Time Collapse in Iraq?

In his book Bloodlines: From Ethnic Pride to Ethnic Terrorism published in 1997 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Vamik Volkan describes the phenomenon of time collapse. It happened during the Serbian-Bosnian conflict when Christian Serbs mistook Bosnians for Turks — or really experienced Bosnians as Turks — and gruesomely sought revenge for wrongs committed centuries earlier. I think that during the Baathist rule over Iraq as well as just before Saddam Hussein’s execution the same thing occurred — when he warned his compatriots against the incursion of “Persians,” people who in fact were not Persian but Arab Shi’ites.

This phenomenon of time collapse is fascinating. Vokan describes it thus:

“Under normal conditions, with the passage of time, individuals mourn losses — of people, land, prestige — associated with past traumatic events and work through feelings of fear, helplessness, and humiliation. Mourning and working through the effects of an injury signify the gradual acceptance that a change has occurred. The ‘lost’ elements — a parent, a country — no longer exist in the present reality; they can no longer satisfy one’s wishes.”

Volkan notes that in situations in which people who were once enemies finally meet there is a time collapse, the stinging sensation in which something that occurred generations or even centuries earlier is immediately felt. Describing meetings arranged in the 1980s between Arabs and Israelis, Volkan writes: “The traumatic events…sounded as though they had occurred only the day before. The feelings about them were so fresh it was clear that genuine mourning for the losses associated with these events had not taken place. Furthermore, representatives of opposing groups acted as if they themselves had witnessed such events, even though some had taken place before they were born.”

“This is an example of time collapse,” Volkan writes, “in which the interpretations, fantasies and feelings about a past shared trauma commingle with those pertaining to a current situation. Under the influence of a time collapse, people may intellectually separate the past from the present one, but emotionally the two events are merged” (these quotes from pp. 34-35).

I recognize this phenomenon immediately. My mother is Greek, and I grew up hearing about centuries of subjugation by the Turks during the Ottoman Empire. My mother’s land, Crete, freed itself in the 19th century, but the wounds were still fresh a century later when I was a college student. In my early 20s I hadn’t yet read Foucault or Nietzsche or any postmodern theory that would give me pause about the discipline of “history,” but I was already acutely aware that there was always more than one story about what had occurred in the past, even about what occured five minutes ago. So I decided to take a course on the Ottoman Empire. The class met around a small conference table. Across from me during that first session was a very demure, beautiful young woman with thick wavy brown hair. We all introduced ourselves. And she introduced herself as Turkish. This was the first Turk I had ever met in my life. And immediately, without any conscious bidding or will, I was filled with dread and horror that here just two feet from me sat my enemy. The feeling was cognitively shocking. What was I thinking? But the feeling overwhelmed me. I was, now I know, experiencing a time collapse. I had been walking around all these years carrying the trauma of my ancestors, a trauma never worked through, a trauma that afflicted me even though I had never experienced it first hand.

This makes me wonder about what our country has unleashed in Iraq. The Sunni / Baathist antipathy to Shi’ism, to the the majority of Iraq is now grimly exploding. The ancient Arab strand of Shi’ism is being conflated with the Iranian “threat.” The holy lands of Iraq, so dear to all Muslims, are now contested territory for Islam itself. Iran has an interest in it. Arab Shi’ite culture, including the majority of the Iraqi people, have an interest in it. Sunnis have an interest in it. And here it all goes, imploding, time collapsing upon itself.

Reflect on this BBC report of Saddam Hussein’s last moments:

Dressed in a white shirt and dark suit and overcoat, he was handcuffed with his hands in front of him and carried a copy of the Koran in his hands, which he asked to be given to a friend.

A judge then read out the death sentence.

Judge Haddad described what happened next:

“One of the guards present asked Saddam Hussein whether he was afraid of dying.

Saddam’s reply was that ‘I spent my whole life fighting the infidels and the intruders’, and another guard asked him: ‘Why did you destroy Iraq and destroy us? You starved us and you allowed the Americans to occupy us.’

His reply was, ‘I destroyed the invaders and the Persians and I destroyed the enemies of Iraq… and I turned Iraq from poverty into wealth.’

Who were these “Persians” he “destroyed”? The Iranians? The Kurds? The majority Shi’ite population? I don’t know the answer, but I find the question thoroughly fascinating, appalling, and sad. This world of ours has much mourning to undergo.

This work of mourning will not be accomplished through war. War is just an “acting out” of trauma, not a way to work through it. War — especially war that is decidedly not in self-defense — is a repetition compulsion. And often what is perceived as “self-defense” is an instantiation of time collapse. I cannot begin to fathom the overdetermined status of the war in Iraq, how many traumas are overlaid on other traumas. But I can perceive this much: in the 15th century the West began to colonize the Americas just as the Ottomans conquered eastern Europe. My dear (in time-collapse-time) city of Constantinopoli was conquered by Turks who renamed it Istanbul (the short-hand Turkish way for saying “to the City” i-stin-mpoli — Constantinople was “the city” — tin poli — of that day as New York City is “the city” of our day). The Battle of Kosovo gets replayed hundreds of years later after the disintegration of Yugoslavia. These schisms and traumas and wounds over centuries, between brothers (in Islam), between cousins (in Serbia), between peoples (Europe, Americas, Arab, Persian, East, West), even “peoples of the Book” are endlessly reenacted so long as we do not meet with each other, so long as we do not sit two feet across a table from each other and try to fathom together what our peoples have undergone.

By Noelle McAfee

I am professor of philosophy at Emory University and editor of the Kettering Review. My latest book, Fear of Breakdown: Politics and Psychoanalysis, explores what is behind the upsurge of virulent nationalism and intransigent politics across the world today. My other writings include Democracy and the Political Unconscious; Habermas, Kristeva, and Citizenship; Julia Kristeva; and numerous articles and book chapters. Edited volumes include Standing with the Public: the Humanities and Democratic Practice and a special issue of the philosophy journal Hypatia on feminist engagements in democratic theory. I am also the author of the entry on feminist political philosophy in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and well into my next book project on democratic public life.


  1. Noelle–Your story about the young Turkish woman is moving. I think you’re right that part of what’s going on in cases like that is “time collapse.” (I felt a little of it myself, on a recent first trip to Germany.) There’s also the more obvious and less interesting phenomenon of stereotyping. Instead of seeing an individual, at first you saw a “Turk.” That can happen even when there’s no historical or temporal dimension–can’t it?

  2. Peter, Yes, of course stereotyping can also come into play. But I don’t think that this was going on here. I honestly don’t have any stereotype of Turks, not in the sense of a derogatory generalization about the characteristics of a set of people. Stereotypes I think are cognitively mistaken generalizaitons. The phenomenon of time collapse is not really cognitive at all. It’s much more emotional, sudden, and unbidden. A stereotype can be unlearned. The otherness of the other in time collapse has to be worked through, in the psychoanalytic sense. In fact, Vamik Volkan, the author of this term uses the tools of psychoanalysis to understand and try to heal ethnic conflict. Interestingly, he and Harold Saunders are old friends and both find each other’s work useful. Volkan quotes Hal Saunders stage theory of sustained dialogue.

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