Last month as I stepped off of the train to head to my full-time job, I took a look at the magazine boxes to see if there was anything that interested me. I saw a catalogue for the Fringe Arts, a month-long arts festival in September in the Philadelphia Area. I devoured the magazine and bookmarked pages of performances that sounded interesting.
I was happy (and a bit shocked) to see that there was a performance in Arabic. Gardens Speak, an interactive piece by the artist Tania El Khoury, showcases the lives of ten Syrians who were killed in the early days of the uprising. There would be two Arabic performances on Saturday, 15 September at Bryn Mawr College.
I decided to go. While I’m not fluent in Arabic yet, I did study two years of Arabic as a student while attending West Chester University, and I wanted to immerse myself in the experience. I knew I wouldn’t understand it all, but I wanted to experience the words and learn. When I arrived, I let the staff and the artist know that I wasn’t totally fluent, and they gave me English directions too.
When it was time for the performance to begin, I was instructed in Arabic to take off my shoes and put on a raincoat. I picked a card with a tombstone that had an Arabic name. I went into the room with Sofia and Mohammed, two other participants, and we sat on a bench until we heard a sound coming from the garden.
As soon as we heard the sound, we had to walk to the garden and look for our corresponding card. I was a bit nervous since I am not fluent, and didn’t realize there was another row. Tania helped me a bit, and I found the corresponding grave. I was Ayat the Martyr. I dug the grave, and I had to the opportunity to hear her story. She was a revolutionary and one of the early protesters of the Syrian uprising. She died for her beliefs of a more peaceful country, and better opportunities for her children. It was haunting to hear the gunshots and chaos surrounding her death toward the end.
After the story finished, the card instructed us to rebury the black box, then lie on our backs in front of the tombstone. We listened to the story and took the place of the spirit below us. The call to prayer was then played, and like a funeral, Tania placed white flowers beside us. We were buried in the garden just like the stories we heard.
It is not uncommon for Syrian families to bury their loved ones in community gardens, holding a funeral is too, dangerous because the families would be attacked. These gardens are mass graves with simple markers. We represented these mass graves on the surface, but deep down we take on the life of those that have past. It’s indeed a powerful piece of art, and I know it gave me a deeper understanding of the horrors in Syria.
Before we left, we sat and reflected, then wrote a letter to the families corresponding to our martyr. After we were done writing, we had to bury the message; the letter will either be showcased in the exhibit or sent to Syria and will be buried with these graves.
After, I chatted with Sofia and Mohammed. Mohammed moved to the US from Egypt and he was saying in some cities in Egypt, the same things are happening. Especially after the Arab Spring. He was telling me about it, and I never realized that Egypt was pretty much in the same situation because it’s not talked about as much.
I had the opportunity to meet Tania, and I told her I admired her work; this was an excellent way of learning about the stories of other people. It was a powerful way of learning and empathizing. I also thanked her for helping a bit; she thanked me for coming and immersing myself in a language that I’m not fluent in. I told her I thought it was important; as an artist and writer, I like immersing myself in the language (and life) of my subject matter. She smiled, agreed because she does it herself. Although I was a bit shy, I enjoyed chatting with Tania.
There was another part of the ear-whispered works: As Far As My Fingertips Take Me. We sit in front of a wall, then we hear a rap song about the refugees’ journeys. As we are listening to the story, a refugee holds our hand and draws on it. Words can’t really describe the feeling, and after the story ended the refugee/ artist came out, and I had the chance to meet him.
I’m glad I went, and I am happy that the Fringe Arts included these moving pieces. In Philadelphia, Tania has another exhibit that showcases life in the resettlement camps. I’m thinking about going next Friday.