The Gaza-Israel War: “A Major Poetic Emergency”

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A poetic conversation among a Palestinian Israeli psychologist, an Italian Canadian psychiatrist, and a Canadian United Church Pastor in a time of war.

Israel Palestine

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An Introduction by H. Steven Moffic, MD

Get ready for something unique and extraordinary, more than I even could have wished for! It

caught my breath and brought me to tears. Take these lines from Dr Di Nicola’s piece:

“Not poetry of war, but poetry of life.
The words I might have spoken are now a choking silence as I think of you and your loved ones, of all the families and remnants of families, trapped within the maelstrom.”

Then there are these lines, which shook me to my soul since I have recently experienced hurting others unintentionally more often, whether from my insensitivity or the sensitivities of our circumstances:

“If I speak I will hurt you
not by intention
but by the complexities of being
other.”

You probably know the cautioning statement, “Be careful what you wish for.” It implies that a wish coming true may not turn out to be what you expected, from being anticlimactic to an example of the law of unexpected consequences. Ever since the current conflagration in Israel and Gaza erupted on the dawn of October 7, I wished that Jewish and Muslim mental health professionals could continue to work together and even expand their collegiality and cross-cultural patient care. However, I soon learned that was not to be the case, and more often relationships were turning into mutual blame, criticism, and disintegration. I decided then to put out a call for successful examples, one of which was presented in the column “We Answer the Call for a Joint Jewish and Muslim Psychiatrist Statement,” by Ahmed Hankir, MD, and me.

Now we have another and a most moving example full of depth, involving a Jewish psychiatrist, a Palestinian Israeli psychologist, and a Christian pastor, all also poets. In an earlier parallel process, over the last few years I have been involved in editing books on Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, Christianity, and psychiatry (all for Springer). If I imagined those volumes talking to one another, I would wish it would be in an interaction just like these writers have had—a reflection of their religions, professions, and themselves at their very best complementary essence.

It is time to revise that original wish statement to: Be grateful for your wish being fulfilled. In terms of timing, I am also grateful that this “Thanksgiving Special” is written right before the American Thanksgiving weekend. It is also the weekly Torah (Old Testament) portion where Jacob, to become one of Judaism’s 3 patriarchs, during ongoing conflict with his brother, wakes up from a dream with awe and surprise, realizing the divine was present. And so I awoke and was reminded this morning as I finishing readying this interchange. Most fortunately, Jacob’s conflict with Esau was later resolved well. May our current Mideast one do so similarity.

Now my wish is for you to read this piece and let us know what you think.

-H. Steven Moffic, MD


I – “Not poetry of war, but poetry of life”

Mustafa Qossoqsi, PhD, was speaking in Assisi, Italy, at the International Family Therapy Conference in July 2023. Friends and colleagues from all over the world spoke at the 3-day event to celebrate the 80th birthday of a pioneering Italian family therapist, Maurizio Andolfi, MD, and to share our work. Same old, same old—then Mustafa spoke and woke me out of my slumber. He told his family story, a Palestinian story, a story about belonging and history, trauma, and exile.1 The outlines were familiar to me—I had been to Israel and did part of medical school in Beer Sheva in the Negev desert—but something made me listen more attentively to Mustafa’s story than anything else at that conference. My new collection of poems, Two Kinds of People,2 was in press and what came to mind as Mustafa unpeeled the layers of his family story was more than therapy, it was the poetry of Yehuda Amichai in Jerusalem and Constantine Cavafy in Alexandria.

I introduced myself briefly to Mustafa. He responded warmly and told me he is a Palestinian citizen of Israel, a clinical psychologist, and a poet from Nazareth. We traded the names of our poetic authorities. When we both returned home—Mustafa to Nazareth and myself to Montreal—I wrote to him and offered to start a poetic conversation.

I was moved, provoked, chagrined, stimulated, excited, disturbed, exhilarated, and touched by your presentation!
It was an encounter with your history, your truth, your pain against the truth, the pain, the history of so many others I have encountered in the land of Israel. It prepares me perhaps to visit it (again) but for the first time.
As a fellow poet, I invite a dialogue with you to know better your history, your family story, and your poetry.

Mustafa was generous and receptive.

It's clear you listened with an open mind and heart, really delving into the ideas I was trying to get across. It takes a lot of empathy and intellectual honesty to provide the kind of thoughtful and detailed feedback you gave on a politically and emotionally charged issue, and it meant so much to me.

And he shared a poem that touches me deeply, cutting to the heart of my own uprootedness as an Italian and a Jew (all the following poems are only cited in part):

I love those who do not find their place
They crash into their lives like a repeated coincidental accident between a cloud and a wall
Every morning they cut their roots
Then they sew them back to the ground
Like promising wounds

I am one of those who did not find my place. As it happened, after the conference, I took my family to visit my birthplace in the Abruzzo, just south of Assisi, and described it to Mustafa.

It was both moving and disturbing to see the village reduced to a shadow of what it once was (a grand metropolis of some 2000 souls at its height, reduced now to some 850) and much of the lower town abandoned and shuttered.

And thinking of his people, the Palestinians, I added:

How much more painful to be forcefully removed from one’s birthplace...

Mustafa has a conduit into “things as they are,” to echo Wallace Stevens whose poem, “The Man With The Blue Guitar,” is about how art represents and transforms reality. Mustafa is a storyteller and a transformer.

We traded poems and perceptions. Through therapy and poetry, we forged an emerging friendship. And then came the Hamas invasion of Israel on October 7, 2023, in the Negev desert, not far from where I had trained in Beer Sheva. As I reflected on the happenings, I wrote to Mustafa to express my concerns for his safety and proposed a poetic conversation (October 29):

I am thinking of you.
Thinking about the pain you must be experiencing.
And I’m thinking that if psychology and therapy and poetry cannot speak to this, cannot bridge this, then we are truly lost.
My heartfelt offer to you is this: let’s write to each other in poetry about our pain, our suffering, our distress, our despair even, and find a language together to find our way into this, through this, and if possible, out of this ... “at least on paper,” as Italo Calvino once said in one of his novels.

Mustafa responded (October 30):

Indeed it’s a very painful time.
I really hope poetry could save us.
If conflicting sides read the poetry of each other, war and hatred would be prevented. Not poetry of war, but poetry of life.
We can try.

We can try. The next day, he sent me “a poem of these days” “While waiting for the war,” an opening phrase he repeats several times, each time affirming life:

While waiting for the war that started over a hundred years ago, I choose books to read, as the idea of dying without hearing life’s last word pains me.
I search my library for the letters of Freud and Einstein about the war,
and a book by Thomas Ogden accidentally falls into my hands: “reclaiming unlived lives”.

Even before receiving his poem, I wrote “Lazarus Risen” soon after October 7th, horrified by the greatest number of Jewish deaths since the Holocaust in Europe and the anticipated Israeli response to Hamas in Gaza. It is a dialogue with 2 Anglo-American poems, TS Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and Sylvia Plath’s “Lady Lazarus”:

This Lazarus has seen hell
And cannot come back
Stretched out as he was;
His limbs severed,
his head separated from his body,
his body burnt and the ashes strewn
Across the reddening sky,
Like Sylvia’s hair.
Extracorporeal – extraterritorial –
Lazarus risen
To tell you all

“While waiting for the war,” as Mustafa wrote, 2 more poems fell out of me. “I Am The Blade” (on November 2) plays with a line from Virginia Woolf’s novel, Orlando – “Nothing thicker than a knife’s blade separates happiness from melancholy.” The only thing that attenuated my distress these days was the notion that as bad as it could get, there would be “The Day After” (November 5):

The day after the last gun is fired
and the last bullet pierces the last limb
and the last rocket explodes over the last house
We –
who have the energy of slaves
and the will to survive –
will say, “I am a witness”
We –
who still have the heart to endure
and the humility to hope –
will sing, “I am a poet”

Meanwhile, I invited a Montreal poet and United Church pastor, Jan Jorgensen, to join our poetic conversation. Her debut collection of poems and prayers, Birthing Godde (Ekstasis, in press), offers a privileged access to a poet with a searching sensibility, imbued with the searing spirituality of Simone Weil.3 Jan responded with “Silence”:

If I speak I will hurt you
not by intention
but by the complexities of being
other
I think of “word bombs”
of the facts that are true
the facts that drive us apart
I wonder what else might be true

Mustafa is as sensitive a reader as he is a poet (November 13):

It’s truly heartwarming to hear from you, especially in such challenging times. I’m holding up, thanks for asking, and I hope the same for you.
“Silence” is a complex love poem for struggling humanity. We probably need poetry of silence to heal us from the violence of words.
Your poems, Vincenzo, are of a deeply beautiful and moving impact, where future can be dangerously imagined and rewritten: hope is the blade.
I love the idea of “in poetry we trust” emerging from yours and Jan’s poems, because God is a poet.

II – “A major poetic emergency”

Mustafa sent a new poem, “Psychological First Aid” (November 13), repeating a powerful rhetorical device where he takes a thought and plays it like “the man with the blue guitar,” riffing on a theme, taking reality, then chopping it up like a Picasso’s cubist painting, “The Blue Guitar,” refracting reality into transformative visions. Mustafa’s first aid finishes with bitter irony.

Breathe
We revolt simply because we can no longer breathe, says Frantz Fanon
So, breathe.
That’s all there is to it.
You are just a little bit dead.
and the more you breathe, the more you will die, deeper and more peacefully.
And the world will be okay.

I replied to Mustafa’s powerful poem.

This is a masterly expression of the complexity of living ... that we sometimes have to grasp through the deaths and losses we witness.
In North America, it’s impossible to read this exhortation to “breathe” without thinking of George Floyd’s death as he pleaded to the policemen who suffocated him, “I can't breathe.” His death triggered Black Lives Matter and his plea became the slogan of that movement.
A stunning and quietly explosive poem!
Jan and I met through a poem of mine … “Minor Poetic Emergencies.”4

I shared the experiences of friends in the Italian, Sephardic Jewish, and other ethnic communities—the Armenian, Christian, and Greek communities of the Arab world—from Alexandria to Aleppo, Baghdad to Benghazi, Cairo to Casablanca, and my favorite poem of exile, Constantine Cavafy’s “The God Abandons Antony,” with its moving closing line5:

And say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.

This adieu resonates inside me in the voice of my inner child who lost his birthplace in the Abruzzo and Sylvain, my dear friend in Montreal, a Sephardic Jew who lost his Alexandria, and my fellow artist here Arsinée, an Armenian who lost her Aleppo, not forgetting either the Jews of Arab lands who lost their homes or the Palestinians who were displaced and dispossessed at the same time. All of us extraterritorial. And the dead, extracorporeal like Lazarus, always rising anew, refusing to lie still.

Mustafa replied (November 15).

Our correspondence is one of the few and more significant threads that hold me truly connected to humanity in these dark and utterly horrifying times. Don’t be mistaken, these words are tears, writing in these days, is crying in all its senses. The honesty and the sincerity of our conversation advise me to confess to you: I’m crying while reading and writing this morning. Crying for massacred lives, for unborn lives, for hostage lives, and for peaceful and peace-making lives slaughtered on both sides of this infinite war.
In the remaining time, while I’m not writing and reading, I’m busy regulating my emotions, doing my clinical work, and resorting to some “minor poetic emergencies” (masterful, beautifully crafted poem).
Can poetry survive massacres and catastrophes? Are we living a “major poetic emergency”? [emphasis added]. I mean, are we in the realm of the unspeakable and the uncanny, is silence the only possible alternative?
My heart is broken but not defeated. It’s so hard to think about all the lives that have been shuttered into pieces, the lives that could have been, the lives that will never be.
I cry also for what you say, and for your exiled and ruptured life, I empathize deeply with your trajectory of uprootedness, and with the inventive complexity you’ve chosen to embrace and the poetic solutions you’ve managed to invent and create.

Mustafa then turns a poem by Yehuda Amichai called “Tourists” about tourists who confuse the value of a Roman arch with a living person and to the lived reality and interpenetrated identities of Jews and Palestinians6:

The fact is that on this land no one can a pretend to be exclusively “the one” or “the other,” we are so interconnected, so interdependent, we are so Palestinian, and we are so Jewish, without sacrificing any uniqueness, the two nations summarize the fallibility and the invincibility of humanity.

An American diplomat, Aaron David Miller, called Israel-Palestine “the too much Promised Land” in his memoir of the Oslo Peace Process.7 That is the tragedy of these competing and seemingly incompatible narrative claims!

Mustafa then concludes with a new poem written just a few days before the war, “Tips for a beginner musician” …

It would be wise, if it were up to you, to forget everything you know about forgetting.
Be mindful: music only accompanies solitude if it is deep and feminine like a well.
Despair is soothed by music only if it is beyond consolation.
Remember: music truly lives only in forgiveness.

Let us close with a pastor’s prayer and a poet’s hope from Jan (November 15).

Dear Mustafa and Vincenzo,
Vincenzo and I have been friends so long, I feel his pain in my chest—an ache that has, at times, made me struggle to breathe.
Mustafa, I feel your pain and sorrow in my throat—
any words I could search for are not enough—the words I might have spoken are now a choking silence as I think of you and your loved ones,
of all the families and remnants of families, trapped within the maelstrom—
If we had written these messages on paper, like we did when I was young …
some of your words would have been obscured by your tears
and I, reading, would have witnessed my tears mingling with yours, Mustafa.
And I am moved by the thought of our tears erasing words ...
would that we could recreate worlds, erasing cruelty, murder, fear-mongering, because those words had ceased to exist.
Now I am thinking of the prophets whose poetry insisted on redemption and restoration—how it was the very ordinary things—building a home, and living in it, planting a fig tree and eating the fruit of one’s labour—that are promised
just as it was the man and his family and not the history of the site that mattered in Yehuda Amichai's poem.
It is life that matters.
Mustafa, your words touch our hearts, you open a window into your world so that we can send our love ...
I pray for you and those all around you.

Amen! “So be it” from the Aramaic, shared by Jews, Christians and Muslims in closing their prayers.

Dr Moffic is an award-winning psychiatrist who specialized in the cultural and ethical aspects of psychiatry and is now in retirement and retirement as a private pro bono community psychiatrist. A prolific writer and speaker, he has done a weekday column titled “Psychiatric Views on the Daily News” and a weekly video, “Psychiatry & Society,” since the COVID-19 pandemic emerged. He was chosen to receive the 2024 Abraham Halpern Humanitarian Award from the American Association for Social Psychiatry. Previously, he received the Administrative Award in 2016 from the American Psychiatric Association, the one-time designation of being a Hero of Public Psychiatry from the Speaker of the Assembly of the APA in 2002, and the Exemplary Psychiatrist Award from the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill in 1991. He is an advocate and activist for mental health issues related to climate instability, physician burnout, and xenophobia. He is now editing the final book in a 4-volume series on religions and psychiatry for Springer: Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, Christianity, and now The Eastern Religions, and Spirituality. He serves on the Editorial Board of Psychiatric Times.

Dr Di Nicola is a child psychiatrist and family psychotherapist in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, where he is Professor of Psychiatry & Addiction Medicine at the University of Montreal and President of the World Association of Social Psychiatry (WASP). He has been recognized with numerous national and international awards, honorary professorships and fellowships, and was recently elected a Fellow of the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences and given the Distinguished Service Award of the American Psychiatric Association. Dr Di Nicola’s work straddles psychiatry and psychotherapy on one side and philosophy and poetry on the other. Dr Di Nicola’s writing includes: Letters to a Young Therapist (Atropos Press, 2011, winner of a prize from the Quebec Psychiatric Association), Psychiatry in Crisis: At the Crossroads of Social Sciences, the Humanities, and Neuroscience (Springer Nature, 2021) and two chapters in Dr Moffic’s forthcoming volume on Eastern Religions, Spirituality and Psychiatry (in press) in psychiatry and, in the arts, his “Slow Thought Manifesto” (Aeon Magazine, 2018) and Two Kinds of People: Poems from Mile End (Delere Press, 2023, nominated for The Pushcart Prize).

References

1. Qossoqsi M. Intergenerational Psychosocial Effects of Nakbah on Internally Displaced Palestinians in Israel: Narratives of trauma and resilience. PhD thesis, University of Essex; 2017.

2. Di Nicola V, Donoyan A. Two Kinds of People: Poems from Mile End. Delere Press; 2023.

3. Jorgensen J. Birthing Godde. Ekstasis Editions. In press.

4. Di Nicola V. Minor poetic emergencies. The Unsecured Present: 3-day novels & pomes 4 pilgrims. Atropos Press; 2012:161.

5. Cavafy CP. The God Abandons Antony. The Collected Poems of C.P. Cavafy: A New Translation. W.W. Norton & Co; 2006:45.

6. Amichai Y. Tourists. In: Alter R, ed. The Poetry of Yehuda Amichai. Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 2015:299.

7. Miller AD. The Too Much Promised Land: America’s Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace. Penguin Random House; 2008.

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