Seeing the Dead



Rora said: Rambo particularly liked me to take pictures with the dead and then look at them later. It turned him on—that was his big dick, his absolute power: being alive in the middle of death. That was all that it boiled down to: the dead were wrong, the living were right.

He said: The thing is, everybody who has ever been photographed is either dead or will die. That’s why nobody photographs me. I want to stay on this side of the picture.

In Sarajevo, the young man who emptied seven bullets into Rora grabbed his camera and walked calmly away. Thankfully, the negatives were at home. ((Retold from: Aleksandar Hemon, The Lazarus Project (New York: Riverhead Books, 2008), pp. 189, 284))


Your photograph has survived you, as if through it we consider the arcane meaning of your absence.

For example: I went to a memorial service. Beside the coffin I placed photographs of the once-living person. In one she was alone, in front of what seemed like a waterfall. In another, she was with her sister, smiling lovingly, as if aware of times when the photograph would be looked at without her. In the third, she was with her father. They were sitting. He held her from behind. My little girl; I will never let you go.


Those days, they said, after we took over a town, he would take exhaustive photos of the fallen terrorists. In their state of repose, each photographed body would still bear the evidence of life: sometimes, you could see the black of the eye receding into the socket, or the fingers recoiling at the outset of rigor mortis. I asked them how they always managed to allow him take those photographs. Weren’t they pressed for time? No, we weren’t. When you win a war you are free to do what you want with the enemy’s body.


When we still believed in having children, we disagreed on what sort of bedtime videos we’ll let them watch.


Until I told Nurya, there was no way to know how sickening it was. It was okay for you, and okay for me. The videos of dying black men appeared online from time to time, and when either of us heard of a new one, we waited until the other was home to watch, full screen, on the desktop computer. Nurya said there was something utterly sadistic about this—how do you sleep with those images in your visual bank?

In Aluu, four boys burning to death, charring in front of your gaze; in South Carolina, Walter Scott shot eight times in the back, running for his life; in New York, Eric Garner stiffening in a chokehold, crying out innocence; in Syria…

The funny thing, I said to Nurya in defense, is that you can now watch the videos vicariously. Online-people will generously tell you what they’ve seen, and their followers will carry the stories in hashtags. She kept glaring at me in revulsion.


You wrote: “Some of the ancient reliefs represent one Pharaoh or another with an analogous figure behind him. Perhaps these reliefs are what account for the translation of ka, in early studies, with the Arabic word for ‘double,’ qarin. Khnum, the god of creation, has a rotating wheel like that of a porter, his tool for fashioning human beings. He uses this wheel to create two corresponding forms: the body of the newborn, and his ka, which will accompany him from the day of his birth until after his death. During his life, a person is ‘master of his ka, coming and going with it,’ though it remains unseen. The ka has the characteristics and physical features of the person, with the same height and girth, the same walk and way of laughing, and wears similar clothing.” ((Radwa Ashour, Specters, trans. by Barbara Romaine (Northampton: Interlink Books, 2011), p. 193))

Do you remember how shocked we were to discover, in one of our Google image searches for “selfsame,” the only photograph that survives your grandmother’s youth? How did it get online? Of course you had never scanned it, or uploaded it to any website. Your father didn’t remember the photograph when you asked him, confused by your “alacritous fuss” (those were his exact words). And to make things even eerier, you couldn’t find the physical photograph again.


You wrote: “When Ajanaku died in his hometown last year, his church gave the impression that he was abroad. There were reports also that his corpse was brought to Lagos State by traditional cultists who allegedly held traditional rites for seven days in his Ikola home. The controversy that followed was that some of his parts were removed and that he had been hurriedly buried.”

Also: “Many of those who were there didn’t come to pay their last respects to the deceased but to catch a glimpse of the late pastor. As at the time of filing this report, the people were still waiting anxiously for the casket bearing the remains of the dead pastor to be opened. But there was no indication that the casket would be opened.”


I swear to you: the tattooed man consoled me after my flaccid visions of Garissa. I guess he is Spanish, or Argentine, or a body once dipped in the Mediterranean, aboard a dinghy. I guess he is a fragmented presence from all the immigrant histories I am now reading. I guess he is a postcard, sent to the hereafter. I guess with him I am going ashore, maybe to a better place. But unlike all others I’ve seen in my visions, all the floating dead and all the massacred dead, he is alive: the armpit hair, chest-hair, eyebrow, short hair, nipples encircled by dark aureole, active eye. Whatever doesn’t kill me can only make me stronger. These are the words of the tattoo. The inscription will remain on his body even in death.


Image: “Micah, 2009,” (c) Benjamin Fredrickson, photo of postcard courtesy E. Iduma.

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