In Focus

Martyrdom and Mediation

In Three Posters the audience neither witnessed Jamal al-Sati’s act of martyrdom nor did it receive concrete evidence that al-Sati’s death did in fact take place. Al-Sati’s video is only a recording, mediated for viewers through Lebanese television or the authors’ performance, of a verbal testimony that references death rather than enacting it. Indeed, for many martyrs whose bodies were never recovered after their deaths, the tapes they made were the only surviving remnants of their physical state.1 This mediation serves as a reminder that the wars in Lebanon were experienced not simply as identifiable events involving real bodies but also as a series of visual and linguistic manoeuvres played across various media. In other words, the Lebanese wars were fought not only in the streets of Beirut by individual men and women but also through media in which the diverse combatants could engage with and persuade their publics. As Mroué has explained, ‘our bodies during the civil war were in fact passive. We were in shelters. Even for the fighters – they were behind the barricades. It was not a battle between bodies’.2 The war fought on the streets was duplicated and intertwined with television footage, video testimonies broadcasting already-completed missions, and martyr posters commemorating actions that few people actually witnessed in person.

Although it could be argued that ambiguous and uneven media coverage is a common feature of warfare today, the Lebanese Wars might be said to have prefigured the kind of representational instability that the philosopher Thomas Keenan identified in the media coverage of the siege of Sarajevo during the Bosnian War in the early 1990s.3 Taking up New York Times journalist Roger Cohen’s pronouncement that the Balkans conflict was a ‘postmodern war’, Keenan foregrounded ‘the apparent re- or dis-location of the field of knowledge and action to the screen of a monitor and the entry of those representations into the field of the things and events they ought simply to represent’.4 In other words, in a saturated media environment, the direct experience of war can no longer be easily distinguished from its televisual representations.

Al-Sati’s testimony is presented as a direct address to the viewer that implies a one-to-one relationship between speaker and listener. Yet in actuality there exists a third party who remains off-screen throughout the video: the camera operator. Although this person is not visible or audible on the tape, his or her presence is registered indirectly by the manipulation of the camera. Mroué pointed out in a discussion held in 2013 that the camera operator was not likely to be a media professional, because ‘he or she falls prey to the temptation of every beginner: over-using the zoom’.5 By zooming in on al-Sati’s face the camera operator unwittingly ‘invites us to peek at the martyr before his death’. This manipulation of the camera has the effect of producing a kind of voyeuristic gaze that has since come to be associated with reality television. What seems to interest Mroué here is not only the sense of intimacy produced by the amateur camera work but also the emotional detachment that the act of filming presupposes. To the same extent that the operator remains fixed on the frame of the image, he or she is distanced from what is happening in front of it: a person declaring his death. This mediation reveals a question that is central to Three Posters: in the presence of the camera, can Jamal al-Sati act authentically or does the setup turn him into an actor playing the role of a martyr delivering his final words? The latter option would seem to undermine the notion of documentary truth in a postmodern media-saturated age but Mroué’s performance suggests something more complicated: that there are events which happen in front of cameras that are not simply true or false but rest on the suspension of these very categories.This last point not only applies to videos made by martyrs but to the posters which are used to commemorate their deaths.

Martyr and political posters on a wall in the Bashoura area of Beirut 1997

Martyr and political posters on a wall in the Bashoura area of Beirut 1997
Photo: Zeina Maasri 

While the term martyr is used conventionally to describe individuals who suffer persecution and death for a religious cause, in Lebanon, ‘almost anyone who is killed, anyone who dies an unnatural death, is called a martyr’.6 Images of these dead men and women populate the walls of Lebanese cities and towns (fig.1), staring back at the living who more often than not behave as though they are oblivious to their ghostly presence. Posters of martyrs can be encountered in almost any neighbourhood of Beirut, regardless of the sectarian or political identity of the location. Yet despite their ubiquity within Lebanese public life, posters of martyrs are not a topic of open discussion. Their silent presence gives them a paradoxical status; they are both commonplace and taboo.

In her study of political posters of the Lebanese Wars, graphic designer and writer Zeina Maasri argues that in their most basic sense, images of martyrs function as public obituaries:

It is a common practice in Lebanon to post obituaries in public spaces, primarily around where the deceased lived and worked, to inform neighbours and acquaintances of the death, condolences, and funeral proceedings. As a continuation of this practice, the martyr poster is issued by a political party acting as the ‘family’ of the deceased, to inform their community about the loss of one of its members and to honour them as a martyr.7

Furthermore, beyond their simple commemorative function, martyr posters in Lebanon have traditionally served as tools for the construction of geographically defined communities of witnessing.8 In his essay ‘Image, Body, Medium’, the art historian Hans Belting notes how in pre-modern societies the production of cult or religious images was linked to rituals by which the dead were reintegrated into the community of the living:

Images, on behalf of the missing body, occupied the place deserted by the person who had died. A given community felt threatened by the gap caused by the death of one of its members. The dead, as a result, were kept as present and visible in the ranks of the living via their images. But images did not exist by themselves. They, in turn, were in need of an embodiment, which means in need of an agent or a medium resembling a body. This need was met by the invention of visual media, which not only embodied images but resembled living bodies in their own ways.9

In so-called ‘primitive societies’ bodily remnants such as skulls are painted and transformed into objects imbued with magical powers. Animated through cult rituals these artefacts become the means through which the living interact with their ancestors in what the philosopher Jean Baudrillard has called a ‘symbolic exchange of signs’.10 Here, then, the representation of the deceased not only makes present what is absent but takes on a life of its own, serving to structure the beliefs and actions of the living. In contrast, modern societies governed by rational-materialist values treat images not as living entities but as inert objects in the world, in other words, things. Thus while the development of technologies of mechanical and electronic reproduction have created ever more images of death, these images have been stripped of the symbolic value that they once possessed. The result is a media culture in which the religious or spiritual recognition of death is replaced by the deadening effects of images that attempt to disavow or repress mortality. This is one of the principal insights made by the German critic Siegfried Kracauer in his renowned 1927 essay on photography: ‘What the photographs by their sheer accumulation attempt to banish is the recollection of death, which is part and parcel of every memory image. In the illustrated magazines the world has become a photographable present and the photographed present has been entirely eternalised. Seemingly ripped from the clutch of death, in reality it has succumbed to it.’11

If the cult image was once a means to acknowledge the reality of death, the endless barrage of photographic images points to the death of reality. While it can be argued that images of mortality have been progressively emptied of their ontological weight in secular, capitalist societies – a claim that is already countered by the global return of religions – in Lebanon, the convergence of pre- or anti-modern religious practices and contemporary electronic media serves to complicate assumptions about technological progress and the associated ‘disenchantment of the world’.12

In On Three Posters this contradiction centred on the use of video as a medium of martyrdom. What does it mean to utter the words ‘I am the martyr Jamal al-Sati’ if, as the Lebanese artist and writer Jalal Toufic points out, such a statement ‘can only issue from someone who not only is unaware that he or she is already dead even as he or she lives, but also wants to extend his or her life even into death?’13

Mroué’s video performance in Three Posters, in which he acted as a resistance fighter recording his video testimony, played on the audience’s belief that what they were watching belonged not to the present but to the recent past. As opposed to the present tense of theatre and live television, Mroué’s apparently pre-recorded testimony seemingly affirms the past tense of video. The paradoxical statement ‘I am the martyr’ with which Mroué began the three recorded versions of his testimony served to underline the fact that he was already dead. Accordingly, in On Three Posters, he likened the temporality of video to the ‘that-has-been’ of photography:

Because we have been conditioned to believe that a video is a recording of a moment in the past, a dead moment, the medium represents the recovery of such moments – moments that by definition have already passed. This is exactly what used to happen: one day, suddenly, we would see the poster of a friend hung on the walls of Beirut, or a photograph or video on the TV announcing his or her death. The redundancy, created in the performance, helped the audience accept this idea.14

Three Posters threw into question the status of video as an indubitable record or documentation of immanent death. The hesitations that mark al-Sati’s speech are not the signs of a bad actor striving to create the most ideal image of himself before his imminent death. Instead, what they point to is al-Sati’s desire ‘both to defer death and to withdraw from life in a society where the desire to live is considered a shameful betrayal of the State, the Nation, and the Homeland’.15 In the period spanning the recording of the video and the completion of his mission, al-Sati occupied a liminal space between two deaths, that is, between his symbolic death on video and his physical death.

If, as critical theorist and philosopher Samuel Weber suggests, the ability to ‘reproduce and perhaps redeem the living’ has always been central to the power of theatre, in television and other forms of digital media the live image frequently only serves to underscore the ghostly nature of the screen.16 Very often what these media show are not living persons but persons brought back to life. This question of re-animation takes on an explicitly political dimension in Mroué’s performances dealing with the contemporary images of death in Lebanon.