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Anointing the Dead

Remembering Shireen Abu Akleh

Shireen Abu Akleh loved handbags.

In life, a mere detail. Intimate and unremarkable.

Where does this fact go, in death?

This is my first obituary.

But then, this isn’t really an obituary. Obituary: notice of a death, especially in a newspaper.

By now, the whole world has been given notice of her death. Within hours of the killing, the facts had been published, and, just as quickly, clouded by denial and spin, transforming Abu Akleh into something more, and less, than she was in life. In the clash of competing “narratives,” she became an emblem. An argument.  

Here’s where it began: on May 11, 2022, the fifty-one-year-old journalist, widely known and beloved for her twenty-five-plus years of covering Palestine, was fatally shot in the head. The death occurred in the West Bank refugee camp of Jenin, where she had arrived early that morning to cover a raid by Israeli occupying forces. According to colleague Shatha Hanaysha, she, Abu Akleh, and producer Ali Samoudi had made their presence as journalists known to a cadre of Israeli soldiers, then proceeded down a quiet street.

Residents of the neighborhood had pointed them toward this route, advising them that this area had thus far been free of any Israeli or resistance activity. “In that area, things seemed almost normal,” Hanaysha recalled. A moment later, a bullet struck Samoudi in the back. “Ali’s been hit! Ali’s been hit!” Abu Akleh cried out. She and Hanaysha scrambled for cover. A moment later, Abu Akleh lay face down on the ground, motionless beneath the bulk of her blue PRESS jacket.

Of course, her death was never going to be a strictly private affair. Presumably, even if Abu Akleh had lived deep into old age, her passing would have been marked by her many devoted fans. For audiences in the Arab world, her name and face have been synonymous with the Palestinian experience for years. She rose to prominence during the Second Intifada, known for her courageous coverage on the frontlines. Clips from her oeuvre include shots of her in the West Bank scuttling out of the way of tear gas canisters and picking her way through the debris of homes demolished by Israeli artillery. In others, Abu Akleh is dressed in a flak jacket and helmet marked PRESS—the same outfit she was wearing when she was shot—military vehicles or plumes of smoke filling the background.

Our very title—Palestinian—acts too often like a spell, one we don’t control.

So it was only natural that, in the hours after her death, tributes flooded the web, lauding her as an icon for Palestinians and a hero for generations of Arab journalists, particularly women. “Her voice gathered families around their televisions, and inspired an entire generation of journalists,” said journalist and podcaster Tala el-Issa in one tribute. Others echoed this sentiment, praising Abu Akleh’s commitment to covering injustices both large and small, and citing her now-famous quote: “I chose journalism to be close to the people. It might not be easy to change the reality, but at least I could bring their voice to the world.” 

But she was also a woman who loved shopping. I learned this while speaking to one of Abu Akleh’s grieving friends, Dalia Hatuqa. A fellow Palestinian journalist, Hatuqa met Abu Akleh when the two were both stationed in Washington, D.C. The two hit it off, recalls Hatuqa, whose nerves about meeting the veteran reporter melted in Abu Akleh’s warmth. “She was so different off camera. On the job, she was very professional and serious, but she was actually very funny. I mean hilarious.” And she enjoyed the finer things. “She loved music, and novels,” recalled Hatuqa, “and she was the life of the party, for sure.”

On trips to the mall, Hatuqa learned of Abu Akleh’s affinity for handbags.

Is there room for handbags in an obituary?

Search how to write an obituary and discover conflicting advice. To include the deceased’s exact age, or no? (See above.) Ex-spouses—do they go in? (She never married.) Children? (No. Or yes? She had two nieces and a nephew with whom she was close.)

But it seems important, to me, to write of the handbags. To place down this small detail in the record as it swirls and morphs around her name. To ensure that a woman who is undoubtedly a hero remains, at the same time, human. Within arm’s length.

It is not easy for any Palestinian to be this simple thing. Our very title—Palestinian—acts too often like a spell, one we don’t control. Sometimes it renders us invisible, negating our literal existence. In other moments, it inflates us, ascribing us dark powers that far outpace our abilities. We are cast as irrepressible and violent, anti-Semitic enemies of peace.

Speak the word again, and it may conjure pity. We are unwashed Gazan children, lamenting mothers, worshippers bludgeoned over their prayer rugs. In our deaths, we become statistics. Infographics. Or, sometimes, shaheed.

The word, meaning martyr, anoints the dead with honor. It hugs them like a shroud. It speaks, perhaps, to a force of spirit that transcends the breath of lungs.

But in other places, women are still shopping at malls. Handbags are being sold. They are being carried home.

“I couldn’t—Shireen couldn’t—we couldn’t comprehend that they were actually shooting at us,” recalled Hanaysha. Even as the bullets rained down, “I don’t know how to put it . . . we couldn’t absorb the fact that they were actually shooting at us. We were turning around, looking around, like, what should we do? That was when she fell.”

Abu Akleh most likely died in confusion, in disbelief.

Those who know Palestinians only from afar might assume the journalist moved through the world expecting violence at every turn. After all, that is how most of the world is used to consuming us—through stories in which death, “clashes,” and “conflict” comprise the lede. We are objects of violence, or its perpetrators. Even as we survive, it is imagined we do so without songs or dreams.

To believe this is to forget what one knows about humanity. How improbable and indomitable it can be.

It takes something truly monstrous to sever a soul from its innate faith in life.

Something like a massive military machine, one that relies on the total dehumanization of those it seeks to oppress. The kind of system that circumscribes, and attempts to define, all Palestinians living on occupied land. The kind that so degrades the imagination it renders children with stones as threats, and women in PRESS jackets disposable.

Israeli authorities immediately tried to throw the cause of Abu Akleh’s death into doubt. The authorities first blamed an unspecified Palestinian source for the lethal fire, disseminating a video allegedly supporting this claim. When the video was investigated and debunked by the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, Israel began to use the Palestinian rejection of a joint investigation as evidence of guilt. Instead, the Palestinians have called for an international investigation, promising to take the case to the International Criminal Court—a body the Israeli government refuses to recognize.

The emblem of a female Palestinian body raised in the streets was more than the machine could bear. 

In this way, Abu Akleh’s death was quickly and predictably engulfed in what mainstream media earnestly calls “controversy.” Those who knew and loved her—personally, and through decades of her presence on their television screens—are denied a simple grief. As with all things Palestinian, their pain is politicized.

Nowhere was that more obvious than in the heinous attack on Abu Akleh’s funeral.  One of the largest Palestinian funerals in recent history, crowds of thousands amassed to bid farewell to the cherished journalist. Her body emerged from an East Jerusalem hospital held aloft by a group of pallbearers. Abruptly, a phalanx of heavily armed riot police launched on the procession, beating the mourners with batons and their bare fists. As the blows descended on the pallbearers, the men struggled to stay on their feet. The coffin nearly tumbled to the ground.

Although the Israeli authorities offered weak excuses for the assault—that rioters had seized the coffin; that three plastic bottles had allegedly been tossed in the direction of police—the real reason was, of course, symbolic. East Jerusalem, which is majority Palestinian, has been declared annexed by Israel, which considers it part of its capital. Any displays of Palestinian national pride—such as the presence of the flag or anything bearing the colors red, white, green, and black—are frequently and brutally quashed. The emblem of a civilian, female, Palestinian body raised in the streets was more than the machine could bear. 

Abu Akleh did not have to be in Jenin on that day. Her friend Mohammed Daraghmeh, a fellow veteran journalist, told her not to bother—the raids she wanted to cover have long since become routine. Hatuqa echoed this. “A much more junior reporter could have gone. But she wanted to be there. No story was too small for her—everyone remembers this about her.”

What will be done with her handbags now? Will they be given away? Left untouched?

“All that the world knows of Jerusalem is the power of the symbol,” wrote Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti in 1997. “The Jerusalem of religions, the Jerusalem of politics, the Jerusalem of conflict is the Jerusalem of the world. But the world does not care for our Jerusalem, the Jerusalem of the people. The Jerusalem of houses and cobbled streets and spice markets . . . The Jerusalem of houseplants, cobbled alleys, and narrow covered lanes. The Jerusalem of clotheslines. This is the city of our senses, our bodies, and our childhood. The Jerusalem that we walk in without much noticing its ‘sacredness,’ because we are in it, because it is us. . . . This is the ordinary Jerusalem. The city of our little moments that we forget quickly because we will not need to remember.”

There is a universe to the Palestinian experience that no one, not even Abu Akleh, can render in an article or screen. It is more precious than any symbol. More ordinary than language itself. Woven of the innumerable, peculiar details that make up a human and a life. The sort of things that go unnoticed until they are taken away.

It was this experience that she lived, and that was taken from her.