The Burden of Witnessing

Will Eizlini, an American artist of French Jewish descent, tells me that he has been crying every day. When not crying, he is making a series of paintings interpreting the massacres in Gaza—crimson landscapes of sea, sky, dunes, with piles of rubble in the shape of Arabic letters and body parts scattered among them. Another painting depicts the Gaza coast in its primitive state, before any sign of human presence, the state to which it might return when Israel’s campaign of primal violence concludes. He tells me that he forces himself to watch the videos, all the videos, meaning even the most grotesque ones of children with amputated limbs and charred bodies, empty eye sockets, mothers crying over their dead newborns, children discovering the death of their mothers, sisters crying over brothers, brothers crying over brothers, sons burying their fathers; all a videographic record of generations accumulating unresolvable trauma. He forces himself to do this because he says that it is his responsibility to not look away but “to witness.”

In Arabic, shāhid, meaning “witness,” is closely related to shahīd, meaning “martyr,” by all metrics the same word, with the same root, only with a slight morphological inflection indicating adjectival and predicate noun forms. This is not a polysemy, exactly, but layers of a single meaning. The Muslim attestation of faith, the shahada, also belongs to this semantic complex. As Arabic spread its influence in the world beginning in the seventh century, the two layers of the word took on different fates. In parts of the world where culture and politics have been significantly touched by Islam, from the West African coast to the Southeast Asian archipelagos, shahid the martyr is standard currency in languages from Hausa to Somali, Turkish to Persian, Uzbek, Kashmiri, Hindustani, Bengali, Malay, and everything in between. It is the term par excellence especially for political martyrs, those killed by imperialist governments and colonial regimes and by local dictators and secular nationalisms. Its use has historically been unbound by religion, as in British India, where the shahid denoted and honored revolutionaries killed during the Independence movement. More ecumenical is its adoption into Sikhism, where the concept undergoes theological elaboration into jyoti jot “light joining light”—the light of the martyr’s soul leaving the world to join the light of God. Still, shahid’s associations with Islam are profound.

Shahid the witness, however, has not typically been adopted into other languages. (There are, of course, exceptions.) On purely scriptural grounds, it is remarkable to note that whereas shahid the witness appears several times in the Qur’an, shahid the martyr does not. Shahid’s shift from witness to martyr occurred later, during the canonization of extra-Qur’anic literature, and probably under the influence of Christian martyrology in the Mediterranean world in the centuries preceding Islam. The concept of witnessing in Greek, the lingua franca of this world, similarly underwent a semantic expansion to become discursively linked to martyrdom, when early Church fathers held civilization-defining debates on the nature of the crucifixion event—a martyrdom founding a world religion. It is reasonable to believe that these debates helped facilitate a similar shift in Arabic. Regardless of the reason, shahid came to encompass both layers, and, in Arabic, the two remain inextricably linked.

If we are to take this etymology of shahid seriously, that the witness and the martyr are two layers of the same semantic topography, then we must also assume a greater responsibility in witnessing the death and destruction in Gaza. By watching the videos, the witness is transformed, breaking through the boundaries of what in political activism du jour is called “allyship”—a tactical alliance that assumes a separation between two self-constituting subjects or worlds. But for the shahid, there is no separation as such. Just as the millions trapped in Gaza cannot turn off the bombs, the diseases, starvation, and the humiliation, the witness cannot turn off that which has been witnessed, even when the mobile phones and television screens are turned off. It is often said that there is complicity in silence—and this is true of a certain kind of silence—but there is also immense grief in silence, and not all silences are the same. In everyday conversations at the workplace, the bakery, the restaurant, or the café, the witness is not “really there,” and the banalities of life buzz around the ears like a mosquito. “Are you okay?” the sleepless and black-eyed witness is asked, but it is an interrogation, and the faithful answer would require a serious kind of engagement that neither the interrogator nor the witness is willing (or able) to make. This is what distinguishes the witness from a mere spectator. Witnessing is solidarity in the truest sense, removing conceptual barriers between the martyred and those who witness this martyrdom. Physical barriers and thresholds of pain, of course, remain.

But not all witnesses are able to cope with the burden of witnessing. Aaron Bushnell, the twenty-five-year-old US Air Force serviceman who self-immolated in front of the Israeli embassy in Washington, DC on February 25, uttering “Free Palestine” as his last words, is the witness who made the passage to martyr. Livestreaming his extreme act of protest, Bushnell said to the camera before pouring the clear liquid on himself: “I will no longer be complicit in genocide.” In other words, Bushnell resolved himself of the burden of witnessing and embraced the task of martyrdom. In reactions to his protest from Arab publics, from Palestine to Yemen to the North American diaspora, he has been hailed as a shahid.

Bushnell’s extreme act of protest for Palestinian freedom is not the first of its kind. A Swiss woman who I knew very well, M, for a time a close friend, also took her own life in the name of Palestine, hanging herself and leaving behind a suicide note professing that she could not continue in this world after the massacres in Gaza. This was toward the end of 2014, a few months after the conclusion of the bombing campaign that the Israelis call “Operation Protective Edge,” in which 2,300 Palestinians in Gaza were killed; a dress rehearsal for the current genocide. M and I had shared a house in Ramallah for some time, together with other foreigners. She was working as a midwife in the Palestinian medical sector, and she also taught yoga and meditation on the side. A tall woman of forty with cropped blond hair, she was unmissable as she rode her bicycle around Ramallah. Her closest friend was a baker, with whom she would converse in broken Arabic-English pidgin. M only lived in Palestine for a little over a year, but it was obvious to everyone who knew her that she had been transformed spiritually by her experiences there.

During the final weeks of the 2014 massacres, I went to visit her in the small Italian village where she was living after she left Palestine. It was clear that she was not “really there,” like the witness who is interrogated by the demands of normalcy in moments of great suffering. A few months later, news of her suicide arrived. Her case is virtually unknown, and those of us who were close to her chose not to publicize the matter. There were strange details in her story, and mysterious red herrings and bizarre cul-de-sacs. Most importantly, we chose to believe that such an extreme act of protest for Palestine was misguided, or, at worst, that it was not the truth of what had actually happened.

To the extent that M, like Bushnell, made the passage from witness to martyr, I have myself made a passage in my understanding of M’s martyrdom. This understanding could have been there all along, but it required a jolt, a recalibration of ontology.

There is a popular chant heard at political rallies in the Arab world: al-shahid habib allah, “the martyr is the beloved of God.” I do not know its origin, but it is most likely not of great antiquity, as the formula x habib allah exists in various possibilities in Arabic speech. Lately, when I hear it, I think of M and Bushnell, of Will Eizlini and his paintings, and of the over 30,000 martyrs in Gaza, some of whom I knew superficially. I think of shahid in all its layered semantic complexity, and I think of the billions of dollars of revenue being made by tech companies from my witnessing. I think also of the echoing words of the Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali:

They ask me to tell them what Shahid means:
Listen, listen:
It means “The Beloved” in Persian, “witness” in Arabic.

Here we have a third layer to add to our semantic complex. For those of us who cannot faithfully undertake the burden of witnessing, nor the task of martyrdom, we can at least honor those who can, and remember and love them.


Cover image: Will Eizlini, Beautiful Sunset III. Courtesy of the artist.

Arpan Roy

Arpan Roy is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Postdoctoral Fellow at Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient in Berlin. His book Relative Strangers: Romani Kinship and Palestinian Difference will be published in October 2024 by University of Toronto Press. A second book project currently in progress is a co-edited, multidisciplinary volume on plurality in Palestine, the first book project of Insaniyyat—the Society of Palestinian Anthropologists.