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The Art of being Civilian 

Saying farewell to suicide bombers and victims of war

Thursday, Jun 19 2003
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The awful premise of suicide bombings is that there is no such thing as a civilian. A witness to last week’s attack in Jerusalem described to The New York Times a victim on the burning bus: “Her face was on fire, her chest, her legs, and at least another five were burning.”

Civilian-ness, as a state of being, is also a casualty of the military responses that inevitably follow (and sometimes precede) suicide attacks: targeted assassinations that end up killing noncombatants in places already so wrecked that there’s not much left to wreck anymore. In Gaza last week, seven civilians, including two children, were killed in one of several Israeli air strikes. The outcome of these two particular types of violence is a black-and-white world in which, as President Bush once said, you’re either with us or with the terrorists. In other words, civilians everywhere must give up their cushy, just-trying-to-make-a-buck lives and pick a side. Of course, who is “us” and who are “the terrorists” can look different, depending on where you’re standing.

Most Palestinians don’t say “suicide bomber.” They say “shaheed,” which means martyr. Shaheed is a big category, though: It includes not just suicide bombers but also civilians killed by accident, and guys killed because they went out into the streets of their own city with guns to fight invading Israeli tanks. Ever since I got here, I’ve been disturbed by some Palestinians’ insistence on using the same word for combatants and noncombatants, and by the willful elision of the differences between people who fight soldiers and people who deliberately blow up ordinary citizens. I don’t understand it. One of the first moments I realized I didn’t understand it was when I was driving through the West Bank city of Jenin and noticed that it was covered in posters with pictures of shaheeds on them.

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Shaheed posters are in fact all over the West Bank and Gaza, but Jenin is so plastered with them that they line the main corridor of the government-run hospital. The vast majority of Jenin’s citizens would never strap on an explosives belt and blow themselves up on a bus in Jerusalem. But more suicide bombers have come from Jenin in this Intifada than from anyplace else except the city of Nablus. The people of Jenin are surrounded, all the time, by pictures of their dead.

The posters all have the same garish, slapped-together look, which is so distinctive it’s like an unsettling new art form. The background, covering the entire poster, is nearly always a picture of the Dome of the Rock, Al Aqsa Mosque, or people scrambling over a giant pile of rubble. Superimposed on that picture, so that it looks like it’s floating, is a picture of a man (or a boy). He looks like a big paper doll, or an apparition, and he may be holding a machine gun, or the Koran, or a baby. Some of the pictures — the ones with guns, for instance — were clearly taken with the shaheed poster in mind; others look like yearbook head-and-shoulders shots.

Seeing a bunch of these posters at once — and in Jenin they sometimes overlap, as older ones fade and new dead men claim the wall space — makes you queasy at the sheer variety of people who’ve died. There are young men in T-shirts, older men in leather jackets, men with one eyebrow, men who look haunted, men who are bearded, clean-shaven, thin, stocky, smiling, scowling, and nearly all of them looking straight at you.

I have a poster in front of me right now that I brought back from Jenin. There are four guys on it because they were all killed at the same time. One of them is young enough that he has that fuzzy non-mustache of the beginner man. Underneath each guy’s picture is his name and title: “son of the Islamic Movement,” “a leader of the Al Quds Brigades.” The writing across the top of the poster says “The Palestinian National Liberation Movement — Fatah — is proud to announce, with the Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine, its heroic martyrs.”

I went to one of the two print shops in Jenin that makes shaheed posters and talked to the shop owners. Maybe in reaction to all the violence that the posters commemorate, I wanted to have an absurdly practical conversation about their design and printing: Does the family show up with a few pictures and consult with a graphic-design guy about which one to use? Does the graphics guy bring out different backgrounds for the family to choose from, but everyone just ends up using the same few backgrounds? How much does it cost to plaster a city with posters of your dead son? Do you ever finish printing one of these posters, look at it, and think, “I never want to print another one of these in my life”? I went to the shop with a translator and a guy who knows the owners, otherwise they wouldn’t have talked to me.

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