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Gazans get into the postwar zone

Many have cast aside cultural taboos to learn relaxation techniques

March 22, 2009|Karin Laub | Laub writes for the Associated Press.

GAZA CITY — Deeply conservative Gaza City isn't exactly fertile ground for New Age practices. But women in head scarves and men in suits flapped their arms with gusto while breathing in rhythm in what looked like a yogic chicken dance.

The recent scene in a hotel ballroom broke several cultural taboos, such as not letting loose in public, particularly in mixed company. But the dozens of counselors and social workers, stressed and overworked since the recent Gaza Strip war, eagerly cast convention aside to learn about relaxation techniques.

"We are teaching very simple tools of self-care," said Dr. James S. Gordon, a psychiatrist who runs the Center for Mind-Body Medicine in Washington and offers a parallel trauma program in Israel.

Since 2005, he's taught 90 Gaza health professionals who have reached thousands of patients with meditation, guided imagery, biofeedback and support groups in which participants express their feelings in words, drawings and dance.

"My house became like an asylum after the war," said Naima Rawagh, who works with abused women and said she was flooded with requests for help after Israel launched a three-week offensive against the territory in December in reaction to rocket attacks. She and other counselors are finding ways to connect with the conservative Muslim society.

Ibrahim Younis said he uses passages from the Koran, the Muslim holy book, to illustrate key points such as the need for exercise and proper eating.

Rawagh said she switches to tapes of chirping birds if patients complain that moving to music is haram, or forbidden by Islam.

But mostly the Gazans appear open to what may seem like strange ideas. Many are eager to gain a sense of control after 21 months of border closures after the militant Hamas group seized the Gaza Strip and after Israel's offensive ended in January.

"We are here now because the demand has increased exponentially ever since the blockade on Gaza," said Gordon, who has run similar workshops in postwar Kosovo and for homeless teens in the United States.

About 140 counselors and healthcare workers participated in sessions this month in Gaza City. In a second round several months from now, they'll learn yoga and other techniques.

On Monday, they heard a lecture about deep breathing, with women sitting on the left side of the ballroom and men on the right. They were asked to close their eyes and take deep breaths for guided meditation. Some just folded their arms.

Then the Gaza head of the program, Jamil Abdel Atti, asked them to stand and flap their arms while breathing vigorously, eyes closed. Some giggled, made halfhearted attempts or even sneaked out, but most made a serious effort.

Fatima Suboh, a 48-year-old university teacher, beamed afterward. "I feel high energy, I feel that my blood is working," she said, acknowledging that she felt a little self-conscious at first.

Social worker Ghada Assad, 33, said she would take home what she is learning and use it with her children and clients "so we can laugh and we can have some relaxation for our muscles and some energy for our bodies."

Throughout the workshop, participants shared war stories. Participants in one group, led by a woman in her 20s, sat in a circle on the carpet. They started by "checking in," or telling the group how they felt -- breaking another cultural taboo against being too forthcoming with strangers.

Younis and Rawagh say it's a way of easing trauma quickly.

After the war, Younis visited victims' homes and started arranging support groups by category, such as new widows.

"The demand is huge," said Gordon, who during breaks gave acupuncture treatments to those who asked.

In a remarkable scene for Gaza, a woman in a black robe and veil walked up to him in the lobby and asked if he could work on her.

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