The Talking Cure

by Rima Hussein

This work appears in Khabar Keslan Issue 2. PASSAGE

 Original artwork by Leila Peinado.

Original artwork by Leila Peinado.

The search to understand oneself spans generations


I look at my mother’s crying face. The corners of her mouth pull it into a downward-facing moon. Her eyebrows frown. Her face sits atop her small c-shaped body in a recognizable crying pose. She clutches her right arm with her left hand. Her knees are pressed together and her feet point towards the ceiling. I had just asked her a follow-up question about her childhood in colonial Algeria and she had broken into tears. I hadn’t anticipated this. I sat there—awkwardly aping the signs of empathy. I placed my hand on her knee, and she clung to it. Her tears fell aimlessly from her eyes and landed on the top of my hand. At no point did I think that unearthing this story unknown to me would make her cry. But it did. 

My plan had been simple: I wanted a story that had the potential to make me understand myself. After all of these years in which my parents repeated the typical immigrant line that I wouldn’t understand the stories of their past, they had left me in quite a difficult situation: They had taught me behaviors informed by their pasts without telling me these same stories. So, me not knowing these stories, let alone knowing about them, means that my learned reactions to specific situations will have me shooting into a void again and again. If I don’t know what exactly makes me angry about this situation, then my anger becomes irrational to me. 

I have seen endless iterations of this phenomenon in people whose histories are inaccessible to them: either because their family died or abandoned them or they were displaced or sold into slavery; or just because they do not talk to their families; or because they never understood that there is family even in the absence of blood ties. I have seen it in people who simply don’t assume their parents have good reasons for any of their behaviors and in people who—much like me—cannot stand the idea of their parents having been vulnerable, tortured, lonely children at some point. 

It could not enter my mind. It would hurt me beyond measure to think that, at some point, someone had been this cruel to my mama and my baba whom I love with all my heart. After hearing their assertion that I would never understand these stories, I created a comfortable mental image of my parents—neither growing nor changing—and the stories of their pasts became-mysteries.

At some point in my life, my shooting into so many voids created pain and provoked my anger and misunderstanding to an intolerable extent, so I dove into psychoanalysis to cure myself. After having read everything available to me, after having taught an entire class on psychoanalysis, after a long year of trying to fix ‘it,’ I had found myself with no other conclusion than the following: Some of these symptoms were the very real result of inherited trauma. They must be. 

All the stories that I had told myself about myself were laid out in charts, tables, and statistics on my desk in front of me. I had gone all-out crazy on this one. Account after account and narrative after narrative on the same event piled on top of each other in neat plastic Herlitz folders. Thank the Germans for teaching me the filing cure. Numbers, charts, words, maps, all formed an insane-looking pile of material. In the attempt to perfectly balance out the utter randomness of what we remember with the clarity and force of the recurring symptom, I had exhausted myself trying to win this battle for peace, joy, and beauty to determine my life.

On the day that I had decided to interview my parents, I was sitting in a brightly lit but windowless room at the university, looking at some of the data that I had thrown onto a whiteboard. I was looking at a list of symptoms and their traumatic trigger. “That’s a bad theory of causality,” I mumbled to myself, not really knowing what to do about the reductionism of psychoanalysis. Exhausted by the prospect of more metatheory but intrigued by the possibility of putting off the inevitable next step, I contemplated theories of the causality of trauma. “There is no logic to it,” I would tell myself. “The attempt to control is a symptom itself,” I would tell myself. “Fear of the inevitable may be fear of change,” I would tell myself.

I went back to Gayatri Spivak. I thought, “Unearth the unknown narratives.” I thought, “Talk to them.” I thought, “Make them hear it come out of their own mouths.”

I pulled back my hair with my hands and let it spring into my face. “Shitshitshitshit,” I said. I dreaded the moment when I had to move on from assessing which theory made the most sense, to collecting more data. Figuring out whether a Lacanian, a postcolonial or a Marxist account would have more plausible explanations for the trauma was easier, much easier, than starting to conduct interviews. I could find comfort in abstract, politically ambitious theory, but real people would force change on me. It meant that I would start the process; it meant that I might actually change. It meant that I could not fix it, and it meant that I had to let go of the desire to control the situation. This terrified me. But I needed to do it. Shitshitshitshit. 

I pulled my hair out of shape, let it do its thing, and pulled it back again, let it jump to its form and pulled and pulled. I felt the curl-shaping creme coat the tips of my fingers. This hair will not change. Some things will yield and others will subsist. Calm down. Think about rivers, think about machines, think about skin, and make them speak. Make the stick-figure-family in your fantasy come alive. It’s the only way. My finger moved on the whiteboard and erased some of the writing. I drew a line from the top right corner to the third bullet point, which read, “Panic in situations of spatial confinement.” This was a symptom. I took a pen and wrote next to it: “Did you ever panic in confined spaces when you were a child?”

Three months later, I’m sitting with my mother in a small café in Berlin, on a sofa, erratically scribbling notes into my tiny white book, writing down her stories as fast as I can. The beautiful cousin Jahya, colonial Algeria, the word “Aljazair” itself. When my mother quiets down, I look at my prep notes and ask my question, “Did they ever leave you alone when you were little?” And she talks and talks and talks. Her teaching job, her father’s death, her previous boyfriends. 

“Go marry a Jew,” she tells me. An endless stream of words from this mouth that never had to answer to the genuine interest in her story. 

I ask again. “No,” I say, “that’s not what I meant, I meant were you ever locked up? As a kid?” 

She tells me that when she was five years old and attending school in colonial Algeria, one of the French teachers had locked her up for hours in a dark hole by herself.

Her body curves into a small c-shape and tears start flowing from her eyes. She becomes-child. My awkward hand pulls itself away. Her suffering is so genuine; it bothers me. This is one-dimensional, pure, un-ironic pain. I had not anticipated this. I do not want to admit my lack of empathy, but it is hard for me to understand authenticity and I do not like to lie. After all, there’s nothing authentic about me. Born a Palestinian on paper, which, according to the discursive gods that be, is not a real nation to begin with. Born on German land, which, according to the discursive gods that be, not a real German to begin with. Born from an Algerian womb and dropped out of the motherland by decree, which, according to the discursive Gods that be, not a real Algerian to begin with. What do I know about authenticity?

At the end of our meeting, something unlocks. Who knew that the talking cure would work, even when someone else was doing the talking? So, I start diving more into the gaps in narration to find the source code of myself.

Interviewing my father is pleasant. He’s a funny man. He leans toward me with the biggest grin on his face, smiling so widely I can’t help but join in. “You know,” he says, “I saw a man be tied to two cars and then the cars driving off. That’s how they treated us.” I once read in an Elias Khoury novel that Europeans think we Palestinians have been hurt so much, we can’t be human anymore. You know, we’ve been traumatized so much that we can’t even appropriately react to horror anymore. This ‘shattered soul’ kind of bullshit. So, before everyone effortlessly slips into this line of argument, let me just say this: He’s a funny man. His mode is joking. He’s a funny man, not inhuman. 

We sit in the kitchen of my parent’s home in Charlottenburg, Berlin. I stare at the black and white tiles on the floor, trying to regain control of my face. After I reassume a professional shape, I ask him more questions and he draws maps, tells stories, and reconstructs memories. He doesn’t know much about our family’s history before colonization. Nobody seems to. But he sure knows how to confess as if he had jumped straight out of the Victorian age. He says, “I was a bad father.” He says, “I never forgave my father for giving away my sister.” He says, “I just walked out of the camp into the sunny road, I knew they would kill me.” 

Among others, these are the stories he chose to keep from me until I insisted. In the hope that my upbringing in Germany would keep me from the memories that hurt him so much, he will not give details. Not even now. And yet he curls up in front of the television, routinely once every other year or so, to watch bombs drop on our homeland. Not moving, eyes wide open in constant horror. Not moving, not even a bit. 

And yet I do the same. I take a blanket and quit replying to emails, consumed by the wars. Gaza, Iraq, Syria. Guilty to watch, guilty to look away, guilty to survive, guilty to feel well, feeling the same wired fence tightening up around my throat and chest as he does, clutching my right arm with my left hand, clutching my left arm with my right hand, bent over the cool screen of my computer in dread dread dread. “This is the story of my people,” I think as I watch severed heads of Syrians displayed publicly in a Vice News video. Baba loves me, but he doesn’t know I emulate him in my grief. He thinks, “What does she need this for?” He thinks, “She doesn’t need to know any of this.” He thinks, “What is wrong with her?” And believe me, Baba, I wonder, too.

All this information exhausts me. How far into the past, the future, and the present do I have to dig in order to find this thing called ‘myself’? Blood ties are neither beginning nor end of me. I need to dig deeper, look further, find more kin, find different kin. I sit down with Haneen. She is so beautiful, I want to tell her--but before I do, the words stick to the inside of my lower lip. I bite them. 

I ask, “How have you been?” She talks and talks and I talk and talk. Stories rolling off the tip of my tongue like loose pearls.

She says, “The word ‘queer‘ was introduced into Palestine by the Mossad in 2005.”
She says, “We’re queer when we’re working for them.”
She says, “Before this, there were no queer Palestinians.”

And indeed, after some research into the matter, I found that the Israelis have started labeling Palestinians with non-heteronormative sexual behavior “queer” in order to single out the ones who would be easy targets to provide information about Palestinian society. Through my desire, I became-spy. 

My own history is made while I look away. 2005! The never-resting mills of the state produce a self that I have to run run run after if I ever want to catch it. Isn’t it funny how this thing called the self-turned from being the basis of all knowledge to being the unknowable par excellence? We sit in white, wired chairs in a French café in the Village. We sit at a round white table. Her freckles, her gums, the bend of her nose, her pitch-black hair, and her heavy eyelids arrange themselves into the perfect composition that I call “Haneen.”

I say, “Identity politics are dead.”
I say, “I don’t know, I actually don’t.”
I say, “Palestinians hate Palestinians even more than they hate Israelis.” 

She looks at my face. She thinks, “What is wrong with her?”

I pull my hair back and fix it with an elastic band. I look at my notes. I pull the band away and let my hair fall into my face. I wonder, “Why is she hanging out with me?”

I say, “Let’s just hope the next generation will remember our work.” I wonder whether I can ever be free.
I say, “Maybe.”
She says, “What?”
I say, “I was talking to myself.” 


Rima Hussein was born in Berlin and moved to the US because the Nazis there scared her. She now knows that there are Nazis here, too. Bummer.