Gardens Speak: The Intimacy of Oral Tradition
Humanity’s history was not always gleaned from library books and search engines; oral tradition shaped countless mythologies, biographies, and war stories before a feather was ever dipped in ink. However, with Tania El Khoury’s “Gardens Speak,” stories of old are none of her concern; the narratives being passed on belong to the casualties of the Syrian civil war, which has but recently reached a truce.
El Khoury’s immersive experience has audience members stepping onto a bed of soil marked with tombstones and digging to hear the story of one’s assigned Syrian. Mine was Hassan Hassan, an aspiring theatre director who ended up being detained, tortured, and killed by the Syrian regime; his body was never found. All that remains is his life story, crafted piece by piece by his loved ones. I laid in soft dirt with my ear to the ground and absorbed every word that he uttered from beneath his grave. When I rose from my prostrate position, I looked around to the other people with whom I had entered the space: each one of us had heard a unique narrative, and no one else could gather a single word.
When I think of storytelling in a theatrical context, the audience is always a group of people, rows of chairs filled to listen and engage and reflect. With “Gardens Speak,” I was the only audience to Hassan’s story; my ear against the soil was the only seat to be filled. Sharing the same narrative with multiple people can sometimes diffuse the material being presented, almost akin to the game “Telephone,” where a message is passed amongst a group of people until it is completely distorted from its original form. With every audience member comes an individual interpretation, thus leading to a plethora of varying impressions. However, with El Khoury’s intimate execution, there is only one interpretation that will leave the space: my own. Human error will inevitably lead to Hassan Hassan’s biography being shifted and chiseled, but that risk is implicit in passing on any story, especially one that is being buried in the hauntingly recent past.