Remembering Muhammad Al-Durra

"Remembering Muhammad Al-Durra"
Published: ARAB NEWS, 2005-09-28
Author: Fawaz Turki

ABSTRACT: Author describes al-Dura as a permanent symbol of Israel's opression, and the image of his death carries with it "the emblematic power of a battle flag."

QUOTE: "For in its gruesome starkness, its distinctive dread, that video (and choose here whatever frame you want) jettisons all of the Palestinian conflict's subplots — checkpoints, collective punishment, targeted assassinations, land grabs, home demolitions — and leaves it bare for us all to see."

KEYWORDS: Martyrology, J Paradigm, Palestinian Suffering.

URL: Read source

TWO men shot Muhammad Al-Durra five years ago this week, on Sept 30, 2000, two days after the outbreak of Intifada II: The occupation soldier who shot the fatal bullet that killed him, and the photo journalist who shot the iconic picture that immortalized him.

Muhammad, of course, was the 12-year old boy killed in the arms of his father, who had vainly tried to shield him from harm as both crouched, compressed and trapped, between a low wall and a large metal barrel at the Netzarin Junction.

The harrowing image, filmed by Palestinian cameraman Talal Abu Rahma for France 2 television, carries the emblematic power of a battle flag. Its heart-rending intensity, its fevered veracity, puts it beyond all rational understanding. It is a lasting image of the war against the Palestinian people and how Israel has conducted it.

Hundreds of poems have been written about the boy. Several countries, including Egypt, Tunisia and Belgium, have issued stamps commemorating the event. Parks and streets (including one in Cairo, where, tellingly, the Israeli Embassy is located) have been named in his honor.

Yes, that image has encoded its dark derangement in our consciousness, attesting to how a picture, clichés aside, is worth a thousand words, how we live in a world today where a verbal matrix is not the only one in which the articulation and conduct of the mind's eye are conceivable.

For in its gruesome starkness, its distinctive dread, that video (and choose here whatever frame you want) jettisons all of the Palestinian conflict's subplots — checkpoints, collective punishment, targeted assassinations, land grabs, home demolitions — and leaves it bare for us all to see.

Blow up one of these frames, or put it under a magnifying glass, as I have done, and what strikes you most of all is the blood pooling under the boy's legs, an image more chilling than the depiction of any war scene.

The death of Muhammad was the picture seen around the world because photographs transcend language barriers and are relentlessly direct in the message they strive to convey.

"Ever since cameras were invented in 1839," wrote the late literary critic Susan Sontag in "Regarding the Pain of Others," a follow-up to "On Photography," her earlier book on the subject, "photography has kept company with death."

You stop in your tracks here, till you read on: "Once the camera was emancipated from the tripod, truly portable, and equipped with a range finder and a variety of lenses that permitted unprecedented feats of close observation from a distant vantage point, picture-taking acquired an immediacy and authority greater than any verbal account in conveying the horror of mass-produced death."

Not satisfied with the dictum that a picture is worth a thousand words, Israeli officials and their apologists in the US and elsewhere have turned it upside down to read that a picture is worth a thousand arguments — namely that the boy died in the crossfire at the hands of Palestinian militants, not Israeli soldiers. Humbug!

Since the intifada started, and since that provocative walkabout by Ariel Sharon on the grounds of the Al-Aqsa Mosque that triggered it, five years ago today, the Palestinians — left unable to choose how they lived, only how they died — turned from stone-throwing to suicide-bombing, and the Israelis turned from machine guns to tanks and Apache helicopters.

According to the latest figures put out by the United Nations Childrens' agency, UNICEF, 542 Palestinian children have been killed over the last five years. Children under occupation continue to live mutilated lives, many of them, according to the UN agency, "suffering emotional problems," like speech impediments, bedwetting, crying, panic attacks and temper tantrums, symptoms that manifest themselves in adult life as aggressive behavior.

That picture of 12-year old Muhammad Al-Durra embodies that human devastation. It joins that pantheon of iconic pictures from around the world — the horrific image of the execution of a Vietcong prisoner in a Saigon street by a Vietnamese police officer in 1968; John Filo's shot of a girl wailing over the body of a slain Kent State student in 1970; that shot from Vietnam in 1972 of a little girl running — naked and screaming — from a napalm bombing toward the lens of Nick Ut's camera; and most recently, a hooded Iraqi prisoner standing on a box with wires connected to his hands.

All these pictures, like that depicting the death of Muhammad, are not just iconic, but impactful as well, in the way they both represent a radical transformation of how news is delivered and how, through them, we define our objective reality.

I will conclude with a quote from an unlikely source — Donald Rumsfeld. Yes, none other than the American secretary of defense.

At an angry Senate subcommittee hearing in May, 2004, following the release of those photos of grinning American soldiers humiliating their Iraqi prisoners — photos that inspired moral outrage all over the world — Rumsfeld testified, unwittingly attesting to the power of the craft of photography: "It is the photographs that give one the vivid realization of what actually took place. Words don't do it. ....You see the photographs and you get a sense of it, and you cannot help but be outraged."

At that Netzarine Junction, almost exactly five years ago, the camera did not blink. It did not lie. It recorded reality in a visual way that will be etched in our consciousness for generations to come.

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