A handful of times during Tanya El Khoury’s sound installation Gardens Speak, I had to slow myself down, to stop, to let the gravity of the information I was receiving land, and to honestly consider my response to it.
That means that Gardens Speak was doing its job.
In Syria under Bashar al-Assad, the burial of dissidents murdered by the regime is best kept secret: public funerals could bring dangerous attention to attendees and mothers could be forced to sign documents saying that their children were killed by terrorists. So resisters are often buried silently in family gardens or the gardens of sympathetic strangers.
Gardens Speak invites us to listen to the stories of some of the dead. Up to ten participants at a time are invited to remove their shoes and socks, don white paper smocks and enter a room that contains a plot of earth and ten grave markers. You lie on the earth and listen to a voice coming from beneath it. The first-person story you hear has been constructed from interviews with the dead person’s loved ones.
I found it hard to relate to the story I’d been assigned. The speaker talked about the patrilineal history of his family’s resistance. To me, it felt like a generic somewhat macho soldier’s tale. I felt immune to the details of torture because they were familiar — and I’ve learned to be callous to them. The writing didn’t evoke a strong sense of individuality or relationships.
But then I was asked to write a letter to the speaker. I wrote instead to his family, which made me seriously consider my responses to the Syrian conflict. Writing the letter brought the situation back to the scale of human responsibility.
And that scale was reinforced in the free art installation “What Can I Do?”, which is outside the Roundhouse performance space.
In that exhibit, you can read the letters that other participants have written to the dead and their survivors. You can also sit on a series of three wooden boxes and read three letters (in English) as you listen to the writers’ voices — two speaking in Arabic and one in English.
The letter that affected me most was from a man called Dali who was picked up, threatened, and interrogated by the Tunisian police — because he was working on Gardens Speak. His terror was multiplied because he is also a queer activist.
Practically and politically I don’t feel like there’s a lot that I can do — or that I’m going to do — to alleviate the suffering in Syria. But I’m grateful for being invited to slow down for an hour at least, for being reminded that the resistance to Bashar al-Assad is made up of individuals.
GARDENS SPEAK By Tanya El Khoury. At the Roundhouse Community Centre on Thursday, January 30 as part of the PuSh Festival. Continues until February 2. Tickets.
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