Civilizational Anxiety

Something always felt foreign to me about the black asphalt streets, which sparkled in the summer sun as if encrusted with diamonds, of my hometown Palo Alto, California. Or maybe the foreign was me, with my black hair and dark brown eyes and skin that tanned easily. My family and I would take trips to Pakistan and Bangladesh so that my mother and stepfather could visit their respective families. Each trip was a two-week suspension of the sense that something was about to go wrong. The simple op-positions to Palo Alto – that car steering was on the right side, that livestock were on the streets, that things were dirty and chaotic – served to satisfy my seven-year-old mind, which was quelled by simple binaries. I remember playing cricket in the streets of Clifton, Karachi, and taking comfort in the recognition that everyone around also had shades of the same skin tone and eye color, as if the whole city was populated with the two kinds of brown in the M&M packs of the 70s and 80s, before they replaced the tan with blue. I also remember my shock and indignation when I saw an albino neighbor leave my cousin’s apartment complex one day while we were playing in the courtyard. His blond hair and pale skin were threats to my control – my neatly constructed dichotomies. His very existence was an unwelcome variable.

My association with “the East” as an anti-anxiety remedy started early. People with elevated anxiety levels, especially agoraphobia, control their environments in favor of a safe haven, a space deemed so because of their perceived level of control over it. They limit trips to grocery stores, strip malls and open spaces, and also avoid social occasions and traveling long distances because the unbearable spike in their anxiety renders them flush with heart palpitations and a sense of doom so acute it feels like their extinction is imminent – the proverbial fight or flight gone haywire. I know because I suffered from anxiety for many years, a prognosis diagnosed retroactively by a licensed therapist. But instead of micromanaging my daily trips, I controlled my geography. I avoided entire hemispheres in favor of others. My anxiety was civilizational.

My father, a U.S. naval doctor, left my mother when I was one. The drama was the stuff of TV movies. It was then that he decided he wasn’t, after all, up for the responsibility of a wife and child in his adopted, bachelor home of California, and moved my mother and I back to his hometown of Karachi, Pakistan. This was not without taking away my mother’s green card and my American passport. My mother eventually found a way out of the clutches of my devious paternal grandmother (with her documented intent to slow-poison my mother) and out of the country, aided by the generosities of a Jewish-American woman traveling in the region. She had heard about my mother from a family friend, and with the patriotic indignation of kind Americans, remarked to that friend, “But the child is an American citizen!” She secured my temporary passport and my mother’s papers from the consulate in Karachi. Extended family helped us sneak out of the house and board a Swissair flight out of Karachi that would eventually land back in California.

There began a custody arrangement between my mother and father, whereby she, single and working full-time, would send me on allocated weeks to my father’s apartment, and he would move houses without informing her, leaving her with no way of locating me. It would take my mother months each time to come up with the cash to hire a private investigator to locate me and bring me back through court order, yet she still sent me so that I could have a relationship with my father. The fourth and final incident was when my father woke a three-year-old me and said, “We’re driving all the way to another country!” I fell asleep in the car, and I woke up seemingly just a few minutes later in Mexico to enjoy a bullfight, again in a place with people who looked like me. That one-day vacation was the last day I saw my father, who liked to break all kinds of rules and let me sit in his lap and help with the steering on the I-5 Northbound drive back to San Diego, seatbelt optional. The court rescinded his custody rights but ordered child support and allowed for supervised visits. My father, climbing the ranks towards Lieutenant Commander, rescinded those rights and refused to pay formal child support as well as meet my mother’s informal requests for money for basic medicine and clothes, citing no money to spare.

As an adult, my therapist taught me that the experience of living without my mother for months on end, not knowing when I’d see her again, was considered “trauma.” I learned that this trauma was exacerbated when my mother remarried and traveled to Pakistan for a month with my new step-father, leaving me behind with a revolving schedule of my stepfather’s colleagues because she too wasn’t allowed to take me out of the country. But I learned much later that I was traumatized, after six years of self-medicating by controlling my geography.

I began to have nightmares that something would happen to my mother and I would be permanently alone. My stomach was perpetually knotted. When my mother and stepfather returned, my mother insisted she continue working to pay my expenses. As a latchkey kid, my steady diet of cereal and milk tightened these knots in my stomach, securing a long fate of perpetual constipation. The 1980s era milk cartons in front of my cereal bowl displayed child-kidnapping cases. Our teachers would tell us to decline candy from strangers, and showed us filmstrips that warned us to avoid men in trench coats at playgrounds. These warnings terrified me, but I told no one. I would let myself in after walking home from school and leave the TV on, the sounds of PBS after-school programs soothing the jitteriness of being alone, until my mother and stepfather came home from work and the din of dinner preparation served up some normalcy.

It was those early elementary school years of being alone when I think I subconsciously equated being alone with being anxious. But it was graduate school that gave a name to this solitude in society, and it was humanities and social science theory that helped me understand this particular way of being originated in a specific place and in a specific time. In my hyper-anxious state, housed in frenetic New York and fueled by a Foucault-heavy reading list, I began to understand that the way of being in what has come to be called “the West” was a construction that created a narrow field of possibilities for how to be. These limited choices were in part presented through disciplinary institutions — the bodies that regulated birth, life, illness, and death. This incred-ible idea of biopower which, according to Foucault, produced a generalized, disciplinary society[1]Foucault, Michel. Security, Territory and Population: Lectures at the College de France 1977-78. Translated by Graham Burchell. Edited by Michel Senellart. New York: Picador, 2007 , both frightened me and reminded me of the limits im-posed on my childhood, where court-ordered rules marked the end of being with my father. Because these limits I read about were rooted in time and place, I began to believe my anxiety could be relieved by controlling the variables of “time” and “place.” My exhausted body needed some relief from its hyper-vigilant state. My mind tried dutifully to help, and its panicked state chose “flight.” When it came time to choose where to book this flight, I (naively, and like an Orientalist) searched out a locale on the eastern hemisphere that was “timeless,” or at least anachronistic, trying to remove both variables out of my control. That place for me ended up being Damascus, Syria.


My childhood affinity for easily digestible binaries coupled with anxiety in the western hemisphere led to my fascination of places deemed “Other.” The USSR had broken up while I was still a child, but Soviet policy had long influenced and allied with Syria’s Baath party. Combined with George W. Bush’s castigation of Syria as part of the “Axis of Evil,” Syria’s economic isolation signaled to me that it would be different enough from Silicon Valley while some parts would resemble Soviet-life enough that I could abstract something palpable. It followed the old Soviet model, had ties to Russia and an isolated, state-run economy. There was only one kind of bottled water, hardly anyone spoke English, and there weren’t a lot of Americans like there were in Beirut and Baghdad.

I had already spent a summer in Beirut between graduate school semesters at NYU. Beirut was a place I then saw as a sort of transit lounge for some Westerners who absorbed it as Middle East Lite, before moving on to places like Morocco, Egypt, and Iraq. The label “the Paris of the Middle East” had some element of truth to it, but for me this mix made its “Middle East” part too diluted. There were too many similarities with California – the beach-bronzed aesthetic, plastic surgery, the inefficient public transport that left you wanting for a car. In Beirut, my anxiety was increasing. It felt like who-ever I met, knowing I was a foreigner and couldn’t speak fluent Arabic, tried to accommodate me with a show of Beirut’s similarities with Europe and the U.S. “Have you been to Monot?” they would ask wide-eyed, eager to take me to the famous street lined with modern, glitzy lounges in Achrafie. Trips to these clubs, meant to acclimate me to the region, made me more uncomfortable. The strobe lights almost tried to exclaim Beirut’s party status as on par with the best nightclubs in New York, L.A., or European capitals. These friends meant well, and couldn’t have known what was ailing me, and that my sought-after cure was, like in my childhood, something opposite that would quell the anxiety. Plus, it was not as isolated from the “invisible forces of power” that limited my freedom[2]Foucault, Michel. Archaeology of Knowledge. New York: Pantheon Books, 1972.. I thought if Syria was economically isolated, it might also have been isolated from these forms of modern power, or at least less influenced by it.

As a kid in my weekend Islamic school classes at Stanford, I had learned the story that the Prophet Muhammad was riding in the upper mountains of Syria when he paused to look down at ancient Damascus. A companion asked if he was planning on entering the city, and he replied, “No, because I only want to enter Paradise once.” Damascus did feel like Heaven. It was an anxiety-free heaven anointed by the Prophet of Islam and the United Nations safe city rankings. I had already let academic theory legitimize my civilizational anxiety. Religion corresponded with my “rational” conclusions; it became one more foundational stone in the fortress I was trying to build, which quickly became bounded, more contained, and more isolated.

A friend from L.A. was touring Beirut with his father and wanted to take the obligatory tourist day trip to Damascus. That seemed like a good time to make my move, and so one clear, cold day in January, I took a servees to the depot where Lebanese and Syrian cabs would drive between the (aptly named for my purposes) Anti-Lebanon mountain roads. The cab deposited us at the Baramke bus depot and from there, with a Lonely Planet, I found a hotel in central Damascus where I planned to stay until I could get the lay of the land and figure out where to live. I said goodbye to my friend and his father, with no cellphone number to give them nor my family back home. I would ask for directions from young men wearing t-shirts with English writing on them. It took me more than a few times to realize there was no correlation between the English on their shirts and their language skill set – no one spoke English, not even the few words people in other countries can speak, unlike the beggars on Karachi streets. I also realized the hotel, like the airport, was a culturally neutral space where I could behave as an international traveler, and the code of behavior was prescribed, or predetermined, and therefore known. I didn’t, however, make the connection that the existence of these spaces meant imagining the city as an anxiolytic was a very problematic thesis.

I eschewed the modern apartments for a room in an open-air, roofless house with a courtyard in the old city, the “oldest continuously inhabited city” in the world, near where St. Paul used to walk. If my home was listed in an American real estate ad, it would’ve said “Jesus descent-adjacent.” I lived near the minaret in the Ummayyad Mosque where it is prophesied Jesus will land upon his return from heaven. This prime real estate deepened my belief that the blessed land would absorb my latent unease.

In Syria, I thought I found all the markers of civilizational difference I was looking for in the form of external cultural differences. I fell in with a crowd of Iraqi intellectuals who had been living as political exiles since the 90s, well before the recent American invasion precipitated a massive influx of their compatriots into Syria. Their parties were different than American style parties – instead of breaking off and speaking to one or two people before rotating around the room, everyone sat in a circle and one person spoke. Eventually after more and more arak was consumed, an oud would appear and they would all sing sad songs until someone would cry, or a fight would break out, or both, and everyone would eventually hug, kiss, and leave.

Once at a party, I declined a chair that was offered to me in favor of the floor. A Kurdish friend remarked in Arabic, “See how sharqiyeen[3]Easterners are?” to a man I was seeing. He meant to imply that I was somehow closer to the man than his ex-girlfriend, who was French. But the remark validated what I had been feeling inside but left unspoken – sitting on the floor was more “natural,” more primordial, and therefore freer, leading me to believe I had less anxiety in that state. More and more, socializing ac-commodated easy bifurcations. Traditional Syrians and Iraqi intellectuals liked the communal forms of eating where everyone dipped into the same bowls of food and sat on the floor eating without any sil-verware. Being anxiety-free translated into simply eschewing plates, forks, and chairs. My social circle was limited to these sharqiyeen, and my Old City neighborhood, enclosed by those ancient gates, be-gan to mark the boundaries of my perceived safety.

Those who believe in the Law of Attraction say we manifest what we believe, and whether or not that is true, I received confirmation that communal spirit was prevalent in Syrian culture, and that it was the antithesis of life in what they too called “the West.” Any conversation with a Syrian about why I chose to live there followed a formula:

Q. Which is better? Here or There?
A. Here
Q/A. Here everyone is together, but there each person must fend for himself, right?

Yes it was cliché, even to me with my skewed perspective, but each time I heard it, it seemed to settle deeper into my psyche and validate my deci-sion to reside in Syria. I never watched TV unless it was Syrian TV or a pan-Arab news station, both only broadcasting in Arabic. I fell into a self-imposed pop culture exile, resurfacing only once or twice to check People.com in a pay-as-you-go internet café, learning that the girl from Dawson’s Creek had married Tom Cruise, but Brad Pitt had divorced Rachel from Friends.

The consequence of this exile was that I experienced disabling culture shock when I went back home to visit my family in the U.S. Ancient Native Americans had the land bridge on the Bering Strait to link them from Asia to America; I wanted at least a metaphorical bridge linking me to both places. I had desperately sought that bridge in a person with whom I could be in a relationship, but through a combination of fate, circumstance and bad choices, there was no such person, and I was alone in navigating the anxiety that pulsated from the dramatically different environment. This was pre-smartphone, whose smartness for me came precisely from being able to absorb this culture shock; by being able to connect people and experiences from all over the world in a way that I wasn’t able to.

People lament that “everything is the same everywhere.” Intellectually, and as an erstwhile traveler seeking difference, this is frustrating. But there is a comfort in it too. It is astounding to think that my uncomfortable reverse culture shock could, in the present day, have been alleviated by a Facebook status accompanied by some sympathetic likes.

“She hasn’t lived here in awhile!” my best friend had giggled to the Starbucks barista when I didn’t know how to order a coffee properly. My insistence on clinging to external oppositions meant I didn’t feel comfortable with the sanitized rules of conduct in malls and movie theaters. The supermarket aisles were like a museum exhibit of capitalism, and the sheer number of choices overwhelmed me. One winter vacation trip back in California, my anxiety was so bad I gave my little sister a list of gear I needed while I hibernated at home: one hooded sweatshirt (grey), socks (black), sports bra (one), fleece (one), iPod (16GB memory). She went out to the store for me, unknowingly enabling me and my anxiety in a way that Amazon probably does for others now. Each time I made it back on an eastbound flight, I would make friends with at least one person so I could signal to them for help in case I became crippled with a panic attack.

I should have probably taken medicine. But the irony of my anxiety was about fearing a lack of control, and an anti-anxiety pill meant I would relinquish control of my body, albeit frenetic, to the whims of chemicals. That was a variable I wasn’t willing to deal with. Yes, I was too anxious to take medicine for my anxiety. But I was good at covering it up when stateside, making excuses like I was too tired to shop, or that I didn’t want to pay $8 for a movie.

And so the months passed. There was a family wedding in Pakistan and my stepfather called me, asking me to meet him and my mother there. I was on the beach in Tartus and looked out at the seascape, deciding, perhaps influenced by the literal shoreline, that the boundaries of Syria were what defined my safe zone. “I can’t,” I told him. “I just...don’t feel safe there,” I said. Not feeling safe in Karachi, Pakistan in the early 2000s wasn’t a crazy statement to make. But perhaps explaining my civilizational anxiety might have been.

As the time passed, my latent anxiety (worsened through the stress of living alone in a faraway country with no one but a revolving door of friends) threatened to reveal itself just enough for me to narrow my geography, but never enough to fully allow me to reevaluate my “treatment.” I taught ESL classes at a language center affiliated with the American Embassy and sometimes felt as if my nervous energy was about to leap out of me while I was lecturing. I would quickly call for a tea break, or assign some in-class work. I began to assume my disquietude was triggered by the formality of the embassy, by the extra security and guarded scrutiny in the ritzy neighborhood. I began to believe my neighborhood, in the Old City, was my safest haven. In addition to being Jesus-adjacent, there were also a number of saints buried there, like the prophet and apostle John. In the Old City, I felt as if I could exhale a bit and let the blessed, windy streets absorb my swollen stress as I took nightly walks to the famed and ancient Souq al Hamidiyaa and back.

When Israel bombed Beirut in 2006 for Hezbollah’s defense of Lebanon’s southern borders, hordes of Lebanese poured into Syria’s borders for safety. My cousin called from San Francisco imploring me to leave Damascus immediately, saying, “Don’t try to prove how tough you are, don’t be a hero, no one can guarantee your safety if you’re there.” But could anyone guarantee safety from my anxiety in California? I stayed through the war, feeling protected within the Old City’s walls, like a refugee from my own internal battle, in which a part of my consciousness was also struggling for the right to be heard and defend itself against the other side of my consciousness that made efforts to suppress me.

I was forced to confront the accumulation of my irrational and unchecked “logic” when I had my first panic attack in the Old City. I couldn’t locate an external sense of peace to stop my heart from pounding. It felt like a small beast inside me, located next to my heart, leaping out of me. Thinking back, I should have let it leap out and inspected it like a scientist for clues about myself. The bounded walls of the Old City of Damascus were no longer an effective dosage for my anxiety, and there was no way to increase its dosage. I needed safety and security injected into me. How much more could I immerse myself? I thought about moving to Yemen. Meanwhile, I became unfit to teach classes, was soon without a job, and my belief that I could remain anxiety-free if I just controlled my residency leveled.

The end of my stay in Syria was marked by sweat-soaked suffering — insomnia racked nights that led to sleeping on sofas during parties because finally I wasn’t alone. That citadel of safety I had tried to build, modeled on the ancient fortresses protecting Damascus, began to show its cracks.


I got out the same way I came in – by using Beirut as a diluted “West,” a way to acclimate me. Just like those tropical fish that can only acclimatize gradually, Beirut was my acclimatization bag, gently containing me until I was ready to contend with my fears. I lived in Beirut for a few months, weaning myself while working as a waitress at a French style lounge oddly named “Prague” and tutoring the children of Iraqi refugees in their incomprehensible trilingual Lebanese homework. I adopted a stray cat who grounded me, who gave me a reason to be in my apartment that had the clichéd views of Beirut’s mountains and seaside like a picturesque postcard, just like southern California, where my parents now lived. I slowly became more comfortable with the obvious, external signs of western influence – the French-tinged Arabic, the lovely musical Lebanese accents in English. The Starbucks, Subway, Dunkin Donuts, McDonalds.

I know now that anxiety comes from within, from what a therapist and an Internet search later taught me was “childhood separation anxiety” coupled with “trauma.” That it can best be quelled by a combination of low-dosage anti-depressants, regular therapy and some quick-acting benzodiazepines carried at all times in one’s bag or pocket, all the while embracing the anxious feelings as a part of oneself, and most importantly, listening to them.

I know all this now, and live comfortably the farthest east I’ve gone, in Karachi, Pakistan, but not because of its geography and distance from home. I’m comfortable here because the organic chaos is local and accessible, and also easy to put at a distance. I no longer need it as an opposite to annihilate a fear of the modern and sterile. I have all the comforts of home like the Internet, cable TV, Italian espresso, and Game of Thrones. From my conversations with my undergraduate students, I know that they aren’t too different from the twenty-year-olds in America, “because Facebook,” as they would say. And indeed, when I comfortably return to California on my annual visits, there is little to no disconnect anymore in my conversations with friends, trips to sterile supermarkets, or organic almond butter purchases because all of that is avail-able in cities everywhere. Even my alma mater NYU now has satellite campuses in Shanghai and Abu Dhabi. Globalization’s unintended side effect for me has been less isolation, and all of these satellites beam light to me, showing me that there are now many safe ports.

Summer Qassim

Summer Qassim’s work has appeared in business, arts, and culture publications and academic journals from Beirut to Los Angeles. She was a Fulbright scholar to Syria in 2005 and, until recently, taught language and social science courses as a Lecturer at the Institute of Business Administration (IBA) in Karachi, Pakistan. She will be an MPhil student in the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Oxford as of Fall of 2017.


1 Foucault, Michel. Security, Territory and Population: Lectures at the College de France 1977-78. Translated by Graham Burchell. Edited by Michel Senellart. New York: Picador, 2007 
2 Foucault, Michel. Archaeology of Knowledge. New York: Pantheon Books, 1972.
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Summer Qassim’s work has appeared in business, arts, and culture publications and academic journals from Beirut to Los Angeles. She was a Fulbright scholar to Syria in 2005 and, until recently, taught language and social science courses as a Lecturer at the Institute of Business Administration (IBA) in Karachi, Pakistan. She will be an MPhil student in the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Oxford as of Fall of 2017.

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