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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

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Cultures under Siege: Collective Violence and Trauma
Robben, A. and Suarez-Orozco, M. (eds).

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000
304 pp., Pb 14.95, ISBN 0-521-78435-2.



At the time of writing Israeli soldiers are occupying the West Bank and, intentionally or not, killing innocent people under orders from the Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to 'crush' Palestinian militias. Meanwhile in the Israeli City of Haifa dozens of people have this morning been either killed or injured after a Palestinian suicide bomber sat on a crowded commuter bus and blew himself up.

How do ordinary people cope? How do innocent individuals and communities survive emotionally in environments that are sinking deeper into chaos? One honest and humbling approach to my questions comes in Robben and Suarez-Orozco's book which says ' perhaps the most serious paradox we face is an awareness that massive trauma is in important ways inherently incomprehensible?The refusal to force the inexplicable into interpretational schemata and, instead, to bear witness, to listen, and to allow testimony to unfold itself with all its contradictions and enigmas, is an alternative way of communicating massive trauma to the world' (p7-8).

'Cultures under Siege' is an edited book divided into ten chapters and separated into two parts. Part One looks at 'The management of collective trauma' and Part Two looks at 'Cultural responses to Collective Trauma'. The nine contributors come from a wide academic field covering anthropology, psychology and psychoanalysis. As well as this intentional interdisciplinary approach the book also aims to examine trauma from a 'multi -layered' perspective. The individual - community relationship, and the individuals relationship with their inner and outer selves.

Thankfully this collection acknowledges the limitations of the 'Post Traumatic Stress Disorder' (PTSD) diagnosis to trauma, seeing it as a purely western approach based on the individual. As the editors comment ' PTSD has become a blanket term for a wide array of conditions. Current uses of PTSD generally fail to take into account key aspects such as the context of the traumatic experience, whether the trauma was inflicted on an individual or a group, through natural disaster, conventional warfare, state terror or interpersonal acts of violence' (p20).

All contributions to the book are richly diverse. In Part One the psychologist Yolanda Gampel's chapter talks about 'Reflections on the prevalence of the uncanny in social violence' (p48) by exploring how individuals and communities deal with the 'unthinkable', and how trauma is 'radioactively' transferred down the generations. Whilst the anthropologist Antonius Robben's chapter looks at how people, during and after the military dictatorship in Argentina, responded to the 'Assault on basic trust: disappearance, protest and reburial' (p70). One particularly interesting example is the Mothers of Plazo de Mayo (mothers who's sons or daughters were abducted under the military dictatorship), who have been denied the right to know of their children's where-abouts, and hence suspended the mourning process indefinitely. The importance of cultural artefacts as symbols of transference is amongst the issues discussed.

Part Two is equally compelling reading. There is an analysis of how the decline in social status of the Parsis of Bombay since the end of British rule has impacted their sense of self (p158), and a look at how important martyrdom, through the use of mythohistorical memory, has proven to be in maintaining the division of Greek and Turkish identities (p227).

In all, this book offers no immediate solutions to violent conflicts raging in places like the Middle East. It takes states, governments and institutions to implement the immediate changes needed. However what the book does show is that if peace is to be sustained the governments and institutions need to take seriously the dynamics of culture as a powerful force in inciting hatred. Complementary measures to end the violence and to heal the wounds in communities need to be examined so the cycles of rage do not keep repeating themselves.


Sarah Alldred, Centre for the Study of Forgiveness and Reconciliation



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