Image Against Image, Shot Reverse Shot

Oussama Mohammad

“The train for Deraa broke down. My uncle helped our neighbor. Sami has watches in his shop.”

Reading Lesson for primary class.


“The young boy kissed the officer’s boot!”

The young boy, a teenager from Deraa, kissed the military’s boot. Maybe he was the intelligence officer, or the adjutant. He is yet without identity. The only clue we have left that was shot is the boot in which he anchors his sense of security. The camera’s angle films from the top, above the teenager kneeling to kiss the boot that holds the keys to life.

In this episode, there are two heroes: the teenager, and the boot. The teenager appears, acute and clearly, bare-bones. He is called… he is called… I don’t know his name. The second hero is the boot. This is the staging in the film.

We are unable to know from the teenager what provoked his first fitful stirrings. What did he dream of the night before the scene? When was the last time he tried to dream before slipping into this hell? Did he see himself kissing his beloved, as we kiss our own?

We can neither ask him that question, nor can he answer us. To whom was that kiss intended? A teenager’s kiss… Totally bare, livered with fright, stupor, terror… As if he had survived Hiroshima. Looking for new premises, for another life; hoping that this time, it would not simply end there…

When the teenager rested his head on the pillow, he awoke to the kiss without daring to rouse anyone. Locked into moral codes and cultural mores… in the chivalrous nobility of the Arabs and their poems…

Maybe he keeps that first kiss secret from his beloved; from the one he fancies, or will one day. The one he will come to know. In the kiss, he will discover life gushing… He could never imagine, our teenager, that he would come to betray life, love and his beloved by delivering that first-ever kiss to the boot; the very first time, and in the nude. His nails, clutching the boot as he kisses, naked. He is kissing the boot, the second protagonist of the episode.

The boot is being kissed. It abducts the teenager’s kiss; his terrifying nightmare. The boot is the quintessence of security and repression. Stripped of hopefulness, the teenager kisses that “security boot”. Crouched in the corner of his cell, he delivered his kiss to the boot, and forfeits it for good. He will remain without that kiss…

When I saw what I saw, I saw him, and then me… I saw myself in the boy and I kissed the boot with him… Complying with the first premise of cinema, the kind manufactured to appeal to the masses; intended to enrapture the spectator’s heart, soul and senses… The kind that manipulates all sorts of tricks and images to drive home a single question, or a single message, in a single seamless instant. Is that not how it works?

The message got to me. This moment, widely referred to as the awakening of conscience, has come to every Syrian. Every one of us, from Deraa to Qamishli, from Douma to Homs, and all along the coastline. I am sure that, with the exception of a few boots, all feel shame and dread whilst witnessing this crime. The mere image is enough to drive people to go out into the street to protest against the boot.

Is it conceivable that a group might split apart, that a family and its neighbors might clash, that two beings might fall into discord, that a woman and a man be ambivalent over the sense of shame? Such a moment is a true referendum. Every day at the end of the day, when Syrians lay their heads to rest on pillows laced with anxiety, might they still vote for the boot?

This is my waking nightmare… the vote on the pillow. Is it possible that Syrians are divided on that point? Can they forget this episode? The answer is yes. I myself have forgotten it. True, it woke me up at three in the morning and impelled me to write this text, but I have already forgotten it. Even if I had kissed the boot along with the teenager, I’ve forgotten it.

The next episode: Rendez-vous with murder.

The teenager is in flight, surveying the surface of the planet. His arms and legs are carrying him aloft, like the gladiator from the movie The Gladiator. In the movie, the gladiator does not die, because it is a movie. The earth recoiled on the back of the flying Syrian. He wonders… and yet does not wonder at all. He was stunned, dumbfounded… It was the first time he died this way in Syria. The first time, he was protesting; seeing the other, seeing death. He was protesting for the sake of living, not for the sake of dying. He was protesting against his own death. He died a martyr; he just died. Those who rescued him implored him to hold on to his new identity in the name of God the Merciful.

He exhaled his soul to the lens of the universe’s camera. Not a single martyr has appeared on the news broadcasts of Syria’s public television stations. The teenager’s soul was not broadcast. The teenager who exhaled his homeland was himself exiled. Can the Syrians fall into discord over this point? Can they forget this episode? The answer is yes. I, myself, have forgotten it.

I saw him alive at his funeral. In the peaceful protests that were broadcast on YouTube; in the protests for freedom on YouTube. A peaceful protest for a living martyr. Not a single image of a martyr on the news broadcasts of the public television stations in Syria. In those news broadcasts, the teenager was killed by “unknown gangs”, in their plot against the Homeland.

When the murderer is “unidentified”… the murdered also becomes unidentified. The murdered was dismissed from the episode, replaced by the murderer. He is out of focus in the frame; he is without image. He is represented by words; they come in lieu of the image, a common device in mediocre cinema. The cells of the words multiplied and formed an imaging. Imaging without images… simply identified as “The Gang”.

In the official episode, the coals of the collective imaginary were stoked by the teenager’s soul that was exhaled. They were the coals of collective fear, in whose heat the image of terror became more perceptible.

One image against another image! Fear or freedom!

Then the teenager’s image was obliterated, and in its stead came the imagery of “The Gang”. One kind of fear replaced another kind of fear… the latter lain to rest on a pillow. Is it possible to let fade the image and sound of that Syrian teenager’s soul, exhaling its last breath from memory?

What was the word he tried to speak when his mouth was filled with earth? Can anyone guess a word other than “homeland”? Someone can.

“The Gang” shoots dreams of life’s first gushes with live bullets. These dreams will not become real and taste freedom unless they are allowed to live.

What will happen to the referendum when Syrians raise their heads from their pillows? Will they vote for the murder of a youngster crying out for freedom, peace and unity? Will they vote “yes” on Facebook? What will the majority of the country say before surrendering to sleep? Will they agree to the slaying of the teenager?

The teenager’s image has to amplify and undercut “The Gang” for consciences to rouse during the referendum. In order to preserve his own image, the assassin had to cut out the murdered teenager’s image—the contours of his body, his name, his beloved’s name, his stories, his secrets, the lightness of his being… The color of his eyes, his favorite singer, his military service record, where he served, the friends he may or may not have made across the country… Perhaps he has been the one calling for the unity of the country? Has he called them, do they miss him, does he trust them? “The Gang” made sure he does not appear on screens, so that he would never tip the referendum to his favor.

Censors erased his image, as they had all the other images. A peaceful image of freedom. They replaced it with word games about an unknown evil that shoots to kill anything that moves. In official news broadcasts, the murderers do not appear, but language creates their representations. They are images of fear.

The peaceful protestors annihilated their own fear. They buried it along with the bodies of their martyrs. Fear, on the other hand, has not accepted its own end. It was revived by reenacting massacres. Massacres are the work of fear. Fear fears the referendum. It does not want pluralism; it wants a single, frightening “other”, like that one single man and the boot. The murderer is a chain, bound by fear that produces victims in the plural.

Massacres also kill the referendum in which all participate—those thirsting for freedom and those who fear it, those allied, those dissident, and those who hesitate. The referendum will determine our tomorrow, no matter its outcome. Corruption does not want a peaceful referendum on corruption. Security forces do not want a peaceful referendum on impunity, live bullets, jail sentences or the torturing of the wounded... A peaceful referendum could draw a majority from all ends of the horizon, for the unity of the country, for a state of law. The murderers are in a race against time. They would like to stop it. To kill an innocent soul is like killing all souls. But the perfect crime does not exist.

The image of the murderer hides behind a simulacrum that contrives to conceal itself. It lurks in the folds of the language spoken in the official news broadcasts. The censored images of innocent citizenry are themselves the martyrs of smoke screens… Official broadcasts deny that they are martyrs of Syria as a whole. Screens of official broadcasts continue to hold captive the bodies of the martyrs of the first referendum.