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A Letter from Beirut
Caravaggio in Iraq
by SAMIA NASSAR MELKI

Of all the pictures to come out of Abu Ghraib prison, the most striking is that of the naked prisoner standing with his back turned to the camera, arms stretched out and what seems like human excrement covering his well toned body. Facing the man, and the camera, is an American GI, predictably blond, predictably butch holding a menacing stick diagonally to his chest.

Although horrifying in its content, one cannot deny the beauty of the piece. That captured moment of intense humiliation and degradation, pronounces itself with all the drama and contrasting colors of a Caravaggio painting.

Baroque art, although maintaining Renaissance Art’s emphasis on the beauty of the human form in both shape and proportion went a step further, it captured the moment. The best example of that difference can be seen in the sculptural rendition of the biblical story of David and Goliath. Standing with his head turned sideways and his sling nonchalantly thrown over one shoulder, Michael Angelo’s David celebrates the perfection of the human body through malleable stone, but one would be forgiven if one forgets that this is the same Biblical David about to face his overwhelming enemy Goliath. It is Baroque Art’s rendition of the same subject matter by its most prolific artist, Bernini that denotes the difference. Bernini’s David, although as perfectly sculpted as Michael Angelo’s, captures the perils of the moment. Depicting the exact instance when David is about to project his stone, his knees bent, his torso twisted, his arms stretched backwards holding the sling, his jaw muscles clenched and his eyes focused ahead, the viewer is caught in the pinnacle moment of the whole story.

The pictures stemming from Abu Ghraib might prove to be the images that capture the pinnacle moment in this War in Iraq. This distilled moment of high drama may prove to be the moment when the dynamics between East and West irreversibly change.

The best of Baroque art invites the viewer to be part of the artwork. In the case of Bernini’s David, it is the viewer who finds himself cast in the role of Goliath. Looking at the pictures, the West cannot help but feel monstrous. By viewing these atrocious pictures, the West becomes part of the drama, the missing link in the circle of oppression. They are Goliath, they are the oppressors, they certainly are not the liberators.

For the Arab, more used to being talked of, talked over or downright ignored in matters as basic as the land beneath his feet, he finds himself the hero of the piece, the central issue that can no longer be ignored.

Forced to walk in a straight line with his legs crossed, his torso slightly twisted and arms spread out for balance, the Iraqi prisoner’s toned body, accentuated by the excrement and the bad lighting, stretches out in crucifix form. Exuding a dignity long denied, the Arab is suffering for the world’s sins.

These two very different perspectives have predictably resulted in very different reactions. As the western elites were holding their breath awaiting the much-dreaded reaction of the Arab world, they missed the point of these pictures. In seeking to humiliate, the Americans have humiliated themselves.

One should not underestimate the effect of this shift in perception.
Long thought of as unworthy of self rule, the Arab has always been portrayed as having the great fortune of residing on Oil rich land but again cast as unworthy of his luck, hence unworthy of his land, therefore unworthy of self rule (a philosophy that beautifully ties in with Zionism’s claim that the land of Palestine is meant only for the Jews, God’s chosen people, again a people more worthy).

Now with the Abu Ghraib pictures the reverse is true. It is the American that is seen as unworthy of power and unfit to rule. Trying to write off this act as the work of a few "bad apples", the West does not realize that its credibility had started taking a beating a long time ago, reaching its pinnacle at Abu Ghraib prison.

With Al-Jazeera reporters targeted and killed, it has become obvious to its Arab viewers that the West’s version of free speech is a one sided monologue. Watching Israel steal more Palestinian land unhindered and Sharon, the architect of Palestinian dispossession called "A man of Peace", whilst in an almost mirror like symmetry, the American military behaving like its Israeli counterpart on Iraqi soil, the once subservient Arab has realized that his resistance is the last stop between the rule of law and the rule of the fist.

Long told that his culture is substandard, his religion mad, his plight the result of his own failings, the Arab is finally standing up, ready to take exception. The West inspired respect when it held up the principles it says it wants to propagate, without them, all that the Arab feels is a heavy boot on his neck.

As the Arab watches the bulldozers at Raffah render the defenseless homeless and the prisoners of Abu Ghraib degraded and humiliated, it becomes obvious to his part of the world that the rights conferred by International Laws, the UN charter and Free Speech are being defended by the Palestinian claiming his rights and the Iraqi protecting the sovereignty of his land. If these now infamous pictures have captured a moment, it is when the world realized that it is not the advocators of human rights that defend them, but rather their victims.

SAMIA NASSAR MELKI is an architect and writer living in Beirut. Email: samianm@inco.com.lb