Last spring I did a week-long training in trauma-sensitive yoga with Bessel van der Kolk and Dave Emerson at The Trauma Center in Brookline Mass. Since then I’ve been exploring opportunities to work with groups of people that might benefit from my newly acquired awareness and with whom I can build up some practical experience. While, I now realize, I’ve taught many trauma survivors in my regular classes over the last 15 years, and done Trager work with others, I have been wanting to work with the sort of people who would never normally walk into a yoga class or go and get themselves a session of bodywork, at least not in Egypt.
I have survived the 2011 Egyptian uprising and its fallout with my politics more or less intact, and so have been drawn to those humanitarian organisations whose work with deprived and troubled populations seem genuinely useful and productive, those that address the psychological and social needs of survivors of domestic violence or torture, refugees, street children. Most of the Cairo-based operations serving these groups of people are local Egyptian organisations. As it is difficult to address the subjects of trauma in society without getting political, particularly in the aftermath of uprising and reaction, many of these organisations have been fighting for their very existence while struggling to keep up the crucial services they provide, and while the individuals who comprise them deal with the terrifying consequences of their own activism. Every day the news carries another example of this. This week it is Azza Soliman, a trailblazing lawyer who has for many years been an advocate for women’s rights and, through CEWLA, the NGO she founded, providing free legal advice to women who need to get out of dangerous and abusive situations. Azza witnessed, and so gave testimony about, the murder of Shaimaa Alsabbagh, the young mother shot dead by police on the eve of the 25th January anniversary this year during a peaceful demonstration to put flowers on the Tahrir Square memorial to the martyrs of the 2011 uprising. In a twist that Kafka would have been proud of, the judge changed Azza Soliman’s status from witness to defendant. Even more sinister, the murdered Shaimaa Alshabbagh, too, was also put onto the list of defendants.
While both the employees and the users of these Egyptian humanitarian and activist organisations may well need trauma-sensitive work now more than ever before, the situation they’re in right now probably makes yoga and bodywork seem like an unimaginable indulgence. My own enquiries and applications to them have been received pleasantly enough, but my work with them has not yet gathered momentum.
The last few weeks have been particularly frustrating. Meanwhile I have continued my daily work with private clients, trying to exercise what some psychologists call good psychological hygiene so as not to get pulled down about the lack of response to my gentle but persistent pushing out in the big wide world. I started to ask myself why I was pushing when my private schedule is busy enough; was working with people who know enough about the mind–body connection to seek me out in the first place, and who can afford to pay me, less meaningful to me than working with less privileged people? Had I been trying to make up for the lack of professional status yoga therapy and bodywork has in the sort of worlds I was educated in, by attaching it to a professional universe whose value is not in any doubt in my mind? Could I really be trapping myself in the snare of valuing my work through the reflected glory of the endorsement, implied or actual, of humanitarian organizations whose work I respect?
And then the absurdity of this situation came home to me, literally. Someone who works for me, whom I will call Amal, came in to work several weeks ago looking terrible. When I asked her what was wrong she showed me a head-wound that she’d got falling down the broken stairs in her building. This was all too conceivable – I’m no forensic investigator, but I’ve nearly somersaulted down enough broken steps in dark Cairo stairwells during power cuts to believe her story. I checked the wound, asked her some basic first aid questions to make sure she wasn’t concussed, gave her a couple of homeopathic remedies for bruising and shock and sent her home early that day. But she didn’t bounce back to her usual cheerfulness. As the days turned into weeks and I asked repeatedly if she was ok, if she wasn’t well, I was always met by the same smiling assertion that she was very well indeed. But two days ago when my husband asked her what was wrong, she looked down at her hands and tears appeared at the corners of her eyes.
I had taken the whole thing at face value. It hadn’t been the stairs, of course. Her husband had hit her over the head with a metal lamp.
I knew that every few years Amal’s husband would get aggressive with her and beat her. I knew that she should never stay too late at work or he would give her a hard time when she got home. But I knew, also, that this is not abnormal in Egypt for a woman of her class and situation, and then she always played it down, talked up his qualities, said he did it rarely. Indeed, when I had first got to know Amal, her husband had been threatening to take a second wife and she was fighting with everything she had to keep him, and in nine years, I had only seen her bruised once. But, it turned out that I had no idea of the life she was enduring. No sense of the put-downs and humiliations she was subjected to every day, the casual violence he inflicted on her body and spirit even during the course of a quiet evening at home watching TV, no appreciation of the fear she had to battle with and replace with resignation every time she left my house to go home to hers. As she talked I watched her, and realized that although I’d been interacting with this woman for nearly ten years, appreciating her engagement and resourcefulness, her loyalty, support and common sense, and even coming to love her, I’d never really seen her. I’d never noticed how she held her body in, as close to her centre as she could, with her shoulders hunched up and her elbows drawn in as if frozen in a flinch. I’d never seen past the ready laugh and the sparkle of intelligence to the round-eyed vigilance that sought out and anticipated my every expression. I had always teased her that she only ever told me what I wanted to hear, but I’d never understood the real significance of this strategy as one of raw survival.
Amal told me the whole story, and how her brother and other significant male figures in her life had always let her down when she’d called for their help with her violent husband; that they’d led her back, bleeding, to pray with him or kiss him and ask for forgiveness; that her children were so used to it they ‘forgot’ their horror soon after the family uproar that followed every outburst and went back to life as normal. She explained that she was taking it harder this time, not because the beating had been particularly severe, which it had, but because now that the children are older and her daughter was married she felt she could take a stand with her husband – she didn’t need him so much any more. But that this stand was not coming naturally to her and trying to keep up her position was exhausting her.
We talked about the pros and cons of her leaving or staying in the marriage. I gave her the details of CEWLA, ignorant then of how Azza Soliman herself was being marked by the regime whose model of oppressive patriarchy is mirrored in the abuse being meted out in households all over the country. And then Amal packed up and went home.
It was only after she’d left that it dawned on me to offer her my professional help. Here was this woman who had spent much of her life being neglected and abused, who came to my house every day to take up the domestic slack so that I could work with sometimes traumatised clients in another room, and so separate were the two worlds in my mind that I’d not imagined I had anything to offer her beyond some thoughtful advice, a cup of tea and a safe place to be.
And after all those years of having her work for me, what a privilege it was to work with her. Shocking, at first, to feel the dense, solid tissue of her contracted self beneath my hands, the rigidness of her limbs, her eyes large and round, watchful of my every move. And to be her companion as she began to notice how she was holding herself, as her vigilance was challenged by deepening breaths and a stream of yawning, as her tissue began to soften, as her limbs started to find their own weight rather than retract from my touch.
Towards the end of the session she lay on her back and I had my hands under her shoulder-blade. I was present and quiet and in awe of her. How on earth had she managed to keep her lightness of spirit bound in this traumatized body? Amal gasped, as if for air and rolled her eyes towards me. ‘I want to take a deep breath but I’m embarrassed’, she said to my enquiring look, twisting her body as if to make it take up less space. I suggested that if she could allow her breath to do what it was trying to do, she might feel more relaxed. A few moments passed, my hands stayed where they were. A bigger breath came to her, lifting her ribcage, moving her whole chest, declaring her presence in the room as a three-dimensional being. ‘I feel as if you are holding my heart’, she said.
All spiritual traditions have parables where the seeker must go out on a long journey only to find what they were looking for back at home. I wouldn’t necessarily describe this journey I’m on as a spiritual one, but Amal has taught me that if, in striving so hard for my goals and to further this work I believe in so strongly, I do not stay present to what is happening right now, I will miss the important and powerful things that are taking place in front of me, right under my nose.