Book Review: No Place for Grief: Martyrs, Prisoners, and Mourning in Contemporary Palestine

No Place for Grief: Martyrs, Prisoners, and Mourning in Contemporary Palestine. Lotte Buch Segal, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016, 224 pp.

No Place for Grief is an ethnography of the lives of Palestinian women whose husbands became martyrs or were incarcerated in Israeli prisons. Lotte Buch Segal explores the language available to these women to express their suffering and analyzes how this suffering can become acknowledged in a society that struggles under Israeli military occupation. Dealing with a most sensitive, politically charged, and grave reality, Buch Segal delivers a delicate and nuanced ethnographic account that is as committed to sophisticated anthropological inquiry as it is sensitive to the hopes and needs of the women whose stories her book tells.

Over 700,000 Palestinians have been incarcerated in Israel since the 1967 war and the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Since these numbers refer mostly to adult men, it becomes clear that the story of detainees’ wives is a substantial untold aspect of Palestinian life under military occupation. Buch Segal treads on delicate ground as she steps into the privacy of the Palestinian family, where questions of care and control of women within kinship relations arise, and into the most intimate relations between a woman and her (absent) husband. In a society that strives to maintain hope in a protracted national struggle, Buch Segal tells the stories of women whose lives are underlined with doubt: doubt about the national struggle; doubt about their marital relationship; and doubt about their ability to endure the pain and the grief.

Building on Wittgenstein’s conceptualization of a standing language, not as individual and private, but as a shared agreement on human “forms of life,” Buch Segal looks into the language available to detainees’ wives. The local “grammar of suffering” merges a global understanding of trauma with local Palestinian discourses that emphasize heroism and endurance. However, both trauma and local narratives of suffering are event centered, assuming a past violent event that is set apart from the ordinary. But when violence is an ordinary continuous uneventful experience, suffering raises doubt that undermines the local language of endurance and the universal language of trauma. Detainees’ wives are left with no standing language to express their distress in a way that can be recognized by their families, friends, and counselors.

Instead, as Buch Segal demonstrates, the ordinary life of a detainee’s wife is marked by deep ambiguities. Detainees, even those who are sentenced to multiple life sentences, can be released any time as part of an always pending Israeli–Palestinian agreement. Unlike widows of martyrs, the wives of detainees are themselves detained in a temporary reality, where their social and family lives are in many ways defined by the absence of their husbands. It is the ambivalent status of both husbands and wives that brings about this sense of instability; detainees are at constant risk of being accused of cooperating with Israeli intelligence, and their wives of failing to comply with harsh social scrutiny of sexual modesty, even in the privacy of domestic space. Further, Israeli mechanisms of security hold these families captive in a repetitive present as they administer endless, constantly changing procedures of application and re-application for conjugal visits. Buch Segal argues that it is this uncanniness of the domestic and nonlinearity of time that deprive these women of a route to recovery and relief of suffering.

Incarceration of Palestinian men deeply destabilizes family life. In the absence of the husband, his extended family must take responsibility of providing for his wife and children. Buch Segal reveals that the Palestinian family, a long-standing institution and a source of pride and strength in the face of the Israeli occupation, has become fraught with doubt. The absence of the husband, who ties the wife to his family, brings instability to the frail balance between care and control. As Israeli violence and the heightened perils to Palestinians’ lives continue, doubt percolates into familial relations, making detainees’ wives’ domestic realm further monitored and limited.

Detainees and their wives meet a handful of times a year for a 45-minute visit “through scratched Plexiglas” (p. 125). Their only available standing language becomes nationalistic, through which they only know each other as a “detainee” and “a detainee’s wife.” Any expression of longing may be interpreted by friends and family as missing a sexual life, weakness, or doubt in a wife’s support of the national struggle, which, in turn, become sources of rumors. This leaves very little room for acknowledging a detainee’s wife’s hardship both within and without the marital relationship. Buch Segal demonstrates how for these sexually mature women who live alone and cannot express the hardship of emotional longing and physical desire, womanhood is narrowed to their familial responsibilities and motherhood.

While the women’s stories that Buch Segal narrates are full of brave endurance, their uncompromising care of their families, and their stubborn everyday struggle to live under military occupation, there is a constant undertone of doubt. This doubt simply cannot be recognized in a society in which endurance and hope are critical to the continuation of an unending struggle against oppression and subjugation.

This underlying doubt, constantly silenced, is exactly what makes this a powerful and agonizing ethnography. Buch Segal does not shy away from the excruciating details of these women’s suffering as she struggles to find a way to make their suffering recognizable to the reader. In the preface, Buch Segal writes that at its core, this book is about making these stories heard and acknowledged. Her ethnography exceeds this goal by providing a rich account of Palestinian women’s lives while also demonstrating how to craft a sensitive study amid a multilayered system of control. Her account, nevertheless, attests that it is life under a violent oppressive regime that is the single most influential factor in causing these women’s suffering and depriving them of the space for it to be relieved.

Buch Segal makes an essential contribution to medical anthropology’s longstanding effort to make suffering narratives comprehensible. Her careful analysis of the political, social, linguistic, and psychological mechanisms that disallow the recognition of these women’s suffering makes their stories intelligible, ethnographically and theoretically. No Place for Grief is recommended for anthropologists interested in political violence and armed conflicts. It will also be of interest to anthropologists, psychologists, and public health scholars engaged with the language and narratives of suffering, grief, trauma, and recovery. The book’s organization, in which each chapter opens up a somewhat standalone conceptual approach while structuring an overall holistic argument, makes it an exceptionally suitable text to be assigned in both undergraduate and graduate courses.

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