Colonel Gaddafi, the trophy corpse

It's good to show the reality of war, but there's something unsettling about our delight in graphic

The blood-soaked face of a still-warm corpse is the enduring image of the past 24 hours. That the face belonged to a vile tyrant is perhaps one reason why we're not as squeamish about this particular death as we have been about others.

Almost all national newspapers today lead with the photo of a dead man's head. Some crop out the smiling militiamen having their photo taken with the body of Muammar Gaddafi; some news channels have opted out of showing the most bloody footage of all. But the likelihood is that most of us with a passing interest in the news will have seen the corpse at some point. I began to feel a little sickened by its near-constant presence on my screens, and I'm not easily shocked.

As I wrote before about the death of Osama Bin Laden, we live in a 'pics or it didn't happen' era, where we don't trust the word of broadcasters and want to see for ourselves. The worldwide web has opened up a place where there aren't the familiar boundaries and standards there used to be, where punters can readily access material that might once have been deemed unsuitable; and the historic importance of the Gaddafi photos and footage could be considered ample justification for the rather shocking nature of the sights we've seen. It is, after all, what happened.

In one sense, it's good to show the reality of war. Our eyes are often shielded by news broadcasters during those times when 'our boys' get involved in scrapes overseas; the inevitable bloodshed doesn't get transmitted at teatime for fear of upsetting children and adults alike. There are countless graphic images of charred corpses, dangling intestines and splintered scarlet skulls that we don't get to see, which might make us shift on our settees a little and possibly bring home the graphic truth of what happens in the theatre of battle.

Maybe we shouldn't be shielded, and maybe we should be shown. This is, after all, what is happening at the behest of our elected politicians. Maybe we should see how our tax pounds are being spent with every shuddering cadaver oozing life by the roadside or twisted carnage of blood and bone that used to be human beings. It could be that we have a rather sanitised picture of war and its consequences, because we see the flag-draped coffins rather than the broken pieces of flesh inside.

Maybe every time politicians bask in the glory of their 'tough decisions' and 'strong leadership' with regards to successful military intervention, their words should play out over scenes of the lost lives - 'our' troops, as well as those killed by 'our' troops - who paid the biggest price of all. No looking away, no changing the channel; this is how things really are.

Are we ready for that? Well, we're less sensitive than we used to be, in the days when other people used to decide what was too graphic to show us and what wasn't, when the nanny broadcasters had to make choices for us. Now we can set our own boundaries of what's acceptable and what isn't. It's all out there, on the net - videos of executions, suicides, car crashes, murders and assorted accidents, all in jerky pixellated shades of crimson; mortuary slab photos of the famous and infamous; ghoulishly detailed descriptions of death and dying to feed our morbid fascination.

But there's another aspect to the Gaddafi story that doesn't sit as easily with me as the other reasons why news outlets have been happy to splash the blood this time around. There's something primeval almost, something rather unsettling, about the trophy-like nature of Gaddafi's corpse, regardless of how horrific a human being he undoubtedly was, and regardless of the suffering and death he unleashed upon his subjects. Perhaps we are in danger of revelling in this violent act, in delighting in the grisly episode a little too much.

In a week when the Sun has been under fire, in parliament and elsewhere, for what it printed in the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster, today's front page also looks back in time, to 1988. THAT'S FOR LOCKERBIE, it roars, alongside the now familiar grainy still of Gaddafi's bloodied and battered dead face. It wasn't really for Lockerbie, of course; there are many more reasons why Gaddafi was killed by Libyans than that.

But there's a sense in which the Sun, among many others, is enjoying the kill, sensing the bloodlust and tapping the same old jingoistic responses from its readers. You might cynically wonder if the same newspapers happily printing snuff photos will be pretending to clutch the pearls in a few days' time, worried about children being exposed to sex on TV, or putting asterisks in words it doesn't think its readers should see, for fear of the little lambs being corrupted. Ah, but that will be another day, another time.

There's no doubting that the image of lifeless, humiliated Gaddafi is a powerful one - powerful enough to be used to further all kinds of agendas. Maybe it's those agendas we should be more squeamish about. Dead bodies are just facts.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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The lute master and the siege of Aleppo

Luthier Ibrahim al-Sukkar's shop was bombed; when he moved, militants came for him. Over WhatsApp, he told me what's next.

Aleppo was once a city of music, but this year the 400,000 residents who inhabit its eastern suburbs can hear nothing but the roar of Russian warplanes, and ear-shattering blasts from the bombs they drop. To the north, west and south, the city is encircled by ground troops from the Syrian armed forces, Hezbollah and Iran. Most residents are afraid to flee, but soon, now that supply lines to the city have been cut off, many will begin to starve. We have reached the crescendo of Aleppo’s suffering in year five of the Syrian civil war.

One clear August morning in 2012, in the early weeks of the battle for the city, a man approached a street corner shop and found a hundred shattered lutes scattered across the floor. Ibrahim al-Sukkar, the engineer who had made the lutes (Arabs know the instrument as the oud), was overwhelmed. He wandered between the tables of his workshop and peered up at the sky, suddenly visible through holes in the roof. He wept on the floor, amid the dust and ash.

Some of the wooden shards that lay around him had been lutes commissioned by musicians in Europe and America. Others were to be used by students in Damascus and Amman. Each oud was built for a specific purpose. In every shard Ibrahim saw a piece of himself, a memory scattered and charred by government bombs. He packed his bags and headed for Idlib, a few hours to the west, where he set up shop a second time. A year later, his workshop was destroyed again, this time by Islamist militants.

It was at this point that Ibrahim came to a stark realisation – he was a target. If barrel bombs from government helicopters could not succeed in destroying him, the Islamists would. The cost of sourcing materials and getting goods to market had become unmanageable. The society that had inspired his desire to make musical instruments was now trying to lynch him for it.

The 11 string courses of an oud, when plucked, lend the air that passes through its bowl the sounds of Arabic modes known as maqamat. Each one evokes an emotion. Hijaz suggests loneliness and melancholy. Ajam elicits light-heartedness and cheer. An oud player’s competence is judged by his or her ability to improvise using these modes, modulating between them to manipulate the listener’s mood. The luthier, the architect of the oud system, must be equal parts artist and scientist.

This is how Ibrahim al-Sukkar views himself. He is a trained mechanical engineer, but before that he was a lover of classical Arabic music. As a young man in the Syrian countryside, he developed a talent for playing the oud but his mathematical mind demanded that he should study the mechanics behind the music. Long hours in the workshop taking instruments apart led him to spend 25 years putting them together. Ibrahim’s ouds are known for their solid construction and, thanks to his obsessive experimentation with acoustics, the unparalleled volume they produce.

Ibrahim and I recently spoke using WhatsApp messenger. Today, he is lying low in the village where he was born in Idlib province, close to the Turkish border. Every so often, when he can, he sends some of his equipment through to Turkey. It will wait there in storage until he, too, can make the crossing. I asked him if he still felt that his life was in danger. “All musicians and artists in Syria are in danger now, but it’s a sensitive topic,” he wrote, afraid to say more. “I expect to be in Turkey some time in February. God willing, we will speak then.”

Ibrahim’s crossing is now more perilous than ever. Residents of Idlib are watching the developing siege of Aleppo with a sense of foreboding. Government forces are primed to besiege Idlib next, now that the flow of traffic and supplies between Aleppo and the Turkish border has been intercepted. And yet, to Ibrahim, the reward – the next oud – is worth the risk.

I bought my first oud from a Tunisian student in London in autumn 2014. It is a humble, unobtrusive instrument, with a gentle, wheat-coloured soundboard covering a cavernous, almond-shaped bowl. Some ouds are decorated with rosettes, wooden discs carved with dazzling patterns of Islamic geometry. Others are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. My instrument, however, is far simpler in design, decorated only with a smattering of nicks and scratches inflicted by the nails of impatient players, and the creeping patina imprinted by the oils of their fingers on its neck.

My instructor once told me that this oud was “built to last for ever”. Only recently did I discover the sticker hidden inside the body which reads: “Made in 2006 by Engineer Ibrahim al-Sukkar, Aleppo.” 

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle