“This Is Your Brain on War”: Poetry for Peace in a Time of War


Poetry for peace in a time of war.

world brain



This is a follow-up to my first column in Psychiatric Times on “The Gaza-Israel War: ‘A Major Poetic Emergency.’” That emergency has become a full-blown crisis cascading into a catastrophe. There are 2 sides, multiple competing allegiances, many losers, and no winners.

When life touches us, poems appear like bruises.

– Yehuda Amichai1

It has been just over 6 months since Hamas invaded Israel on October 7th, 2023. As of today, we count 189 days of war. Approximately 1139 Israelis and foreign nationals were killed, including children, women, and the elderly. Entire families, neighborhoods, and towns were destroyed.

Christians just recently celebrated Easter Sunday, commemorating the death by crucifixion and the miraculous resurrection of their Savior Jesus Christ in Jerusalem. Happy Easter! The Pope condemned Hamas’ terrorist attacks and pleaded for the release of hostages unharmed and has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, the provision of humanitarian aid, and respect for international law. Christians are among the victims of the invasion and the war.

Ramadan, which commemorates “the month in which the Quran was revealed as a guide for humanity” (Surah Al-Baqara 2:185) has just ended with the Muslim feast of Eid al-Fitr. Ramadan Mubarak! Hamas abducted 253 Israelis to the Gaza Strip, and 112 Israeli hostages were returned alive—105 released in a prisoner exchange deal, 4 released by Hamas unilaterally, 3 rescued by Israel Defense Forces.

The Jewish Passover begins in just 10 days. Chag ha-Pesach—“the Pilgrimage of the Passing Over”—commemorates the Israelites’ escape from slavery in Egypt. Chag Pesach Sameach! Happy Passover Holiday! The Israeli counterattack continues. More than 30 thousand Gazans have been killed, including children, women, and the elderly. Entire families, neighborhoods and towns destroyed. And 133 Israeli hostages remain in captivity in Gaza, without any sure knowledge that they are still alive.

The 3 Abrahamic faiths were born in strife and celebrate salvation through crucifixion, the revelation for humanity of the Quran, the escape from slavery. And this is the third time I am reporting on my poetic conversation with a Palestinian psychologist and poet living in Nazareth called Mustafa Qossoqsi. Poetry for peace in a time of war.

Like the Gaza-Israel war, there have been many interlocutors in this poetic conversation. For years, I have been conducting poetic conversations with Jan Jorgensen, a Montreal pastor and poet, which inspired my reaching out to Mustafa for our own poetic conversation and she joined with her own prayer-poems. Psychiatric Times columnist H. Steven Moffic, MD, introduced my first report, “The Gaza-Israel War: ‘A Major Poetic Emergency’2 and follows our poetic conversation. My friend Maurizio Andolfi, MD, who organized the International Family Therapy Conference in Assisi where Mustafa and I met last July, had that first report on our poetic conversation translated into Italian for Terapia Familiare, published in Rome.3 Gerald Perman, MD, the editor of Capital Psychiatry who published our second report on our poetic conversation, “Borders, Belonging, and Betrayals,”4 also follows our conversation. Sometimes Steve and Jerry respond, mostly to the poetry or other texts we share, rarely about the war itself, the losses, or the sacrifices, but acknowledging our feelings—Mustafa and me. Jan responds with compassionately crafted messages and poems, praying for a miracle.

What Did and What Didn’t Happen

There were no words of recrimination between Mustafa and me, a Palestinian living in Israel and a Jew living in Montreal. There were appeals to our mutual concerns, physical safety, and emotional distress. There was an embrace of peace—Mustafa called for “poetry of peace, not poetry of war.” But we did not quite live up to that.

In our first exchanges, Mustafa wrote about “waiting for the war” and I wrote about “the day after the war.” But we soon drifted into the war—more directly on Mustafa’s part (after all, he is close to the war zone)—“I can’t hear you” is the refrain in one of his most poignant poems, the protagonist complaining that the noise of the bombers drowns out his interlocutor. In an essay called “Haunted Words,” published in a bilingual (Hebrew-Arabic) Israeli Lacanian magazine, Mustafa wrote: “Writing in times of war is first and foremost a personal rescue act, a desperate act of self-subjectivation when the subject is in danger of annihilation and obliteration.” My interventions were mostly indirect. My poem, “The Paris-Chinese Border,” was triggered by attacks on a Jewish community center in Montreal. Eventually, as Amichai wrote, when we are touched by life, “poems appear like bruises.”

In a letter, Mustafa referred to the shared, overlapping identities of Israeli Jews and Arabs, both tribes descending from Abraham’s 2 sons, Isaac and Ishmael. We traded favorite poets in Arabic and Hebrew. Adonis, the modernist master of Arabic poetry, is one of my beloved poets and Mustafa cited Yehuda Amichai’s Hebrew poetry.

“At the Window”

Mustafa and I share an admiration for Amichai, Israel’s national poet. In a celebrated poem, “Out Of Three Or Four In The Room,” Amichai (his adopted name in Hebrew means “the people live”) wrote1:

Out of three or four in the room
One is always standing at the window.

Behind him, the words, wandering, without luggage,
Hearts without provision, prophecies without water

Out of all the people in a room, any small group of people in any small room, Mustafa and I will be the ones at the window. That is the poet’s task, as Amichai sets it out in what I call his “mission poem.” We are not combatants, we are witnesses. We are wordsmiths and healers, not warriors. We, the poets, take our turn at the window, observing, thinking. Yet words wander, “without luggage,” they have no place to stay, Amichai says. Words remain “closed” in unopened letters “with no addresses” and “no one to receive them.”1

Torn between being discounted and being heard, I wonder if my words have an address and somebody to receive them; but I worry more about Mustafa and if he is putting himself at risk by participating in this poetic conversation with Jan and me.

“A Geological People with Rifts”

In one of his poems, Amichai said the Jews are not “a historical people” or even "an archaeological people" but “a geological people with rifts.”1 This takes a very long view of Jewish history—more than 5 thousand years—evolving slowly. And yet, I see a tectonic shift… when the war with Hamas ends, Israel will have to address its internal wars—between the left and the right, between the religious and the secular Jews, not to mention the European Jews who re-visioned Israel a century ago versus the Jews who had always lived there, from the Holy Land itself to the entire Near and Middle East, from Benghazi to Baghdad, from Alexandria to Aleppo.

Arabic: "A Mother Tongue Split to the Point of Pain"

Mustafa also experienced a split which goes to the heart of his vocation as a therapist and a poet, observing that his language was divided twice—first in the division within Arabic and then by the encounter with modern Hebrew in the State of Israel:

The question of writing in times of war echoes two pivotal events: the encounter with the inherent bilingualism of the Arabic language, a mother tongue split to the point of pain between spoken and literary forms, but also politically wounded and defeated. And the encounter with Hebrew, a conquering and exclusionary language, drunk with victory and covered in war dust. War dust also clung to the textbooks in which I learned in a primary school called “Al-Maktab.”

People talk of peace, but even without a hot war going on, both—no, all the communities in Israel and the lands around it that claim the name Palestine—are riven and the images for bringing them together are complex, and for many—not just the extremists—inconceivable.

Even well-established democracies are riven by tribal identities in the Western world, as I wrote in my column this week. Can we overcome them through other identifications? As therapists and as poets, as I proposed to Mustafa? Most people—and nations—live by more prosaic realities, not poetic metaphors. But we still must hold out the faint hope that people need poetry as much as they need bread, as Russian poet Osip Mandelstam told his fellow prisoners in the Soviet Gulag where he nourished them with his poetry.

At the Window, On the Border

The poet is the one at the window. Standing guard, “forced to see the injustice amongst the thorns.”1 Reciting his poetry, feeding his fellow prisoners, like the hostages in Gaza. Mustafa at his window, me at mine. Mustafa’s window is not far from the border with Gaza (nothing is in Israel). My own window looks onto the “Paris-Chinese border.” What that means is that the war has become globalized. Palestinian activists have taken it everywhere. As Sartre asserted, “There are no innocents in war.” One way to understand that now is that there is no getting away from war and that we are all its victims. As crazy as JD Salinger’s imaginary “Paris-Chinese border” sounded in another time, Montreal is now located on that border. We are now all in close proximity to that border, as Czech writer Milan Kundera who lived on such a border in the former Soviet-dominated Czechoslovakia, warned us decades ago.

And now, let me leave you with my most direct engagement with the impact of war …

This Is Your Brain on War

This war is my war; it is in my image and I deserve it.

There are no innocents in war.

– Jean-Paul Sartre

This is your brain

This is war

This is your brain on war

Any questions?

This is your society

This is ideology

This is your society shaped by ideology

Any surprises?

This is your child

This is hatred

This is your child raised on hatred

Any regrets?

This is your poem

This—this is your war

And this, such as it is, is your poem on war

Any objections?


  • My poem is a riff on a well-known anti-narcotics campaign which became a popular meme, imitated, parodied, and employed in Daniel Levitan’s This Is Your Brain on Music: This Is Your Brain on Drugs. Wikipedia. Accessed April 8, 2024. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=This_Is_Your_Brain_on_Drugs&oldid=1217765768
  • Adam Kirsch offers an accessible introduction to the poetry of Yehuda Amichai: “Amichai: the Tolerant Irony of Israel’s National Poet.” Tablet, December 21, 2015. Accessed April 8, 2024. https://www.tabletmag.com/sections/arts-letters/articles/amichai-israels-national-poet
  • Sigmund Freud’s reflections on war are still worth reading especially for his notion that during peacetime the memory of war and the threat of death is repressed through a “protection racket”: Thoughts for the Times on War and Death. Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume 14. Hogarth; 1964.

Dr Di Nicola is a child psychiatrist, family psychotherapist and philosopher 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: A Stranger in the Family: Culture, Families and Therapy (WW Norton, 1997), Letters to a Young Therapist (Atropos Press, 2011, winner of the Camille Laurin Prize of the Quebec Psychiatric Association), and Psychiatry in Crisis: At the Crossroads of Social Sciences, the Humanities, and Neuroscience (with D. Stoyanov; Springer Nature, 2021); 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).


1. Amichai Y. The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai. Bloch C, Mitchell S, trans. University of California Press; 1996.

2. Di Nicola V, Moffic SH. The Gaza-Israel war: “a major poetic emergency.” Psychiatric Times, November 20, 2023. https://www.psychiatrictimes.com/view/the-gaza-israel-war-a-major-poetic-emergency

3. Di Nicola V, Qossoqsi M, Jorgensen J. Il conflitto Gaza-Israele: “Una Grande Emergenza Poetica.” Terapia Familiare, in press.

4. Di Nicola V, Qossoqsi M, Jorgensen J. Borders, belonging, and betrayals: a poetic conversation among a Palestinian Israeli psychologist, an Italian Canadian psychiatrist, and a Canadian United Church pastor in a time of war. Capital Psychiatry. 2024;5(1):39-44.

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