Monthly Archives: April 2012

Desensitizing Oneself as a Defense Mechanism against the Cruel Realities of War

Humans deal with traumatic events in their lives in all sorts of ways. The ways people use to “deal” with these events are called defense mechanisms. In The Day Nina Simone Stopped Singing, the main character, Darina, uses a defense mechanism of desensitization to emotionally survive the war in Lebanon.  Desensitizing oneself means to “extinguish an emotional response to stimuli that formerly induced it” (“desensitize”). Examples of Darina’s numbed emotions are shown many times throughout the novel. It becomes very prominent when she discusses her sex life, childhood punishments, the death of friends and family, and during a game of Russian Roulette.

                Darina discusses tragic events in her book in a very matter-of-fact manner. She allows herself no self-pity and hardly discloses her feelings towards any specific occasion. The way she describes situations in her book makes it seem as though she has no emotions at all regarding the subject. For instance, when Darina was locked up in the cell with rats for the second time she wrote about the ordeal almost indifferently. She wrote, “She stopped my ears up with Laughing Cow cheese and then locked me up in the cell with the rats, where I spent many hours. Only this time I didn’t expect Jesus Christ to arrive” (Ch. 5). There was no offering of her feelings as a child locked up in a cell expecting rats to eat at her ears. One could almost imagine the shrug of triviality the author would bestow upon this traumatic event. 

                Emotion is also absent when the author writes about her sex life, which is otherwise described in great detail. Darina described the time when she broke her own hymen with great detail pertaining to what she did but stopped right after and switched the subject to the war without a word of her feelings towards her “loss of virginity” (Ch. 17). When she discussed her multiple sexual encounters, she did so very nonchalantly. According to Darina, she “made love like a mad women, with anyone anywhere…with brutality that left no room for desire and even less for feeling” (Ch. 18). In the previous passage she admitted her lack of feelings towards her sex life. Around this same time, Darina briefly mentions having to identify the remains of her close peers and family almost every single week. She described the hospital as “the place to go meet everyone” and that it “had replaced the village square” (Ch. 17). Her only mention of how this affected her was by saying that the frequent trips to the morgue inspired a great desire for sex (Ch. 17). Not only did she have to identify remains of her friends and family, but she also witnessed one of her friends kill himself.

                Darina’s friend, Ramzi, and Darina were playing Russian Roulette one night after having snorted multiple doses of cocaine throughout the day. Ramzi started a singing a song and pulled the trigger in the middle of the song. His voice was cut off by his own death from the bullet. Darina wrote that “his brains spurted out on my hair. Crumpled in his corner, Hussein was shrieking at the top of his lungs. I picked up the song where Ramzi had left off” (Ch. 19). Once again, she ended her story after the description of events without even giving the reader a glimpse into her feelings towards having her friend’s brain spurt out on her. Sometimes, the only way one can get through tragedy is to pretend that it does not affect oneself.  Darina taught herself to erase emotion when going through a traumatic event. The desensitization was a way for her to continue to hold herself together while everything around her was being torn apart by war.

A Comparison between Political and Baha’i Prisoners during the Iranian Revolution

During the Iranian revolution, people were imprisoned for a number of reasons such as communism, treason, supporting the old regime and even for religion. Dalia Sofer’s, Septembers of Shiraz, focuses on a Jewish man, Isaac, who is imprisoned during the revolution for having a successful life under the Shah’s regime. While reading this book I remembered Roohizadegan’s  Olya’s Story. Olya’s Story is an autobiographical account of a Baha’i woman who was also imprisoned around the same time as Isaac was in prison. I noticed a couple of similarities and differences between the two characters’ accounts of the time they were in prison.

                The biggest difference between the two characters is that Isaac is a political prisoner whereas Olya is imprisoned for merely being a prominent Baha’i. Although Isaac is Jewish, he is not pressured into recanting his faith while in prison. Baha’is are not allowed to participate in politics so their imprisonment is somewhat astonishing. In her book, Olya explained that the reason behind the persecution of Baha’is was because “there were some 450,000 Bahai’is in Iran, which makes Baha’is larger than the Christian, Jewish, and  Zoroastrian communities combined. We were regarded, whether we liked it or not, as a threat” (Roohizadegan, 17). The difference between the treatment of these prisoners stem from the Muslim’s belief that Baha’i is a deviation of Islam. Muslims believe that Muhammad is the last prophet so they do not recognize Baha’i as a religion. Since Judaism came before Islam, they recognize it as a religion in its own right. It is unclear why the Islamic regime feels so threated by the Baha’i community since they are not allowed to participate in politics. During her stay in prison, Olya was pressured into recanting her faith by means of torture, alienation and emotional distress.  At one point while in prison, she was brought to court while her children were present and told that if she recanted, she was free to go home with her children. Isaac’s only encounter with pressure to convert to Islam was when he tried to join in the evening prayers with the Muslim prisoners. When the guard realized what Isaac was attempting to do, he told him “Nice gesture Brother, pretending to be Muslim. But it will not change a thing. Unless Brother, you wish to convert” (Sofer, Ch. 4). While it seems as though conversion to Islam is more of a sideline in Isaac’s predicament, it is the main event in Olya’s case.

                Septembers of Shiraz reminded me of Olya’s Story because of the similarities regarding their lives in prison and the torture they had to endure. When I read about Mehdi’s feet lashings in chapter two of the Septembers of Shiraz, I remembered a passage I had read in Olya’s book that talked of an old woman of eighty years old who had been thrown in the cell along with Baha’i women. She was a Muslim and was the sister of a famous tribal leader. Olya stated that “she had over eighty lashes on her feet, and they were terribly swollen although not bleeding” (Roohizadegan, 89). The similarity in this torture technique made me connect the two books as being from the same time period and about the same revolution. Other similarities I noticed in the treatment of the two characters is that both were put into solitary confinement, forced to endure hours of harsh interrogation and both are psychologically tortured by having a gun shot right beside their head. These two characters from two different books, both non-Muslims, endured much of the same treatment during their time in prison, however, the Baha’i and not the Jew was pressured into conversion to Islam.

The Janissary’s Paradox: A Common Theme

When the Ottomans took over control of Eastern Europe and the Middle East, they captured Christian children and converted them to Islam with the opportunity to climb the social ladder. If, however, the Christians refused to give up their past and war against their fellow Christians, they were promised a horrendous future. The conflict of choosing between one’s past and the opportunity for a greater future is called the Janissary’s Paradox, named after the converted Christians of the Ottoman Empire. Simply put, the Janissary’s Paradox means that one must deny their past to be able to acquire a future (Weinberg). This paradox is a common theme found among characters in different books such as The Bastard of Istanbul, The Naqib’s Daughter, and The Yacoubian Building.

                Armanoush, one of the main characters in The Bastard of Istanbul, is an Armenian American who is split between her Armenian identity and her American identity. She does not know which side she should identify with more or how to balance the two identities. She claims that by “being the only daughter of an Armenian father, he himself a child of survivors, and of a mother from Elizabethtown, Kentucky,” she knows “how it feels to be torn between opposite sides, unable to fully belong anywhere, constantly fluctuating between two states of existence”, which was in reference to a conversation about the Janissary’s Paradox (Shafak, Ch. 6). Armanoush is struggling to decide whether or not to acknowledge her past or her family’s past in her life and if it is actually important to her. There are other characters that fit the paradox more accurately than Armanoush.

                Existing as the daughter of a prominent Egyptian official who married her off to the French Commander is the epitome of the Janissary’s Paradox. Zeinab was married off to a Frenchman for her father’s own political gain. She was forced to live in a society that was unfamiliar and clashed with many of her moral beliefs. She had to choose between her old lifestyle and the new one put before her. If she abandoned her old ways, her own people would consequently lose their respect for her and treat her differently. If she chose to retain her old culture, the French would likely not communicate with her and as a result she would be left alone by herself. One of the first times Zeinab encountered the paradox was when French ladies dressed her up in French clothing and took her outside for the first time since she had married the Commander. She wanted to get out and be around other people but when she walked outside she “suddenly became aware of her naked neck; her bosom, exposed nearly to the nipple; her bare arms under the short puff sleeves. She held back for a moment, grabbing her shawl and winding it around her head and bosom, then held the fan up so that it covered her face (Serageldin, Ch. 6). Zeinab was uncomfortable with transitioning to a new culture. Her past had a big influence on her life.

                Yet another example of the Janissary’s Paradox is found within The Yacoubian Building in the form of a girl named Busayna. She has been fired from multiple jobs because of her staunch morals. She would let none of her bosses take advantage of her. Her mother starts putting pressure on her to get a steady job using the welfare of her younger siblings as a motivator. Effie, her cousin, convinced Busayna that it was quite normal for girls to let their bosses take advantage of them and not lose their virginity in the process. Allowing her boss some privileges would earn Busayna job security and extra money. However, when put in a situation where her boss first approached her she “was struck by strong and conflicting feelings-determination to make the best of the opportunity and the fear which despite everything still wracked her and made her fight for breath and feel as though she was about to be sick” (Al Aswany, Part 1). Busayna had to choose between her morals and the opportunity to gain a better future. This embodiment of the Janissary’s Paradox is commonly used by authors when creating a compelling character for their work.