Culture of death: otherwise how could one explain the brutal killings of scores of donkeys in Syria by Bashar al-Asaad’s Shabiha or thugs? Cruelty toward animals is not a novelty, in Syria or elsewhere, but few would deny the impact of the culture of death on how animals are treated. Usama Muhammad, a famed Syrian director, who has twice been interviewed by this magazine, has been commenting on the Syrian Revolution with a special sensitivity and at times with irony. One of his many articles was titled “The Donkeys of the Others” or “the Others’ Donkeys,” published in Al Hayat newspaper (September 26, 2011). The article is at once moving and painful; largely inspired by Muhammad’s piece, I am calling this essay “The Donkey Killers.”
Attitudes toward animals offer an understanding of one’s character. The Syrian director supports this with an Arab proverb: “min hamirouhum tarifounehum,” roughly translated “their characters can be recognized from the way they treat their donkeys.”
The recent brutal slaughter of a group of donkeys was everywhere in the news, on YouTube, Facebook, and other media venues. The Syrian director asks his readers if they saw the fate of the donkeys on YouTube, and as a reader I say: “Yes, I did.” I made sure to watch it again and again. The scene of the donkeys being forced to assemble together did not seem all natural, except when some of them appeared seduced by the camera. Sadness was evident on the faces of some, as if they expected what to happen. Even though the audio is not entirely clear, I could hear them using the term “execution” in Arabic or “A’daam.” Immediately I thought, since when are donkeys executed? Isn’t this language a product of the dominant culture of death? I also heard one soldier offer mercy to a little donkey, a “cute” one, suggesting that it be saved. Other than that, every soldier was ready for the act and immediately started shooting them as a group, and when some of the animals wandered away, the Kalashnikov was able to hit them and leave every one of them on the ground, with the exception of a little one that was pulled behind and was seen still standing among the soldiers. Perhaps that was the “cute, little one.” The pleasure taken in killing the donkeys was evident in how the soldiers took turns in killing them, as if every one wanted to bear the badge of honor of being a donkey-killer. As the soldiers enjoyed the brutal event, they asked fellow soldiers to take a picture of some of them before the killing started.
Muhammad gives an analysis of how and why the shooters killed the donkeys. The director imagines a scene that is a mixture of fiction and reproduction of what happens or could happen in real life. The killers combined brutality with deception: they used mobile and cell phones to coordinate their crime; they lured the donkeys closer. Trained to know what humans want from it, the donkey approached. But Muhammad tell us that donkeys do not “lack feelings and intuition.” Villagers tell stories about when a “child donkey reaches an edge, an edge of a well, or an abyss it will stop before it falls in.”
As for the donkeys, Muhammad writes “they never watched the film ‘1900’ by Bernard Bertolucci wherein the Taaviani Brothers do not close their eyes when fascist bullets take their lives in a wheat field.
Drawing on his background in cinema, Muhammad says that filmmaking is a painstaking job and the technical people involved often become tired and resentful of the director’s demands after a month of work, even if they had previously liked him. But after six months of killing, “you are shocked by the preparations taken to film this ‘shot’ of killing the donkeys,” and there are two mysterious reasons for this.
The first is the “spirit of playfulness,” or fun, among Kalashnikov holders. The second is the insistence on grouping (or clustering) the donkeys into one “bloc.”
Muhammad could not understand all the rush, and playfulness by the technical team to assemble the donkeys since the Kalashnikov can kill the donkeys easily, no matter where are they, dispersed or grouped in one bloc.
Muhammad offers two answers to his own questions: cinematic/technical and psychological. “I do not know which is the most outrageous,” he writes.
Muhammad is quite right. The explanation is both cruel and shows that technology goes together with criminality. “In the relationship between the form and the content, the technical discovers the psychological while at the same time the psychological invents the technical.” Speaking with technical authority, director Muhammad says the donkeys were gathered so their last “moment in life” could be photographed in one cadre.
The “cinematic killers” have the desire for including a “shot” of “mass murder,” thus a “mass massacre.” Tragically, the joy of killing the donkeys separately or in detail does not satisfy the venom of the killers’ imagination, an imagination eager to play with death like a toy.
Like humans, donkeys have history and traits. Donkeys are known for their loyalty to “humanity” and for their giving to their “man-brother.” The donkey-killer cannot deny the common memory he shares with the donkey. The donkey essentially bestows his or her favors and even a sense of solidarity upon those living in poor rural areas, isolated and often without water, electricity, schools and transportation. Under these circumstances, the donkey emerges as a great asset to the people. The value of the donkey may equal man, if it not exceeds his. Donkeys are used to travel long distances from villages without wells toward water sources and return so the elderly and children may have drinking water.
Imagine life in those far away rural areas without donkeys: Donkeys made bread available when there were no bakeries or supermarkets. It is the donkeys who were awakened early in the morning and loaded with heavy bags of wheat to transport to far away mills. With the donkeys, one smells the flour, dough, wood, and bread. In the mills, young girls and boys fall in love, and so donkeys mate with other donkeys.
Perhaps appealing to the conscience of a donkey-killer, Muhammad reminds him of the donkey as a vital part of the community. “It is they which carried you out on their backs toward the sunset and sunrise, plain fields and to the songs. It is they which breathed their humanity to transport you to the physician’s clinic in a neighboring village to relieve you from pain.”
Yes, the “min hamirahum taarifounehoum,” suggests two kinds of people, those who abuse donkeys through beating and those treat them with kindness and gratitude.
Of course, all this “before riding the bicycle, bus, Mercedes and the tank.”
Still, there is the question: why did the soldiers fire at the donkeys? Is it because the donkeys are for the “Others,” the property of those rebelling against the regime, or is it because they are the “Others,” the donkeys becoming the enemies themselves, which mean the killing became senseless and self-indulgent.
When the soldier or donkey-shooter was about to kill a donkey, perhaps he failed to realize the significance of the donkey’s last look at him. Perhaps the shooter could not remember that the donkey remembered him when he was a kid, weeping and crying, when the little donkey was following his mother at the same time the youngster was following his father on their way to sell the donkey in the bazaar.
It is there the donkey met his killer; but the shooter did not remember.
The donkey did…remembering the kid, the river, and the mill, the smell of flour baked with blood.
“From which memory are you avenging?”
Or is it a mere hour of boredom or leisure that leads to playing such callous games with life? Do you know why the donkey balked? It appears the donkey remembers, becomes sad and thus balks.
This essay appears in Al Jadid, Vol. 17, no. 64
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