Gardens Speak: An imperfect but strong moment of empathy with Syria’s dead

The first thing you notice in Tania El Khoury’s interactive sound installation Gardens Speak is the smell of dirt.

It’s disconcerting after coming in from a Cairo street. It smells like petrichor and, of course, gardens. The room is dark and small, and it feels like wandering into someone’s basement by accident. There are about 10 other people gathered, most in bunches, whispering to each other and making quiet jokes.

But we all know the idea behind the work, we know at some point we will be listening to the testimonies of people killed in the Syrian uprising, because we have read D-CAF’s press release. So while some women laugh at how badly the overalls we are told to change into fit, they do it quietly.

Once everyone has taken off their shoes and is covered in matching white, paper-thin jumpsuits, we are told to choose cards from the usher. Everyone picks a card. On the card it says the name of a Syrian martyr and instructions on what to do after we are led to the next room. Silence seems to be large part of the piece. Aside from the brief instructions given by the usher at the beginning, there is no speaking among the audience or the staff.

We are led into a room containing a large plot of soil lined with plywood markers representing graves on either side. The idea is a recreation of the gardens where many Syrian martyrs have been buried by their families, because they no longer had access to graveyards. The plywood markers each bear a name. You’re instructed to find the gravestone with the name that matches the one on your card.

Each gravestone also has a small cushion in front of it, almost entirely buried in the dirt (not ideal for hay-fever sufferers like me). You lie down, press your ear to the cushion and hear a recording. It starts out as music and then turns into the story of the martyr, told in the first person and framed as their testimony of their own life.  

I find listening to the purported words of my martyr jarring. They are heartbreaking, of course, because I know they stem from a real person who was killed very young. But I also can’t fully separate that fact from the fact of the performance. It said on the card that these are not directly his words, but rather a script based on interviews with his friends and family.

An actor reads words that are meant to represent the testimony of the martyr you chose. The words echo up to you from the ground. Your hands and feet dig into the dirt, your cheek is pressed to it. There is intimacy in that, there is intimacy in the others around you listening to their own stories, also lying in the dirt. It carries a feeling of ritual and tradition, and I felt a sense of belonging with this group of people who I’d never met and will most likely never meet again.

At the same time, the story I’m being told feels performative, which takes you out of the mindset of thinking about the martyr to consider the intentions of the artist. Quotidian details — the fact that my martyr liked to sing, words his mother said, the names of his siblings — contrast with moments of broad metaphor, like when my martyr compares freedom to the sky. There are also moments where it feels like it’s difficult to know if the political message in the testimony belongs to Khoury or the martyr. There’s a lot of dramatic emphasis on simple good and evils, on the pride of being part of the Syrian revolution, the pride in dying for it. I don’t know whether my martyr actually felt these things, but they fit a simple narrative, and because of that, seem more like part of an image Khoury is trying to construct about martyrs of the uprising rather than an honest portrayal of a life.

There are also moments that feel painfully real. Particularly the audio woven into his testimony that seemed to be gathered from documentary recordings. There’s a recording of the protest where they commemorated his death, of people chanting his name on the front lines. In those moments, the feeling that I at least know a little about this person makes the recordings feel vital and hurtful, in a way they couldn’t without context. This is important: The war in Syria has been going on for years, and without specificity it is almost impossible to not become numb to headline upon headline about daily death. We all know this. Gardens Speak is clearly trying to fight this numbness and the transformation of the dead into numbers.

There’s a recording of my martyr’s mother screaming after his death. I almost can’t listen to it. But that is what makes Gardens Speak good. It’s almost impossible to escape feeling connected to the dead. This is hammered in by the end, and what to me is the most powerful part. After you listen to the story of the martyr’s death, they give you a pen and paper and tell you to sit in front of the grave and compose a letter to the martyr. You then bury the letter in the earth at the foot of the grave. They say this letter might be shown to their friends and family.

Because I process things through writing, and because of the even remote possibility that friends and family of the deceased might see the letter, this feels like when the connection that the exhibit has been trying to build between me and the memory of my martyr finally slides into place. Intimacy, again, is the best word I can use to describe this final moment. It is highly personal and takes any hint of the abstract away from what you are experiencing. I think about what this person’s loss means, to confront that they no longer exist in the world, that there are people who will always mourn them.

There isn’t any artifice in that moment, because no matter how the installation was executed, it’s based on the fact that people are dead. People you now know a little bit about — just enough so their names carry a meaning. The fact of their death in that moment is like a physical presence. The chance that friends and family might see the letter makes the connection stronger.

For me, Gardens Speak succeeds in conjuring up strong empathy and making sure that some names at least are not forgotten. I leave, smoke a cigarette and carry on with my day, but that moment of empathy still feels important.


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