Female Shahida Martyr

The first law of motion is that bodies in motion stay in motion and bodies at rest stay at rest, unless acted upon by a force. Isaac Newton, Principia

When she lost the long-awaited baby she was devastated. Then the hospital staff told her, in the presence of her husband, that she would never be able to carry a baby to full term and live birth. She did not see a specialist. She went into mourning, unable to get out of bed and perform her wifely duties. She couldn’t clean or cook or even get dressed. Her husband consulted her older brother, the custom when the wife’s father had died, as men are totally responsible for women in Palestinian society. He also consulted the imam, who counseled him on disobedient wives and helped Ahmed determine the extent of this disobedience. His family exerted much pressure on him, openly suggesting that he was not man enough to implant a baby in her womb. After a year, he divorced her as he could no longer take the social pressure. She knew that he would have to do this. He offered to make her his second wife, but she went home instead. Home was the Amari refugee camp near Ramallah in a crowded household with her widowed mother, one brother (the other was in prison), their wives and small children. Her brother could not work due to the curfew and money was tight. She could not run away, the disgrace to her family would have been even greater. She would never be able to marry again as she was sterile. She was twenty six years old and her life was over. She watched Ahmed’s wedding procession from her bedroom window. Within a year, Ahmed and his wife had a child, and a second child the next year. After the children were born, Idris wanted to return to Ahmed, but his wife was against it.

She became a volunteer for the Palestinian Red Crescent Society, volunteering for ambulance runs to pick up the wounded from the fighting and bombing. When things were bad, when there were many casualties, she sometimes worked several days in a row. She saw terrible things.

On January 27, 2002, Yasser Arafat spoke to over one thousand Palestinian women in Ramallah. He proclaimed that women and men are equal and that “You are my army of roses that will crush Israeli tanks… Shahida all the way to Jerusalem…You are the hope of Palestine. You will liberate your husbands, fathers, and sons from oppression. You will sacrifice the way you, women, have always sacrificed for your family.” (Army of Roses: Inside the World of Palestinian Women Suicide Bombers by Barbara Victor, Rodale, distributed by St. Martin’s Press)

Eyewitnesses to suicide bombers attest to a wet red mist, flying steel, a very loud noise followed by the screams of the wounded. Of all of these, the wet red mist from the dissolved body of the suicide bomber is the worst. The red mist, a wet red mist, is dispersed through the air, clings to near-by surfaces, and dries to a dark redbrown.

Salon.com, Ferry Biedermann, Jan. 31, 2002, Jerusalem

“I saw the head of a girl with long black hair lying in the street,” said Aaron Pinsker, still trembling hours after an explosion last Sunday killed one Israeli and wounded scores of others. “I didn’t recognize it at first. I thought it was a chicken or some animal, but when I looked closer it was clearly a girl. The body I couldn’t see anywhere, though.” Pinsker, the owner of Pinsker Furniture on Jaffa Road, looked once more at the damage caused by the blast, and murmured again: “A girl.”

The “girl” was 27-year-old Wafa Idris. She became the first shahida in the afternoon of January 27, 2002, hours after Yasser Arafat called for women to become suicide bombers. Idris was active in the Fatah movement, a volunteer paramedic in the Palestinian Red Crescent Society and a divorcee. Her family mourns her still. Her brother, Khalil Idris, spoke of the terrible things she saw in the Red Crescent. “…the body parts, the children who were shot, the pregnant women who lost their babies at Israeli checkpoints…” Hossam Sharkawi, the coordinator of Emergency Response Services sys “It is appalling, it goes against all our principles. We oppose all killings of civilians, we are here to save lives, Palestinians and Israelis equally.”

Wafa Idris detonated a 22-pound body bomb filled with nails and metal objects. She killed an 81-year-old man and injured more than 100 people.

Israeli policy dictates that suicide bombers are buried in unmarked graves and that the bodies are not returned to their families. The family home is bulldozed.

Hamas gives the families of suicide bombers money, $400 a month for men, $200 a month for women. Sometimes families are given one-time payments of $25,000.

Wafa Idris is in Paradise, sitting at Allah’s table and will live forever. When Palestinian girls become fifteen they can join the Women for Wafa Idris Martyr’s Brigade, a division of the al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade, the military arm of Fatah, and prepare to become shahida and wear the belt bomb in emulation of their idol.


As a contemporary ars moriendi, this book deals with death, specifically the first Palestinian female bomber, Wafa Idris. It is an attempt to understand why a young woman would strap a belt bomb over her womb and set if off in a public place where victims could be children, elderly or pregnant women. Yasser Arafat, who exhorted women to die for the liberation of Palestine, died during the printing of this book.

Suicide bombers are currently the weapon of choice for terrorist organizations. They are low-cost, use unsophisticated technology, are readily available, require little training and strike fear into the hearts of the population. Women have an added advantage, as in the Muslim world they are searched gingerly. world-wide, women are perceived as non-violent, adding an element of surprise. Suicide bombers attain extensive media coverage for their organizations as casualties are often high. Media coverage is a good recruitment tool and furthers political agenda.

The papers used in the three volumes are Root River Mill cotton, Larroque and Hahnemuhle. The Hahnemuhle was gelatin sized (with pigment added-in). The collaboration between two printers, perhaps a dubious undertaking, came out of Walter Hamady’s 1983 letterpress class. Thank you, Walter.

Caren Heft, Arcadian Press, 2004

Sibongile and the Murderous Rooster

Baba sat in silence, waiting for his courage, and feeling every one of his 62 years. It was hot, dry, and buzzing was all about him. He had had many days like this, before leading himself down the path laid out by the healer. He was not too concerned about Sibongile because she was just a girl but still, she had played with his four grandchildren in the sand. It was not like she was some stranger that he would never have to see again.

Baba was silhouetted in the doorway but Sibongile had no reason to suspect him. For all of her seven years, Baba had been a fixture in her neighborhood. He was a surrogate grandfather and she was just as likely to be eating at his house as she was at hers. The length of dirt that separated their houses was so short that Sibongile’s mother often asked Baba to check in on the girl while she was out looking for work.

Baba looked down at Sibongile who was tracing dancing figures in the dust. After checking that she was alone today, Baba asked if she would like to see his toy. Because the whole house was one room with little furniture, it was only natural for Baba to settle on the small bed. He coaxed Sibongile over to see a surprising toy with the added promise of a story.

To keep Sibongile at ease, Baba spoke uninterruptedly, masking the events that were to transpire. “Do you know the story of Gumha and his Large Rooster?” asked Baba while smiling inwardly at his cleverness. Baba had his own large rooster. It had gotten him into his present condition and would protect him in the end, if the healer’s advice was credible. Why was he reduced to this when he had only followed tradition in proving his great prowess?

Baba started, “Gumha was the leader of a group of dancers that used to compete with other troops living around the lake. He was much respected because it was thought that he was shielded by powerful magic, which he used to ensure success in dance competitions. Gumha was credited with much of the success that his group achieved and this made the losing dancers jealous. His competitors had only one recourse in order to win and that was to bewitch Gumha.

“Gumha’s great magic rested in a large rooster that rose to the roof to announce the new day.” At this Baba took Sibongile’s hand and guided it to his toy, his rooster rising to the roof. “Competing dancers bribed witches to sneak up on Gumha but his rooster would see them approaching and call for the rising sun at any hour of the night. Invariably, the witches would take the crowing as indication of the coming sun and ask, ‘What is this magic? The crowing announces the dawn. We must flee or the villagers will discover us and kill us.’ On countless occasions, the witches bolted without completing the mission to damage Gumha. The followers of Gumha would say in a boastful way that Gumha has such powerful medicine that none could harm him, not even the witches.” Sibongile, with the innocence of childhood, was swept into the story. The room was hot, she was being suffocated by a great weight, and she anchored herself to the story.

“Even Gumha’s eventual death did not sway his dancers. ‘Our master was never bewitched and God himself now protects Gumha.’ The witches were not as powerful as God, who is the one who created the rooster and is the one who crows for Gumha now.” Baba finished his story and his rooster finished his deed. Baba believed in the same God of the healer who advised him. This magic would work.

The newspapers would later simply report, “Before Sibongile could react, Gumha pulled down her panties and raped her. Then he placed his fingers across her lips and warned her not to tell anyone about their game.” But before it became a media event, Sibongile’s mother had to make the discovery, which came as her daughter began to complain of discomfort. This led to the unveiling of bruises whose source was obvious. At the doctor’s office (not the healer’s), Sibongile broke down and choked out the story that she had promised Baba to keep to herself.

Baba did not feel like crowing about this conquest and denied Sibongile’s story as being just that, a story. As everyone knew, the girl was too partial to stories for her own good. The pressure from the neighbors began to work on Baba, who finally confessed to Sibongile’s mother that he was HIV positive and was acting on the advice of the local healer to purify his blood through sex with a virgin. Even girls of 10 or 11 were often too experienced, so he had to cleanse himself with someone whom he knew to be pure.


In fifteenth century Europe, the level of literacy had been on the decline. Ars Moriendi were picture manuals for one’s preparation to meet death. On one level they were intended to ease the transition and prepare one’s family for the coming loss. On another level, these manuals were a form of propaganda, advising the soon-to-be-departed to give heavily to the Church to guarantee a better place in Heaven or at least a seat further from the flames of Hell.

This book is one of three that deal with modern forms of death that visit a population. In this case it is the presence of AIDS in Africa and how a culture responds to and interprets the mortal threat. Sibongile’s story comes from “Child rape: A taboo within the AIDS taboo; More and more girls are being raped by men who believe this will ‘cleanse’ them of the disease, but people don’t want to confront the issue”, Sunday Times, South Africa, April 4, 1999 by¬†Prega Govender. It is combined with the story of Gumha and the Large Rooster as told by the Sukuma Research Committee. The two unrelated stories have been blended together to create a modern narrative that sets the stage for confronting death.

A typeface used throughout this three-volume collaboration is 14-point Cochin Light. Though rather old fashioned in appearance, Cochin is a creation of the early 20th century. There are several early versions that are listed under the names: Sonderdruck, Gravure, and Moreau-le-Jeune. M & H Type of San Francisco casts our version of Cochin Light. This face is readable in the manner of all old style faces and becomes the disarming vehicle for telling stories of death in diverse and contemporary cultures.

You are reading one in an edition of 50.

Jeffrey Morin