The muddied, bloodied body of a Syrian boy surfaces like a wandering ghost from the rubble of a bombed building. He is carried like a lifeless doll from under the ruins of a home and placed, startled at the world around him, on an orange chair.
The intrusive camera zooms in on him. He wipes his muddied, bloodied face with his muddied, bloodied hand. His hand, muddy and bloody, has nothing to clean itself with. He wipes it on the chair on which he is sitting.
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We should not be watching this.
But we are told that we should because this is an “iconic image” from Syria? Iconic of what?
The word “iconic” has become positively obscene. Syria has run out of icons. Syria is a pain with no barometer for measurement.
All we have is one politics, of blaming and chasing after another. Was this the Syrian regime bombing, or its opposition hiding? Was it the Saudi-backed rebels, or the Iranian-backed regime? Were these the Russian jets flying from Iran to bomb, or US jets flying from Israel or Saudi Arabia to bomb?
Who knows, who cares? What difference does it make when we try to look away from this boy in shame, in helplessness, in despair, in unspoken guilt?
The larger calamity we cannot see
An icon is the image of a saintly figure, say Christ or Mary for example, taken for the original it represents, and made subject of veneration and adulation, extending the flesh, the bone and the blood of the revered person thus made iconic for a posterity with no access to that flesh, bone, and blood.
Now we say “iconic” to encompass the enormity of the terror visited on Syria, or Iraq, or Palestine, which is so overwhelming that it takes the picture of a boy to represent the larger calamity we cannot see, or fathom.
But what do we exactly do with such “iconic” images? What did we do with that other “iconic” image of the lifeless Syrian boy, Aylan Kurdi, found dead by the Aegean Sea; or before it the Palestinian boy, Muhammad al-Durrah, shot and killed in his father’s arms; or, even before that, the raped, murdered and burned body of Iraqi girl Abeer Qassim Hamza al-Janabi?
These “icons” lack any iconography. You can see the headlines the morning after. It was the Russian jets, no it was the rebels hiding, no, it was the Assad forces. No, it was the rebels. No, Iran. No, Saudi Arabia. No, ISIL. No … ad nauseam.
Who is to be held accountable? All of the above. Now what? Syria is a shooting gallery, presided over by a murderous Bashar al-Assad, sustained in power by Russia and Iran, opposed by even more murderous outfits armed to teeth by the United States and its regional allies. In this cacophony of wanton cruelty, what is an “icon”? What can an “icon” mean, or do, or be?
‘Memory for forgetfulness’
The same media that brings us this “icon” today has the attention span of a schizophrenic baboon, and by tomorrow this “icon” will be forgotten for another. Can there even be any meaningful “public” to form any public opinion or public pressure occasioned by such “icons?”
“Memory for forgetfulness”, the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish called moments like this, when we are afraid of losing sight of something that must be remembered.
In the silent bewilderment and steady gaze of the Omran Daqneesh there is the indictment of the entire Earth on which he lives. No fingerpointing to a murderous president here, an obscene king there, or an indecent ayatollah elsewhere, will ever wipe that dusty bloody face or close those piercing, inquisitive eyes.
But remembering it for what, for when, and towards what purpose exactly is that recollection to happen? We live a timeless cycle of normalised forgetfulness, numbed to vicious violence.
President Barack Obama cries openly when there are American children murdered by domestic violence, and yet he has not a tear for a Palestinian child murdered by the guns he gives to Israel with endless repetition and in astronomical figures.
“Haunting video of bewildered Syrian boy goes viral”, Al Jazeera reports. “Images of five-year-old boy, confused after an air strike in Aleppo, spark revulsion across social media.”
Social media? Social media looks like an Hieronymus Bosch painting; murder and mayhem everywhere screaming for attention for a second before this scream is lost in the next, in this echo chamber of hellish ferocity.
This is not an icon. This is Omran Daqneesh. He is a Syrian boy. He is alive. There have been enough remnants and relics of humanity left on this earth to dig that boy out, place him on a safe chair, inside an ambulance, go to rescue the rest of his family, and carry them “to safety”.
But behind him, before he was “saved”, and for a moment staring into the shameless lens of a camera, Omran Daqneesh has left a damning indictment.
In the silent bewilderment and steady gaze of Omran Daqneesh there is the indictment of the entire Earth on which he lives. No fingerpointing to a murderous president here, an obscene king there, or an indecent ayatollah elsewhere, will ever wipe that dusty bloody face or close those piercing, inquisitive eyes.
In front of that face and those eyes every god in every heaven and every creature on every corner of this earth, from the White House to the Kremlin, from Ankara to Riyadh, from Tehran to Cairo, stand accused.
No, this is no icon. This is Omran Daqneesh, a Syrian boy, for one split second shooting through a bare-faced lens to grab your throat – yes, your throat, as it does my throat – and will not allow you to turn away or point a finger at anyone else. That gaze is the look of our damned eternity on this Earth.
Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policies.