• Mohamad Tabbaa

On Pain.

It’s still numb. The wound is still open. It still hurts. It’s still disorienting confusing and outright impossible.

And I still don’t know how to deal with it.

Unable to eat, then unable to stop eating. Unable to sleep, then unable to wake.

Some energy: I’ll go to the gym and get some movement into me. Walk to my room to get changed, collapse and wake up five hours later. The following day I make it to the gym; an image crosses my mind mid-workout and I have to stop myself vomiting.

On Tuesday I decided to go back to work after taking Monday off; a sense of normalcy might help. It didn’t. it killed me. The smiles. The chit-chat. The jokes. The normalcy. The hollowness.

But also the silence. The taboo. The elephant in the room. The polite ‘ignorance’ of colleagues describing how bad I looked and what was wrong – was it family, was it workload … was it anything so long as I don’t have to mention that thing? They all know.

I lasted all of ten minutes. Moments later I was sitting in my former supervisor’s office completely broken. I’ve only ever cried twice in front of others: the first, seven years ago when I had to confront my repressed history with police brutality, and now. I said it then and it’s true again now: it kills.

We can put on our best, well-dressed, highly-groomed and perfectly-rehearsed performance of strength and courage. But who are we kidding? We’re broken. We’re imploding. We’re searching for something to latch our pain onto.

In this shattering process of attempting to process it all, one thing has really stood out for me above all else: we don’t know how to grieve. We don’t know how to heal.

I’ve spent the past few years retracting from the front lines, in part because I feel the background is where I’m best suited, but also to take care of myself, to begin the process of healing. Being angry is taxing. Unchecked pain doesn’t heal itself. As I excruciatingly learned from dealing with my policing past, trauma repressed is trauma active and unpredictable. And exhausting.

With slow effort, introspection and reflection, I’ve learned to practice channelling my anger, dealing with my hurt, understanding from where it stems and how I can best live alongside it. How to be healthy. I won’t lie, it’s been difficult. There is much to be angry about. There’s a lot of pain that hasn’t been dealt with. There’s a collective trauma that we haven’t even begun to address. It’s also been difficult in ways I could never have anticipated. After addressing my anger, I found myself unable to write anymore. I had been writing from a position of anger all this time, and that was extremely productive. My first article, published in the Sydney Morning Herald and shared widely, I wrote in a 45-minute fit of rage from beginning to end, including edits. And now, with that gone, I still had the desire but not the drive. It’s been a deliberate and slow process of trying to reconfigure myself to be able to write and engage in a way that it is healthy without the excessive anger; in a manner that’s sustainable and not entirely impulsive.

It’s small wins. I no longer shake uncontrollably when I hear the inevitable news. I can now sit next to a police officer without feeling triggered. I can now speak to leaders who’ve wronged us to the point of betrayal without the red face and stuttering tongue.

That’s not to say that any of the issues that I’ve been angry about have suddenly disappeared, or that I’ve become desensitised to any of them. Our situation. Our leaders. Our organisations. Our constant let downs. Ourselves. I’m still angry about all of these things, because it’s natural to be angry about them. The only difference is that I can still, for the most part, function when confronted with them. More than that, I can place them within a larger framework of meaning-making, and I can position myself more thoughtfully in relation to them rather than purely reacting.

Let me provide an example. Immediately following the attacks, there were (and always are) calls by prominent people to contain our responses – don’t be angry, don’t retaliate, smile, forgive, be polite and whatever you do, please don’t retaliate.

Imagine. Your community is literally massacred. Their bodies – Allah Yerhamhum – are still warm. The ground is still wet and the carpets are still bloodied. And your first thought amongst this catastrophic death, is, how can we ensure the killer and his ilk are protected? How can we make sure those not belonging to the impacted community are not offended? How can we centre the concerns of the dominant demographic?

Consider that. Their first thoughts upon being killed are about their killer.

This is the point of our anger, and it’s perfectly understandable. But let me posit this: the individual who sees his people slaughtered and immediately considers the welfare of his oppressor is the victim of a colonisation so deep that it has penetrated the soul. A person who’s subjecthood is so tied up in their oppressor that they literally cannot see beyond them, even in times of death. A person who has internalised the racial hierarchy to such an extent that the human dignity of his own is rendered invisible against the mere sensibilities of his superior. Yes, I’m angry at this person’s comments. But more than that, I feel sorry for them, and I genuinely do not say that in a condescending manner. This is not a respectable existence, and their actions are not driven by a difference of opinion, approach or politics. I am reminded of an exchange with one such individual who ‘disagreed’ with my opinion by frantically stating, ‘they’re going to take our children!’ These are people who are petrified in the literal sense of the word. These are people deeply broken. The debasement, the depravity of innate dignity, the sheer scale of self-effacement, is horrendous. It’s not that we don’t have a right to be angry; it’s that anger is not the vocabulary that makes sense to this situation.

There is a political battle to be had no doubt. Our very survival depends on it. But let’s understand who we’re dealing with also. This goes beyond a strictly political solution. Our challenge is how to critically engage broken people as broken people without breaking us or them further. How to oppose someone for the purpose of healing them. That’s why this is so fraught. We’re not dealing with differences of opinions that can be debated out, or divergent understandings that can be de and then re-constructed. This I firmly believe is a mistake we have entertained for too long. It’s trauma. It doesn’t engage evenly or rationally.

What is the appropriate response here? I can’t pretend to have anything that resembles a solid answer. What I do know is that I question the utility and morality of angrily reprimanding somebody paralysed with fear, even as I recognise the immense harm they’re causing. Again, this is why it’s such a fraught situation. We need to forge a path that ties the political project of self-determination into the broader objective to collectively heal. A strategic and comprehensive vision that acknowledges the trauma underpinning much of our politics and organises accordingly. I won’t pretend I know what this looks like, but I do know it can no longer be led by anger as it has been for so long.

But there’s another, much deeper element to this. Anger aside, there’s the question of pain.

Heavy pain.

There’s an entire history of betrayal that lingers always and comes to the surface in times like this. I’ve experienced it directly and for some years now have not known what to do with it exactly. There are people today fighting the good fight who were yesterday fighting the bad fight. It was brutal. I’ll speak about myself. I was abused, actively shut out of so many spaces and conversations. Slandered. I could barely walk into a room without a snide remark or dirty glance. People I’d meet would express their shock: “you’re not like what they describe.” My former wife was warned about me from someone who didn’t realise we were married, “watch out for people like him with no deen.” I was accused of sexual assault by people I had never been in the same vicinity with. I was actively shut out of media spaces despite being the only elected media representative in the country. I was dobbed into the Attorney General’s Office for trying to teach my community their rights. Close friends had their houses violently raided with the explicit help of some of these people. My mum stayed at their house to help make their homes liveable again, to help them pick up the pieces of their broken lives and deal with the brutal abandonment. You made mothers cry. You made my mother cry. You made us fear for our safety. Without a word of a lie, you made us pass onto our wives contact lists: who to call if we didn’t come home that night, and in what order. Which lawyers to contact and what to tell them. You made us laugh nervously to hide this pain and fear. You made the idea of spending years in jail a reality we had to confront daily. You made us consider our travel plans over and again in case we find ourselves the target of a drone strike. You forced upon us discussions of who would look after who’s family if one of us went down. You made us squeeze our kids that little bit tighter at night, just in case.


It’s no accident that we’re all unstable. It’s no accident that we’re all broken. It’s no accident that we’re all struggling financially. It’s no accident that we don’t know how to trust. How to engage. How to love.

I want you to know this. I want you to understand your role in this; active, passive, incidental, accidental, well-intentioned or otherwise. You didn’t cause this, but you did contribute to it. You weren’t the masterminds behind this, but you amplified it. It’s unfair of me to use the accusatory ‘you’, I understand that, I really do and I’m sorry. But I can’t write it any other way, my fingers won’t allow me. I have to give honesty to my pain. The accusation is not proportionate to the responsibility, it’s proportionate to the pain. We trusted you and we entrusted you. We pleaded with you. We begged you. You were supposed to be on our side. That hurt. It still hurts.

I also know that you’re broken. That you too have pain that runs deep. That your lives and families and psyches have been hurt in ways I will never understand. I also know that I’ve contributed to that.

I’m sorry.

I’m not saying this to reopen wounds, to retraumatise, re-shame or re-hurt. I don’t say this to condemn anyone to their past; God knows I have barely a shred of innocence in my own. I don’t want confessions or contrition. I don’t want resignations or self-censoring. I don’t wish indignities upon anybody. I’m saying this because I want to heal. I want us all to heal. I don’t want to hold any grudges. I’m saying this because the wounds are still open and fresh; they never closed.

I know some of you have tried your best to make amends, publicly, privately and in ways that are secret. I know some of you live with a cloud of shame that will always outweigh any public apology. I was honest in accepting your apologies. I was honest in saying I forgive you.

But if you ask me am I comfortable with where everything is at? I’m not. I can’t lie.

It isn’t right that that the imbalances built upon the oppression of your brethren are maintained. It’s just not. It’s not fair that some of you feel entitled to positions of authority not because you’re the best placed or most qualified for the role, but because this is the inheritance of your previous life. It’s not appropriate that former alliances with people who have shown no remorse for their role in this violence are maintained or awkwardly avoided. It’s not right that there is no historical record that can tell the story and teach the future so that never again.

I have nothing left in me to say.


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