Al-Ahram Weekly Online   9 - 15 June 2005
Issue No. 746
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

An opaque transparency

The latest in a string of reactions to the horrors of Abu Ghraib, paintings of muscle-bound men by Latin America's best known living artist, Fernando Botero, will this week be on show as part of a retrospective in Rome. Rania Gaafar reflects on representations in the Middle East as a means to the formation and maintenance of memory

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In Paris last month, Columbian painter Fernando Botero displays one of his new paintings inspired by the Abu Ghraib torture scandal, among work to be exhibited in Rome this week

Documents and reports by human rights organisations, the Red Cross, etc, have described the horrors perpetrated by the American forces against Iraqi prisoners in the Abu Ghraib Prison in painfully accurate detail -- and in full length. Photos and videos show Americans wildly beating up Iraqis, forcing them to undress or move on all fours, holding their hands up and showing their genitals to the camera. There is, in other words, a visual and textual transparency regarding everything that happened within these walls after the occupation: no one came to liberate the Iraqis from their apparent "liberators", bringing them peace and democracy, as the Western media still unshakably insists.

Abu Ghraib has since suffered the brunt of a painful symbolism: it was not exactly re- defined but rather reassured, fostered as the place of agony, a concentration camp in which colonial power exercised its lust for Arabs. All high-ranking officials -- General Ricardo Sanchez, for example -- were cleared of charges of official and institutionalised torture in this concentration camp of Iraq. Low-level soldiers were given a free hand, obviously, and defenders of Lynndie England, the reservist who achieved a striking level of infamy pointing to the genitals of Iraqi men with a cigarette in her mouth while -- maniacally grinning before a pyramid of stark naked Iraqis piled one on top of the other while the camera crept into their backsides -- now pleads guilty to abuse of Iraqis in Abu Ghraib. Her defenders will try to prove that she is mentally unfit for conviction. England was also in one photo dragging an Iraqi prisoner on a dog leash. In Iraq, she was inseminated by the former guard of Abu Ghraib, Charles Garner, the producer of porn videos and photos inside the prison, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Let us recall detainees starved to death while American soldiers filled their bellies with fast food. As one detainee has written, Arab women were repeatedly raped by Americans, 14- year-old girls among them, forced to pose naked in front of imprisoned Iraqi men, 14- and 15-year-old teenagers bitten to death by hounds or denied toilet use, men emasculated, tortured with electricity, greased with excrement, or forced to eat it, paraded before cameras while being beaten brutally by mentally retarded sadists. Arab men were sexually assaulted, forced to rape one another and thereby produce the perverse pornography of war. Iraqis were beaten to death, dragged along dirty corridors, exposed to ice-cold showers naked, strapped to chairs until thrombosis ripped their bodies, effecting a final relief. And the madness was deliberately held on camera, a camera following every step of the culprits, filming Iraqis as they suffocated in their blood, in the deformed remains of their faces and bodies.

Can we ponder the impact of Abu Ghraib in these times of ongoing colonisation and brutalisation across the Arab world? How is memory being dealt with in the Arab world: is it symbolically secure as "collective memory", or rather vanishing and in medias res among the masses forced to survive colonisation of the mind under a neo-colonial world order and as such subconsciously driven to eliminate their history, their memory and mythologies? Do we find places to mourn the dead, the imprisoned and the tortured in Sinai, Southern Lebanon, Iraq or Palestine? To remind us of disappearing territories and borders -- and dignity? Is memory confined to oral history and private story-telling, deprived of any symbolic legitimacy or coherence? Do we have, in Western public life, in politics and culture, "permission to narrate" (Edward Said)?

Yousri Nasrallah, for one agent of visual memory, emphasises the current impossibility of a "collective Arab memory". According to him there can only be a juxtaposition of different -- subjective -- memories. "There is no innocence with memory any longer," he says. "At the time when we had a 'national project ( mashru' qawmi ), collective memory was the self-defence and -justification of the nation." Now that memorising the past is essential to surviving the present and launching the future, memory is integral to the defence of human rights, national borders, history and justice. Hasn't Abu Ghraib already become part of the Arabs' collective memory; isn't the negation of the past a means to surviving the present and the immediate threat of military power a stunning, narcotising lie? According to Akram Zaatari, Lebanese filmmaker and founder of the Arab Image Foundation, a photo archive that has collected 50,000 images documenting Arab history and visual culture between 1860 and 1970, based in Beirut, memory "can be invented and fictionalised. When one becomes aware that memory is not necessarily looking for facts, but how facts were written, and why and by who, and in who's benefit. To the extent of accepting falsified facts as 'true' facts only because we know how and why they were falsified. This is how I believe memory becomes a whole process."

Torture is practised in culturally and socially specific ways. Arabs had to be tortured because their religious and cultural understanding and practise of sexual intimacy is a solely private and secret thing, and torture has to cut off that way back into the former social, religious and cultural networks of society. There is no return to a life before torture. Detainees have to be destroyed, physically and psychologically, socially and culturally, in order to remain isolated, within themselves, within their vacuum of trauma. This is also why Iraqis were tortured collectively, by being forced to rape one another. The torturer has to guarantee that there will be no alliance between the prisoners; on the contrary, prisoners have to become ashamed of one another which emphasises the feeling of total isolation and even more so subconscious revulsion for other detainees who were forced to watch him or her being abused -- in silence.

Female soldiers were actively participating in torturing Iraqis. Western feminists, however, remained suspiciously silent while their calls for fighting "Islamist extremists" can hardly be overheard in Germany and elsewhere. In Anglo-American academia, the situation has been far more sensitive and international, encompassing anti-colonial impulses to some extent. One has to insist that in the colonial world, the social, cultural and biological role of women is essential to maintaining the colonial order abroad, in occupied territories. How far does the Western media perpetrate the verbal and visual phalanx of stigmatisation of Arabs, which seems impossible to break through? Language and words are action. Language produces the self, while the media and cultural politics are embroiled in creating cultural borders and bodily spaces. The relationship and interplay, between the Western media and cultural institutions in the Third World is what remains at stake. The world looked right into the bodies of the soul-deadened Iraqis, literally, the cameras creeping into the black holes of their bodies in an attempt to inflict a second death on them: photography is sublimated death, the clicking of the shutter being a metaphor for murder. And so the souls of Iraqis escape the anguish, in indescribable pain and disbelief, as the dreadful faces of their perpetrators turn away while the torturers, singularly aroused by their power and the sheer nakedness of their victims, photograph or film them on camera as they are sexually abused or abusing each other.

Most of the scenes shown on TV are branded in our minds. What has become of those victims, asks Juerg Armbruster and Arnim Strauth's documentary, Iraq: Torture in the Name of Freedom, nominated for the prestigious "Deutscher Fernsehpreis" in Germany last year. The answers are invariably bleak: ruined lives, souls and bodies. Why Armbruster feels he wanted to make a documentary after the release of photos from Abu Ghraib? "Abu Ghraib had become synonymous with a prison from which no one returns, a torture chamber under the former president of Iraq. And suddenly things happen inside that prison which I personally never expected to happen there. We have always heard rumours, but no one could give us any evidence. For me personally, it was important to dig into what happened at Abu Ghraib as deeply as possible... And then we managed to find those Iraqis who figured in the most widely distributed and notorious photographs, and talk to them."

On the reactions of victims, Armbruster talks about a contradiction in terms emerging from the gravity of the event: the victims' urge to speak out while still in the throes of trauma. Armbruster says that most Iraqis wanted to talk before the camera about the horrors they went through at the hands of American soldiers. "In Iraq you don't have the possibility to be cured from psychological pain. The victims are left alone." He says that Abu Ghraib had been the last trigger in an already disturbed relationship between Iraq and America. After Abu Ghraib, they couldn't do together any more: "I am very disappointed by the Americans." But images of torture were published with a strange surprise effect, although one knew that in any war, people would be tortured in this way, and although everyone knew about Vietnam. Did I need the pictures to convince me that the Americans undertake torture in Iraq, on the other hand? Isn't the fantasy of the spectator being replaced by media and constructed realities and images of nations and people that the media creates? As soon as the images disappeared from TV and the press, people started thinking of Abu Ghraib as history. Does Armbruster think that torture has ended in Iraq? "I hope so, but I don't believe anything any more."

German sociologist Niklas Luhmann writes that everything we know about the world we live in, we are taught by the media. TV is our window onto the world, which makes us all subject to mind manipulation. We look at pictures already selected by the camera lens, giving an illusion of seeing everything and knowing everything. But torture was still conducted in Iraq even after the release of the photos and after everyone thought it was over. Armbruster insists that TV images can give way to theories in which imaginations become real and concrete. "War has always been captured on film," he tells me. "TV can turn war into real if it is made with a good conscience. And the photos of Abu Ghraib were released by American TV stations first." TV images easily involve spectators emotionally, but "to set emotions free in this case was reasonable", as Armbruster concludes.

Traumata of Iraqi torture victims at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere under occupation appear to generate a mysterious negative energy, memory as energetic flux. Abu Ghraib must be turned into a museum to document the double venture of evil signification. We need Abu Ghraib as a symbol of what can happen to people in such a situation, and to remember and make sure that it will never happen again. As long as the Arabs don't narrate their stories, as long as they simply turn a blind eye to such places of unspeakable pain and death, memory in the Arab world will remain an ineffective, immature, hollow word, serving nothing to find an identity that was lost long ago. Symbolism is needed -- Arabs cannot start with deconstructivist theories when there is nothing constructed -- and it can only emerge out of permission to narrate and preserve the places of war and murder as is the case in Western countries.

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