“Was Benjamin the first suicide bomber?”

Here is an excerpt from Columbia anthropologist, Michael Taussig’s “Walter Benjamin’s Grave”, in which Taussig tries to make sense of Benjamin’s suicide on the French-Spanish border, hounded by the Nazi, and his burial as an allegory, understood better in its absence than in its presence:

“Was Benjamin the first suicide bomber? The thought crosses my mind as I read the papers in the train heading north to Port Bou with their front-page news of Israeli soldiers with their armored bulldozers and Apache helicopters invading Palestinian towns and refugee camps in response to suicide bombers. Journalists are driven back by the soldiers using stun grenades and tear gas. At least two have been shot by Israeli soldiers. A United Nations–led inquiry into war crimes in Jenin is stillborn on account of Israeli opposition. The president of the United States and the U.S. media insist the Palestinians are to blame for the violence. There is virtually no attempt to even try to understand what it is that motivates the Palestinians, no portrayal of their everyday life in refugee camps and prisons under “administrative detention” imposed without trial. Instead we get lengthy Sunday magazine articles depicting the psychic pain of Israeli elite commando snipers. Yet has there ever been a Sunday magazine devoted to the psychic pain of the apartheid-like pass system that controls the Palestinians’ ability to cross the spiderweb of borders balkanizing Palestinian lands into which illegal Israeli settlements daily press? They say history is written by the victors, but this seems unprecedented. It is as if the Palestinians had no voice whatsoever. They are not only unrepresented but are unrepresentable. Or as Golda Meir once put it, they do not exist. Like Benjamin they are fated to lose. Truth itself lies on trial, and it is the border that defines and redefines it as I slowly travel north from Barcelona, north to the border at Port Bou in the local train that stops at all stops to let me down where Benjamin was stopped sixty years ago.

A young man sits on the other side of the compartment a few seats forward. He speaks no Spanish and he is worried, sick with worry. He has a large black bag made of cheap material that he keeps on the seat next to him, preventing anyone from sitting there. He looks around all the time like an animal in a cage. I first spotted him in the gloomy Estacio Sants in Barcelona where I waited for the train. He approached a middle-aged woman and in his gesticulations seemed to be asking her when the train to the border would come and whether the approaching train was the one he needed. In the train he came over to me with his ticket on which was printed Cerbère, the French town just across the border from Port Bou. “Francia? Francia?” he kept saying and at each, and every stop he looked imploringly at me, eyes wide open, asking if this was where he had to get off. I figured he was from North Africa and probably illegal. He smelled as if hadn’t washed in a long time. A man on the run. Anti-Semitic and anti-Arab Le Pen running on an anti-immigrant platform has just beaten the socialist Jospin at the polls in France, receiving almost 18 percent of the vote. When I got off the train at Port Bou I waved and made a victory sign to the man with the black bag. He smiled wanly. Benjamin had been stopped at the border coming the other way. But of course things were different then” (8-9).

Taussig, Michael. Walter Benjamin’s Grave. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.

This entry was posted in Academic, Anthropology, Author, Death, History, Israel-Palestine, Life, Travelogue, Violence and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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