It is no surprise to read about an artist or intellectual committing suicide in the Western media, but to read the news of the suicide of an Arab intellectual – and a Saudi one in particular – then this should cause one stop and think.
Saudi media recently published the news of the suicide of a Saudi archeologist, who had written dozens of academic books and research papers, oversaw a number of students, and whose prolific career ended only a few months ago.
The published article gave no clear reason as to why the archeologist committed suicide, however in a phrase that covered all the bases, the Saudi Commission for Investigation and Prosecution was quoted by the Saudi al-Madina newspaper as saying that this suicide was caused by psychological, social, and financial pressures.
We prefer not to talk about suicide in our Islamic and Arab societies for religious and social reasons. In the eyes of our society, suicide is something that belongs to foreign cultures.
Suicide is not common in Islamic society, or at the very least it is not something commonly acknowledged. Some people like Bahraini intellectual Mohammed Jaber al-Ansari attributes the rarity of suicide cases in Islamic society to the nature of Muslim culture which is based upon monotheism, in the face of duality and clashing [which foreign culture is based upon]. This is contrary to the idea of Greek tragedy, for monotheism radiates a spirit of self-harmony.
I asked an expert on psychology about the issue of suicide. He stressed that there is a real problem in the Arab world with regards to suicide. The expert said that suicide is a natural symptom of psychiatric disorder, and there is no difference between one culture and another or one society and another, in this regard, and that such disorders are fundamentally like any physical disease such as cancer, diabetes, etc. However due to the social attitude in the Arab world towards suicide, when suicide cases occur, people resort to fabricating fictitious causes of death.
Is suicide an idiosyncrasy of intellectuals?
It is hard to say, for an intellectual, first and foremost is like any other person, and has his own personal problems. Therefore perhaps something more than general problem such as the combination of general problems and personal tribulations may cause an intellectual to take the decision to end his life. For example the Lebanese poet Khalil Hawi took the decision to commit suicide during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. However al-Ansari stressed that Hawi’s suicide was not caused by just one reason. There were emotional reasons for Hawi’s suicide, and the Lebanese poet was also distraught by a robbery which had taken place at his mountainous residence, particularly since he took obvious pride in his home as being a symbol of purity in the face of pollution.
Others Arab intellectuals like Jordanian Taysir Sabul and Egyptian Arwa Saleh, also committed suicide. There are also examples of ethical suicide which can be seen in an intellectual refraining from writing and retiring from public view. All of these gestures – if we set aside the personal dimensions – are a form of protest.
If this is the case, why have we not heard of any Arab politicians committing suicide, especially as these politicians are the ones responsible for creating the political reality being protested against?
The exception to this is the suspicious circumstances surrounding the death of [Egyptian] Field Marshall Abdul Hakim Amer, and those cases of slaughter which took place in dictatorial Arab countries.
Does this then mean that artists and intellectuals are more “sensitive” than politicians?
An individual suicide may perhaps be a microcosm for suicide in general, and so in a moment of despair when it seems that there is no possibility for change, an individual may jump from the balcony of life into the abyss of death. Is Arab society currently facing a similar state of despair?