I am not Neda

Is watching the murder of an Iranian protester caught on video a matter of bearing witness, or co-opting a tragedy?

Topics: Broadsheet,

I first saw the video (below) of Neda, a young Iranian woman who appears to be shot by the Basij during a protest in Tehran, posted yesterday at Alas, A Blog, where it came with this introduction: “The following video of the death of an Iranian protester is graphic and potentially triggering; do not view it if you feel you can not watch it. But if you can watch it, you probably should.” I’ve seen this sentiment echoed several places since then: You should watch. You have an obligation to watch. Watching, in the comfort of a safe home in a free country, is the least you can do.

I still didn’t watch, not at first. Not because I felt I couldn’t, exactly, but because I simply did not want to watch a woman’s life leave her, while her own father and other bystanders try to save her and scream helplessly. I had no interest in watching the video of Nick Berg’s beheading in 2004, either. Watching a violent death caught on tape seems so ghoulish and exploitive to me; are people really watching to bear somber witness, or merely because it’s so shocking — perhaps even perversely thrilling, in a tiny, shameful way — that we can watch? (Is it even possible to answer that question honestly?) My feeling yesterday, as it was in 2004, was that I could read the many graphic descriptions available and understand perfectly, painfully well what happened. What further purpose would watching the footage serve? Would I be honoring Neda, or just using her tragic death to feel better about myself for doing something a little more emotionally draining than putting a green overlay on my Twitter photo? Would it really teach me something important I wouldn’t otherwise know?



This morning, I forced myself to watch the video. And sadly, I was right: I did not gain any further understanding of the situation in Iran, or even of Neda’s final moments, by watching them. I did not cry or shake with horror. Because what I saw was actually too familiar to me — from crime dramas, war movies, the thousands of fictional depictions of violent deaths I’ve seen in a lifetime of watching various screens. This time, the thought kept going through my head, “This is real, this is real, this is real.” But it was no match for almost 30 years’ worth of knowing that when I see blood gushing out of a chest or a mouth, it’s actually red-tinted corn syrup; that when I see the spark of life leave a victim’s eyes, they only stay that way until the camera shuts off and the actress stands up; that when I hear the screams of frantic bystanders, they’ve been recorded over and over until the most chilling possible version was achieved. None of that was true, this time. My brain knows that, on one level — but on another, deeper level, I am so desensitized to similar imagery, I can’t fully process it. For me, watching the video didn’t bring home the gruesome reality of what’s happening to the people of Iran right now; it only reinforced that I don’t really get it, and maybe can’t. What I found most shocking was how little I was shocked.

And I can’t help noticing that, even for people who report that they were moved to tears, shakes and nightmares by the video, Neda’s murder has already become abstracted. Says Ulrike Putz, writing in Der Spiegel (and republished on Salon), “she has … become an icon, a martyr for the opposition in Iran. Neda has given the regime’s brutality a bloody face and a name. Overnight ‘I am Neda,’ has become the slogan of the protest movement.” An icon, a martyr, a symbol, a slogan. Not so much a person anymore. We don’t even know for sure if Neda, which means “the call” or “the voice” in Farsi, was her real name or an embellishment for the cause. (For that matter, as Putz points out, we can’t actually confirm that the video is real.) While her family grieves for the woman they loved, the world tweets, “Neda is my daughter, I have one just like her.” Really?

“Please let the world know,” said Hamed, the Iranian asylum seeker living in Holland who first posted the video to the Internet. In an interview with the Guardian, Hamed says he sent the clip to CNN and the BBC as well as posting it to YouTube and Facebook, because he felt it was a crucial step toward helping others understand what’s really going on in his country. It is that. There can be no doubt that social media and citizen journalism have made phenomenal changes to the way people understand the realities of politics in other countries, just as television images of Vietnam woke so many Americans up to the horror of a senseless war. It is important to let Iran know that the world is watching, and watching closely — both as a check on the powers that be and a show of solidarity with the people. But for those of us living freely in (mostly) functional democracies, there are so many things we don’t know, can’t know, no matter how obsessively we follow updates from the most reliable sources we can find, no matter how much footage of tear gas clouds and fires and murder we make ourselves watch.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t watch and link and retweet. But it does probably mean we should be awfully wary of enjoying a frisson of self-congratulation when we do, or getting so swept away by the emotional momentum of someone else’s fight — I’ve seen several bloggers express excitement and even a twisted sort of envy while watching the intensity of the Iranian people’s passionate political engagement — that we lose sight of just how much we don’t know and are not actually experiencing. We are not obligated, as compassionate people, to watch the video of Neda’s death, but I think we are obligated to acknowledge that not watching, not being there, is an incredible luxury. I am not Neda. Neda is not my daughter. And I am profoundly fortunate to be able to say those things.

You can decide for yourself if you want, or need, to watch.

 

Kate Harding is the co-author of "Lessons From the Fatosphere: Quit Dieting and Declare a Truce With Your Body" and has been a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>