I Am Martyr

Martyr poster of Samer in the Yarmouk camp, who died fighting for Al-Qaeda in Iraq. Will Smith in ‘I am Legend’

“Would you ever blow yourself up?” 24-year-old Ibrahim asked me over the bubbles of his water-pipe.

I had just stepped off the plane back to Damascus, having spent the flight watching Will Smith’s heroic role as suicide bomber in the Hollywood blockbuster ‘I am Legend’. At the end of the film, Smith hurls himself and a grenade at a wave of salivating zombies, enabling the other two humans to escape with the cure that will save humanity. A pretty noble act in my opinion; a view probably shared by the millions of Americans who helped it smash box-office records.

But this isn’t a deserted Los Angeles, this is a Palestinian refugee camp, and those zombies are Israeli, American and to a lesser extent, British soldiers. Ibrahim is not talking on my hypothetical level; he’s talking about Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I don’t think I’d do it,” said Muhammad, another English Literature student who had come to me for some help reading Wuthering Heights. “What good is it going to do? Put a dent in a Hummer?”

Muhammad’s cynicism is not shared by the powers that be. My free pullout from this month’s ‘Muslim Palestine’, the Hamas mouthpiece I receive as one of the many perks of my gym membership, is a picture of an AK-47, the gun covered in the kind of flower combination you only see in the Greenfields at Glastonbury. It now covers a rusty crack on my fridge.

“Our life is jihad, our martyrdom is victory”, runs the poster’s slogan, under the smaller title: “Week of the Martyrs 2008”.

The slogans at the gym are more poetic, albeit the accompanying scenes more graphic. Alongside the omnipresent faces of the assassinated Hamas leaders Sheikh Ahmad Yassin and Abd-al-Aziz al-Rantisi are peeling posters extolling the gory glory of ‘martyrdom’. Next to the bench press is a picture of an imaginary battlefield, the bloodied heroes stepping over their dismembered foes.

However, despite the propaganda, few of the gym members pay much attention; they spend more time concentrating on the dog-eared photos above the free weights.

“He’s British like you. Incredible. Look at him”, says Ali, pointing at one of the orange bundles of muscle, bursting out of steroid-shrunken Speedos. Before I can comment, he’s off to the storeroom in the corner to inject himself towards his idea of a perfect body.

Although stories of ‘martyrdom’ don’t permeate gym-chat – at least not while I’m there – there are plenty of tales out there.

Ahmad, a 28-year-old perfume seller with a passion for Ingmar Bergman films, tells me about his neighbour and friend Samer who went to fight in Iraq.

“His parents thought he was on holiday in Saudi Arabia, and then the news came that the Americans had killed him. He was quite senior, you know, apparently he carried a holdall full of dollars and even had a sat phone”.

Samer had become more religious a few years previously, so much so that he moved out of his parent’s flat – he couldn’t live with a TV in the house. When you climb the stairs to his brother’s flat, there’s a fading poster of his face on every landing, accompanied by a fresh rose.

For most in the west, we think of people like Samer when we hear terms like ‘terrorist’ or ‘martyrdom operations’. A faceless, bearded Muslim, young and angry. It fits well with the idea of virgins in heaven as a reward for self-sacrifice. A frustrated male in a conservative society. A simple sexual urge, not a political act. I asked my friends what they thought.

“You think they do this to get laid?” asks Muhammad, laughing hard. “Why not pay $20 dollars and go to Jeramana [an Iraqi refugee district]?”

Hadi, a university student and member of the leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, is not smiling. He’s frustrated with the way Islamist groups try to monopolise the concept of martyrdom.

“Martyrdom is not Islamic, no matter what the Islamists will try and tell you,” he says, frustrated. “What about the operations of the PFLP? Do we not have our martyrs?”

During the Al-Aqsa Intifada in Israel and Palestine, the PFLP carried out a series of suicide bombings, despite being a secular organisation. The party’s founder and leader until 2000 was the late George Habash, a Palestinian Christian.

George Habash
Posters following the death of George Habash; the first in the Christian quarter of Damascus, the second from Yarmouk.

“Hamas and others are taking advantage of the Muslim society, and using that to boost their support. This is not about religion, it’s about land.”

Muhammad disagreed. “It’s a religious issue because we live in the Muslim world. I accept that certain groups exploit that for their own propaganda, to get more recruits.”

Turning to me, he added: “but the political issues are real. The occupations in Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan are not an illusion and of course we will resist. Sunni, Shia, Christian or Communist, we will continue to have our martyrs.”

2 Responses to “I Am Martyr”

  • Oh whatever. I can understand how Palestinians might see that suicide bombing of army targets and, possibly, illegal settlers, is their only possible response to occupation from an overwhelming force where there are no peaceful or lawful means to resist, but that is def not the case in Iraq or Aghanistan, where the international (including UK) forces are there at the invitation of the national elected governments and with the sanction of the UN. There is a big difference – obviously – between Will Smith sacrificing himself and killing evil zombies with the direct effect of saving humanity on the one hand and angry young men venting righteous indignation by acts of immolation and murder against people (particularly UK troops in Afghanistan) who have good and genuine intentions.

    As you well know.!

  • Imran, this is their reality. How do they know what the intentions of UK troops in Afghanistan or Iraq are?

    They have seen the UK government boycott their democratically-elected government in the Palestinian Territories. They have watched the UK government sit idly by while Israel seizes and detains dozens of their democratically-elected lawmakers (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/6719595.stm). They have studied the history of the UK’s role in dividing up the Middle East, in promising the Jews a homeland in Palestine (Balfour Declaration) and assistance in achieving that end. And then the UK PM pops up to say that the founding of Israel was one of the greatest achievements of the 20th century! (http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/981681.html) These guys live in a refugee camp created because of that ‘achievement’.

    Are you genuinely suggesting that these ‘angry young men’ should see the UK and the US as having ‘good intentions’ in the Middle East? Why?

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