In Peter Paul Rubens’ “Massacre of the Innocents” (1636-1638), we see a European artist’s rendition of the Biblical story of infanticide by Herod the Great, the Roman-appointed King of Palestine as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew. Rubens was not the first artist, or the last, to depict this key narrative in the history of Christianity. In each artistic rendition the European Christianity mourns an inaugural moment in the traumatic birth of its tragic beginning. That mourning – and its successive showing and telling – is ennobling, sacerdotal, configurative with the history of a world religion.
From this definitive story in the history of Christianity we can cut to Picasso’s “Guernica” (1937) where we see the story of a perfectly historical, contemporary, and brutish bombing of Guernica, a Basque village in northern Spain, by German and Italian warplanes during the Spanish Civil War.The painting marks the elegiac remembrance of a horror that enables the Spanish and by extension the European who have stood in front of that work to mourn the slaughter of innocent people closer to their time and history.
Different cultures may mourn differently – by public rituals, by works of art, passion plays, ceremonious performances of poetry, religious commemorations – but mourning they do, as an act of redemption. Through acts of mourning, cultures reconstitute themselves, gather their courage and collect their bearing, to face the unknown, the frightful future.
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Picasso’s iconic painting in turn became the inspiration for the contemporary Iraqi artist Dia Al-Azzawi who depicted the slaughter of Palestinians in 1982 by the Lebanese Phalangist under the direct supervision of the Israeli army in the two refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in Beirut.
That particular carnage had any number of other enduring tragic, literary, and poetic memorials: the suicide of the Lebanese poet Khalil Hawi (1919-1982), the writing and subsequent publication of Elias Khoury’s novel Gate of the Sun, Jean Genet’s meditative jeremiad “Quatre heures a Chatila” (“Four Hours in Shatila”),Mahmoud Darwish’s poem “In the Presence of Absence”, Adania Shibli’s novella Touch, and many other landmark works.
People need time and meditative tenacity to mourn, to reconfigure themselves, to collect the remnants of the memory of those they love and have now lost, soon after or in fact as they collect their remains from the rubbles that brutish violence of murderers have made of their lives, before they burry them for the eternity that is their sorrow – whether in Guernica or in Sabra and Shatila, or now, perforce, in Gaza.
Mourning restores the dignity of a people, locates them back on the moral map of their being.
Who would be the Rubens or Picasso or Mahmoud Darwish of our time – what would be their artistic medium, with which they would remember, recollect, mourn, and honour the slaughter of Palestinians in Gaza in 2014?
As we see the current slaughter of Palestinians in Gaza, and as the internet is flooded with pictures of dead children, an obvious question is who and how and by what manner will show and tell the moral and psychological terror of this latest moral depravity? Who will craft a memorial sanctuary for the Palestinians who have lost their loved ones, and by extension for other Palestinians whose homeland is being destroyed and stolen from under their feet, and by further extension the 1.3 billion Muslims, and even more millions of non-Muslims who bear witness to their suffering and endurance?
Who will draw, paint, write, sing, dance, film, stage, or recite the deaths of these Palestinians – and thus hold us together as we mourn? Will the military generals, the zealot ideologues, write their history too, or will the maimed, the murdered, the dispossessed, the robbed, the wronged, the imprisoned, the weakened, and the vilified have their say too?
That telling is not merely for the historical record. It is, more immediately, to allow for the momentary pause of mourning that restores a sense of self-assuredness, of quietude, of an intuition of transcendence that defines a people.
This last slaughter of Gaza has not made the Palestinian cause a global cause, for it always was. But something else has happened this time around. The lightweight of the Palestinian children murdered by the Israeli death machine bears too heavily on the conscience of the globe.
Consider a noble, simple, and yet so astonishingly powerful act of mourning for the Palestinian children by a few mothers in Iceland, which I hold more significant than even the massive rallies mounted by millions of people around the globe.
“In the tiny village Isafjordur in Iceland, a few women who were fed up and horrified by the news of bloodshed and killings in Gaza, Palestine, got together and held a very symbolic demonstration in the plaza of their home town. They gave a little speech and read some poetry to a relatively big crowd that had gathered to take part.” In the middle of the village, these good women put up clothes lines in an empty plaza on which they hung children’s clothes and asked others to do the same.
“In the end the demonstrators had hung up about 400 pieces of clothes – one for each child killed in the Israeli bombings on Gaza in July-August 2014.”
“That’s more children than attend the children’s school in our village,” one of the participants noted. “Hanging clothes on a line is an act of caring, something a parent does for the family.”
But here on this occasion that caring common act has become a universal act of mourning, by a people farthest removed from Palestine and the brutish violence visited upon them for decades. These hanging children’s clothing items have become floating signifiers. They must have clothed the children of caring parents, but they have now left those bodies and come here, hanging, representing something else.
In her loving obituary to Jacques Derrida, Judith Butler notes, “his own writing constitutes an act of mourning . . . it is not his own death that preoccupies him [when he writes on his contemporary thinkers who had died before him] but rather his ‘debts’. These are authors that he could not do without, ones with and through whom he thinks. He writes only because he reads, and he reads only because there are these authors to read time and again.”
Mourning here, between Butler and Derrida, as between Derrida and the thinkers he knew and mourned becomes an act of public acknowledgement of debt, of paying a debt publicly, a debt of gratitude, as in without you I could not think.
In Gaza, we mourn not thinkers and texts, but babies and their parents. We mourn the nascent moments when children could become thinkers and their fears and dreams their unwritten texts, unpainted canvases, unsung poems: A list of their names is now all that has remained: Ahmed Nael Nizar Mahdi, 16, male, Hanaa Mohamed Fouad Yousef Malka, 27, female, Qassem Jabr Edwan Awda, 11, male, Aseel Ibrahim Fayeq Al Masri, 16, female, Abdalla Ramadan Jameel Abugazal, 4, male. . . .
Those empty hanging clothing items in that village in Iceland hold the ghosts of our thinkers’ past, the death of our thinkers future, and the phantoms of our dumbfounded bewilderment now.
Mocking those murdered souls, Zionists put ads in civilised people’s newspapers to laugh and snicker at the dead bodies of Palestinian children from the cockpit of Israeli fighter jets, funded by the selfsame purses that purchase those white pages of very civilised European democracies to celebrate their freedom of expression and mark our barbarity, stage our savage moments of mourning.
Will this civilisation they advertise last – should it? Where should we savages go to mourn our murdered children, to bury the bones of our slaughtered elders, to build a monument for our fallen heroes? Is there an outside-text to the green pastures of these civilised people, any barren desert at all outside the fruitful texts of their democracies, as I hear the suddenly interrupted cries of a murdered Palestinian child?
Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York.
Follow him on Twitter: @HamidDabashi