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And My Shrine Is My Mother’s Salon: On Ahlam Shibli’s Death

New Askar Refugee Camp, 28 June 2012. The guest room of the family of Osama Bushkar with his brother and his nephew. Bushkar carried out a martyrdom operation on 19 May 2002 in Natanya. He approached different resistance organisations, who refused to equip him for the operation because he was too young. Finally the Abu Ali Mustafa Brigades accepted him. His body is still in the hands of the Israeli authorities. The army destroyed his family’s house as punishment. Ahlam Shibli, Untitled (Death, no.38), 2011—12, Palestine, chromogenic colour print, 100 × 66.7cm. All images courtesy the artist
Through a close reading of Ahlam Shibli’s Death, Yazid Anani looks into the public and private representation of martyrs in Nablus.

She stopped her car in the small alleyway known locally as the ‘Hitin Passage’. She suddenly called on a young boy, gave him the keys to her car and asked him to take care of it or use it if he likes until she finishes her work around the old city of Nablus. Bewildered, the boy was handed the keychain and was speechless watching Ahlam disappearing in the busy streets.01

In a press conference on 29 September 2003, the governor of Nablus, Mahmud Al-Alul, declared that 425 Palestinians had been martyred in Nablus in the course of the past three years (of what ultimately became the Second Intifada, 2000—05); 5,260 more were wounded, over 7,000 detained and 1,350 remained behind Israeli prison during that period.02 Al-Alul accused the Israeli occupation army of deliberately destroying the city’s infrastructure and public buildings, and expressed his concerns about the Israelis’ systematic destruction of Nablus’s historical heritage and landmarks, especially in the old neighbourhoods of the historic city. At the end of his speech the governor praised the inhabitants for their social cohesion, cooperation and exceptional steadfastness in the face of continuous assaults on the city.

Ahlam Shibli’s research in Nablus, which lead to her work Death (2011—12), investigates the need for social recognition in the Palestinians’ fight against the Israeli assaults on the city during the Second Intifada. Death unfurls a new ground of self-questioning in its carefully selected 68 photographs, transcending both a merely straightforward narration of the traces of the Second Intifada in Nablus and the victimisation of the Palestinians in the course of their resistance. Shibli repositions the viewer in a polemical discourse on love, heroism and social ethics, as Death dissects the relationship between martyrs and prisoners, on the one hand, with the social realm of Nablus, on the other. In her photographic series Arab al-Sbaih (2007), Trackers (2005) and Goter (2002—03), as well as those projects that she researched and produced outside Palestine, such as Trauma (2008—09) and Dom Dziecka. The house starves when you are away (2008), Shibli investigates issues around displacement, showing moments of resistance and hope in the shifting of the meaning of home within the oppressive contexts of the displaced. Continuing on themes explored in her previous work, Death probes the social construction of home within the refugee communities of the Balata and ‘Ala’in camps, and looks also into disappearance of the bodies of the Shaheeds (martyrs) and their subsequent replacement with different representations in public and private space, particularly in the salons of their families and in the streets of Nablus.03

Layers of Death

Looking through the 68 photographs, Death becomes a metaphor for a multiplicity of representations. In a straightforward reading, Shibli’s images expose the literal meaning of death, in terms of the eternal loss of the bodies of martyrs, combined with the social ceremonies marking the departure of their souls. Death also appears in the architecture and art of the tombstones in the cemeteries and graves shown in a number of the photographs, suggesting an allegory of the disappearance of the bodies and souls of prisoners detained in Israeli prisons.

But perhaps more generally, Shibli’s project can be seen to reflect on the transformation of death into a social practice with material representations, and its orchestration of a specific social order, values and ethics. This is quite evident in the way that Shibli steers her viewers among photographs of personal letters of prisoners, heroic poses of martyrs with machine guns and the private settings of the framed pictures of martyrs and prisoners in their families’ salons. Shibli shows the social appropriation of death into the home, the street and the neighbourhood.

Another level of meaning derives from the images’ portrayals of the realities in the refugee camps in Nablus, which signal the extended atrocities suffered by Palestinians since 1948, and even before. They are here materialised by a third generation of Palestinian refugees adapting and surviving in the compact space of the refugee camps — living on the hope of an unfulfilled political dream of ‘return’. The Palestinian Authority’s modern city of Nablus, seen stretching away from the refugee camps, also intimates the inhabitants’ present helplessness, or even the death of the political project of liberation itself.

Nablus is portrayed in two images that for me open the series and which focus on the Balata and ‘Ala’in refugee camps as a means to delineate Shibli’s terrain of investigation. These two images not only juxtapose the high density of the refugee camps with the lofty apartment buildings of Nablus, but also examine the layers of difference and contention between both urban realities. They show the intensity of her investigation within the congested, built-up fabric of camps, the setting of most of Death.

These two images speak of the past and present, and question the future. Traces of agricultural land can still be seen, revealing the history of the valley as a fertile land that was historically the food basket of Nablus. The metamorphosis of the city and its history can be seen through the examination of the fabric of the city, as if reading the city’s age through tree rings of inhabitation. The images reveal the almost exploding clustered formation of the refugee camps with their housing units, public spaces and small businesses in contrast to the well-planned surrounding neighbourhoods of the contemporary city.

In these two images, the semantics of Death starts to unfold in its potential connotations, when Shibli places us in a position to look from an elevated position over the refugee camps. It is the same viewpoint from which the rest of Nablus wakes up every morning to watch the camps in their rather unfitting and helpless setting, entrapped in the insouciant modern city. This particular angle, looking down as into a grave, is a metaphor of witnessing the daily recurrence of the death of the Palestinian political project, and the loss of the ‘right of return’.

One Way to Heroism

Another set of photographs within Death depicts the realm of public space inside the city. Various forms of material evidence commemorate the tragedies of the city in resisting Israeli occupation, rendering Nablus’s public space into a journal documenting names, dates, political slogans, verses from the Qur’an and faces of martyrs and prisoners. This abundance of visual material and texts — mostly produced by political factions — takes on many forms, ranging from posters, graffiti and banners to small shrines engraved in marble, which look like tombstones scattered in the narrow alleys of the historic centre of Nablus and the refugee camps. This visual array is a constant reminder amidst everyday life in Nablus of martyrdom as a form of heroic struggle against the Israeli occupation. In unpacking the visual intensity of martyrdom as it appears in public space, Shibli reveals another of the Palestinians’ self-tormenting beliefs, by which the conservative social construction of heroism becomes the only model of patriotism.

Regardless of how ethically a man conducts himself towards his family, friends, neighbours and community, it is the martyrs and prisoners who ultimately become the demigods embellishing the public space. Death becomes an act of heroism, as does confinement, and any other forms of social valour that might take different forms — not involving the dissolution of the body or detention — are disregarded. Shibli’s photographs of public space underline the subliminal messages by which the ‘real men’ — the martyrs and prisoners — question the masculinity of the ‘still-living’ and ‘non-imprisoned’ men in their twenties and thirties, a dynamic which creates further role models for younger generations. This code of behaviour also influences the power relations within the family structure, challenging the father figure and the family’s structure of discipline. At the same time, in my experience, in many cases militant affiliation for young men and women is a means of escaping from kinship obligations and undermining power structures.

Death also looks at commercial advertisements and shop signs as visual material in public space that also contribute to the ongoing valorisation of the Palestinian liberation project. Through the set of photographs taken in the streets of Nablus, Shibli exhibits her perceptive reading of the streetscape and demonstrates her sensitivity in understanding the identity of the place through its social visual culture — before engaging in the more personal communication with the inhabitants evidenced in her images of domestic interiors. The urban shrines and posters of martyrs and prisoners create the popular perception and values of the Palestinian political project, which is in visual contradiction to the Palestinian Authority’s neoliberal economic project, as seen in Nablus’s new shopping malls, business towers and towering apartment buildings.

In Shibli’s public-space photographs there is no depiction of other visual forms of public or personal expression, such as non-political graffiti or wall paintings, as if there were an indirect social censorship against such apolitical representations in the visual identity of the public space. On the other hand, montaged images proliferate in public space, very uniform in their visual composition, showing martyrs and prisoners posing in front of the Dome of the Rock, the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the Palestinian flag or with political leaders such as Yasser Arafat, Abu Jihad (Khalil al-Wazir) and Ahmad Yassin. The images suggest that informal activism — for example, a woman smuggling supplies to the resistance fighters in the middle of a curfew — can never be part of the represented heroism. The loss of the body by means of imprisonment or physical decay is the only representation of heroism in public space — a cipher for the Palestinian loss of land to the Israeli occupation and the displacement of refugees.

Paradise Now

In the search for the meaning of death beyond the street’s representations, Shibli dedicates seven images to cemeteries in Nablus, where the actual remains of martyrs are interred. In the images of the cemeteries, Shibli addresses another dimension of the depiction of death and the complex social representation of martyrs in Nablus.

The photographs of the cemeteries have a sacred, paradisiacal feel to them, with lavish greenery and tombstones that verbalise various details. Three images depart from this model: one of the entrance to the cemetery of Balata Refugee Camp; and a pair taken from inside Madama’s cemetery in the region of Nablus, with two kids shown as if sneaking in a forbidden zone, incriminated by Shibli’s camera for being in a prohibited place. Despite the cemetery’s being a holy place for personal and familial contemplation of the souls of the departed, it falls nonetheless into the political and social demarcation of how martyrs should be publicly remembered and represented. Papered posters at an entrance are dominated by images of men, in rather boastful poses, holding machine guns.

The entrance to the cemetery of Balata rises in a crude shape of a Greek pediment and is collaged with posters honouring martyrs from the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades.04 The Brigades’ visual hegemony on the entrance indicates the power relations amongst the different political and militant factions in that particular part of Nablus, and demonstrates the territorial dimension of the political poster. An engraved text coloured in the red, black and green of the Palestinian flag lies on the two flanks of the pediment. On the right side is a verse from Surat (or chapter) ‘Al-Baraah’ from the Qur’an that translates as:

Fight them, God will torture them through your hands, and disgrace them, and allow you to triumph against them. God will requite the vengeance of his believers.

The verse validates the crowning poster on the pediment, which shows three martyrs from the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades posing with machine guns in front of the Dome of the Rock. With a promise of eternal paradise, the Qur’an legitimises death as a doctrine for armed resistance. The divinity of death positions martyrs as high-ranking believers regardless of the daily reality of their social and family behaviour and morals.

The engraving on the left side of the concrete pediment is a stanza from a resistance prose poem dedicated to martyrs and popular in Palestine and south Lebanon. It translates as:

I am leaving, leaving with you my songs / and a wound that didn’t touch my glory / and a lover’s gaze and a child’s cry and olives / breathing in my blood and I will give you my share in the world and leave.

The poetry shows a discrepancy in the representations of the martyr’s personality on the entrance to the cemetery. On one hand, the martyr is an armed fighter, the soldier of God, as represented in the Qur’an verse; and on the other hand, he is a delicate poet chanting delightful songs to mark his death, and offering his body as an act of generosity to his community.

Among the tombstones and graves of the cemetery Shibli shows the formal differentiation between the ordinary and the martyred, denoted via tombstone engravings and ornamentation. Some are marked with the emblems of political factions and others are bedecked with framed images of martyrs or draped with the Palestinian flag. One image focuses on a marble tombstone, in the shape of the map of Palestine, on which the title of a popular poem on martyrdom, ‘My martyrdom is her dowry’, is engraved in red. The poem depicts the Palestinian land as a female under onslaught, and the martyr as the immortal redeemer of his matrimonial right.

Balata Refugee Camp, 12 February 2012. A canvas in the guest room of the family of Kayed Abu Mustafa, depicting the martyr. It reads, ‘The panther of Kata’ib Shuhada’ al-Aqsa, Mikere’ (Mikere, of al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades). The people in the room are Mikere’s mother, his little nephew and his two children. Ahlam Shibli, Untitled (Death, no.37), 2011—12, Palestine, chromogenic colour print, 100 × 66.7cm

My Mother’s Salon

Shibli demonstrates with another set of photographs in Death how the reality of heroism that wraps the representation of martyrs and prisoners in the public arena also seeps into the private, family space through the ‘salon’ as a semi-public space, where visitors come to congratulate or mourn the loss and absence of martyrs and prisoners. Shibli shows how the salon becomes a holy shrine, where selected images of the martyrs are arranged along with a decor of fashionable furniture and often glittery and embroidered fabrics, artistically arranged by the martyr’s mother. The salon becomes an arena of collision: of the public representation of martyrdom; of the private suffering for the loss of the martyr within his or her family; and of the martyr’s personal ethics and morals in relation to his family members.

Shibli mirrors the representation of martyrs and prisoners in the streets and cemeteries of Nablus with their personal framed images and the posters found inside their family homes. Death displays a visual repertoire of a series of photomontages of martyrs in front of the Dome of the Rock, framed on the walls of family salons. Sometimes, within these heroes’ images, photographs of a lion, Siberian tiger or leopard are edited into the composition as symbols of courage and brutality against the occupier. Shibli shows a variation of the visual material inside the salons, such as banners, flags, posters and other documentation, scattered across the rooms in different sizes and colours, over cupboards and tables. In the semi-private space of the salon, we suddenly find images of women prisoners and martyrs. What does Shibli want us to conclude about the disappearance of women martyrs from public space and their abrupt appearance in the salon?

One photograph shows a huge poster of a veiled woman holding the Qur’an in one hand and a machine gun in the other. The woman’s pose can be read as portraying chastity. The fact that these images are contained within four walls might create a parallel with the Hortus conclusus (‘enclosed garden’) paintings and manuscripts of medieval and early Renaissance Europe. In paintings such as the Master of the Frankfurt Paradiesgärtlein (c.1410), the Virgin Mary is pictured in the middle of a four-quartered and walled paradisiacal garden with a Bible in her hand or playing a string instrument.05 Hortus conclusus manuscripts helped set the societal model for female behaviour. In Shibli’s Death, male martyrs are rarely depicted holding the Qur’an, whereas female martyrs seem to have to prove more than the sacrifice of their bodies: they have to be socially represented as ‘good women’ — defined as ‘religious women’ — through holding the Qur’an. Nonetheless, this female representation is more common in Islamic factions, since Shibli shows us another contradictory representation in a close-up photograph of a picture frame holding two identical images of a young girl wearing Fatah’s keffiyeh as a bandana on her unveiled head and shoulders. In the disparity between these two representations of female martyrs, Shibli steers Death away from stereotyping the collective social and political representation of heroes and heroines in Nablus. She plays with her photographs between the public (the collective) and the private (the personal) and identifies moments of hegemony, when the public takes over the private representation. She positions the viewer in a twilight zone, fluctuating between embracing a touristic (visitor’s) gaze on the different visual representations of martyrs and prisoners, and later taking the position of the inhabitants, whose heterogenic values are constantly in contention, especially within the private realm.

Sarcasm and mockery are found in some of her photographs of male martyrs. Shibli tries to destroy the iconic image of martyrs by presenting them as young men with needs and cultural interests and influences. Some of the photographs focus on framed pictures of teenaged men, armed with machine guns, posing like Hollywood actors. A particularly popular pose is that of Sylvester Stallone in Rambo, playing the invincible warrior, a symbolic figure whose name is even used colloquially to signify heroism and insuperability. Michael Jackson is another admired model, and several martyrs appear in Death sporting his hairstyle. Shibli humanises the teenagers against their social construction into demigods, in her double-edged images of death — in one body a holy martyr and a lost teenager.

The Old City, al-Kasaba, Nablus, 10 March 2012. The diary of the prisoner Diyaa al-Lidawi, who wrote his address as ‘the central Majedo prison, the department of the glory-making men’. Al-Lidawi’s diary expresses his mourning for the absence of freedom and independence of the homeland, and his love for his dear ones, who appear as the mother, the father, the beloved woman and Palestine itself. The pages of the diary articulate his sorrow in the name of his martyred comrades, among them Basim Abu Sariyah, Ameen Labada, Ihab Abu Salha, Jamal Shihada, Ahmad Abu Sharikh and Fadi Qfeesha. Other pages carry a call to the people to stand up and get rid of the leaders, busy with their slogans. The pages of the diary were written during the year 2008. Ahlam Shibli, Untitled (Death, no.4), 2011—12, Palestine, chromogenic colour print, 38 × 57cm

Letters of Love

Shibli also highlights in Death a collection of prisoners’ letters to their parents. In these letters the personal appears in both text and affiliated images, stripping a prisoner of the heroism and immortality and framing him within his personal relationships. Some of these letters are highly emotional, perhaps in contrast to the prisoners’ interactions with relatives and friends before confinement. The letters still highlight issues of patriotism and the role of the prisoner in the fight for liberation and resistance. However, Shibli intentionally focuses on words that denote the emotional conditions of the prisoner — such as ‘love’, ‘hug’, ‘kiss’, ‘cry’, ‘sad’, ‘happy’ and others that are not depicted in the representation of heroes in public space. One of the letters that Shibli has chosen articulates this notion explicitly:

… with the sublimity and beauty of the breeze which touches you all the time and respires into your bodies. From my heart, I shower you with my precious kisses that caress your faces each night. In my mind, I live with you everyday through thinking and imagination. From my body and soul, I embrace you from behind the bars of prison and I drift tears on our separation…

Drawings often ornament these letters, evidencing an important tool of expression for adding aesthetics for loved ones at home and for embellishing phrases of love and patriotism in the text; they are also a way to kill time in prison. Shibli’s photographs zoom in on the draughtsmanship of some of these letters, which required precision and concentration from the prisoner, while providing temporary relief from the agony of confinement and the slow passage of time. The letters’ drawings range from flowers and plants, representing the ultimate paradisiacal happiness that the prisoner bequests to his family, to red hearts with emblems of love floating between the paragraphs of the text. Political symbols are also strongly evident in the letters’ visual imagery, such as hands shackled with broken chains, signifying resistance and the hope for freedom and liberation.

Shibli probes into the dichotomy of public and private in the representation of prisoners and martyrs. Death swings the viewers between many representations of these figures, as divine beings, resilient armed fighters, ethereal poets or, in the collection of letters, emotional beings lusting for loved ones. By bringing together these multiple and contradictory representations in a single series of photographs, Shibli elaborates on how the fighter’s individuality slips away, eclipsed by the ideological representations of martyrs and prisoners. Nevertheless, she expresses hope in the diversity of representations in private space, which show more humane dimensions of ‘death’ and its contested meanings within collective sociopolitical representations.


  • Recollection from a conversation with the artist, spring 2011.
  • Anonymous, ‘Mahmoud Al-Alul, Governor of Nablus, declares 425 martyrs, 5,260 injured and more than 7 thousand imprisoned during 3 years of Israeli assault on Nablus’, Al-Quds, 30 September 2003, p.2.
  • Salon, in Arabic, refers to the room where the family welcomes visitors and guests. It contains the family’s best furniture, rugs, chandeliers, paintings and other ornaments that are meant to reflect the generosity and welcoming attitude of the family.
  • The al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades are a group of localised cells of Palestinian militants loyal to the secular-nationalist Fatah cause that branched apart from the Fatah movement in 2000 with the aim of attacking Israeli military targets and settlers in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
  • See Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, Landscape Design: A Cultural and Architectural History, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2001, especially Chapter Three, Part I, ‘Paradise as a Literary Topos: Gardens of God and Gardens of Love’.