Cycles of Atrocity
by Myra Al-Rahim, summer 2020
In his Theses on the Philosophy of History, philosopher and cultural critic Walter Benjamin reflects:
“There is a painting by Klee called Angelus Novus. An angel is depicted there who looks as though he were about to distance himself from something which he is staring at. His eyes are opened wide, his mouth stands open and his wings are outstretched. The Angel of History must look just so. His face is turned towards the past. Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet.
He would like to pause for a moment so fair, to awaken the dead and to piece together what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise, it has caught itself up in his wings and is so strong that the Angel can no longer close them. The storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the rubble-heap before him grows sky-high. That which we call progress, is this storm.”
A radiophonic eulogy
When I began creating the piece that would eventually become and the sea gave up the dead which were in it, my goal was to compose a radiophonic eulogy to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. For years, I have been haunted by the recklessness of the U.S.’ messianic faith in its military’s ability to deform the world into its own image. And truly, this has constituted the internal combustion engine of U.S. foreign policy since the end of World War II. Time and again, through systematic violence, brutal suppression, and full-out invasions of sovereign states, the U.S. has dominated as the incontestable and self-proclaimed “moral” leader of the modern world.
To this day I ask myself how it is that the demonic leviathan of U.S. imperialism could act and continue to act with such impunity? Could it be that there is an inherent problem in the way we view this country’s legacy that consigns us to these vicious cycles of violence and atrocity?
I often feel that our conventional understanding of history as a linear chain of events is precisely the reason we are doomed to repeat it. There is no such thing as the past. Decisions made bear consequences that reverberate through time and therefore history is not this fossilized, unchanging thing, it is a living, evolving entity that constantly occupies the present. The year 2018 marked the 15th anniversary of the Second Gulf War. This was an opportune moment to grieve over the toxic political and humanitarian fallout of the U.S.’ erroneous decision to preemptively invade Iraq in 2003.
Ghosts of history
To begin my piece, I took as my central proposition this idea of the incident and the echo. Time, specifically this false idea of a past that has already happened, plays a leading role in the composition. My intention was to depict the Past as a penetrative force that was breaking in and colonizing the present moment, preventing the course of progress into the future. I wanted to create a condition where the space-time continuum had effectively ruptured and all the ghosts of history, uninhibited by the walls protecting the flow of progress, would come to haunt the present we occupy.
On March 20, 2003, when President Bush announced U.S. forces had begun military operations in Iraq with the goal of “decapitating” Iraq’s leadership and clearing the way for a ground invasion, I was 9-years-old living in London with my Lebanese mother and Iraqi father. I would come to learn that my father, along with his family, had initially welcomed the invasion with open arms. The tyranny of Saddam’s regime forced them to flee Baghdad in the ’80s, so the prospect of U.S. intervention was, to them, cause for hope.
That same year, my aunt, Rend Al-Rahim, was appointed as Iraqi Ambassador to the United States and held the position for just under a year. She was part of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, set up by Congress to pursue the invasion of Iraq and the toppling of the Saddam Regime. On June 11, 2003, my father stood before Congress’ Joint Economic Committee to deliver a speech advising the U.S. on how it should go about transforming Iraq’s economy once they had successfully “liberated” the country. In short, members of my paternal family were not simply passively sympathetic to the U.S.’ plans to launch preemptive strikes on Iraq, but played active roles in realizing the Bush administration’s ambitions.
These are not easy words to write. My father passed away suddenly and tragically when I was 16 years old. I will always feel somewhat like my attempts to make him accountable in death for his opinions and actions with regards to Iraq, is a betrayal to his memory as my father. Mine is a life-long struggle to come to terms with what it means that these people, whom I love dearly, could take the side of an administration so explicit in its disregard for the value of Iraqi lives. There’s nothing I can do to change what was done. There are simply facts to acknowledge and a complicated legacy to reckon with as candidly as I can. The central thesis of my work, to remind people that the past is not at all this petrified, inert thing, but a moving, breathing, sentient force which refuses to be relegated to the dust heaps of memory, presents a critical and personal challenge to me: resurrecting my own family’s legacy and not simply remembering it, but actively engaging with it as the living thing that it is.
If I could distill the intentions behind creating this piece into a single mission, it would be this: To encourage the categorical rejection of the act of remembrance with which we treat past time. There is no past to remember. The past and the present are one and the same. Once we accept this as reality, then perhaps we have a chance of severing ourselves from the compulsive repetition of this thing we call history.
Myra Al-Rahim’s piece originally aired on Constellations.