This Haunting Exhibit Unearths the Stories of Syria’s Slain

Ten victims of the Middle East crisis have their stories told in a moving art installation in Washington, D.C.

In "Gardens Speak," artist Tania El-Khoury explores the human cost of Syria's civil war. (Courtesy of Jesse Junniford at the Next Wave Festival in Melbourne, Australia, in May 2014)

Abu Khalid (a pseudonmyn) was a shopkeeper who sold chips and soda in the central city of Hama, Syria. He had lived through a bloody massacre when, in 1982, the regime led by Syrian president Hafez al-Assad killed anywhere from 10,000 to 40,000 protestors, including his father, uncle and many neighbors. The dangers of political activism were never far from his mind.

Despite this, in the midst of the country’s civil war that began in 2011, Abu Khalid joined others in the streets to protest the brutality of the regime of Hafez’s son, Bashar al-Assad. He was shot and killed by Assad’s soldiers in Hama and then buried in his family’s garden. He left behind his wife and four children, who are still in Hama.

Abu Khalid’s story, based on interviews with his friends and family, is retold in an evocative art installation now on view at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. In this haunting exhibition, Lebanese-British artist Tania El Khoury’s uses voice artists to share the oral histories of ten of the victims of the civil war. These narratives bring a personal connection to the more than 250,000 Syrians killed since 2011.

Today, by the United Nations’ count, more than 11 million Syrians are refugees and internally displaced peoples, creating the largest refugee crisis in the world. Meanwhile, in Syria, Amnesty International reports that Assad’s forces are engaged in widespread and systematic war crimes such as torture, enforced disappearance and extrajudicial execution against its own people.

In the installation, titled “Gardens Speak,” El Khoury explores how the regime’s brutalities don’t stop with death. Visitors are asked to dig through fresh graves and kneel, pressing their ears to the dirt—always locally sourced, to give it a familiar texture and smell—to unbury the stories of those slain.

The stories are all of ordinary Syrians who were buried in their families’ gardens, rather than public cemeteries. These informal burials have become necessary, as mourners at funerals are at risk of becoming targets themselves. At formal ceremonies, mourners have said they’ve been forced to sign documents that deny that Assad’s regime had any role in their loved ones’ deaths.

Though visitors are given plastic jackets to wear before entering the exhibit to protect their clothes, they are not given gloves because El Khoury wants the dirt to linger on the visitors’ skin long after they leave her installation. She spoke with Smithsonian.com about her inspiration behind the evocative piece, grief as a tool of resistance, and the universality of mourning.

You’ve said that “Gardens Speak” was inspired by seeing a photo of a Syrian mother digging a grave for her son in her garden. What about that photo stuck with you?

The change of transformation of such a beautiful relaxing place into a place of mourning was, for me, really touching. Also, I wanted to know why. I wanted to know why this has been happening.

The narrative of death was very contested [in Syria]. A lot of the time, the regime was forcing the parents to write statements that their loved ones weren't killed by the regime or weren't killed under torture in regime prisons, but they were killed by, like, gang terrorists or they just happened to die. So they were forcing the families to actually betray the activism of their loved ones.

Gardens Speak” began touring in 2014. Have the reactions to the piece varied depending on the country you’ve shown it in?

I think grief is international; losing someone is international. I think people relate on this level. They can understand the idea of mourning someone wherever they are in the world.

There is another layer, how close or how removed they are from Syria or the Middle East, in general. So this changes. I showed it in Munich not a long time ago and because there are many Syrians in Munich at the moment, refugees, and because there's a lot of discussion abut refugees, people were even more curious. They wanted to know what actually caused these people to be refugees, and they seemed to find answers or look for answers in this piece.

How are you looking to change the global perspective of Syria with this installation?

[The recent protests] were a popular uprising against the 40 years dictatorship. A lot of people had dreams to change the political reality and were brutally crushed and killed and it's one of the reasons I wanted to dig into these stories and allow [us] to hear them.

It's about us realizing that we need to hear more stories of ordinary people rather than proxy wars, conspiracy theories, talks of violence and reducing people to either a humanitarian crisis or a bunch of violent people killing each other.

On this note, you’ve talked about the importance of naming the dead as a tool of resistance, an idea advanced by feminist theorists like Judith Butler and Athena Athanasiou. How do you wield grief in this piece to make a statement?

It’s about the fact that certain people, especially looking from the point of view from the West, how certain areas of the world or certain people are just numbers of casualties while others are grievable. If [Westerners] die, we know their names, we know their faces, we do big memorials for them in the middle of cities, museums. The balance of grievability is very telling and very political.

There has been a lot of work trying to change that. But [Syrians] are not animals who’ve died. They have names, they have hopes, and they try to share their names share their stories as much as possible. I think this piece is another way of saying: We know at least 10 of these 100,000. We know their names, we know their stories.

You use oral histories from friends and families to tell the narratives of these 10 people. Oral histories are so dependent on memory and the truth as someone chooses to tell it. How did the unreliable narrative factor into the piece?

I'm very interested in oral history for exactly this performative aspect about it, how people try to remember… There's obviously the romanticization of a person who's a martyr now in his community, but also, it's very interesting for me the little details that people choose to tell.

How I deal with [confirming details] sometimes is just through fact checking, but even if there are things that people get wrong or they mess up dates. I try to be truthful to how people tell stories. In this one, we did interviews and wrote the text. A lot of times, we sent the text back so they can see it and try to be a little more collaborative. That way we’re not forcing words on other people.

One of the guys who was shot, I think his mom told his story, it was very much about the fact that he was wearing his t-shirt inside out when he was killed. It was told like as if it was the funniest thing ever. Like, oh my god he was rushing and he had the t-shirt inside out. It stayed [in the piece]. I thought it was very powerful how people remember things or choose to.

What does a garden in Syria look like?

In the Middle East, it’s more natural growth then what you can see in the West. Here, in many areas, the law forces you to mow your lawn, there are no things like that there. You find fruit trees quite a lot. They're mainly alive places, they're places that are the extension of the home, people sit and have coffees and hang out there. 

What is the significance to you that gardens are an informal space as compared to cemeteries, which are considered more formal?

In the cemeteries, there is a certain way of going, a certain ritual of going and burying the dead, but for various reasons in Syria, people are forced to take initiative themselves to respond to what's happening. This is why the garden is considered an informal way of burying the dead.

What was it like the first time you experienced “Gardens Speak” yourself?

It was quite touching for me, but I was already very much involved. For a while, I felt like I was living with 10 ghosts in a way. I was listening to stories all the time, I was doing the editing, I was really involved in the stories. At some point, it was very depressing, but at another point, it became like friends, like I knew these people very well, I started talking to them, it was quite spooky. It became a bit like that and it was emotional when I first tried it, and I've tried it many times, but it stopped being very sad, it became kind of sweet. You're listening to someone you know.

"Gardens Speak" will be running at the National Building Museum until April 12. It was organized by the Middle East Institute with a grant from the British Council.

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