
My mind was in chaos.
Indeed, I grew up being bullied in much the same way by my siblings being the youngest of five children, people whom I loved who also mistreated me that through their constant taunting I spent years believing I was ugly and insignificant. Is there something wrong with me if the people I love treat me so badly? These painful feelings only intensified when he began lurking online by pretending to be other people and that frightened me to such a point that I became paranoid and suspicious even of my friends. I found myself constantly testing everyone who spoke to me to ascertain whether it was them or whether it was him just pretending, and sometimes these tests were so distrustful and provocative that it resulted in the loss of these friendships.
A grown man would surely know that his actions would have this effect and would generate this hurt? Surely he was consciously gaslighting, consciously making an effort to persuade others that I was at fault and saying all the right things so that people will side with him no matter how deceptive, anything to bring him comfort and justify his behaviour? I did not know where I stood with him – a friend, a colleague, someone he liked, someone he hated – that soon enough I became very ill and lost an incredible amount of weight, left with nothing but the residue of such confusing conduct that I ate only fruit and pumpkin soup, comforted by the sweetness and energy it offered. In short, I was miserable and pumpkin brought me the same comfort as alcohol would to a drunkard.
This continued well after the car accident, adding to the PTSD that I developed that heightened my sense of fear. I remember how the hollowness in my chest felt tremendous, a surreal and unbeknownst instability that manifested into a physical nightmare. It felt painful, as though I had a black hole hidden somewhere deep within me that slowly vacuumed that sense of stability and wholeness. So many questions about my childhood, about aloneness and the purpose of my life that curdled the tumultuous waters of this existential storm, soon enough drowning in severe anxiety attacks. I would be in shattering pain for hours on the floor, sometimes unable to breathe and this continued for many weeks until one day during an attack, my face and neck started to feel numb, a debilitating sensation all over my arms and a howling whistle in my ear made me believe as I was slowly losing consciousness that I was surely going to die.
I woke up the next day still in the same position and have never had an anxiety attack – let alone anxiety – again, some incredible physical change occurred that I can only assume God took pity on me, or at least that night something within me dislocated. I was still in emotional turmoil but I could no longer physically feel that black hole, no longer imprisoned by that sensation of horror. The storm had evaporated and I was left with an gaping wound in my chest. Slowly but surely and despite the deep sadness, I was no longer paralysed and could now try to build an identity again after losing everything. I had no material goods or money, no job, no family to support me, all with the echoes of laughter by a cohort of toxic people that I once worked with. It was an injured triptych of mind, body and soul.
I received a small payout for the car accident and at the time I never wanted to drive again, so I used the money to go on a short holiday to the beloved Italy. The scenic landscapes of San Gimignano, the sense of living in a three-dimensional piece of art in Venice, that breath of fresh air near the Dolomite mountains, soon enough that painful hole in my chest was moisturised with a healing ointment as I remembered and experienced something outside of me and these terrible feelings, that there is beauty in this world, that art and creativity is the very thing that stitches up these crushing emotional injuries and bandages the wound. It was an inkling of hope, one step at a time I tried to face up to the hurt, piece by piece I tried to understand these puzzling feelings and emotions, of my family and history, of my present and what the future would look like.
We learn language and how to speak, ideas of good and bad behaviour are embedded into our social environment and our family that most of who we are is conditioned. This is one type of knowledge, something that is ‘given’ to us, but our awareness of certain kinds of truths that tickles our intuitive feelings is directly ‘first-person’ has no language, that we possess a profound, phenomenal type of reason that is beyond the possession of the brain. Something speaking to us through physical or emotional responses. My salivary glands were swelling particularly around my neck, for instance, and despite two biopsies the results were inconclusive and the throat specialists remained baffled. Feelings of depression and anxiety are emotional responses that we experience physically, however it arises because we are telling ourselves something, that we know or understand an actual truth but we are not in possession of the words to adequately explain it even to ourselves.
I was scattered, my confusion and inability to coherently explain my experiences and feelings felt like smoke that I was trying to reach out to and hold. It was there, but ethereal. This was the reason for that sense of loss and it required time to piece together a puzzle that I could temporally regulate into a timeline and articulate into a story. My story. I used writing mostly, sometimes personal and online, sometimes academic, sometimes I would draw and paint through imagery so that I could interpret these visual mediums and try to understand what it meant to me, to give it words that I could now identify and compare to a personal experience that I have had.
It objectified and separated my unexplained emotions into a narrative, raised it from the unconscious to consciousness, used language as a tool to describe and articulate it. I was starting to use my own mind. I was no longer automaton where I thought what I was supposed to think and that these emotional responses were somehow ‘wrong’ or alien to me, but rather these responses were an embodiment of my own individuality trying to reach out to a mind that could not make sense of the experiences. My family, the society that I lived in, other people in general were no longer of central import to my understanding of experience as I became dissatisfied by what I am supposed to feel or think, that I should ‘just forget’ a bad experience, that I should patiently tolerate a ‘good thing’ when I was unhappy with it, to use my mind to meditate the feelings away, take medicine, or simply ‘move on’ from someone I love. I became the central figure in my own story.
This was no easy feat. It is like learning a new language or at least recognising language is just a tool, that we need to transcend our childhood experiences and dislodge from our social connections to begin thinking independently. It is also coming to accept two very discouraging feelings or ‘withdrawal’ during this process. The first is that you become aware that you are alone or at least that you are separate from everyone else that it suddenly dawns on you that you have responsibility for your own decisions. There is an unnerving deceit in society where it congratulates imitation – since we are drawn both to things that are similar to us and to the need to be recognised – and yet pretends to individuality. To feel so alone is, well, at the beginning it is tormenting. The second is that everything you once knew, your ‘identity’ completely collapses and you are left with choice. This is like dying. It is almost preferable to have others think on our behalf.
It was learning how to use my own mind for the first time, to take language and my education to a higher level by discovering my own thoughts and opinions, to be capable of learning right from wrong, and this takes time and a great deal of effort. This is why the wisdom begins to makes sense: “Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.” I became the main protagonist writing her own story.
It took a long time. The process started after I changed my career to youth work after the toxic culture in my previous role. There were women there, Turkish, Assyrian and Chaldean, Polish, Sudanese, women who could see that I was suffering from something despite trying to hide the pain. I found myself running to the bathroom or the room next to my desk and crying, sometimes three to four times a day. I cried in evenings before I went to sleep, when I was walking to the bus or train, in the shower, it was a constant flow of tears that isolated me from others. I knew it was not normal, it was like I was grieving a death as I was trying to come to terms with what had happened me. These supportive women were an important component to my healing, to have that sense of love and acknowledgement from others after the experience of so much hate.
I questioned everything at this point, but central in my thoughts was him and trying to figure out his motivations. I was really scarred by the effect of his indirect threats mostly, the fear that he would attack me repeated so often in my mind that I knew I had to confront it. I had to confront him, to confront that fear in order to overcome it. I saw him and realised what he was. When someone has in them the infectious need to belong, it objectifies people into disposable objects in order to reach that goal, dividing a person into two selves – one false and one real – where he lusted for external validation with such impassioned frenzy that no matter how deceptive his methods, he copied and consumed people around him to create this false persona because he knew others would accept and validate that. This publicity was the only thing that mattered erstwhile who he really was remained hidden behind the shadow of this need. The intensity of his low self-esteem shut off and away the real person that he was.
I had to cut this constant supply of predatory energy that he fed off in order to maintain this faux image of himself, and this angered him. How dare I see through that? How is it possible that I know he is pretending, that I am not attracted to his games that he thinks he is playing so well? It is the same energy that you get from those on a moral high, who think they are morally better only to be told that they did something wrong. The hysteria that follows! I realised that my disdain for his games only strengthened his motivations to anger, so I needed to distil it by playing to his dislikes. I played dumb and he got bored and left, until he disposed of the object.
These delusions of grandeur has saturated society that men and women are now posting selfies while openly calling themselves god, obsessed with material vanities that make an otherwise trivial existence appear worthwhile. It is symbolically Babylonian. It is creating low self-esteem by sowing the seeds of doubt and then using this vulnerability back out and against people and if we are naturally inclined to follow, if thinking independently is indeed so incredibly difficult, what happens then?
I suddenly felt strange realising that he was not what I had hoped he would be, but then I realised that maybe he became an embodiment of society that explained this broader problem. If I gave up on him, then I gave up on hope that things may change or improve. It is capitalism and contemporary society that is breeding this predatory narcissism that undermines the authenticity in our ethical and moral choices and I wanted him to understand this social conditioning, that any suffering of the soul is an indication that our acceptance of this ‘reality’ is wrong and that we needed to challenge that worldview. It became obvious that I would not get through to him as though he intentionally ignored, mocked or misunderstood what I was saying to benefit or sustain this worldview. Some people feel satisfied when the murderer of a loved one is punished, even killed. All I desire above all else is his ability to recognise this problem within himself – to repent – and because he has successfully let go of that need to conform, the monster that was created because of it would die.
I continued my studies completing a Masters in Human Rights Law as a way of consuming my time and energy. Monash University provided me with an opportunity to do an internship in Israel at Tel Aviv University. Israel was an amazing place, the rust-coloured landscape permeated history and I travelled throughout the country from Jerusalem where I found myself travelling on a bus filled with ultra-Orthodox Jews who were kind enough to help me understand the transport system all the way to Eilat where I snorkeled the Red Sea. I watched the sunrise at Masada, wondered through Ein Gedi and was based in the lively Tel Aviv where the seaside was only a walking distance away from my lodgings. The experience really excited me despite the uncomfortable shock at the airport when several times I experienced a thoroughly invasive security screening.
It was a short day tour to Bethlehem, however, that changed me and where I had the opportunity to visit Aida Refugee Camp. This brief visit to the camp was where I encountered the school Alrowwad Centre for Culture and Arts and witnessed how children and women who were suffering some very unfortunate difficulties due to the Israeli occupation in the region were given a chance to express themselves through creative activities and it struck a chord with me. I came back to Melbourne and knew that I needed to be a part of this school somehow and ensure its longevity.
The reason why I mentioned my recent personal history was to explain how difficult it was for me to recover from the pain of having those that I loved or cared for mistreat me, to feel so alone and worthless that I almost died because of it. It was a terrible feeling knowing that I was so alone and I only managed to recover because I had the freedom and financial capacity to travel, to enjoy the creative arts, and to have access to an education. I was physically free from the painful burden of illness because I had easy access to medicine, I was lucky to find satisfying employment where I helped others and worked in a respectful environment. It took several years of continuous writing and clarifying my thoughts, making mistakes and coming to terms with my situation before beginning the process of thinking independently and learning how to find forgiveness. It started because of my realisation that there was beauty in this world amidst all the hatred and terror, germinating hope and after a lengthy process I found peace. I did not give up on love or on hope, and I never will.
I came to see that Palestinians have limited access to education, their movements are restricted and travel almost impossible, living with the constant threat of violence with no access to employment opportunities. How can anyone expect them to find this peace if they have taken away all the opportunities to get them on the path towards it? Some of these children have seen war and extreme forms of violence more than once or have witnessed death without justice. They do not have access to medicine, are confined and restricted both spatially and intellectually, and are repeatedly despised and told that something is wrong with them. They are desperately grasping onto their own identity and self-worth amidst all the continuous attacks made against them. It is intentionally taking away their hope, hope for any chance of success, hope for a future. It is like perpetually living in an anxiety attack.
I changed almost instantly when I left that tour to Bethlehem. He didn’t matter to me anymore. Here I was suffering an overwhelming sense of grief over the most worthless cohort of people when there were so many people living under the most insufferable conditions, women and children who are isolated from any proximity to any dignity. I was determined to give something amidst all of the restrictions and I realised there was one thing that I could give; acknowledgement. I wanted to help narrate their story, to help make sense of their situation, to give them a voice and enable them to recognise that they are not ‘bad’ as they have been told but they are normal people who are experiencing staggering difficulties, on the contrary to give them the acknowledgement and congratulate their resilience.
When my cycle returned I knew that I had finally healed, but I also realised something about myself and what all these years actually meant. The deep and profound sadness, the hardship and all the hostility by those that I cared about, all of it is an attempt to destroy hope. It nearly eradicated what gives substance to life and what makes living so beautiful. Love. It is something that we give and it is born within this hope, sustains it, it is a subjective practice that we share out to all things around us as a reflection of who we are. It is immaterial, self-respecting, virtuous like the principles of moral goodness, and the only mode of being that generates true happiness.
It is a prerogative of mine to be a storyteller and not a political voice, to show the normalcy and the humanity of those that were courageous enough to tell me their story. There is no threshold to our experiences, we each hurt in different ways and find different things important to us. No one has a right to set the rules and tell us that our emotions are not important, that we are not important because of our culture, our religion, or our sex. We are what we are. The women I met at Aida refugee camp don’t need to be told who they are or how they should think. They just need to be listened to and acknowledged for their bravery, for their capacity to remain kind and loving despite the profound difficulties they face, to be admired for their resilience. While it is a long process that requires the right conditions that we need to enable, it can start by sharing the stories of these are women who need to be heard and to experience for themselves that sense of dignity and belonging.
Here are ten stories of women from Aida Refugee Camp.