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Tomgram: Nick Turse, How to Read a Broken Body

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

There may be nothing more human than the urge to tell stories. All societies, however ancient, have told themselves tales about how the world and humanity began -- and might end. And when it comes to endings, storytelling in just about every imaginable form has never ended. In our time, from the novel to the comic, history books to documentary films, Hollywood's damnedest to TV shows, social media to the streaming of everything, stories about our lives are a taken-for-granted part of our world.

In a way, almost everything turns out to be a story written in time. The latest dinosaur bone is, for instance, a story of the passage of time itself and of those times before humanity could even begin to tell stories; the mounted body of "Martha," the last passenger pigeon, which died in the Cincinnati Zoological Gardens in 1914, is still a story (one that, only a few years ago, you could view at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.); even funerals are, in their own fashion, stories, as was true recently of the "funeral" the government of Iceland held for the first glacier to melt down and disappear from its landscape -- a dystopian tale of humanity's embattled future on this planet.

And speaking about embattled: though it's something seldom thought about, all-too-human stories can be "written" (or perhaps, the word should be "engraved") on our bodies as well, tales of the grimmest sort. In fact, as TomDispatch Managing Editor Nick Turse suggests today, it's time to start considering how combat, that seemingly eternal human activity, transcribes its stories onto the very bodies of those who live through, rather than die in, our wars. Tom

"The Pain Remains"
The Living Literature of War
By Nick Turse

Do you remember July 8, 2011? Where you were? What you did? Whom you talked to? Anything at all?

I couldn't pin down one single thing for that day. I couldn't even locate an email I had sent or a photo I might have taken. It's all evidently lost in the ether, known only to tech and telecom firms. But maybe, unlike me, you have a diary or save your calendars or just happen to have fantastic recall. Maybe you remember it because it was the day NASA launched the Space Shuttle on its 135th and final mission.

Unlike me, Abdul Hamid Frefer recalls every detail of that eighth of July. It was a Friday and he remembers exactly where he was, who he was with, what he saw, what he heard, even what he said. It's tattooed on his brain, but more than that, it's written on his body -- only not in a conventional sense. Writing isn't just words. IfItWereJustWordsThisWouldBeEasyToRead. Writing doesn't exist without the blank spaces between the words. It's these blank spaces that are especially integral to Frefer's story because his is a tale of absence, one that's been retold -- and that he's been reminded of -- every day since.

For Frefer, there was life before July 8, 2011, and life after; life, that is, before the moment his world changed forever and then what followed. The last thing he heard before that unforgettable moment was "Run!"

"But there was nowhere to run," he told me.

After all, no man can outrun a rocket.

When that rocket hit, the shockwave burst his eardrums and he was knocked to the ground. White noise dissolved into unbearable pain. When he tried to lift his left leg, he watched his shoe fall off -- with his foot still in it. Only skin held his right leg below the knee to the top of that limb.

"Go!" he remembers screaming at his friends. "I'm dead anyway! Save yourself!" They did go. They saved themselves. But not before saving him. They wrapped Frefer in a blanket, hoisted him up and took off running.

Revolutionary Road

I met Abdul Hamid Frefer in the coastal city of Misrata earlier this year while on assignment in Libya. Bald with lively brown eyes and a bristly, close-cropped white beard, he was dressed in a loose-fitting, baby-blue ensemble that resembled silk pajamas. I noticed his black metal crutches immediately, but didn't initially grasp that he was missing his left foot and his right leg below the knee.

Eight years before, at age 39, Frefer's heart had been touched by fire. To be exact, the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian vegetable seller pushed past the brink by corruption and police brutality. On December 17, 2010, a policewoman confiscated his cart and wares, slapped him, and spit in his face. Humiliated, stripped of his livelihood, and deeply in debt, he went to the governor's office. "If you don't see me, I'll burn myself," he reportedly said. The governor refused to meet him and Bouazizi was true to his word.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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