As the affects of the Syrian Civil War continue to spread like wildfire across the Middle East claiming thousands of innocent lives, the media reluctantly turns a blind eye to the chaos. Amidst the catastrophic amount of bloodshed and destruction, many victims of the war have died without their stories ever being told. Although these personal accounts could significantly influence the perceptions of individuals across the globe, they have been easily dismissed, if not entirely erased. Perhaps, it is up to those on the outside to make their voices heard.
Through a strikingly visceral, avant-garde presentation, Tania El Khoury’s Gardens Speak illuminates the repercussions of the Syrian Civil War and allows its audience members to individually hear the personal story of just one of it’s victims. In groups of 10, the audience is escorted down a dark, and rather eerie, hallway leading into room walled by black curtains. After being advised to remove their shoes and dress themselves with a plastic raincoat, the audience is given a flashlight and a card revealing the name of a specific victim in Arabic. One at a time, the members of the audience then proceed around the curtain where (laying in the middle of the stage) there is a plot of soil resembling a graveyard. As per the instructions on the card, the audience matches the Arabic names to their specific gravestone. There, each member pushes aside the soil to reveal a small speaker with their victims name written in English. A whispered voice filters through the soil and impels the audience into prayer-like positions (their faces nearly in the dirt), in order to better hear their story. Although the story is told through a different voice, it nevertheless recounts the victim's tragic experiences while opposing the regime. I heard the story of Abdul Wahad.
Abdul left his job to join the protests at the early stages of the revolt. His story conveyed how quickly life can change when you stop being afraid; how he was captured by the regime; how they imprisoned and tortured him for months; how he refused to cry, refused to show weakness; how they beat and electrocuted him; how he was released swollen and half-blind, and continued to fight; how he was shot and killed by ten bullets and buried in his mothers garden; underneath the tree they had planted when he was young. His loved ones brought flowers: not as a sign of respect, but as a means to conceal and protect his grave from defilement. As I sat there listening to his story, I realized how easily it could have been my own, and how quickly a country can fall into the hands of war.
Gardens Speak was not only a visceral, but also sensual experience. I could feel and smell the soil underneath my knees as I leaned closer to the speaker, which made me feel as if I were actually over their grave. Although I felt slightly uncomfortable laying in the dirt and feel that there should be have been warnings for those who were not properly dressed, I soon realized that the anxiety of getting a little dirty was nevertheless a small sacrifice compared to that of the victim’s. After their stories are told and the voices fall silent, the audience has the opportunity to write a letter directed towards the victim to whom they had been acquainted, and bury the letter beside their grave. Although I was able to express my sympathy towards Abdul, and acknowledged his bravery, I still felt that it wasn’t enough; that there is so much more to be said. Through the use of various dramatic effects, Tania El Khoury ultimately leaves it up to the audience to carry on the victim’s stories.