Cutting Off Your Nose To Spite Your Face

by NANCY HARTEVELT KOBRIN, PH.D., JOAN JUTTA LACHKAR, PH.D. August 10, 2010
What do we mean -- “to spite your face”? To spite means to desire to hurt, annoy or offend someone. The phrase raises an interesting question: In Islamic culture and regimes like the Taliban, why would smart people do such dumb things as hurting themselves and others even it if means disaster, misfortunate or suffering? 
 
The answer is simple. Many of us are aware how healthy people bond usually by forming attachments, through intimacy and communication. Yet there is another segment of people who oddly enough bond through pain. For these people, bonding with pain becomes a more pervasive force than life itself. Pervasive in the sense that it is an unwelcome influence like toxic poison, which invades the psyche and spreads through a group.
 
This is a form of bonding that is covert and is a nonverbal but brutal communication. Why would someone in their right mind what to induce pain in their self or others? Often the breakdown usually occurs during early childhood when the mother makes the child feel unloved, unwanted, and undeserving. She becomes the mother of pain in the mind’s eye of the child. Although she is not to blame, she is often the root cause as the relationship with the mother is what gets transmitted across generations, recycled on and on. This then impacts the ability to form other intimate and interpersonal relationships. We note this particularly in couples, e.g. Bibi Aisha and her Taliban husband who cut off her nose and ears, whose graphically tragic pictures are displayed here.
 
Because the young child thinks concretely and literally, organizing the data of his experience in this “primitive” way, bonding with the pain becomes internalized. What a shame the Taliban husband did not learn to verbalize his experience of pain or abuse, with his mother (and also father) when he was a little boy.
 
Let us not forget his mother was once a devalued female child and probably an abused wife. He then remains developmentally stuck. This internalized traumatized child must have witnessed his mother being beaten and feeling helpless, grows into adulthood, identifies with the abuser and becomes the abuser himself -- the ultimate male modeling he experienced.
 
Ironically as bad as pain is at least it offers a semblance of aliveness. “Look I exist, I am alive.” “I now have an identity!” “I am now a suicide bomber, I have HONOR, and I no longer have to feel the shame. It is still better to live rather than in the abyss or black hole of nothingness and emptiness. (Think of 9-11 and the black symbolic hole they left behind.) Pain becomes addictive and people who experience pain are enacting an integral part of their culture (childbearing practices, religious ideology, leaders who have had traumatic childhoods, governmental abuse), become addicted to it whereby pain becomes normalized as part of the socio-religio-cultural experience.
 
But wait a second! Aren't we talking about Bibi Aisha’s nose? -- Wasn't it her nose and face which were brutally mutilated, not her husband’s? Yes, this is true. This is quite baffling to most people:  Why can't the nose and the face work together on the same face?? In a literal sense the nose is cut off from the face, split and carved off! This is what we refer to as the language of desperanto -- uncontained desperate feelings that are enactments of split off rage.
 
A nose is a nose and a face is a face. The nose is for breathing and smelling; not intended to be cut off. Yet, in the shame honor culture such as the Taliban, when shamed by the female, the male is said to have lost his nose. This is what is so baffling about people who bond with pain, mainly the distortions. Instead of Mr. Taliban man metaphorically “losing his nose,” he makes his wife literally lose hers. That occurs because Taliban man as part of his culture has never separated from his mother, remains a part of her and thus fused or merged in a conjoined union with the wife now being mother.
 
The bitter paradox is that Taliban man may appear “normal” to others and even an outstanding member of his tribe and religion. Internally however, his sense of self is a hollow shell and a bit like a vampire. His omnipotent self thinks by devaluing the female, he will get power and "balls," instead he gets nothing but blood. This also feeds the rage of the Jihadis for they are Taliban and predators. Islam’s ideologies unfortunately promote the devaluation of the female and non-Muslims and this further compounds the patriarchal tribal attitudes.
 
Even in this day and age, the attempt to understand pain just doesn’t get it. In“Portrait of Pain Ignites Debate Over Afghan War,” Rod Nordland attempts to explore the graphic cover image without understanding the distorted self-image of Taliban men. We, on the other hand, would be negligent if we ignored this aspect. Even though we are speculating that terror has to do with basic fundamental defenses such as splitting, rage, shame, honor, redirected against the mother of pain, and how this impacts drastically on their perception of the world, it is potentially important for understanding the nature and depth of the problems in Afghanistan. Why?
 
Because when one does not know the function of the nose vis a vis the function of a face, how in the world DO Taliban men know WHO the enemy is?  Who is the real enemy?  Is it their nose? Is it their face?  No!  The real enemy lies within themselves; it is their self-hatred turned outward to find an external enemy to assuage and justify the real internal one.
 
Bibi Aisha is now in the U.S. receiving extensive reconstructive surgery. A brave young woman, she did not “lose face.” We wish her a full and speedy recovery. The practice of regaining honor by cutting off the nose points to a delusion. In the end the Taliban man also cut off his own nose and spited himself - 'SEE, EVEN SMART MEN DO STUPID THINGS!’
 
Dr. Nancy Kobrin, a psychoanalyst with a Ph.D. in romance and semitic languages, specializes in Aljamía and Old Spanish in Arabic script. She is an expert on the Minnesota Somali diaspora and a graduate of the Human Terrain System program at Leavenworth Kansas. Her new book is The Banality of Suicide Terrorism: The Naked Truth About the Psychology of Islamic Suicide Bombing. 
 
Dr. Joanie Lachkar is a licensed Marriage and Family therapist in private practice in Brentwood and Tarzana, California, who teaches psychoanalysis and is the author of The Narcissistic/Borderline Couple: A Psychoanalytic Perspective on Marital Treatment (1992, The Many Faces of Abuse: Treating the Emotional Abuse of High -Functioning Women (1998), The V-Spot, How to Talk to a Narcissist, How to Talk to a Borderline and a recent  paper, “The Psychopathology of Terrorism”  presented at the Rand Corporation and  the International Psychohistorical Association. She is also an affiliate member for the New Center for Psychoanalysis.

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