Stories from Afar & Up Close

Cohabitation - South Lebanon's Martyrs (film)

An interesting (almost silent) film about the pictures of martyr's in South Lebanon.

a film by Muzna Al-Masri

She writes: "The idea of the film emerged as I was looking for visual elements that would portray how south Lebanese, in view of the summer 2006 war they lived through, were starting the year 2007. Five months after the 2006 Israeli Attack on Lebanon, south Lebanese were struggling to erase the marks that the summer fighting has left on the physical space they inhabit. The whole of south Lebanon felt like one huge construction project, managed by hundreds of small scale, mostly local, contractors.

Reconstruction and its related sounds dominated the scene, yet on the walls of the houses and small shops, locally printed calendars had appeared; I understood them as the villages' pronunciation of how they plan to live their new year. Images of the political leaders declared their political allegiance, seizing space within the house neighbouring teddy bears and images of loved ones. Yet the role of the calendars took another meaning when in one of the villages, Srifa, the locally printed calendar of the communist party had the photographs of the nine martyrs of the party from the village. I contemplated what that would mean to a person who has to face the images of these martyrs every morning as they tear off the sheet of the day that has passed; and what if that image you had to see every morning is that of a friend, a husband, a son? Yet the images did not reside in the calendar alone. They were everywhere, on the streets, at the entrances of the houses of their families, in living rooms and on mobile phones. A self imposed reminder of the summer attack; one that people were attempting to cherish rather than erase.

To think through that presence of the imagery, one could take many routes. What is the mythological meaning of martyrdom? How is it linked to the religious cultural world-view, and that of Shiisim in particular? What socio-political function do the images play? How does their presence ensure a continued political allegiance to the political cause and side they were killed for? Who paid for the cost of printing these photos? And who was the graphic designer that ensured the whole animated image plays the right function?

The martyr as both Super-Human and Non-human I filmed in Aita El-Shaeb, a village of around 10,000 inhabitants on the Lebanese Israeli border. The village was hit hard during the summer attack, and although had no civilian casualties, lost nine of the Hezbollah fighters from the village during the fighting.

The people behind the images are physically dead, but life continues around them. They habitat the same place were lentil soup is being made for the sick members of their family, the little brother of one of the martyrs is first on his class, while the sister of another just had a baby. But are they really dead, the people behind the image?

According to Barthes, “the photograph does not necessarily say what is no longer, but only and for certain what has been” (1984: 85). Yet, what the photograph has to say is dependent too on where it is displayed, and what its “spectator” has within him in knowledge and emotion to engage with it. As such, the same image of the martyr at once reminds us that the person was once alive and he no longer is. By that he no longer is, he is given another life, a non-human one; either a super-human or sub-human one, or indeed both.

One practice that started with “Sana' Muhaydli” in 1985, who at the age of 17 implemented a suicide/martyrdom operation in south Lebanon against an Israeli convoy, was the taping of a video, broadcast on Lebanese television after her death, which she started by the following statement: “I am the martyr Sana' Yusif Muhaydli”. Discussing that self proclamation of death, Toufic sates that: “The dead is no one, as is made clear by the mirror device in vampire films, the vampire not appearing in the speculum; however the dead is not one name, but all the names of history, and therefore, synecdochically, everyone.” (2002: 79).

In that same clip, Sana' Muhaydli says “I am not dead, but alive amidst you..” (quoted in Toufic, 2002: 78), echoing the Qura’nic concept, of martyrs continuing to live after their death, as these two verses of many assert: “And call not those who are slain in the way of Allah "dead." Nay, they are living, only ye perceive not.” (The Noble Qura’n, 2:154) and “Think not of those, who are slain in the way of Allah, as dead. Nay, they are living. With their Lord they have provision.” (The Noble Quran, 3:169).

Martyrs arguably continue to live according to the popular Islamic belief in as much as the cause they died for continues to exist. That continuity in life is possible only by the fact that they continue to “live” as public figures, pronounced and alleviated in status as martyrs, and maintaining a distinguishable identity for the living. As such, the owners of the image of a martyr are not the ones who were closest to him before he died, but those who share the cause he died for, and in case of the martyrs from Aita El-Saheb it is Hizbullah. In February 2007, Hizbullah members asserted the value of the martyrs in their political struggle as they raised their images on the Lebanese border. On the erected posters, that also showed slogans and the place date of each martyr's death (that is, the martyr's date of birth), Haidar Daqmaq, Hizbullah spokesman said the banners were raised "so that enemy soldiers and residents of the border settlements can see them clearly." (quoted in Naharnet 6/2/2007)

We can draw parallels from the Palestinian situation, as in Sharro's discussion of the concept of martyrdom as a manifestation of Palestinian dehumanisation: The 'shaheed' is elevated to a mythological status that is considered a fulfilment of the Palestinian’s existential role. The loss of life is not classified as a human loss, but rather as a gain and a contribution towards the requirements of the Palestinian 'warrior' identity. (Sadek et al, 2002)

As such the “post death” identity becomes reduced to that of “The Martyr”, for he is only worthy of distinction because of his death, and the identity that he possessed before his death, is now marginal, or is of value only to the extent that it has contributed to creating that martyr in him. The erosion of the pre-martyrdom identity was discussed by several artists, most notably by Lebanese performer Rabih Mroue in his 2000 work “Three Posters” and by Palestinian film-maker Hany Abu-Assad in his 2006 film, Paradise Now. As “the soon to become martyr” in Paradise Now attempts to read to the camera his post martyrdom statement, reference to his present life, his day-to-day worries is seen to fall out of what the “film director” of that video allows.

Who then is the person whose image sits inside the family house, for the people who once knew him most to see every day?

According to Barthes, contemplating his “discovery” after looking through the photos of his mother: “Seeing a bottle, an iris stalk, a chicken, a palace photographed involves only reality. But a body, a face, and what is more, frequently, the body and face of a beloved person? Since photography authenticates the existence of a certain being, I want to discover that being in the photograph completely, i.e. in its essence. ‘as into itself..’ beyond simple resemblance whether legal or hereditary” (1981: 107) But what then is the essence we are 'permitted' to discover of the now martyrs when we are to look only at selected photos of them and when their identity has been transformed in public?

Posing for the photographs did the martyrs, as “objects” (appropriately termed by Barthes) of the photos, contemplate the possible future use of that same photo? Would they have posed differently had they known the use of the image? What photos were chosen and by whom? And, where did all the other photos that portray more of the person's identity go? Where are the photos of them with their children and loved ones, and how come they are absent even from the privacy of their own homes?

While the above questions remain unanswered for now, the questions I will look further into is: when the image of the son, the brother who once lived is replaced within the home, by that of the martyr, what does it bring with it?

Colombian sculpture Doris Salcedo in a 1998 series deals with the intrusion of the experience of violence into the private space, as she fills items of furniture, one of which is closet, with concrete to depict that violation of the domestic space. This becomes even more of relevant seeing women' experience of political violence. Analyzing women’s testimonies to the South African “Truth and Reconciliation Commission”, Ross discusses women’s discourse as one of domesticity, locating the individual in the wider web of social relations, in the family, in one’s relationship with time and with silence. (Ross, 2001)

Can one then see the 'transformed' photograph of a loved image, a photo that becomes the reminder of the public, i.e. the war in which the community has lived, as the concrete that fills the closet in the home?"