I Am the Martyr Sanâ' Yûsif Muhaydlî

Jalal Toufic


In memoriam everyone and no one1


A TV monitor hanging midway from the ceiling shows a chair behind which is a poster with photographs of assassinated members of the Lebanese Communist Party. A man clad in khaki enters frame, sits on the chair, and addresses the camera: "I am the martyr comrade Khalîl Ahmad Rahhâl." Thus starts the mixed-media Three Posters presented by Elias Khoury and Rabih Mroue on 2 September 2000 at Ayloul Festival, Beirut. The man goes on to tell us that he will very shortly undertake a martyring operation against the Israeli occupation forces in Lebanon. There follows two other takes, with variations, of his testimony. At this point, Elias Khoury walks to the door behind the TV monitor and opens it, revealing the same set we were seeing on the monitor and a video camera directed at the chair and the poster. We thus realize that what we had watched was not a taped video but a live performance (it is as if the subtracted de jure repeatability of the image when the latter is revealed to have been live was compensated by and displaced to a de facto repetition of the testimony).2 If I had believed the opening statement, then it is as if when I saw the same person still alive I were watching a ghost, so that while at the level of the medium we move from a light image to real presence, at the level of the structure of the piece, we move from a presence to an apparition. The performer removes his fatigues, takes out a piece of paper from his pocket and reads from it: "My name is Rabih Mroue. I was born in Beirut in 1966. I joined the Communist Party in 1983, and I participated in operations of the Lebanese National Resistance in 1987 in Hâsbayya and Balât and other locations." He then mentions that Rahhâl died not in the south but in one of the internecine battles in West Beirut in 1987, and offers the show in tribute to the martyrs of the national resistance. The door is closed again. Then a second video is shown. It is an unedited document showing the late communist Jamâl Satî relaying his last message before his planned martyrdom (an edited version of the tape was broadcast on Lebanese TV on 6 August 1985). Sâtî repeats his testimony, with variations, three times, each time starting with: "I am the martyr comrade Jamâl Sâtî."

Sanâ' Muhaydlî seems to have been the first to use such a locution.3 Her videotaped testimony, shot by her, and broadcast on Lebanese TV on 4/9/1985, starts with: "I am the martyr Sanâ' Yûsif Muhaydlî (anâ as-shahîda Sanâ' Yûsif Muhaydlî)."4 The morning of that same day, at 11 am, the 17-year old Muhaydlî had crashed the explosives-filled car she was driving into an Israeli military convoy at Bâtir gate, Jizzîn, killing, according to the Israeli military spokesman, two officers and wounding two soldiers. The same locution is found in the subsequent televised testimonies of a number of Lebanese resistance fighters who died in martyring operations against the Israeli army and/or the now-defunct South Lebanon Army (SLA): "I am the martyr Mâlik Wihbî..."5 (Mâlik Wihbî, b. 1966, mortally crashed his truck full of explosives into an Israeli military convoy at 6:15 pm on 4/20/1985 at the Qâsmiyya Bridge checkpoint); "I am the martyr comrade Khâlid Azraq..."6 (Khâlid Azraq, b. 1966, mortally crashed his pickup truck full of explosives into the joint Israeli and SLA checkpoint at Az-Zâmriyya at 4:30 pm on 7/9/1985); "I am the martyr comrade Hishâm 'Abbâs"7 (Hishâm 'Abbâs, b. 1962, mortally crashed his car full of explosives into a SLA checkpoint at Kafr Tibnît at 4 pm on 7/15/1985); "I am the martyr 'Alî Ghâzî Tâlib"8 ('Alî Ghâzî Tâlib, b. 1967, mortally crashed his car full of explosives into an Israeli military convoy in Arnûn, Nabatiyya, at 8 am on 7/31/1985); "I am the martyr comrade Munâ' Hasan Qatâyâ"9 (Munâ' Hasan Qatâyâ, b. 1967, mortally blew up his car containing 300 kg of explosives at the SLA checkpoint at Rymât, Jizzîn, at 14:05 on 8/28/1985); "I am the martyr comrade Maryam Khayr ad-Dîn"10 (Maryam Khayr ad-Dîn, b. 1966, mortally crashed her car full of explosives at the SLA checkpoint at Za'la, Hâsbayya, at 7:30 am on 9/11/1985). This locution may be one of the major inventions of the Lebanese war.11 It 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. Thus the testimony of Bilâl Fahs, who drove a car filled with 150 kg of explosives into an Israeli convoy on 6/16/1984 at Zahrânî, Saydâ, begins with the following Qur'ânic âya: "And call not those who are slain in the way of Allâh 'dead.' Nay, they are living, only ye perceive not" (Qur'ân 3:169);12 and Sanâ' Muhaydlî says in her testimony: "I am not dead, but alive amidst you..."13 Notwithstanding over a hundred thousand dead in the years of war and civil war, the Lebanese seem not to have learned to die. Therefore, one of the great tasks of art and writing in Lebanon for the foreseeable future is to teach this people famed for being "life-loving" to die,14 that is that they are already dead.

"By the time you see this tape, I, comrade Jamâl Sâtî, will have died" is believable, but not: "I am the martyr comrade Jamâl Sâtî." While I can usually assume in the present of videotaping my future state at the time of broadcasting or screening, I cannot do so in the case of death.15 I cannot believe Jamâl Sâtî on TV telling me "I am the martyr comrade Jamâl Sâtî..."16 even if I am told that he had died in a martyring operation by the time I saw him on TV (Jamâl Satî, b. 1962, mortally blew up the explosives hidden in two baskets on his donkey at the SLA checkpoint at Tallit Zaghla, Hâsbayya, in the morning of 8/6/1985). And while I can categorically assert, "I will die," I cannot deduce from this that at one point in the future I can say, "I am dead," even if death is not a final disappearance. The dead's living lover, family, relatives and/or colleagues are customarily asked to come to the morgue to recognize the corpse;17 but the dead too has to recognize his or her corpse (Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard). Can I deduce from the resulting "this is my corpse" "I am dead"? While it may seem that such a conclusion is a forgone one, in death there is no link between the two: "This is my—Nietzsche's—corpse, therefore Prado is dead." Death, in which I constantly free associate, not infrequently in a paranoid manner, nonetheless does not allow me to go from "I was murdered" to "I am dead." The revenant can say "I was murdered" but not "I am dead" notwithstanding that the former logically implies the latter. The answer to the "question" "Am I dead?"18 that haunts me as I keep experiencing unworldly occurrences, and the deduction from "I was murdered" cannot be "I am dead"—unless the latter is attributed to another proper name—but "I must be dead."19 The vampire in Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula does not say during his confession to his lover, Mina, "I am dead," but: "I am dead to the whole world." Nowhere except in Edgar Allan Poe's short story The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar have I come across the locution "I am dead." When the doctor who had hypnotized the moribund Mr. Valdemar "asked him... if he still slept," he answered at a delay: "Yes; — no; — I have been sleeping — and now — now — I am dead." Nearly seven months later, his state having remained exactly the same, when the doctor attempts to awaken him, his hideous voice breaks forth: "For God's sake! — quick! — quick! — put me to sleep — or, quick! — waken me! — quick! — I say to you that I am dead!" How to account for this locution in Poe's short story? In trance I become my own medium. I cannot directly assume my death. My death is uttered either through a medium, as in Kurosawa's Rashomon—were Nietzsche to speak through the medium he could very well say: "I, Nietzsche, am dead"; or through others, as with Nietzsche in his dying before dying: "I am Prado, I am also Prado's father. I venture to say that I am also Lesseps... I am also Chambige... every name in history is I,"20 and by implication: "I, Prado, am dead," "I, Prado's father, am dead." The dead is no one, as is made clear by the mirror device in vampire films, the vampire not appearing in the speculum; moreover, the dead is not one name, but all the names of history, and therefore, synecdochically, everyone. By subtitling his Thus Spoke Zarathustra "A Book for Everyone and No One," Nietzsche is addressing it to the dead and to himself at the onset of his coming psychosis, of his dying before dying, when he will exclaim: "Every name in history is I."21 The real one who died before dying is not Jamâl Sâtî saying, "I am the martyr comrade Jamâl Sâtî," in a videotaped testimony before going on a successful martyring operation, but Nietzsche writing in a letter: "Every name in history is I."

The late has no past, since the latter is affected with forgery: the dead cannot assume even the martyring operation that led to his or her death; no future, since his or her timeline has stopped: Harker's words to Mina before he leaves to Transylvania in Murnau's Nosferatu, "Nothing will happen to me," which are intended to be reassuring, are actually worrying since they imply that he will be dead there; and no present in which to say: "I am dead."

It is often said that the difference between a human and an animal with regards to death is that the former knows that he or she is to die, while the latter doesn't. But is it basically the case that a human knows that he or she will die? Freud: "Biology has not yet been able to decide whether death is the inevitable fate of every living being or whether it is only a regular but yet perhaps avoidable event in life. It is true that the statement 'All men are mortal' is paraded in text-books of logic as an example of a general proposition; but no human being really grasps it, and our unconscious has as little use now as it ever had for the idea of its own mortality";22 "the psycho-analytic school could venture on the assertion that at bottom no one believes in his own death, or, to put the same thing in another way, that in the unconscious every one of us is convinced of his own immortality."23 It may be true that it is only others who die, not I, but that is in part because in death I assume all the (other) names of history: "I am Prado, I am also Prado's father. I venture to say that I am also Lesseps... I am also Chambige... every name in history is I." All the names of history, and thus synecdochically all humans in history, have died but not I. This gets materialized in the absence of others often experienced in death: the deserted cities in which the somnambulistic dead wanders in Bergman's Wild Strawberries and Buñuel's The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. While "dying... is essentially mine in such a way that no one can be my representative" (Martin Heidegger),24 in death I am all the names of history, I am Prado, Prado's father, Tolstoy, Martin Heidegger, etc. "We are mortal beings, hence already undead even as we live" is a credible statement; it appears in my text "If You Prick Us, Do We Not Bleed? No."25 One can credibly paraphrase this statement as "I am already dead even as I live" only if one bears in mind that in death I am not concurrent, and therefore that the two Is in the statement do not refer to the same name.26 Thus in the case of Nietzsche, the unfolding of the statement would yield: "I, Prado, Prado's father, Lesseps, Chambige, am already dead, even as I, Nietzsche, live." Christ died for Nietzsche, the author of The Anti-Christ, since in his dying before dying Nietzsche signed one of his letters with The Crucified. Christ died for the schizophrenic Shi'ite 'Abd 'Alî Muhannâ, who repeatedly asserts in my Credits Included: A Video in Red and Green (1995): "I am the messenger of the prophet Muhammad, and I am Jesus Christ..." Christ dies for us in that in our death, we are all the names of history, including Jesus Christ.27 It is likely that the prohibition in Judaism against pronouncing the secret name of God is a preventive measure against our assuming that name in death, with the consequent death of God.

Since there is something false about the statement "I am the martyr comrade [proper name of the talker]," it is appropriate that Rabih Mroue should perform what appears to be a fictional version of it: "I am the martyr comrade Khalîl Ahmad Rahhâl."28 Paradoxically, while Jamâl Sâtî's statement is false although by the time the videotape is broadcast on TV, Jamâl Sâtî has indeed already died; the second statement is not: unawares, Mroue was telling us something about his death—I shudder to think that his speech was co-written or even changed by his collaborator Elias Khoury, since Khoury would have thus contributed to writing the forged past of the undead Mroue. Art and writing are dead serious. Rabih Mroue dead is all the names of history, including Khalîl Ahmad Rahhâl (Rabih Mroue could as well have said: "I am the martyr comrade Jamâl Sâtî"; Jamâl Sâtî dead may say: "I am the martyr comrade Rabih Mroue"). Therefore when Rabih Mroue says, "I am the martyr comrade Khalîl Ahmad Rahhâl," those who know him are not justified in deducing that they are watching something fictional—this would be the case were he assuming a character who is alive. The statement "I am comrade Khalîl Ahmad Rahhâl" is certainly far less risky for the performer uttering it than "I am the martyr comrade Khalîl Ahmad Rahhâl," since the second discloses to us something about the performer in the counterfeit realm of the late.29 The dead are usually not to be believed (Kurosawa's Rashomon), yet the historically-false information Rabih Mroue gives about himself while playing a dead character is believable—we have here an exemplification of Picasso's "Art is a lie that makes us realize truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand. The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies."30

Jalal Toufic, (Vampires): An Uneasy Essay on the Undead in Film, revised and expanded edition (Sausalito, CA: The Post-Apollo Press, 2003), pp. 161-172.


Notes

  1. By maintaining the singular name of the dead, I imply that I will be using it to resurrect him, to call him back to life (from The Egyptian Book of the Dead: "Arise... thou shalt not perish. Thou hast been called by name. Thou hast been resurrected"). The section "Every Name in History is I" in my book Forthcoming is dedicated to the memory of William Burroughs; Derrida's Aporias is in memory of Koitchi Toyosaki. Did I try to resurrect William Burroughs? Did Derrida try to resurrect Koitchi Toyosaki? If not, the in memoriam should be addressed to everyone and no one.

  2. This moment is reminiscent of the scene in Raoul Ruiz's Life Is a Dream (1986) when the protagonist seated in a movie theater suspects that the screams he is hearing are not coming from the projected film, but from elsewhere. For confirmation, he walks to the door at the side of the screen and opens it. He discovers that there is indeed someone being tortured in a room behind the screen! Taking the lead of Serge Daney, Gilles Deleuze defines the contemporary, third period of art as mannerist, one where the background of the image is another image. In such a historical and aesthetic period, reality can enter precisely by the back door—as a depth behind the screen.

  3. Al-'amaliyyât al-istishhâdiyya: wathâ'iq wa suwar; al-muqâwama al-wataniyya 1982-1985 (The Martyring Operations: Documents and Images; The Lebanese National Resistance, 1982-1985) (Al-Marqaz al-'Arabî lil-Ma'lûmât, Beirut, Lebanon, 1985).

  4. Ibid., p. 123. I consider Sanâ' Muhaydlî, who introduced the new genre of videotaped testimonies of soon-to-be martyrs and a new kind of utterance, "I am the martyr (name of speaker)," as the first Lebanese video artist. "Prior to her martyrdom, Sanâ' worked in a video store in al-Musaytbî area in West Beirut. During this time, she recorded 36 videotapes of the martyr Wajdî as-Sâyigh, who performed his operation against enemy forces in an area close to that where Sanâ' did her martyring operation. It is in that store that Sanâ' videotaped her testimony using a VHS camera" (Ibid., p. 122).

  5. Ibid., p. 144.

  6. Ibid., p. 168.

  7. Ibid., p. 176.

  8. Ibid., p. 180.

  9. Ibid., p. 206.

  10. Ibid., p. 214.

  11. Someone who has access to better libraries than the mediocre ones currently present in Lebanon should research the locutions of the kamikazes.

  12. Ibid., p. 72.

  13. In a way, it is true that those who like Sanâ' Yûsif Muhaydlî are famous enough to maintain, at least for the living, a distinguishable identity are not really dead since the dead no longer have a distinct identity.

  14. According to Lebanese theater director Roger 'Assâf, theater, as opposed to technology, can and should provide us with "a living person before other living persons" (un homme vivant en face d'autres hommes vivants). Given that technology is heading in the direction of providing man with an indefinite life span, it is not life that has to be stressed against technology, but mortality. It is not as a simple living being but as a mortal that a human can, for a while at least, resist technology. Theater should provide us with humans dead set on being mortal.

  15. According to Derrida: "All writing... in order to be what it is, must be able to function in the radical absence of every empirically determined addressee in general [I disagree with Derrida on this point: there can be no writing that is not an untimely collaboration with a determined albeit unknown addressee]. And this absence is not a continuous modification of presence; it is a break in presence, 'death,' or the possibility of the 'death' of the addressee, inscribed in the structure of the mark (and it is at this point, I note in passing, that the value or effect of transcendentality is linked necessarily to the possibility of writing and of 'death' analyzed in this way).... What holds for the addressee holds also, for the same reasons, for the sender or the producer... To write is to produce a mark that will constitute a kind of machine that is in turn productive, that my future disappearance in principle will not prevent from functioning... When I say 'my future disappearance,' I do so to make this proposition more immediately acceptable. I must be able simply to say my disappearance, my nonpresence in general..." (Jacques Derrida, Margins of Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass [Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1982], pp. 315-316). Even if it be true that a condition of possibility of writing is that it be able to function in the radical absence, 'death,' or the possibility of the 'death' of every empirically determined addressor in general, I cannot write: "I am dead."

  16. Al-'amaliyyât al-istishhâdiyya, p. 191.

  17. What I am most apprehensive about is not failing to recognize the dead, for instance because he was disfigured by a fire or because he's become reduced to a skeleton (First Clown: "... Here's a skull now; this skull has lain in the earth three and twenty years." Hamlet: "Whose was it?" First Clown: "A whoreson mad fellow's it was: whose do you think it was?" Hamlet: "Nay, I know not." First Clown: "A pestilence on him for a mad rogue! a' poured a / flagon of Rhenish on my head once. This same skull, / sir, was Yorick's skull, the king's jester." Hamlet: "This?" First Clown: "E'en that." Hamlet: "Let me see. [Takes the skull] / Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow / of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath / borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how / abhorred in my imagination it is! my gorge rims at / it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know / not how oft" [Hamlet Scene 5, Act 1]); but that the one I recognize as him or her be instead actually another, an imposture, a double.

  18. Would a human ever wonder "Am I dead?" were humans not already dead at some level before they organically cease to live? If one's first impression in death is of uncanniness, of an eerie familiarity, it is that we are already dead, that we have been there.

  19. "Am I dead?" is more assertive, indicates more certitude than "I must be dead!"

  20. From Friedrich Nietzsche's 5 January 1889 letter to Jacob Burckhardt, in Selected Letters of Friedrich Nietzsche, trans. Christopher Middleton (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969), p. 347.

  21. It was the thinker of aristocratic values, the one who wrote against the mixing of races, who in his dying before dying exclaimed: "Every name in history is I." Whatever the immigration laws of one's country, one is, as a mortal, inhabited by the other(s). There is consequently a fundamental despair of every xenophobe since as a mortal, and therefore as someone who "has" an unconscious and dreams, he or she is both inhabited by all the races and unsettled in the labyrinthine realms of undeath and the unconscious, where one cannot have the homely border of the homogeneous space of geography. The attack on the foreigner takes place not only in xenophobic laws, but also in the attempt to reduce humans to living beings, rather than mortals. While a lot of attention is directed to countering the increasingly xenophobic laws aiming at closing Europe and the USA ever more tightly against immigration, not enough attention is paid to the research being done to make of humans immortal beings.

  22. Sigmund Freud, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, translated from the German under the general editorship of James Strachey, in collaboration with Anna Freud, assisted by Alix Strachey and Alan Tyson, volume XVII (1917-1919) (London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1953-1974), p. 242; Cf. Leo Tolstoy, The Cossacks, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Happy Ever After, trans. with an introduction by Rosemary Edmonds (New York: Penguin Books, 1960), p. 137: "The example of a syllogism which he had learned in Kiezewetter's Logic: 'Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal,' had seemed to him all his life to be true as applied to Caius but certainly not as regards himself. That Caius—man in the abstract—was mortal, was perfectly correct; but he was not Caius, nor man in the abstract: he had always been a creature quite, quite different from all others."

  23. Sigmund Freud, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, volume XIV (1914-1916), p. 289. And if in his unconscious he does not believe that he will die, this is partly because he is already dead there.

  24. Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie & Edward Robinson (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), p. 297. Magritte's painting Reproduction Prohibited (1937) shows a man in front of a mirror in which we can see a similar figure but with its back to him and us. We can view the reproduction mentioned and proscribed in the title as referring to the figure, since, subject to over-turns, a characteristic of mortals, he cannot be represented, reproduced by someone else.

  25. See Discourse 20.3, Fall 1998, pp. 165-169; reprinted in Forthcoming (Atelos, 2000). While both young and old people are already undead even as they live, old people feel such conjunction more starkly and this shows in their additional solitude. The latter is not simply the solitude of someone who has lost conjointly many of his old friends to death (in this period of life old friend means old in age and not just known for a long time) and the easiness (if he or she ever had it in the first place) of meeting people and forming friendships, but largely that of one who increasingly presages the radical aloneness in the labyrinthine realm of undeath. Given that very old filmmakers feel distanced from the world by the approach of death, their films manifest an increasing indifference toward the audience, who are part of the world, and an abatement in effects of and occasions for identification.

  26. The non-concurrence also takes the form of the non-coincidence of the body with itself in out-of-the-body experiences and/or of the body with the voice (for instance a man's voice for a woman's body—cinema has given disconcerting examples of this: Rashomon, Friedkin's The Exorcist).

  27. While proper names are substitutable in death, this is not necessarily the case with epithets—in this respect, it is symptomatic that Sanâ' Muhaydlî's testimony ends with: "My will is that you call me the bride of the south." In which case while in death, I, Jalal Toufic, can exclaim, "I am the martyr Sanâ' Yûsif Muhaydlî," I cannot say: "I am the bride of the south." In case epithets too are substitutable in death, then the Christian messiah's dying for us is multiple through his various names: the Son of Man, the Son of God...

  28. In Tony Chakar and Rabih Mroue's Come in Sir, We Will Wait for You Outside, 1998, a "moving" shot of a woman crying and wiping her eyes is "deconstructed": we are told that the strong emotional charge conveyed by that shot required first the selection of the appropriate woman, then changing the speed of the wiping of the eyes to slow-motion, then the removal of the natural sounds, then the addition of music and a poem; and in an episode of the TV program Image (Sûra, directed by Mirna Shbaro) Mroue presents and attributes to himself as photographer photographs taken by others. At one level, in Three Posters Mroue is continuing these two strategies: "deconstructing" the heroic testimonies by revealing the possible unsaids in them—uncharacteristically we are frankly told by the fictional Rahhâl that his father went along with his joining of the communist party and even encouraged him to do so only because he thought that that was his son's only way to get a scholarship to study in the former Soviet Union, etc.; attributing to himself fictional events: having been ambushed in Hâsbayya along with the other members of his communist cell by combatants from the Amal militia, etc.

  29. More risky than "I am comrade Khalîl Ahmad Rahhâl" but still less risky than "I am the martyr comrade Khalîl Ahmad Rahhâl" is the false information Mroue attributes to himself in Three Posters (see previous footnote) and giving to the fictional characters of Extension 19 (Muqassam 19), 1997, his actors' real-life names.

  30. "Picasso Speaks," The Arts, 1923.