Why Gaza needs to talk about suicide
I was deeply saddened to learn that my friend Muhammad al-Najjar had taken his own life.
Muhammad – aged just 27 – was a poet.
He often wrote when he was feeling down or stressed.
But sometimes he did not derive any therapeutic benefit from doing so. Reality in Gaza is so hard that creativity did not offer him any escape over the past couple of years.
One of his poems – “The Chaos Beyond” – was especially poignant.
It referred to a “messenger of the dead” who “came knocking on a door.”
The poem depicted death as offering comfort to someone who has undergone distress and instability.
I heard Muhammad recite this poem at a 2021 seminar.
In a message posted on Facebook shortly before his death, Muhammad made clear that he was receiving treatment for depression but that he couldn’t handle the pain inside him.
Muhammad’s childhood was traumatic. He was only 12 when his father died following an illness.
As the eldest child, Muhammad felt a duty to protect his siblings.
He was proud of their achievements. He recently expressed happiness at how his sister Salma had done well in the tawjihi – exams for students in the final year of high school. Salma is a poet, too, and has clearly been influenced by her brother.
Muhammad loved listening to other poets.
I have witnessed him become excited at poetry readings. He would ask for particular lines or verses to be repeated so that he could savor them.
Muhammad’s death had a profound impact on many people in Gaza.
Ismail – a man in his 30s – told me he felt “suffocated” when he heard the terrible news about Muhammad. Although it was late at night, Ismail decided he needed to go out for a walk.
Earlier this year, Ismail attempted suicide. He was found unconscious by his brother, who rushed him to hospital.
Ismail’s brother did not tell police officers stationed at the hospital what had happened. He just told the police that Ismail had a nervous condition.
Ismail graduated from Gaza’s Al-Aqsa University in 2015, qualifying as a primary school teacher.
Apart from working as a waiter for a few years, Ismail has found no jobs since his graduation.
The lack of opportunities has been frustrating. He feels that he has not made progress in his life.
While he has thought about emigrating from Gaza, he does not have enough money to do so.
A dangerous taboo
Living in a besieged and occupied territory – where we are repeatedly bombarded by our occupier (Israel) – is by definition depressing. Yet we avoid talking about depression.
Ismail wants this taboo to be removed.
“It’s dangerous when we are under pressure to hide how we feel,” he told me. “I know many people have the same symptoms as me. They are isolated from society.”
Some other friends and neighbors of mine have died through suicide.
They include Muhanad Younis, who – at the age of 22 – took his own life in 2017.
He had similarities to Muhammad al-Najjar.
Both were educated young men.
Like Muhammad al-Najjar, Muhanad Younis appreciated literature. He enjoyed attending poetry readings and being in the company of writers.
I recall Muhanad Younis speaking about how Gaza was cut off from the world. “There is not a single plane flying from here,” he said more than once, asking how anyone could maintain their mental health under such circumstances.
Muhanad Younis liked to sit in cafes on the shoreline and admire the view of the sea.
Sometimes, though, he did not want to see anyone else. He would stay in his bedroom for long periods.
Official statistics indicate that more than 70 percent of adults in Gaza are experiencing depression.
“The problem is not only in the small number of specialists,” said Ziad al-Adam, one of the very few psychiatrists in Gaza. “Psychiatry provides positive support but is unable to treat the effects of poverty, economic deterioration and Israeli bombing.”
So long as Gaza is under siege and subjected to extreme violence, it seems tragically inevitable that more people will take their own lives.
Amjad Ayman Yaghi is a journalist based in Gaza.