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Shimaa al-Sabagh: An icon of the Arab revolutions Open in fullscreen

Hamid Dabashi

Shimaa al-Sabagh: An icon of the Arab revolutions

Date of publication: 3 February, 2015

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Comment: The photo of a young, revolutionary woman dying on her feet, her male comrade on his knees holding her upright, will become the iconic image of the Arab revolutions, an image that will forever dwarf the tyrants.

Revolutions generate their own slogans, vocabularies, ideas, inner dynamics, external manifestations, institutional endurance, and perhaps most important of all, their own iconography — the visual registers that will move and mobilize posterity.

“Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité” became the most famous slogan of the French Revolution. “Workers of the world, unite!" remains the most potent slogan of all Socialist revolutions. “Peace! Land! Bread!” was perhaps the most celebrated slogan of the Russian Revolution. “Neither East,

     May her memory be forever green, and may her cause triumph in her memory.

Nor West, [but] the Islamic Republic” was the battle cry of the militant Islamists who took over and derailed the Iranian revolution of 1977-1979. 

More than three years into their tumultuous and winding unfolding Arab revolutions are no exception. “People Demand the Overthrow of the Regime,” and “Bread, Freedom, and Social Justice” will perhaps remain as the mightiest and most universal cry of the Arab revolutions.

But until the iconic photo of Shimaa al-Sabagh’s moment of martyrdom on 24 January 2015 (captured by Egyptian photographer Islam Osama, 23, for Reuters/Youm El Sabea Newspaper) the Egyptian and by extension Arab revolutions lacked a compelling iconic image. They now have it: a young female revolutionary, a leading member of the Socialist Popular Alliance Party, dying standing up, embraced and held high by a comrade, Sayyed Abu el-Ela, while kneeling at her feet. All of these particularities will soon fade and fuse into the emblematic synergy of a revolutionary allegory for generations to come.

Long shot photos of Tahrir Square with people diminished to minuscule scale have so far been perhaps the most globally recognized visual representation of Arab revolutions. The self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia remains the initial trigger of these revolutions. But the rare picture of his final demise is shrouded in the burning fire of anonymity. All those photos, from the suicidal self-immolation of Bouazizi in Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia to Tahrir Square in Cairo—ranging from fleeting snapshots of burning anonymity to large scale and long shot, and thus both lacking in revolutionary personification and character, now pale in comparison with this photo in which a young Arab woman stands tall dying for her cause and the cause of her people across two continents.

The iconic image that will come to define that Arab revolutions (Islam Osama/Reuters)


All the brutish ruling Arab potentates, from Bashar al-Assad to Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and everyone else in between, will dwarf for posterity by comparison with this - Shimaa al-Sabagh’s dying picture. Captured at the moment of entering eternity, she is the very embodiment of all those Arab and Muslim women and men demanding and deserving a better life.

Arab evolutions unfold apace up and down a winding road: The rise and immediate collapse of parliamentary democracy in Egypt, the destruction of the state apparatus in Libya, flickering signs of hope in Tunisia, forceful crackdown in Bahrain, murderous machinations of the ruling regime in Syria, counterrevolutionary sectarianism holding tight the rope between Saudi Arabia and Iran with immediate ramifications in Yemen, the noxious rise of the murderous Islamic State group (IS, formerly ISIS) and heroic resistances in Kobane. The past is forever left behind, the present is uncertain, the future blurry — but the force of history is now crystal clear for the whole world to see in the figure of one Arab woman standing up as a testimony, a Shahid, a witness, for the posterity.

The dying figure of Sabagh stands for the valiant militancy of Kurdish women of Kobane fighting the IS: the summation of all counterrevolutionary conspiracies gathered in one murderous gang.

Revolutionary icons worldwide

From our comparative perspective today, the icon of the French revolution, Eugène Delacroix’s "Liberty leading the People" (1830) is too allegorical, while Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze's "Washington Crossing the Delaware" (1851), as an emblem of American revolution is already too Christian fundamentalist, too allegorically triumphalist, too much shrouded in the future of American imperialism.

The long shot black-and-white picture of Lenin mobilizing a crowd in the course of the Russian revolution is too classical a portrait of a fulltime revolutionary who has nothing else to do but to lead a massive uprising, as the famous picture of Castro and Che Guevara during the Cuban revolution is too replete with masculine heroism to register realistically for mortal human beings. The most famous picture of the Iranian revolution raises a portrait of Ayatollah Khomeini to heavens as it dwarfs his followers to the size of little ants.

None of these emblematic symbols comes anywhere near this picture of Shimaa al-Sabagh as a potent revolutionary icon specific to our times today: the figure of a young woman, a mother, a citizens with ordinary chores and responsibilities, with a child to raise, a partner, a comrade, to have and hold, and then a determined socialist revolutionary — this is the marked difference between this and all other revolutions, led not by the absolutist convictions of what in my book Arab Spring (2012) I call “total revolutions,” but by the steady determinations of the makers of our “open-ended revolutions".

See our full coverage of the anniversary of the Egyptian revolution


Ours is a revolutionary time, not a revolutionary moment: the moment of Shimaa al-Sabagh’s death, precisely four years after the initial success of the Egyptian revolution, marks the revolutionary time we live and she gave her life marking. Understanding these revolutions require the steady patience, the analytical skills, the theoretical trajectory, and the temporal endurance of what in the French Annales School of historiography is rightly called “longue durée”. Just because a military coup has happened in Egypt or the bloody reign of Bashar al-Assad in Syria and the US imperial adventurism in Iraq have come together to produce the monstrosities of IS and its ilk, or any other similar discouraging news persists in Libya, Yemen, or Bahrain, it does not mean the Arab Spring has become a winter. Sometimes a metaphor is just a metaphor.

The picture of a dying Shimaa al-Sabagh projects a rite of passage for all of us in the Arab and Muslim world, leaving behind and bidding loving farewell to the militant moment captured best in the picture of Leila Khaled, the Palestinian freedom fighter, replete with the cognitive dissonance of a girlish innocence and her averted gaze competing with her gun. This photo is far less romantic, far more palpable, real and tactile in its emotional power: it lacks both that averted girlish gaze and that protruded fighting gun. What it does have is a steady and steely gaze of a determined woman looking into the future of a revolutionary cause from the certainty of its present and public stand.

Another comparative point of reference is of course the video of a dying Neda Agha-Soltan in the course of the Green Movement in Iran — yet another iconic picture to which Shimaa al-Sabagh’s might allude. But contrary to Sbbagh who was a revolutionary activist having just led a concerted defiance against the military junta ruling her country, Neda Agha-Soltan was a bystander whose murder by the security forces of the Islamic Republic to instil fear in others is made even more tragic by the random helplessness with which her death was broadcast around the globe.

Shimaa al-Sabagh’s death is different: hers is decidedly the death of an active revolutionary, a leading voice of dissent, who moments before her death was shouting for “Bread, Freedom, Social Justice”. She is then chased and shot at from close range by masked security forces, just before she is picked up to be carried away by a friend. The photo captures her moment of death when she is held upright, not just by her comrade’s embrace, but by her own defiant will against the banality of Sisi’s murderous charade. The snapshot now becomes a testimonial not just for the Rabaa massacre of August 2013, but also for all defiant revolutionary acts against tyranny.

The significance of this photo is above all in its utter innocence — and in marking that innocence it is instantly reminiscent of Michelangelo's Pietà in St. Peter's Basilica, with a critical twist that here the martyr is a woman held by a man (her comrade) rather than a man (for Christians, God) held by a woman (his mother). The iconic Christian allusion here in the death of a Muslim socialist revolutionary marks the self-transcendence of a moment that points far beyond its immediate historical vicinities.

Looking at the picture closely every gesture of Shimaa al-Sabagh resonates and saturates the transcending moment. Her manicured red fingernails marking her left hand sitting gently on her comrade’s shoulder, gesturing to balance the fist of the right hand clenching as if holding something as it sits on his right shoulder. Her grey sweater marks the splashing of her blood on her left shoulder, while her black scarf links her hair to her chest to her comrade’s head. And then her face and her look: gazing, marvelling, sad, sedentary, stolid—there is a determined sadness about that face, marking a moment that her death is both descending and ascending on her consciousness. Is it there yet, yes, no, maybe, is she defiant, incredulous, resigned, accepting? The fearful embrace of her comrade is at once protective and yielding, fearful and in reverence at one and the same time.

This picture will be the nightmare of the counter-revolutionaries as its replicas, drawings, paintings, statues, and living memories will compete to capture the allegorical potency of this purgatorial moment of a young woman declaring a history. The death of Shimaa al-Sabagh is the birth of the new Arab and Muslim revolutionary woman: a citizen, a mother, a comrade, a defiant hope and a determined soul refusing to take no for an answer! May her memory be forever green, and may her cause triumph in her memory.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.

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