UPDATE, August 14: Apparently, the August issue of NOX magazine finally published my article, so I’m publishing the full original text below, as well as changing the timestamp on this post to bump it up to the top. I have yet to see the finished version (with photos) since it’s not in the online version and my copies seem to have got lost in the mail. Have asked my editor for more. Anyway, enjoy the whole thing.
UPDATE, January 20, 2008: Yazan, my photographic collaborator on this project posted the photos that go with this article a while back. Check them out here.
The struggle to keep the martyrs alive
by Asa Winstanley
RAMALLAH, West Bank — Walk along any street in the occupied Palestinian territories and you will see the walls covered with fly-posters. The type of free advertising that in, say, London would be used to promote the latest indie music CD or to drum-up custom for night clubs is most commonly used here for more political purposes.
During the legislative council elections back in January 2006, the streets were absolutely plastered with a multitude of posters advertising the many different candidates contesting the elections. The different faction’s activists all seemed to respect each other’s right to this form of free speech and mostly refrained from pasting over or tearing down each other’s promos. The streets were so saturated with images of the suited parliamentary candidates that even now, more than a year later, you can still see their faded visages grinning down at you all over town.
However, the most common purpose for this type of fly-poster is to commemorate martyrs in the struggle for Palestinian independence from Israeli occupation.
When asked the reason for this prominence, Omar al-Agad has his own opinions. “They tell the people that this man died while he was struggling,” says the general manager of Adam Printing, one of the largest commercial printing houses in Ramallah. Most of the company’s clients are advertisers such as Coca Cola and Jawwal (the only Palestinian mobile phone network) as well as some of the many non-governmental organizations based here. However, they also offer printing services to any of the political parties and factions recognized by Palestinian Authority law — “those that are clear and respected among the people.”
“Posters make the people feel they belong to the intifada and that there are others who care about the martyrs,” he says, referring to the latest popular uprising against Israeli occupation that began in 2000.
Printing a poster in the memory of each martyr is common practice. A martyr is usually understood to be anyone killed by Israeli soldiers. It doesn’t matter whether they were armed or unarmed, a fighter or a civilian. In the aftermath of an Israeli incursion people mostly commonly say, for example, that “there were four shuhada [martyrs] today” rather than just “four were killed.”
The next day — often within hours — the martyrs posters go up. They are put up by groups of activists from one or other of the political parties and/or armed factions, or family of the deceased. In both cases they are usually groups of enthusiastic young men and boys. Their Arabic texts explain how they were killed, the date of their death and frequently a party logo. Al-Agad says his company typically prints between 500 and 1000 copies of each martyr’s poster. If they or their family were part of a particular faction, that party will often commission the poster in their memory.
“If the martyr was part of the Fatah movement for example, someone from the leadership will come to the company and pay for printing the posters,” said Samer al-Eiem from al-Majd, a different Ramallah printing company. “If the family later wants to issue more posters for the anniversary of their death, they will usually put up the money themselves.”
Al-Agad is wary about over-zealous gangs of young men rushing to claim a martyr as their own. “At this company, we deal only with the martyrs’ families. They come with their own designs and we print them. We deal directly with the people concerned.”
He says that political posters are more a “seasonal kind of work.” The demand for them rises when there are elections but recedes afterwards. The bread and butter of his business is commercial and NGO work, he says.
As a people living under an ever-present, violent military occupation the Palestinians are determined not to appear only as victims. This is probably the reason that most (though by no means all) martyrs’ posters feature the dead person posing with a gun. Even for civilians, it is not uncommon for Palestinian men to pose in a studio portrait holding rifles — usually replicas. Posters of some martyrs who had apparently never had such a photo taken are sometimes doctored to make it appear as if they did. The head from a genuine photo is pasted onto the body of a fighter posing with a Kalashnikov or M16 — it has even been known for different heads to appear on the same body.
Almost all of the posters feature nationalist symbols such as Palestinian flags, black and white, or red and white checkered hata and, most especially, Jerusalem’s world-famous golden Dome of the Rock.
From the villages and refugee camps to the towns and cities, fly-posters in Palestine are everywhere. Each area tends to have its own unique posters, most commonly featuring notable local martyrs, and to a lesser extent politicians. The popularity of a particular martyr will affect the number of posters in that area. Al-Agad says that local companies tend to produce posters almost exclusively for their own area.
It’s extremely common to find pictures of the late President Yasser Arafat all over the West Bank, for example. His iconic position in life has been elevated to near legendary proportions in death. Although inevitably associated with his own Fatah party, his status as Palestinian leader crosses party boundaries. During the January 2005 presidential elections, most of the candidates used old photos of themselves with Arafat on their election posters — especially, of course, Fatah candidate and eventual winner Mahmoud Abbas. It seemed as if they were hoping for his popularity to rub off of them.
Local conditions also affect the nature of the various posters. Refugee camps that are regularly invaded, such as Balata camp in Nablus, in particular are much more saturated with martyrs posters — sometimes of children as young as 13 or 14. The narrow alleys of Balata are crowded with the ghosts of their dead children, posing with guns that often seem bigger than them.
However, al-Agad says the percentage of his business producing martyrs posters is now very low. “At the beginning of the intifada there were a lot. People now have other things to worry about — they seem to be too preoccupied with more basic problems of survival to care about the martyrs any more.” The intifada in general has by now died down — though it has never been formally declared over. This goes for both its mass, popular aspect (which was always lower than during the first intifada) and the armed struggle aspect. The main armed factions all signed up to a ceasefire in 2005.
“During the first two years of the intifada all the people were really excited and showed so much commitment,” al-Agad explains. “All the political parties wanted to show how vital they were. If someone died they wanted to strongly demonstrate they had adopted their martyr — that he belonged to the faction. But now, although people still talk about an intifada, I think it’s over.”
He says he disagrees with the all-inclusive definition of who is a martyr. “Anyone who dies is a martyr these days. In my personal opinion, if someone dies fighting the checkpoints or the Israeli occupation face to face, then he is a genuine martyr — the one who struggles.”
But he says martyr’s posters are still important to the Palestinian cause. “We should tell the whole world that someone died fighting for their rights.”
The ubiquity of all these posters leads to the obvious question — do they work, or do people now just phase them out? It’s a question that must keep advertising executives around the world awake at night. For all the political parties’ eagerness to pay for the printing of all kinds of posters, it seems some people at least are disillusioned.
“It’s not like before. I’m not interested in these posters,” says Adullah, who preferred not to give a second name. He works the night shift at Ramallah Old City Pharmacy, a building that often has various kinds of fly-posters pasted on it. “The people now have lost faith in all the parties. They don’t believe the occupation will end. People now are busy just trying to feed their children. We are not free — movement here is so restricted. People have lost hope even in themselves.”
Perhaps asking whether or not people take any notice is the wrong question. Perhaps they have a different purpose altogether. “I’m not sure they have the same goals as fly-posters in the west,” says newspaper worker Wissam Batran. “The martyrs’ posters in particular serve another purpose. People don’t really notice them any more since they have just become part of the décor. But they are a tribute. The relatives print them because they feel obligated to pay tribute to their loved ones.”