There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.
-Zora Neale Hurston
Sullivan is quoted as saying “we have as many selves as we have relationships” (Lionells, 1995). As I think about contemporary psychoanalytic theory, these relationships could be with our parents, siblings, and teachers, as well as with cultural, social, and state structures, policies, media, ideology, and many other dynamics that create the landscape of our lives. When we live day in and day out within this landscape we begin to develop our own narratives and monologues (Kirmayer, 2006). Based on such narratives we write our own stories that become central in the formation of our identity, interpersonal relationships, and intersubjective experiences, and, in doing so, they create the multiple selves Sullivan and other interpersonalists described.
Thirty years ago I moved out of my country Jordan and headed west. Initially, I wanted to dissociate from my own narratives and monologues because the reality of them was too dangerous to own. It wasn’t until I began to work with other Arab immigrants that I began to become aware of these narratives and the selves they created.
My first experience took place twenty years after my arrival. It was an experience that changed me forever (Khouri, 2012) At the time I was working with five adolescent immigrant boys who came from the same country. I used to hold the meetings at the school where the boys studied. The goal of treatment was to help them adjust to life in the United States. The group often ostracized one of the boys, whom I will call Basem. Basem had an accent; he didn’t look “cool.” He didn’t know hip-hop or rap. He came from a rural society when all the other boys came from urban areas. Basem came to the US with his father, and left his mother and siblings back home. His father used to travel often. Consequently, Basem lived with his adult male cousins who barely took care of him, leaving him to fend for himself. Basem was alone. And because of his aloneness, he would try to connect with others by intruding into their spaces, often rubbing them the wrong way. As a result, he was visible in the school, and not for good reasons.
In the beginning of my work with the group, I dreaded the sessions. The boys came on time but could barely sit still. I would spend most of the session trying to keep them in their seats, stop them from hurting each other, and deal with the sexually tinged remarks that were flying all over the place. The anxiety in the room was palpable. I attributed my lack of enthusiasm to the difficulty in managing the group, but there was more to the picture than meets the eye.
One day, the principal of the school dropped by. He seemed to just want to help himself to the snacks and chat. But in his chat he singled out Basem. The principal said that although Basem was working hard he was misbehaving. He added: “Basem is not behaving like a man. Manhood is important in your culture, isn’t that so? In fact, I think men are given special privileges over women just because they are born male.” That comment made me feel small, demeaned, judged and disregarded. I felt his comment stripped me of my status as the adult in the room—after all I am an Arab female among Arab males.
Judging by the boys’ reaction after the principal left, I believe his comment reminded them of their stigma, their separateness, and the dangers that come with being an Arab. The boys went on to instruct Basem on how to behave appropriately. He symbolized everything they wanted to deny. They were talking to him with such intensity that it felt as if they wanted to beat into him traits an American teenager should have.
One of the boys who had been standing, and whom I will call Tamer, leaned over the table, faced me, and said in a frightened, angry tone: “We are Arab adolescent boys. We need to be careful!” I understood him to say: “We are Arabs and we cannot afford to stand out.”
As the boys fired fear filled stories about unfair arrests, deportations and misfortunes besetting Arab immigrants, I went into a reverie about my own fears of being visible and arrested. I recalled what a harrowing ordeal it is to go through customs at JFK Airport. Often I would be riddled with anxiety and guilt when no crime had been committed.
Following the session and on my way to my next appointment, I found myself wondering if I were on some FBI list somewhere. Am I safe? Am I being followed? I reflected further on the boys’ reaction to Basem and the principal, and realized I related to the group the way the group related to Basem—I wanted to discredit them because they were making me aware of parts of myself that were too hard and painful to own. Gradually, as I began to become aware of the fear of being an Arab in a western world, my relationship to the boys shifted. I was no longer different. I understood their anxiety, and mine.
My work with the group lasted for three years. For our last session, in addition to the usual snacks, I brought bandanas. I thought they were a somewhat masculine item that the boys could sign for each other and keep as a memento of the group. When Tamer saw them, he said, “This could kill you.” “What do you mean?” I asked. “Gang members might suspect you belong to a gang that is competing with them.” Anxiously I replied, “I didn’t realize that. Please don’t wear them publically!” “Don’t worry, Miss Lama, this will be our sign as a family and not a gang,” another boy said. “Let’s call it the Tamer’s gang,” said Tamer—as if challenging us to have strength from being together. They signed each other’s bandanas, and when it was time to say goodbye, their farewell was a nonchalant “See ya!”(Khouri, 2012)
Lama Z. Khouri CAPC, LMSW, MS, is a psychoanalytic candidate at Manhattan Institute for Psychoanalysis, Executive Director of Circle OASIS LLC, and student and researcher at Teachers College, Columbia University.
Lionells, M. (1995). The Interpersonal Self, Uniqueness, Will and Intentionality. In M. Lionells, J. Fiscalini, C. Mann, & D. Stern (Eds.) Handbook of Interpersonal Psychoanalysis. Hillsdale, NJ: Analytic Press, 31-63.
Kirmayer, L. J. (2006). Beyond the New Cross-Cultural Psychiatry: Cultural Biology, Discursive Psychology and the Ironies of Globalization. Transcultural Psychiatry,43: 126–44.
Khouri, Lama Z. (2012). Immigrant’s Neverland: Commuting from Amman to Brooklyn. Contemporary Psychoanalysis 48 (2), 213–37.