Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Gardens Speak – unearthing Syrian stories from beyond the grave #BelFest (until 22 October)

I'm slowly walking back up Belfast’s Botanic Avenue at about a third of pace I would usually strike. There is earth under some of my fingernails. A to do list of a thousand and one things no longer seem so urgent. I’m preoccupied with the live of one young man who died near the beginning of the Syrian uprising.

As part of Gardens Speak I’ve been lying flat on a bed of cold moist earth, listening to Balil tell his story ‘from the grave’. I’ve used my hands to scrape away the loose soil. In the dark and quiet I’ve lain down and listened to the story of his return from sheltering as a refugee in Lebanon to his home city of Homs when he heard that change was possible. I’ve listened to his involvement in the grassroots protests, and heard about the bomb that fell in an airstrike and took his life, and discovered about his burial in the family’s back garden. His story was just one of ten that are shared in the installation.
Across Syria, many gardens conceal the dead bodies of activists and protesters who adorned the streets during the early periods of the uprising. These domestic burials play out a continuing collaboration between the living and the dead. The dead protect the living by not exposing them to further danger at the hands of the regime. The living protect the dead by conserving their identities, telling their stories, and not allowing their deaths to become instruments to the regime.

Artist Tania El Khoury told the Guardian’s Lyn Gardner:
“These burials are often an act of resistance. Funerals in Syria often lead to more deaths: there have been incidents of the shelling of cemeteries while funerals are taking place, and in some instances before the burial can take place the families are asked to sign documents exonerating the Assad regime of their loved one’s death. The lack of liberation follows people even into death.”

The narratives of the deceased have been constructed into the oral histories featured in the production with the help of family and friends, along with audio that has been found that marks their final moments.

There is power in one story, one life, being singled out from the deadly statistics that mask the individual tragedies in conflict situations. Hearing about the earlier fate of Balil’s brothers and the impact of continued conflict on his children adds to the sense of grief.

Lying with my head pressed to the earth, there were echoes of Northern Ireland’s civil rights protests and some Troubles’ deaths.

Having a chance to quietly sit and respond to Balil’s story was very moving and for me anchors the impact of Tania El Khoury’s interactive sound installation which forms part of this year’s Belfast International Arts Festival. More information on the creation of the piece and its future touring dates and locations on the artist’s website.

Gardens Speak runs five times a day in 12-13 Shaftesbury Square until 22 October. Booking is essential and latecomers cannot be admitted.

Rosemary Jenkinson’s new play Lives in Translation is also part of the festival programme. It brings to life the reality of navigating the asylum process through translation and translators. 

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