One of the family
Why do the living cry over their dead? Not only because of kinship, friendship, or blood relations. People cry over their dead because they are part of their daily life, a flash of their memory, their personal history as they grow, change, and become less young and more experienced day by day.
The living cry over their dead because they miss them on the first night when the mourners are silent, and they suffocate in the gloom of the emptiness that the dead leave in their homes. They drown in the sea of denial. How choppy, painful, and mean is the sea of denial.
The living cry because they imagine they will open the door for them at any moment; they think they will hear their voice as usual, and they will wait for their phone call at the wrong time. They cry when they pass a corner of the house in which they used to sit together, when they hear a joke that they shared at one time, or when they feel a breeze when they pass by a street they crossed together once or a thousand times – it makes no difference.
This is why Palestine and its people and the peoples of all the Arab countries cried for Shireen. Because, in short, she has been a partner to them at every moment of their personal history, and because she was “one of the family” who reserved her place in their homes 25 years ago without permission. During that time, she joined them in their joys, sorrows, and their gradual transition from young individuals to less young individuals. She shared their olive oil and zaatar, and added Palestine to their daily meals prepared with love and haste.
Shireen, who is like us
How did Shireen Abu Akleh gain all of this love? How did she become a State, even though she broke all the cliches of stardom? She was not arrogant like many “stars” are, and she was not a popularity-seeking individual trying to gain an audience, as is the case with many “media professionals”. She also did not have a loud fighting voice, nor did she ever claim to be a “fighter”.
She got all this love only through love. Perhaps the only explanation for people’s support for her is that she went against the “requirements” of stardom and was just like us, ordinary people. Her voice was low-pitched and neutral in delivery, without any special traits that media professionals practice after receiving training courses. She was professional, but with a hint of Palestinian in it, which she did not conceal or apologise for. She was also humble and close to the people.
Among all the videos that circulated of and about Shireen in the days following her martyrdom, there are three videos that can depict her personality, which gave her so much love from people.
In the first video, a woman from Jenin camp appears, named Umm Ahmed Freihat. Umm Ahmed is crying and says that she lived with Shireen through the events of the storming of the Jenin camp and the legendary resilience of its people in 2002. She recalls, in her beautiful local dialect and accent, that Shireen witnessed the battle of Jenin from its first day to its last. She looked among the martyrs for Um Ahmed’s children and was looking for martyrs, despite her thirst. She said they could not even find a bottle of water, and her clothes became dirty, so Um Ahmed brought her fresh clothes. She was shocked at the news of Shireen’s martyrdom and went crazy when she heard. All of us went crazy over her, Um Ahmed.
Umm Ahmed talks about her as if she were her daughter. There were no titles when she referred to Shireen, although that was the norm in conversations between ordinary people and celebrities. I swear this is pure and priceless love between a person and the people, and it is why Shireen gained the people’s love effortlessly!
In the second video, Shireen speaks to a programme called Nass wa Hurass produced by a local organisation and broadcast by Al-Hiwar satellite channel during Ramadan. The presenter of the program, the light-hearted Husam Abu Eisha, goes around the roads and alleys of Jerusalem, meeting with vendors, worshippers, customers and ordinary people in the streets of the Old City.
In one episode, he suddenly passes by a street where Shireen was sitting quietly on the sidewalk, away from the lights. When he asked her, she spoke about the city as if it were a living being, and about the people’s concerns, and about the oppressed city. The viewers found her words to be the same as the other Jerusalemites on the show. She was one of them, and they loved her and honoured her when she was martyred.
In the third video, an Imam delivering a Friday sermon in the Gaza Strip appears, speaking in a loud voice and saying beautiful words about Shireen. He said in the city’s accent, “We are the guardians of blood.” Shireen appears at the end of the video, completely spontaneously, raising the sign of victory, with some shyness, not claiming to be a fighter. She said with a clear but quiet Palestinian voice, “Please God, protect Gaza.” She spoke perfectly in the people’s dialect and mannerisms, and they felt that she was like them.
People loved Shireen because she is like them and does not only look like them.
In Al Jazeera’s early days, Arab viewers started to learn about media. One could agree or disagree with Al Jazeera, but no one disagreed that it was a breakthrough for the Arab news media since its inception. One of the things we learned from Al Jazeera is the idea of “breaking news”, where the important news comes to you on time, without having to wait for the next news bulletin to learn everything new. The second Palestinian Intifada was the first hot, time-spanning news event after the founding of Al Jazeera and we waited for its bulletins, breaking news, and, sometimes, speeches.
I fully remember that passers-by on the streets in the city of Zarqa in Jordan, for example, used to enter grocery stores or the few restaurants that had a television when an important speech or breaking news was on Al Jazeera during the Intifada.
Shireen and her colleagues at Al Jazeera, and other media outlets that emerged later, brought Palestine into people’s homes. Shireen presented pictures of the martyrs, the stories of the prisoners, the suffering of the displaced, the suffering of the families whose homes the Occupation demolished, the nostalgia of the refugees in the displaced villages in Palestine in 1948, the tragedy of the farmers whose lands were stolen by the Occupation and the stories of loneliness, pain, sadness, hope, brokenness, steadfastness and defiance at the military checkpoints in the West Bank and the isolation wall. Shireen presented Palestine exactly as it is in her reporting, breaking news, news stories and coverage.
On the day of her death, many said that Shireen had become the breaking news after having reported every day. This is a true and impactful statement but, more importantly, Palestine presented Shireen on this day, and the days after, to the world. The neighbourhoods in Jerusalem distributed her pictures, tweets spread her quotes, and the alleyways of Jenin camp turned into a television screen that reached the whole world. On the day of her martyrdom, Shireen was not only breaking news but also an eternal and endless news story about Palestine, from Palestine to the nation and the whole world.
Shireen, Palestine, and the battle of awareness
People do not believe anything like they do blood, and they do not believe blood like the blood of martyrs. During the past ten years, the campaign to kill Arab awareness of Palestine was escalated by the Arab Zionists. They are promoting Zionist lies and narratives and accusing the Palestinians of every sin. During these bad years, we would say that the death of any martyr in a confrontation with the Occupation would kill the buzz of the thousands of electronic flies, and this was actually what happened in any confrontation with the Occupation.
Palestinian blood during the past ten years was the truest news exposing the Arab Zionists’ propaganda, but Shireen’s blood had another aspect. Her martyrdom reconfirmed facts that cannot be forged, re-drew the image of the conflict and traced it back to its roots of a steadfast people – despite pain and a brutal Occupation, who have been in a century-old war with this steadfastness. The consensus witnessed by all means of expression in the Arab world, from the ocean, the Gulf and more than that, in all parts of the Muslim countries and among the free people of the world, was not only for Shireen and for the sake of a journalist who was killed while carrying out her duties, although this is very important. The consensus was over the Palestinian rights and, rallying behind, the story of a people who fought for decades, and will continue to fight and struggle, generation after generation, until their rights are fully restored.
Shireen’s “funerals” intensified all the symbolism in the Arab-Israeli conflict. The symbolism of the love of the Palestinian people, and also the love of the Arab nations who are connected to Palestine was present. This is what Shireen did for 25 years. Mourners extended from Jenin to Ramallah to Jerusalem, passing through the neighbourhoods inhabited by suffering and endurance, in order to return the favour to her, as she is the one who established a kiss of love, a camera picture, and a piece to camera voice across every inch of these neighbourhoods during her long and arduous work.
The mourners carried the casket which was as light as a butterfly, and carried with it the weight of the mission that Shireen carried out for years. They also carried all of the memories that shaped their national and social imagination over 25 years through the news, breaking news, and reports that the local journalist presented.The funerals carried in them the symbolism of the Palestinian struggle with the Occupier, who fights them dead or alive, from the cradle to the grave. In their long walk with the casket, the mourners fought a final battle for the martyr against the Occupation, a battle between wanting to glorify their martyr and the oppression of the Occupation which wants to prevent the people from rewarding their martyrs with a worthy farewell. However, the people won this round, and they will win future rounds in life, not only by celebrating a death that is full of meaning.
The funeral symbolised the unity of the people in the face of the killers. Mourners carried the martyr without paying attention to her religion and her difference from the majority. Christians attended funerals and even more Muslims attended. They dealt a fatal blow to the occupier, which has tried since the Nakba to fragment its victims and play on their differences. The funeral was a beautiful harmony of unity, instead.
In the final scene of the funeral, Muslims prayed Friday prayers in their mosques, and in the squares of Jerusalem, and set out to celebrate the martyr when she arrived at the church. Christians chanted their hymns and Muslims chanted, “There is no god but God, and martyrs are loved by God.” The different worshippers worshipped their Lord, each according to their religion, and none of them abandoned their faith. They maintained their religious differences and adhered to their national agreement.
The battle of the casket and the flag
Since 1973, the Occupation began to lose most of its wars with the Palestinians and Arabs. We are not under the illusion that it is a weak enemy – rather, it is a strong enemy but has, nevertheless, been defeated in its wars: the Ramadan war, the humiliating withdrawal from Lebanon, the fleeing from Gaza, the July war, the Gaza wars, the Sword of Jerusalem, and Lod are all wars in which the Occupation lost its grip and failed to achieve a complete victory. In these wars, we lost many martyrs, wounded, destroyed homes and detainees, but the Occupation also lost. There is only one war after 1973 that was completely won against the enemy – and that is the battle of the casket and the flag. It was a clean victory, without losses!
The Occupation descended with all its soldiers and war equipment to fight the war against Shireen’s casket and the Palestinian flags. The mourners left the French Hospital, and the foreign soldiers carried their weapons, shields and heavy batons. As many said, those carrying the casket were more than just unarmed, as they did not carry weapons and did not even have their hands to defend themselves because they were using their hands to carry the casket but, despite this, they won. The casket almost fell after the soldiers attacked it, but a young man who was hit with a baton on the head fled from the killers and saved the casket from falling. Even if the casket would have fallen, it would have, maybe, been the last opportunity for Shireen to kill the land of Palestine before being buried in its soil. However, the holders of the casket responded to their instinct of respecting the dead, so they protected it from falling.
The casket did not fall. The image of the Occupier fell! Shireen’s coffin depicted the war of the heavily armed State against it and conveyed the image to the world. Her coffin turned into a camera, as the cartoonist Imad Hajjaj described through his cartoon.
After its defeat in the battle of the coffin, the Occupier tried to defeat the Palestinian flag. It won the first round with the flag, on the way between the French Hospital and the church, but then realised the futility of its war and surrendered in the presence of the human waterfall that carried the coffin from the church to the cemetery, which was greater than the army’s ability to stop it. Shireen was present at the scene, as well as the people and the journalists, but the flag that defeated the Occupier was the most present and prominent in this round.
Nationalism scholars say that all nations need common symbols to create their identity, to the extent that some political elites sometimes “invent” imaginary symbols to convince their people of the existence of a national identity that unites them. Like other ancient and civilised Arab nations, the Palestinian people have thousands of symbols, including religion, language, land, history, honourable leaders, martyrs, traditional and modern songs, dabkeh, the Negev’s dahiyyeh, maqlouba – and hummus, that the Occupier is trying to steal.
Shireen has become a new symbol for Palestine, its people, and the peoples of the region, although her character tells us that she did not seek that. She became a symbol without empty slogans or pretension. Why, oh unmindful Occupier does a nation with a symbol who, in two days, received enough love from the whole world, need to invent its common symbols?
If we were to read what will be written in history after a hundred years, we would know that the days of the Nakba in 2022 took a new name: “the days of Shireen”. Historians will say “the days of Shireen were a lesson in political sociology about the national struggle that creates a symbol and identity, despite the Occupation and, sometimes, because of the stupidity of this Occupation – and every Occupier is certainly a murderer and stupid.”
This article first appeared in Arabic in Arabi21 on 17 May 2022
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.