Syria’s gardens of death

Syria
Conflict
Art
Gardens Speak installation

Tania el Khoury's Gardens Speak installation. © Jesse Hunniford

Can you tell me a bit about your background as an artist?

I started in 2005, and I work mainly with live art: sometimes I perform in my pieces, sometimes not, but they’re always interactive. The audience makes the piece happen. ‘Gardens Speak’ is an interactive sound installation, almost performed by the audience themselves.

How did you get the idea for this project?

The idea was generated by a photograph I saw at the start of the Syrian uprising, in 2011, of a woman digging a grave for her own son, in her garden – a domestic garden. What really struck me in this photo was that it was very powerful and very telling about what’s happening there now, about how people’s lives and intimacy are turning into a grave. It was also quite delicate... it just affected me for a long time.

I became interested in the places of burial in Syria during the uprising, and why that was happening, and how it became a common practice to bury the dead in gardens, whether domestic gardens, home gardens or communal parks, communal gardens, even gardens where kids play. And I had some friends inside Syria who would send me photos of kids playing in the park, but at the same time you can see that right next to them there are graves which have been recently dug.

This was partly because people couldn’t get to the main burial sites, because of shelling or checkpoints; what was also quite telling for me was the fact that the Syrian regime was targeting funerals, because some of them were turning into protests, turning into celebrations of the lives of the activist or the revolutionary or even the civilian who had died at the hands of the regime, so it was a celebration of their lives and their common struggle. The regime was targeting these funerals, and these funerals would generate more death.

Also, at some point, the narrative of people’s deaths was contested – the regime would force the family to write or sign papers saying things like their loved one had been killed by armed insurgents, or something like that, forcing the living to betray the dead.

This is where the idea came from, that this regime is not only oppressive when you live with it, it oppresses even after you die, it follows you at the site where you are being buried, follows you in the narrative of your death. I wanted to challenge that, resist it by telling the stories of 10 real people and what happened to them and their dreams – people who were buried in their gardens, rewriting their own history.

‘Gardens speak’ offers such a different view to the Syrian uprising from what we see in the media. What do you think is the main function of that?

Oral histories always challenge the grand narratives of the regime, of the Western media or of the Arab media, who have their own agenda. Any oral history of ordinary people challenges that, or at least questions some of the things.

The idea is slightly controversial – have you encountered any resistance to it?

The project is still very new, and I haven’t shown it yet in the Arab world. So far people have been really moved by it – these are people’s stories and an it’s an experience where you get to reflect on what’s happening, but also to reflect on your own existence, on your own vulnerability, it allows you to grieve whatever you want to grieve for. It has been quite well-received.

Would you say that the installation plays out as an interaction between collective death and the individual experience of death?

I would say it’s about a collective struggle, not collective death; but also about individual people. And not only their death, but their life.

This regime is not only oppressive when you live with it, it oppresses even after you die. It follows you at the site where you are being buried, follows you in the narrative of your death

I thought a lot about how to write stories of people who were killed and I made a choice to not write the stories from the [perspective of the] moment they died, as if the most important moment was that they were killed, but [to write it] allowing their individual dreams, hopes, identities to appear.

So it’s very personal. Ten audience members experience it at a time, and each one hears the story of one person. In a way, it’s like a one-on-one performance.

I know that you tried to incorporate people’s actual voices in the sound clips.

I wrote the stories in the first person, as if they are told to us, and I also edited them with found material or material that was given to us of their own voices, or of the moment they were killed, or from when they were buried. So there are sounds of their burial, people digging, praying over them.

How did you choose only 10 people from the many stories?

The idea was to have different scenarios, different stories from different parts of Syria – some of [the people] were part of the revolution, some were in an armed struggle, some were peaceful activists, some civilians. Different ages. It’s a selection of people, people whose families we managed to get in contact with, so as to actually obtain the personal information.

What was the families’ reaction to ‘Gardens Speak’?

The people that I personally talked to were very encouraging of the project and thought it was such a strong idea; they were very positive about it. However, most people who were in Syria were spoken to by a Syrian activist who was working with me on the project and who had a certain kind of, let’s say... credibility with them, so they knew about her, for various reasons; she was respected and that helped a lot, people opened up to her, as opposed to just this random Lebanese woman calling them for information.

Why Syria and not another currently ongoing conflict?

I don’t feel that the Syrian uprising has been very far from me, I feel quite affected by it. This is one of the main uprisings in the Arab world, with a big contested narrative, and which was let down by the global Left. While everyone was celebrating the Egyptian revolution, from the start, the Syrian uprising was judged and not really supported globally.

I feel that people forget that this was a legitimate uprising that started against a brutal dictator, a brutal regime, and which was forcibly oppressed and turned into a militarized resistance, with no help at all.

We tend to forget that and judge it all as a big civil war – that’s why I don’t really call it a civil war, because it’s a war against people by a powerful regime and I feel like there’s a lot to say there.

Also, [there is] the idea of a beautiful, peaceful, domestic, intimate space, turning into a nightmarish grave, a reminder that you’ve lost a very close person... for me this was disturbing, as an artist. So I didn’t necessarily decide to do something on Syria.

How do grief and memory interplay here?

Grief is a very important resistance tool – that’s not really my idea, a lot of people have written about it, in feminist theory, people like Judith Butler and Athena Athanasiou; the idea is that those who are killed are cannot even be grieved; that if we don’t know their names, hobbies, their life, then it’s easier to kill them.

So we mourn them and tell their stories as an act of resistance, hoping that this will make it more difficult for them to be killed.

And to be forgotten.

Yeah... but they won’t be forgotten by their community and their loved ones. And the world didn’t know them to start with in order to forget them, but it needs to, and to know their stories, that they were human beings who had hopes and lives and dreams like everyone else.

‘Gardens Speak’ is on at the Birmingham Fierce Festival until 12 October.

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