We are so often drawn to the spectacular, theatrical moments of warfare: the suicide bomb, the air strike, the chemical attack. The media feeds on these sensational images and Hollywood style drama of such horror. The power of Tania El Khoury’s ‘Gardens Speak’ is in its darkness, its empathy and its humanity.
One of the greatest powers of international performance festivals is their ability to dissolve the distance, time and space between our own experiences and those of others from all around the world. This is especially radical when dealing with events that are habitually represented in the media—the dematerialised, attention grabbing spectacles of war. Where individuals and real blood are erased, replaced by a
stream of homogenising and quickly consumable images. The feeling of safety and detachment we have when we sit as the invulnerable and all seeing spectator behind the screen.
The human cost though, the real human cost of any war is something that is nearly impossible to express. This is the intervention that El Khoury creates in ‘Gardens Speak’. Entering the darkened space and being asked to select a card that matches to a gravestone, I walk onto cold, damp soil and begin to search for your grave. Kneeling at the foot of the grave, armed only with a torch for light, I begin to dig, fingernails becoming thick with mud, gently trying to find the source of a voice that emits from below.
With care I lie down on the grave, my head resting on the small square of black fabric that lies beneath, my head surrounded by the soil I have disturbed. I hear the story of a young woman of 24, the same age as me, who is buried in the corner of a friend’s garden in Syria. The distance, time and space between us disappears. We could be the same, we are two young women who were born at the same time in different places and by some huge geo-political tragedy she was there and I was here. The longer I lie, the colder my body becomes, my hands clinging to the soil as I feel the earth spinning. The situation flips and I feel myself simultaneously above and below the soil, alive and dead, in an unmarked corner of Syria and in the UK.
The story, collected carefully by El Khoury, tells of a life lived in necessary resistance to tyranny. A refusal to ignore, flee or hide from evil. A young woman who gave her own life in an effort to save others. She lies in an unmarked grave. She had no funeral. She is not unknown, but she cannot be recognised for the fear of what the state could do to her family and friends. She is one of the hundreds of thousands of young people lost to this cataclysmic conflict.
Her story ends where it has to end, the lament of a single Arabic voice lingers in the air and tiny flowers are scattered over my head and over the grave. El Khoury invites us to leave a message of solidarity, of mourning, of acknowledgement of a life lost in fighting for peace and freedom from oppression. I think about whether I could sacrifice everything in the pursuit of these beliefs. I write my message and bury it at the foot of the grave and leave.
The installation holds ten stories under ten gravestones, after the piece, back in the world of the festival, we discuss revisiting the piece to hear more of the stories. But we could never know all the stories of those who are recently buried in Syria, we could never find them all, we would never have time to know their stories, to understand or pay our respects. This is too huge, too catastrophic to be able to absorb. So I cling to the one story, to this experience of what it means to be a true activist, what it is to live and die as a young woman in the midst of brutal persecution and warfare and I make a promise that I will not forget.