Suicide Bombers’ Video Testimonies

Verena Straub

In April 1985, the 17-year-old Lebanese girl Sana Yusif Muhaydli positioned herself in front of a video camera, reading out loud from a written testimony, “I am the martyr Sana Yusif Muhaydli” (fig. 1). She continues, “I am 17 years old, from the South, from the occupied and oppressed Lebanese South, from the resisting, resurgent South. I am not dead, but alive among you. […] Don’t cry; don’t be sad for me, but exult and laugh for a world in which there are heroes” (quoted in Khalili 2007, 13-4). On the morning of April 9, 1985 Muhaydli crashed a car filled with explosives into an Israeli military convoy, killing herself and two Israeli officers. Muhaydli’s video, which was broadcast on the evening news of the same day, is the earliest known video testimony produced by a suicide bomber. The video’s broadcast presented television audiences with an uncanny situation: a self-appointed “martyr”, a “living dead” addressed them directly just a few hours after her suicide attack. In the video Muhaydli is seen seated behind a desk like a TV news presenter, wearing a red beret and military uniform, presumably aimed at justifying her attack as a legitimate military operation (fig. 1). Visible on the wall behind her is the logo of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) in whose name she committed her attack, as well as the portrait of the party’s founder Antoun Saadeh. Muhaydli’s video testimony established the model for future suicide bombers during the Lebanese civil war. The locution “I am the martyr […]” and a similar visual scheme would be restaged and adopted by members of other secular groups (such as the Lebanese Communist Party) as well as by suicide bombers of Islamic parties such as the Shia Hezbollah.

The video recording of a suicide bomber’s testimony has since become the visual “trademark” for suicide bombing with each group establishing its own recognizable aesthetics. Beginning with the Second Intifada in 2000, Palestinian militant groups like al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, Hamas or Islamic Jihad developed the “genre” of video testimonies by staging a ritualized choreography that is performed by each new martyr in front of the camera. The soon-to-be martyr is not only seen reading his/her testimony aloud, but kneeling down for prayer as well as striking several poses with the Quran and weapons (see fig. 2, fig. 3).

Video testimonies originated as a form of national resistance in the Middle East and have since been appropriated by transnational Islamic terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda and IS. These groups have further expanded and refashioned video testimonies by integrating digitally produced montages and an increasingly sophisticated dramaturgy.

The reasons for producing such videos are manifold: First, they enable the respective party to gain visibility thereby creating a platform to propagate their message and at the same time enlist future recruits. Second, the production of video testimonies can be interpreted as a binding contract between the individual who swears to die in an attack and the organizing party who promises to posthumously propagate the individual’s image as a heroic martyr (Harrison 2006).

When militant protagonists produce and circulate their own images, the (ethical) question of how to categorize, of how to deal with such documents becomes especially pressing. One attempt to resist the power of these images is by appropriating them into the realm of art, which can open up a space for critical reflection. Lebanese artist Rabih Mroué is one of few artists who responded to the image of the early secular suicide bomber. In 2000, he staged the production of a video testimony in a Beirut theatre (fig. 4). In his performance Three Posters conceived together with Elias Khoury, the audience witnesses the screening of the artist’s own video testimony, “I am the martyr Rabih Mroué […]”. During the video playback, a door on stage opens and reveals that the video is in fact a live performance. “At that instant”, Mroué writes, “the fabrication of the false moment was made apparent; it was as if the martyr had come to life before them” (Mroué and Khoury 2006, 184). After Mroué’s video re-enactment, the performers show an actual video testimony from Jamal Satti, who committed a suicide attack for the Lebanese Communist Party shortly after Muhaydli’s operation in August 1985. Instead of showing the final version of Satti’s video testimony, the audience is presented with three different takes in which Satti is seen rehearsing the script of his testimony, revealing moments of insecurity and hesitation. Khoury and Mroué’s performance shows the self-appointed “martyr” Jamal Satti as an actor, not a hero, who performs and ultimately “fabricates” his martyr identity in front of the camera (Mroué and Khoury 2006, 152). In the context of the theatrical performance, the video image that originally attempted to create and affirm a “martyr” is deconstructed and laid bare as the nervous performance of a mortal human being.

Another artistic appropriation of a suicide bomber’s video is the performance by Palestinian artist Sharif Waked who also uses an actor to perform a fake video testimony (fig. 5). To be Continued… (2009) follows the aesthetic model of Hamas martyr videos by showing the would-be suicide bomber, played by the Palestinian actor Saleh Bakri, sitting in front of green banners (the color of Hamas), with a Kalashnikov lying on the table in front of him – a visual convention which has become standard in video testimonies by Islamic suicide bombers. Instead of a testimony, however, he recites excerpts from stories of One Thousand and One Nights. This famous Arabic text tells the story of queen Scheherazade who spends her nights telling fantastic tales to her husband who had sworn to execute each of his wives the day after he married her. Each morning Scheherazade interrupts her story in the most suspenseful moment so that the king will allow her to live another day. By looping the video, the suicide bomber’s reciting of the text in Waked’s performance mirrors this endless postponement of death and halts the process of suicide bombing by fixing the “living martyr” in a position in-between, where the individual is caught in a never ending limbo between life and death. Waked’s video thus can be seen as a pictorial subversion of the fatal nature of the video testimony and of the logic of suicide bombing itself.

fig. 1: Sana Yusif Muhaydli (SSNP), video testimony, broadcast on 9 April 1985 on Télé Liban, www.ssnp.com/new/multimedia.htm (07 December 2015).
fig. 2: Dareen Abu Aisheh (Al Aqsa Martyr Brigades), video testimony, broadcast on 27 February 2002 on ANN, copy of DVD.
fig. 3: Tariq Hamid (Hamas), video testimony, broadcast on 30 April 2004, still image from: The Cult of the Suicide Bomber (dir. David Batty and Kevin Toolis). Documentary, 2006.
fig. 4: Rabih Mrouè and Elias Khoury, Three Posters, performance, 2000, photograph © Rabih Mroué.
fig. 5: Sharif Waked, To be Continued…, 2009, video, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, photograph © Sharif Waked.

Bibliography:

  • Croitoru, Joseph. 2003. Der Märtyrer als Waffe: Die historischen Wurzeln des Selbstmordattentats. Munich: Hanser.
  • Graitl, Lorenz. 2012. Sterben als Spektakel: Zur kommunikativen Dimension des politisch motivierten Suizids. Wiesbaden: Springer.
  • Harrison, Mark. 2006. “An Economist Looks at Suicide Terrorism.” World Economics 7 (3).
  • Khalili, Laleh. 2007. Heroes and Martyrs of Palestine: The Politics of National Commemoration. Cambridge Middle East Studies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Maasri, Zeina. 2009. Off the Wall: Political Posters of the Lebanese Civil War. London: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd.
  • Simon, Joshua. 2009. “Thoughts on the Aesthetics of Terror in General and Suicide Bombers’ Videos in Particular.” In The Aesthetics of Terror, edited by Joshua Simon and Manon Slome, 28–47. Milan: Charta.

About the author:
Verena Straub is an art historian, working in the collaborative research centre Affective Societies at Free University Berlin on a project entitled Affective Dynamics of Images in the Era of Social Media. She is currently completing her PhD thesis on video testimonies of suicide bombers and their adaptation in contemporary art. Previously, she was a research associate at the Cluster of Excellence Image Knowledge Gestaltung at Humboldt University Berlin (2013-2016). She studied in Toronto and Berlin where she received her master’s degree in Art and Visual History.
Contact: verena.straub[at]fu-berlin.de

Reference / Quellennachweis:
Verena Straub: Suicide Bombers‘ Video Testimonies, in: Aesthetics of Resistance, Pictorial Glossary, The Nomos of Images, ISSN: 2366-9926, 30 December 2015, URL: http://nomoi.hypotheses.org/344.


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