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The pornography of horror

Tunisian-born writer Abdelwahab Meddeb gives a graphic description of the horrors afflicting Gaza

Sad days have marked this transition from one year to the next. This sadness emanates from the events in Gaza, which illustrate the least glorious aspect of humanity. Here the horror of the human race appears in all its nakedness.

The horror of those who present themselves as victims in an intolerable way.

The horror of those who wage abstract electronic war to preserve themselves from guilt over the death they inflict.

The horror of this war which, precise as it is in setting its targets, never manages to avoid killing children and the innocent.

The horror of Hamas which has multiplied its provocations, interrupting the ceasefire by firing useless, infinitesimally bothersome missiles and which failed to prepare for the terrible response it knew would follow. The very day the Israeli attack was sparked off, a Hamas police school celebrated the graduation of one hundred and fifty new recruits, offering to the enemy an ample target. Sixty of the 150 graduates were killed by the air strikes.

The horror of Israel which uses the pretext of the derisory Palestinian missile attacks to mount a ferocious punitive response, trusting overly in high technology to destroy an enemy using archaic means. I intentionally use the words derisory, futile, archaic, infinitesimally bothersome, because a glance at the statistics is enough to see that these words are justified. The thousands of missiles launched at Israel by Hamas from Gaza in recent years have killed but a dozen people and wounded a few dozen more.

I myself am contaminated by the horror, using arguments drawn from the macabre body count.

The horror of the discourse of Hassan Nasrallah, who condemns Egypt for not leaving open the Rafah passage although this would make Sinai a Palestinian refuge and widen the battlefield.

The horror of the same Nasrallah in his repeated appeals to Hamas fighters since the start of the ground war to kill the largest number of Israeli soldiers possible and so obtain another "divine victory", every bit as false as his own "victory" during the war which ravaged Lebanon in the summer of 2006 which he also pronounced "divine".

The horror of Egypt which invokes legality to veil its apathy: the international accord stipulates that people may only cross the border post at Rafah if it is controlled by the Palestinian Authority together with representatives of the European Union, and with the consent of Israel. But after its coup d'état Hamas chased the Palestinian Authority from Gaza, causing the European Union to withdraw its officials.

The horror of certain Arab states, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, which outdo each other in sending medical teams to Rafah, distributing the wounded among themselves to make up for their powerlessness and ease their consciences at little cost.

The horror of the scandalous fatwa uttered by the self-proclaimed doctors of the law who deprived the Egyptian officer killed by Palestinian bullets at Rafah of the status of martyr.

The horror of the way in which Egypt celebrates its desecrated victim by clothing his remains in the sacred rags of the martyr.

The horror of the backward debate on the notion of the shahid, or martyr. The entire Arab and Islamic world participates in this debate, while in fact these are war dead and wounded. They are not God's sacrifices but victims of men, of their mediocre and incompetent leaders who are ignorant of the most rudimentary techniques of war and politics.

The horror fuelled by Arab television networks (in particular Al-Jazeera) which complacently zoom in on bloody and disfigured faces which are sometimes contorted with pain and sometimes inert. These images succeed one another according to the morbid logic of editing designed to excite Arab opinion, which is disconsolate in its identification with the Palestinians. By resorting to emotionalism such media avoid the political and strategic analysis which should show that much of the problem stems from Hamas, from its coup d'état, its mixture of religion and politics, its will to show itself as an expiatory victim, the involuntary dramatisation of its military and political incompetence and its recklessness in exposing its troops and its people to death. Hamas uses the cult of the martyr to pass this death off as legitimate, staging it as an instrument of conquest. In so doing it obscures the horizon of political modernity constructed on cooperation and on concessions that facilitate conciliation, if not reconciliation.

The horror of martyrdom was most dismally illustrated by the decision by Hamas leader Nizar Rayyan to stay at home with his four wives and eleven children although he had been informed that his residence figured among the hundreds of targets listed by the Israel Defense Forces. Despite knowing this he decided to expose himself and his family to collective martyrdom. His house was blown up by the dreadful missiles which, after flying in a horizontal trajectory, turn at a right angle and bury themselves up to thirty feet below the surface of the earth where they explode, pulverising everything around them.

The horror of Mahmud az-Zahar, one of the military leaders of Hamas, promising "victory" in the street battles on the third day of the ground offensive. This victory which in his words "will come with God's permission" (bi-izhni 'llah), will not come at all, because the God he invokes cannot be convened. He will not be present, just as he was not present at the worst disasters which confused those who believed he would be, whatever their religion. They should know that a God like that will never do anything more than what men do. He will be conspicuous by his absence, so that those who adore him can measure themselves against the ordeal and the doubt to which they are submitted by the intensity of their faith.

The horror of the cult of technology symmetrical to the cult of the martyr, illustrated by the satisfied smile of Tzipi Livni at the Elysée Palace beside President Nicolas Sarkozy and her colleague Bernard Kouchner, a smile of society politics while children and women died under high-precision bombs. Mrs Livni used the opportunity to state that there was no need to accept the "humanitarian ceasefire" proposed by her hosts.

Yet another horror burdens Tzipi Livni, who during her army's ground offensive stated that it is impossible to avoid incurring civilian victims because the Hamas fighters move freely among the populace.

Such horrors add to the horror of Hamas which takes the population hostage by making it what - in reference to the jihad or "holy war" - it calls "resorting to the human shield".

The horror which the Israeli press does nothing to mitigate, criticising in advance the ineffectiveness of this war and comparing it to Lebanon's war against Hezbollah. Certain columnists think that in fact this war will not achieve its objective (delegitimising if not weakening Hamas). It is true that it takes another kind of war to defeat Hamas, a war of ideas and of ideological confrontation which – alas! – has hardly started and which is far from being won.

The horror of the Czech declaration in the name of the European Union affirming that Israel is legitimately defending itself and so absolving it of war crimes. What to say of the 256 children among the 850 Palestinian dead after two weeks of fighting?

An additional horror to put down to President G. W. Bush (perhaps the last in his eight-years in office) who maintained that Israel has the right to "protect itself", thus removing it from suspicion.

Such events update the cry which Joseph Conrad put in the mouth of his creature Kurtz, and with which "Heart of Darkness" ends: "The horror! The horror!" Certainly, what humans have had in common in the colonial empires of the era of globalisation, from the end of the 19th century to the first decade of the 21st, is first and foremost horror.

This display of horror is pornographic, crowning Thanatos by deposing Eros and privileging the principle of death over the love of life, suspending the renunciation and the reserve which make civilisation what it is and hastening the advent of destructive, instinctive barbarity which, in according primacy to violence, spreads death and transforms populated areas into ruins and graveyards.


Abdelwahab Meddeb is a French writer of Arab origin. He was born in Tunis in 1946 and comes from a long line of theologians and scholars. He studied art history and literature, and worked as an editor for a publishing house in Paris. Between 1974 and 1988 he edited his own series of literary titles at Editions Sindbad. Since 1995, he has been professor of comparative literature at Paris X University (Nanterre). He has published the novels "Talismano" (1976) and "Aya dans les villes" (1999). His book "The Malady of Islam" (2003) gives an account of contemporary Islam. He lives in Paris.

This article was published in German in the Frankfurter Rundschau on January 9, 2009 and
in French in Le Monde on January 12, 2009.

Translation: John Lambert

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