Dina Omar

Yale University | New Haven, Connecticut, USA

Razing Rights/Rites of the Dead: Political Subjectivity and Reconfiguring Burial Sites and Practices

In Walter Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (1940), he writes that, “Even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins.” This paper examines how human remains are handled and mishandled on politically contested territory. More specifically, this paper draws from the sizable corpus of literature that materialized in the last decade concerning a battle over rights to rescue, or raze, the Mamilla Cemetery, a preserved historical site for Christian and Muslim Palestinians located in West Jerusalem. Since 1948 the Mamilla Cemetery has been under Israeli jurisdiction and over the last six decades small sections cemetery were desecrated{Boswell, 2013 #295} and built over. A plan to expand the Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC) Museum of Tolerance threatens to desecrate even more graves. Although Mamilla is perhaps the most famous contemporary case concerning Palestinian burial subjectivity, it is one of many abandoned Palestinian burial sites with no formal or informal custodianship.

I place the memory and treatment of these abandoned burial sites in conversation with Ghassan Kanafani’s short story “A Hand in the Grave” (1962)—which chronicles the brief journey of two young Palestinian medical students and their attempt to steal a skeleton from a grave because they cannot afford to purchase a skeleton through their school. When placing Kanafani’s fictive attempt to dig up the dead alongside the dead ‘facts on the ground,’ questions arise regarding the internal and external dimensions of what is: sacred, material, and subjective.

More recently, Israel claimed to deliver the human remains of political figures such as Mashhour Arouri and the Awadallah brothers (Imad and Adel) to their families. However, their bodies were returned many years after their death and in the Arouri case, forensic evidence determined that the body released to the family, was someone else entirely. Today, the faces of the Awadallah brothers are spray-painted all over the walls of Ramallah signaling how public art produces a “culture of politics” and how the treatment of the dead figure prominently in Palestinian culture. These cases have generated a great deal of controversy and confirmed the existence of Israel’s “cemetery of numbers,” repositories of dead bodies held for political purposes. These cemeteries—some safeguarded by Israeli forces and others completely abandoned—compel questions related to how dead bodies are leveraged against the living. In the process of regime change and colonial expansion, bodies themselves become contested territories, or “battlegrounds,” where the state is able to reconcile the incongruences of the past, and refashion new governable subjects for the future. The descriptive part of this paper draws upon literature ranging from legal documents, journalism, and historical texts to outline the ethical and political questions presently being considered in Palestinian and Israeli society. The analytical part of this paper draws from critical theory, forensic anthropology, anthropology of the body, public art, and literature to consider how political subjectivity compels communities to reconfigure traditional burial practices, and further, to examine how burial practices are shaped the Palestinian political imaginary. This paper asks how the state, or the absence of a state apparatus, determines topographies of memory by reconstituting what dead bodies are acceptable to memorialize.

In conclusion, I offer thoughts on how human remains are handled and mishandled by the state as an exercise of unmitigated sovereignty. Moreover, I question how sentimentality and sacredness figure to deepen and reify the effects of state subjugation. How are rights and rites leveraged in the name of the dead, and the living, and for what ends? In world becoming increasingly transient – evermore socially and spatially temporal and fleeting, how do Palestinians imagine and situate these fixed, abandoned cemeteries scattered across historic Palestine? How does the Israel’s “cemetery of numbers” function as a political bargaining tool against Palestinians? And finally how are Palestinians currently making claims to rights that protect or authorize “traditional” burial rites practices? And if such rights do exist, then so what?

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