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The Art of being Civilian

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.

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.

 

We showed up at a small office next to a mirror store where a smiley 50-year-old man with two days of stubble sat behind a desk that held nothing but a dirty beige phone.

The print shop has been around since 1975, he said, and before the current Intifada most of their business was commercial printing for Palestinians who live inside Israel: posters for electoral campaigns, award calendars for soccer teams, candy boxes. That business has dried up, since most Palestinians can’t travel between Israel and the West Bank anymore. Now the shop does mostly local printing, whatever work they can get.

Shaheed posters are commissioned by the organization the dead guy belonged to — Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade. The family has nothing to do with it. The organization picks the picture, and the background, and pays for the posters.

“I need a written letter from the organization saying, ‘Print 1,000 posters for martyr x, y or z,’” he said.

What if the person didn’t belong to any organization? I asked. In that case, the poster is funded by the National and Islamic Powers Council, an umbrella group of leaders from all the organizations.

The posters are a quick-turnaround business, he said, because they have to be up before the person’s funeral, which is at most two days after their death. The number of posters printed depends on the importance of the person killed. Usually it’s between 1,000, for ordinary people, and 2,500, for suicide bombers or commanders killed in targeted assassinations. If a person was important enough, the guy said, posters are printed for him in other cities too, but they’re printed in each of the cities separately, since even movement within the territories is difficult.

The price is the same for every organization, he said. He wouldn’t tell us the price.

I wanted to see on a computer how the posters get laid out, so the guy sent us to the print shop’s other office, with all the computers and equipment.

We walked through a warehouse full of large, complicated-looking, black-and-steel machines, and then into a backroom with three Macintosh G4s on a long table, plus a scanner and a Hewlett-Packard printer.

Two brothers — although they didn’t look it — sat in the middle of the room on rolling desk chairs, smiling at us guardedly. I sat down and the translator disappeared for a while. Luckily, one of the brothers spoke decent English.

Qassem (as I’ll call him) started right in by saying that they don’t specialize in the posters.

“We make books, everything,” he said, getting out of his chair to show me, as an example, an empty box that said “Thyme.” “We can print anything. We don’t have contract to do posters.”

He was clearly nervous, which is understandable since rumors here can lead to years of imprisonment without charge, or death.

“The Israeli army came here before,” Qassem said. “They came and take my house. They sleep one night in my house. They ask me, ‘You print [these posters]?’ I say, ‘I print.’ He told me, ‘Why you print?’ I told him because there is no law to prevent me from printing this.”

He explained that before the Intifada, any political material to be printed had to be sent first to the minister of information to get permission. “Now, no law,” Qassem said. “I cannot tell these people, ‘I cannot print for you.’ Go in the street: no laws.”

The soldier pressed him: Do you print for Hamas? For Islamic Jihad?

“I said, ‘I print for all.’ He told me, ‘They pay money?’ I say ‘yes.’ He said, ‘They come here with threats?’ I say ‘no.’ The soldier thought we forced to print posters for Hamas and Islamic Jihad. I said ‘no.’ I do it because there is no law and they pay money. I told the soldier, ‘Bring me [Ariel] Sharon’s picture, I will make you a poster.’”

Qassem’s brother Ali (not his real name, either), who understands English but doesn’t speak it well, broke in at this point, and Qassem translated.

“Before the Intifada, we were doing business with Haifa, with Tel Aviv — making religious statements for Orthodox Jews. Work is work. I don’t care about the contents.”

Qassem went further. “These people —martyrs for us, for all Palestinians, they are the best. The elite.”

Qassem is 50, older than Ali by three years. He has dark-brown hair and a mustache and wears big square glasses. He talked more than Ali but had a more reserved manner. Ali is thin, with reddish brown hair that he’s losing on top. He was expressive when he talked, leaning toward me and gesturing. Both Qassem and Ali had more smile lines on their faces than worry lines — not common among Palestinians — and they both smiled a lot as we talked. I liked them.

Qassem had been an agricultural engineer in Saudi Arabia when the Palestinian Authority came to the territories. He decided in the mid-1990s to go work with his brother, and moved his family back to Jenin. Business was good: That’s why five years ago they needed to buy a big new office in addition to the small place next to the mirror store. Relations with Israeli colleagues were good too.

Qassem translated for Ali. “During the first Intifada, I knew Israeli owners of print houses, and one came to serve in the army here. I talk to him: Hello, how are you. After a while, one of our machines doesn’t work, and I wanted an Israeli expert but no one came. I called this friend and he came and fixed it.”

Ali said he still talks on the phone with Israeli colleagues and friends, some of whom he’s known for decades, but no one visits anymore, even for business. In fact, fulfilling basic business needs, like getting updated machinery, is tricky now. They have to buy machines sight unseen, over the phone, and hope for the best. Money is tight.

How much do you charge to print the posters? I asked. They dodged the question for a while, then said that for 1,000 posters, they charge 1,500 shekels (about $350). Would you still print the posters if you didn’t need the money? I asked.

“Sure,” Qassem said. “If the law here agree with me to make this business, I will make it. If not, I will not do it.”

I asked if I could see a poster laid out on the computer.

No, said Qassem. “After we finish the poster, we throw everything outside, because the [Israeli] army is not all good. Not all understand this is work. We try not to keep anything here.”

He went on. “During this Intifada, when [the army] enter houses, some very good, some very bad — destroying things. They came here to my house two times. Both times, good people, not bad people.” He paused, then added, “This is chance, maybe.”

After almost two hours, a moment came when Qassem and Ali were clearly, in a very polite way, ready for me to leave. We stood up and walked back past the machines, past sheets of wedding invitations, past stacks of candy boxes that needed to be folded up.

Qassem had given me three different answers in two hours to my unasked question about why he prints the posters: because shaheeds are heroes, because work is work, and because legally no one stops us. Then right at the end, he gave one more.

“We don’t like to make these things, because it’s very difficult to print these things,” he said. “But we cannot refuse. We are Palestinian, they are from our country. We cannot refuse. Even we don’t like it, we cannot refuse.”


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