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Listening to the Stories of Syria’s Dead

An exhibit on display in Washington last week allowed attendees to lie down next to tombstones and hear stories from Syria's dead.

TOPSHOT - A Syrian boy holds on to a fence as he looks over a cemetery in the rebel-controlled area of Arbeen, on the outskirts of the capital, Damascus, on January 8, 2016.  / AFP / ABDULMONAM EASSA        (Photo credit should read ABDULMONAM EASSA/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - A Syrian boy holds on to a fence as he looks over a cemetery in the rebel-controlled area of Arbeen, on the outskirts of the capital, Damascus, on January 8, 2016. / AFP / ABDULMONAM EASSA (Photo credit should read ABDULMONAM EASSA/AFP/Getty Images)

Ten tombstones lined up on either side of a long, rectangular plot of soil glowed in the room’s dark light. With my shoes off and wearing a plastic coat to cover my clothes, I dug through the dirt until I found the name I was looking for: Jalal.

Then I put my ear to the ground and listened.

Tania El Khoury’s exhibit, “Gardens Speak,” documents the lives of 10 Syrians killed during the country’s uprisings and subsequent civil war. Each of their families was forced, for a variety of reasons, to bury the dead in gardens at home instead of in a formal cemetery. In some cases, roads to graveyards were blocked by President Bashar al-Assad’s military. In others, families feared for their own lives because the Syrian regime considered formal burials to be the celebration of martyrs who died in defiance of Assad.

El Khoury, who is Lebanese and British, worked with a group of Syrians to collect stories of these people’s lives and violent deaths, then recorded imagined narratives from each. Participants in the interactive exhibit are assigned the name of one of these Syrians, then told to search for their graves in the museum before lying down to hear an actor read their story in a recording installed in the ground. Then an usher hands out notepads and pens for participants to write the deceased a personal message, which is buried by the grave. Some of those letters will eventually be shared with their families.

I experienced the exhibit, which is both heartbreaking and eerie, midday on a sunny Friday last week, with Paul Salem, vice president for policy and research at the Middle East Institute, and Hisham Melhem, a columnist at Al Arabiya, both of whom are originally from Lebanon. The exhibit’s setting is inherently intimate: The three of us curled up on the ground not far from each other, and we each left slightly shaken. As Melhem said after the exhibit, “it’s not often you hear someone speak from the grave.”

The exhibit was made possible by The Middle East Institute, which partnered with the National Building Museum with support from the British Council to bring the exhibit to Washington for six days this month. 

I sat down with El Khoury after experiencing her exhibit and hearing the story of Jalal, a young protester who died from a mortar shell attack launched by the Syrian Army. His younger brother died months later.

A condensed version of the interview is below:

You’re Lebanese but were of course watching the Syrian conflict unfold next door. What inspired you to make this specific installation?

The inspiration came from a photo I saw circulating on social media about a Syrian woman, a mother, who was digging graves for their son, who was an activist who was killed in Syria. And I wanted to research why was that happening, why were people burying in gardens rather than in formal cemeteries. I started doing research about it and I also had the idea that wherever you are in the world, if you press your ear to the ground you can hear those stories of people who were kind of just buried underground. This is how it came to me and I worked on it in Beirut. I collaborated with a few people, like activists and a Syrian writer, and others also. And we recorded it first in Arabic in Beirut and then it was translated into English and recorded again and it’s now being translated into French.

This is the first time the exhibit is on display in the United States. It’s two years after you created it and the war is still going on; it’s still relevant and close to people’s hearts. How do you feel having Americans come and see, considering the U.S. involvement in the Syrian conflict?

I think it’s very interesting that it’s in a place like Washington. It made me realize how people use art in different ways. Here, the talk is very much about policy and how we can learn and what we can use art for — the use of art if you want, which is something I don’t really think of. And also, challenging some of the misconceptions that the West has about the region. It’s definitely not my priority; I don’t do art to challenge Americans. I don’t even think about Americans in my everyday life. And I don’t have a lot of contacts, artistic history, in the U.S. I work mainly in the Middle East and Europe…but not America. So it was interesting for me, especially for a place like D.C., and how they perceive the region to be, it definitely was a learning experience for me.

How did you choose the people’s stories that are included?

We had more stories that we heard, but the choice was about choosing the people who we had more information about, or at least enough information to actually make up the story. Other than that, we tried to make varied, as in people from different parts of Syria, people who had different involvements in what was happening, that was more the choice. We weren’t finding any women at the end; at the end there are only two women’s stories and it was very hard to find women’s stories who were buried in gardens, because mainly the places where it was more common to have these burials and gardens were places where there was a lot of shelling and a lot of men were outside or involved in some of the fighting.

My character Jalal was buried in a garden because the cemetery was blocked off. What were some other reasons?

Some were not able to reach the cemeteries, others because there was shelling there or there were snipers. But also because there were some assaults or attacks by the regime on places where there were celebrations of martyrs because funerals also were the very first places where people expressed their politics in Syria, where protestors weren’t attacked; protestors had a little more space to show that they were on the side of the opposition. At some point during the uprising it became difficult to celebrate people. Also there was some contestation around the narrative of the deaths of certain activists, where the regime was literally forcing family members to sign statements saying that their loved ones were killed by terrorists rather than under torture or being shot by regime forces.

When you first created the exhibit it was before as many refugees were coming to places like Lebanon, Jordan, now Europe, the United States. Has the response to the exhibit changed at all when people listen to it now and they’re more angry at Syrians for coming into their country?

I think people who are angry at Syrians don’t come to see my work, and I really don’t want them to come anyway. And I don’t know how people are scared that they’re coming to the U.S. when the U.S. has taken the least Syrian refugees in the whole world and it’s a country that was made by refugees who forced themselves brutally on the aboriginal people. So I don’t know what they’re talking about if they’re really scared. But these people are not usually my audience. But for example, the piece was shown in Munich, in Germany, last year and people were very much interested because they wanted to hear more, or to hear maybe they wanted to find answers about what made the people who they’re seeing around as refugees become refugees in the first place. But there was a lot of solidarity with these people who came as the audience, they were feeling the humane side of it and trying to relate more to the new neighbors in the city.

Photo credit: ABDULMONAM EASSA/AFP/Getty Images

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