Arabs Are Becoming Suicidal. Why?

Published July 22nd, 2020 - 05:27 GMT
(AFP File Photo)
...we are confronted with an intensifying number of public and private suicides among Arabs. Reports from Palestine and Lebanon this week are testimony to the political and economic contexts in which they occur – a void of hope.
For some Arabs, living under the malaise of political and economic hopelessness is proving too much to bear.

In a communal culture like the one found in the Arab world, one that deeply relies on its religious values, suicide has always been uncommon.

In a culture that boasts large family sizes and very strong familial bonds, where the young rely on the elders until the opposite is true, the notion of abandoning your community is

understandably more difficult and thus suicide is a less frequent occurrence. 

We can appreciate the severity of suicide in these communities by recalling the Tunisian vendor, Mohammad Bouazizi, who set himself on fire in public due to chronic desperation in 2011. This man set off waves throughout the region, sparking the Arab Spring, and other instances of self-immolation. 

However, mounting evidence shows the situation today is just as dire, and we are confronted with an intensifying number of public and private suicides among Arabs. Reports from Palestine and Lebanon this week are testimony to the political and economic contexts in which they occur – a void of hope.

In Lebanon, two separate incidents were recorded, both men chose to end their lives because the country’s economic situation is only set to worsen.

Today, one US dollar is worth 10,000 Lebanese Lira (LL) - prior to the ongoing financial collapse, the value was pegged at 1,500 LL.

One of the men left a very short suicide note, on his clean criminal record, writing in Arabic, ‘I am no infidel/heathen,’ part of a popular song by Ziad Rahbani, which continues, ‘but sickness and hunger are infidels, and humiliation is a heathen.’ 

He shot himself in a crowded Beirut street, and onlookers heard him shout, “for a free and independent Lebanon.” 

In the south, the second victim of these broken systems hanged himself in his home. 

Both were suffering financially, much like the rest of the population. Lebanon’s failed and undeniably corrupted government is unable to provide basic amenities such as electricity – with the majority of the country now getting only two hours a day. 

Criminal activity is on the rise as fathers raid pharmacies but only take diapers and formula. The chronic stress delivered to every Lebanese citizen has cost them much more than financial worries – lives are at risk in several ways. 

Palestinian plight 

Turning to Gaza, a similar bleak and familiar story is repeated. Reports of five attempted and four successful suicides over 72-hours last week grabbed the attention of locals. The culmination of the Israeli Occupation, a stale-mate with Palestinian parties, and a restrictive government, would be sufficient to push any sane being over-the-edge. 

The victims of the geo-political, regional and local, violence, fall in a younger age group here.  

One of the four, a social activist by the name of Suleiman al Ajouri, left a last Facebook status writing, “This is not a futile attempt, it’s the only way out. Complaints to anyone other than God is humiliation and with God we will face our opponents.” 

The sense of hopelessness in Gaza is growing due in large part to as 14-year long blockade that has fuelled unemployment and inflation and stripped residents of basic rights

Additionally, there were reports that al Ajouri was taken into custody by Hamas and suffered as a result. At his funeral, some of his friends were also taken by the government. 

State-sponsored torture is widespread in the region and is no different in this case. Trauma as a result of these unlawful apprehensions have long-term and long-standing damaging effects on an individual.

‘Forgive me’

 Sarah Hegazi’s suicide away from her home of Egypt, was directly a result of state-sponsored violence. Her death in Canada sent shockwaves of grief to her community and across the region. 

Hegazi spent three months in the custody of Egyptian authorities where, by her own testimony, she was electrocuted and psychologically tortured. Her crime? Advocating for the very vulnerable LGBT+ community of the Arab world. Her forced exile led to her being away from her mother at the time of her passing. Hegazi’s last note read: “To my siblings, I have tried to find salvation and I failed, forgive me. To my friends, the journey was cruel and I am too weak to resist, forgive me. To the world, you were cruel to a great extent, but I forgive.”

These suicides, some perceived acts of political defiance, are forbidden in Islam and were criticised as cowardly acts by some. However, an Imam in Gaza stated during a sermon: “All sheikhs, scientists and khatibs, we agree on the fatwa against suicide in Islam and agree that it’s forbidden…, but what I want from you is a fatwa to tell people why those young men committed suicide.” 

The pattern repeatedly found throughout the region of oppressing marginalised non-marginalised groups alike, is causing a rupture that cannot be repaired. These deaths were a direct result of the state - in theory, it should exist to serve its people. It is not possible in this context to separate the personal and political. When politics becomes so invasive it deprives you of opportunity, work, freedom and even food. To many Arabs, their last political weapon is their death– death they believed inevitable, an anticipatory response to an already probable outcome.

Tawfiq Suliman, a Bethlehem-based psychiatrist, speaks to the future of this trend in Palestine: “As long as the circumstances in both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank remain the same, we can expect rising rates of suicides and violence as a means of expressing anger and rejecting the state in which one perceives him- or herself as a burden.”

It has been said already that these deaths, though they may seem like immediate relief, only leave in their wake more grief and significant loss to the surrounding community. If we cannot see the hope, we must try to become it until it returns. 

Nadine Sayegh is a multidisciplinary writer and researcher covering the Arab world. She has covered topics including gender in the region, countering violent extremism, the Occupied Palestinian Territories, amongst other social and political issues.

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