“I started with an image,” Tania El Khoury says about her performance Gardens Speak, “The image of people speaking to us from the ground.”
The intimate, arresting performance, which is running now at the New York University Abu Dhabi Arts Centre, invites its audience to listen to the stories of the Syrian dead – and not just listen to them, but to dig through the earth to hear them. To lie upon their graves and, finally, to speak back to the dead in a letter each audience member is tasked to write.
The play consists of a sequence of activities that the audience participates in. Visitors enter the NYUAD theatre but then continue, via the orchestra pit, to the industrial-looking space – usually used for storage – underneath the stage. There, each dons a protective plastic white coat similar to that of a forensic examiner, and selects a card from a basket. Each pertains to a different story.
In the next room, 10 headstones face each other along a long stretch of soil. The audience digs under the dirt at the grave they are assigned, and finds a name hidden in the ground. They lie down, and listen to a story.
It’s a story from one of the many martyrs of the ongoing Syrian conflict.
The performance was inspired by garden burials, where Syrians – because of threats of retaliation or basic security – interred their dead in their gardens rather than in graveyards. El Khoury expands this notion into a reflection on the porousness between life and death, imagining that the dead can still see and hear us from under the earth.
“When I first heard about garden burials,” El Khoury recalls, “Probably because of growing up in Lebanon and thinking about mass graves and places, I thought that there is this invisible layer of death that we’ve tried to hide under the carpet, if you like. I had this idea of wherever we are in the world, if we press our ear to the ground, we might hear those stories.”
Or as the character I listened to, Abu Khalid, said: "I'd much rather be where you are, listening to the dead."
The performance, which involves a direct, sensorial experience with the audience, is remarkably emotionally affecting. "There is definitely witnessing but there is also embodiment," El Khoury says, "How you place yourself inside someone else's story through different senses – not just rationally understanding a story but becoming part of it somehow."
When the audience leaves the performance, they have dirt under their nails and impressed upon their legs, or perhaps even tangled amidst their hair. Although there are areas for each to wash their hands and feet – as if in a ritual cleansing – the play still leaves, as Arts Centre artistic director Bill Bragin put it, "a physical residue on your body".
El Khoury's work experiments with ways of transforming the relation between artist and audience, using what might be termed a radical intimacy to bring stories to her audiences (or the other way around). Her performances vary not just in subject but, more crucially, in form, using live feedback video, one-on-one interactions and instructions to achieve their aims.
In Maybe If You Choreograph Me, You Will Feel Better (2011), a male audience member looks out on to the street, where a woman is standing among unaware bystanders. She is hooked up to his microphone and will obey his instructions. Although the power dynamic appears quite clear, it is the man whose creativity and theatrical nous is ultimately put on display – much as the audience's ability to evoke sympathy and demonstrate respect is tested in Gardens Speak's instruction to write the hardest of all literary forms, the condolence letter.
With its focus on oral histories, El Khoury's work also helps to document the stories of recent Middle East conflicts. The 10 stories of Gardens Speak, for example, were written after extensive interviews with Syrians, over the phone, in Syria, in person in Lebanon, and even in London, where El Khoury was at the time doing her PhD. Gardens Speak "contributes to the archiving of this first period of the Syrian uprising," she says. "That's important to think about, because what we now look at as a complicated situation, or as a civil war, started as a popular uprising by individuals who wanted the end of a four-
For El Khoury's As Far As My Fingertips Take Me (2016), she used the oral histories of refugees to create an encounter that is deliberately difficult to forget. The performance itself happens one on one between an audience member and a refugee, although the pair never see each other. The audience member listens to tales of border discrimination, while extending their arm through a hole in the gallery wall. On the other side of the wall, a refugee marks the audience member's arm – creating a trace that the audience member bears for the next few days, as a visible reminder of a real – touched, felt – encounter with a type of person they might normally only think about in the abstract.
The most unmooring section of Gardens Speak comes in the second half, when viewers are asked to write the letter to the dead, with the proviso that the letter may be sent to the friends or family of the dead, or that other participants may read afterwards.
It was like being on stage – what to say? What, exactly, do you write to the father of four who was killed on the way to Friday prayers? The audience took it seriously. The woman next to me put pen to paper immediately and, when I left, she was on her third page. Others took their time beginning, staring nervously at the page.
The work has been running since 2014, and El Khoury says she now has “big boxes” of the letters. “It’s overwhelming because of the content and because of the scale.”
The performance was originally written in Arabic, with attention paid to the different dialects within Syria, and El Khoury says she wasn't sure how it would play in translation. But it has been an enormous success, with translations into Italian, French as well as English, and El Khoury's work has since then continued to draw acclaim.
For Bragin, Gardens Speak plays an important role in this year's programming at the arts centre, which has been more political than in the last two years. "It's a troubled time in the world," he says. "What role do the arts play? What separates art from entertainment? Why is it important that we do what we do?"
Adding that Noura Al Kaabi, Minister of Culture and Knowledge, and Sheikha Alia Al Qassimi, director of Manarat Al Saadiyat have visited the event , he notes that the work is exemplary of a sense that is forming in the UAE around art's potential "to create empathy and understanding – to create a more peaceful world".
Gardens Speak is at NYUAD Arts Centre until Tuesday