Image Credit: Photo by Jason deCaires Taylor via PBS
In a dream we are sitting by a grave. We are my cousin and I. The grave is fresh, recently dug, recently filled. Simply a mound of earth. The dead person (or perhaps persons because for some reason I have a sense that there might be more than one) is/are, however, not inside the grave. They/he/she are/is there, lying on top of the dirt, with us, by our side. Or perhaps it is us who are by their/his/her side. It depends whose perspective you go for, who is gazing at whom. And in the dream we are trying to take a selfie. And the corpse is not of flesh. But is a skeleton. Already decomposed. Already only bone. Lying there, not inside, but outside. Not in the underworld. But over the ground in the world of the real and the concrete, right by our side.
When I wake up, I wonder about the dream, but only for a moment, as I immediately connect it to my work in the past few years in the realm of death and dreams. I wonder why my cousin and I together in the scene, but I can make some guesses. We are both outsiders, each for our own reasons. Our connection to the homeland complicated because of that. But that is another story for another time. The skeleton is what I continue to wonder about. I wonder about its/their being right there with us on the ground, about us posing with it/them for a picture, as if it/they is/are one of us or we one with it/them.
In “Getting the Dead to Tell me What Happened: Justice, Prosopopoeia, and Forensic Afterlives,” Thomas Keenan speaks of the final scene of Witnesses from The Grave, a book by Eric Stover and Christopher Joyce about the “career of Clyde Snow and birth of the Argentine forensic team” (Forensis 52). Keenan explains that in the scene, the team sits by a stream and “they exchange stories about their dreams” (52). Their dreams involve bones and skeletons. Keenan believes, “the dreamer here knows only the skeleton, and reanimates it” (52). He, however, reminds us that “life is restored, or granted, but to the bones as such, not to the bodies they once structured” (53). The bodies, the persons, are forever gone.
I have been drawn to, carried out research, and written, in one form or another, about and around death, disaster, crime, justice, memory, language, and other modes of representation and witnessing for the past few years. It all started with the aftermath of the Iranian presidential election of 2009, but since then the concerns have continued to expand to many other situations around the world, including global politics, sanctions as a mode of diplomacy or warfare, and most recently the refugee situation. (I am not sure if “refugee” and “situation” are the best words I can use, but I will concede to them for now).
I feel, however, that the research and the writing provide, for me and for my readers, more of a long-term meditation on and mediation in these contexts. As a result, I am left with the need to do something that might have more of an on hand effect. Some kind of an immediate relief. I am aware that this is to try to help to alleviate the pain of the victims, but I know too well that it is also to soothe my own feeling of shame and guilt caused by being seemingly safe and secure amidst the attacks and the exodus, to alleviate the sense of passivity and helplessness in the face of the horrific events that continue to have a stronger and stronger grip on the politics of the world.
That is when and why I turn my attention to my translator self. All I can do, or all I tell myself I can do, is to apply to join “Translators without Borders” the instant I find out about the existence of the organization. I become a volunteer translator with them, hoping to help ease the struggles of the refugees by helping them overcome the impossibility of moving over the borders of language.
Doing this work for a few months now, I have been reminded of how a lack of language can lead to irrevocable consequences for people who are already in life-and-death situations; of how language is, before anything else, a means of survival. In the process of transferring seemingly simple words from one language to another, I have felt the urgency and necessity of translation, of it not being a choice but a need as basic as food and medical care that demands to be taken care of.
In the documents I have been overwhelmed by words sitting together to say: Be wary of. As a refugee you are in danger of. Your documents. You have the right to. Risks. Media. Strangers. Touching you. Traffickers. Approaching you. Family members. Traveling Alone. Children. Women. Make sure to. Health services are provided. Meals are served. . . . And I have felt how words that for translators might be considered basic and unchallenging have immediacy and impact unshared by words we sit to translate as literary translators, sometimes mulling over them for months on end.
Translating on my laptop as I continue to live my life traveling, studying, writing, and else, in the safety of one space or another, I keep thinking about the meanings of such kind of aid, for me, for the organizations on the ground, and for the refugees. For every job, the whole process—acceptance, completion, and delivery—is carried out through an online platform; and it makes me wonder about the characteristics and the dynamics of a work that would not be possible in a crisis of another age, that is today possible thanks to the developments in technology in the virtual realm.
The emails announcing an “open job” calling for a text to be translated usually come through during my nighttime (time zone differences between the US and Europe), while I am sound asleep. Many times in those few hours until I wake up and see them, the job has been picked up by other volunteers. It is a reassuring loss of job opportunity. It makes me happy that there are others out there already having responded to the urgency of the need.
The first time I accepted a translation, between English and Persian, and opened the document, I was struck by the simplicity of the text, simplicity that revealed the intensity and immediacy of the problems, the adjustments, the risks, and the dangers the refugees have to deal with every moment of their journeys. Oftentimes including guidelines, advice, information, updates of the news with regard to the camps, these texts provide refugees with information about shelters and services, such as hours of operation, locations, details about a safe breastfeeding space and a children’s play area, guidelines on how to stay safe as a family, how to use the camp bathroom at night, how to help the children emotionally in such traumatic times, how to guard their documents, etc. It was in the reading and rendering of that very first document from English into my mother tongue I underwent a state of trauma unlike any I had listening to and watching the news from the region.
Even now, every time I open a document and get to work, I still go through this visceral experience of suddenly becoming aware of my body’s presence in a safe space, a pleasant room or an air-conditioned library or a friendly café in one US city or another, while I translate. In a state of guilt and shame, I am also unnerved that I have a “choice” in what day I accept a job or what text I want to work on or not. I can not respond to an email on the days that I am busy or when I do not have the energy or the strength or feel like going back to the spaces of those texts. I can simply turn away. The refugees cannot. And the fact that the job is getting done doesn’t assuage the truth that I have prioritized my life for things that are not a matter of caring for the pains, physical and/or emotional, of a fellow human being, one who, shares my country and history and, moreover, speaks my native tongue but not necessarily my other tongue that would help him/her in the passage away from the mother tongue and land into an uncertainty that might, or might not, mean a better life.
I have no doubt about the importance of whatever work I do and the impact it ends up having on a practical day-to-day basis. I know that without the virtual world, there would be no way, either logistically or financially, the different NGOs on the ground would have such extent of access to translators. But that doesn’t stop me from wondering about the implications of this distance on a more intellectual, individual, and ethical level.
What does this distance and separation mean to the memory of my body of the brutalities of life on camps? What does the screen do to my understanding of the crisis? What does it mean that I access the language of the documents but cannot put faces on the people whom I work with and those we all hope to help? What does it mean that I begin imagining those faces, filling in the gaps with faces I have seen in the media or those of my own friends and family? How many more layers of removal and otherness does this create than if I were to be on the campgrounds? What are the ethical implications of such distance; from the moment we apply to when we are chosen as volunteer translators to the continuous process we take part in to when we submit a document and to when we are no longer part of the life of that document and the life on the ground and the ongoing journey of the refugees?
The work with TWB has shifted, expanded, and deepened my writing and research about the issues I already was thinking about for many years. I have begun examining them in ways that I probably would not be able to without this partial participation that has raised so many questions and emotions.
In the fluid war zones of today, even knowing and having access to the language, the signs, the maps, and the strategic locations do not guarantee one’s survival. Take the case of the “Hospital.” The sign on a map or over the entrance to the physical space and the word indicate spaces that in our human consciousness are meant to tend to the human body. To care for them. Shattered. Wounded. Broken. To help bring back to life that which is struggling. Or to bring to life a new life that is to continue us into the future. Or to ease the pain of death, if all fails.
But today in Syria, hospitals are just another military target, yet another building in the battlefield, no more or less sacred than peoples’ homes or bazaars or schools or for that matter their bodies. In the past few weeks several hospitals and a blood bank (on July 23rd) have been targeted by bombs. I do not even remember or care or can keep track of which side has carried the attacks. I am not able to wrap my head around the complexities of the situation on the ground anymore. What matters to me are the bodies. The civilians who are dead, forever gone. Sites of care have now become sites for various forces and governments and ideologies to come face to face and to exert their powers. And we are sitting far away, not doing anything; or whatever we are doing, ends up not being enough to overcome the darker powers.
In May 2016, Osama Abo El Ezz, a general surgeon in Aleppo, Syria, wrote about a shortage of coffins in the city. “We are running out of coffins to bury our friends, family and colleagues. At some point the shelling will kill everything and there will be no life left in Aleppo. Trapped, people are losing any sense of hope. Our time is running out, and the need for action is urgent.”
What does it mean for a city to face a shortage of coffins?
I have this memory of once watching a video, I don’t remember exactly where or how I came upon it, created by a visual artist, whose name eludes me, about a pilot in the Israeli army who, while up in the air in Lebanon, realized the building he was going to bomb was a hospital and thus refused to bomb it. He figured the identity of the building based on its architecture. He explains how he had this architectural knowledge about buildings, but I have forgotten his explanations. What I remember is what he said next, that after he defied the orders, the building, the hospital, was bombed by another pilot in another jet who followed the orders of his military commander and went ahead and bombed the hospital.
Thinking about the video, I wonder about the new dynamics between soldiers and buildings and human bodies in the age of drone warfare. Instead of putting their bodies on the ground, on par with the enemy soldiers, the drone operators sit a computer thousands of miles away guiding a missile toward a target as if they are playing a video game. How do they experience this destruction and annihilation? Are they prone to PTSD? And if yes, how is their PTSD different from soldiers in traditional warfare? What do such attacks mean to the architectural bodies in warzones? What do they mean to the victims whose whole lives are turned upside down without them ever facing the enemy or its visible machinery? What do they mean to war crime investigators and judicial systems? In this new mode of warfare, in which the missile enters the building through a hole so small that because of the pixel specifications of “publicly available satellite images . . . might appear as nothing more than a slight color variation” (Weizman, “Matter against Memory,” Forensis 371), we need to rethink the traumas of war and how to help victims survive and overcome them; and we need to find new ways of finding truth and implementing justice against war technologies that allow the denial of the strikes by the perpetrators, and subsequently lead to the complexity, if not impossibility, of legal action against them.
But does it really matter what the techniques and the dynamics of the warfare are if one is among the dead bodies of the victims of war? Does it matter that there is a shortage of coffins when the shortage of water and food and medication and empathy and sympathy and care and an overabundance of weapons and bombs and the economic profits behind their sales are increasingly taking a toll on the lives of civilians? Does it matter how the bodies are treated in death when the breathing ones have to struggle to stay alive, less and less in their homes or home countries, forced to leave everything behind to take refuge wherever they can, knowing too well that many borders and doors are going to be closed on them? Why does the image of a city without enough coffins become engraved in my mind as an apocalyptic image of the fall of humanity? What is in these containers of corpses that makes them so significant? Are they just containers of bodies or of memories too, of souls too? Are they important to the dead or to the survivors? What does it mean to us as a human nation if we cannot even accommodate the needs of our dead?
The shortage of coffins is a slap in our face. It reminds us that we are beyond the want to do something for the breathing bodies discovered amidst ruins and for refugees suspended in border areas or coming to shores with the waves and the boats; that we are even beyond the point of seeing, sharing, discussing, and trembling in the face of the trafficked-out-of-the-country photographs of prisoners tortured by the Assad regime, whose bodies he and his men took care to dispose of. The shortage of coffins reminds us that the situation is no more just about what to do about the living on either side, the victims or the war criminals or the bystanders, but what to do about the dead. It suddenly transposes us from the realm of life to the realm of death. In the realm of life we have some power, or are able to hold on to the illusion of power. The realm of death is a world beyond our reach whose language we cannot understand or master no matter how much control we gain over the material of the body or over the forensics knowledge of it. That is why we need the coffins and the tombs. That is why we need to know where the bodies are and why we need to peacefully put them to rest. It’s not just for them. It is as much for us. Burial and burial rituals help us contain the world of the uncanny, accept the loss, and move toward living despite it and maybe one day healing.
Contained or not contained, the dead are, however, never voiceless bodies. Their lost voices will continue to come to us, haunting us and reminding us of these days and of our failures. Their absences become more prominent than the presences of politicians and legislative bodies crowding in international organizations, fooling themselves and us with their caring for the human life; more prominent than the actions and voices of NGOs and human rights organizations and volunteers around the world who are trying to help them and us into the future. The dead will continue to rewrite our presents and our futures.
Twenty ones years after the massacre of Srebrenica, one of the worst genocides after the WWII, forensics teams and family members still continue to search for the bodies of people who were murdered and disappeared during the Bosnia-Serbia war. In her essay “War Trauma Twenty Years after –from Bosnia to St. Louis” (JCFAR, Issue 27, July 2016), Renata Salecl writes about a father living in St. Louis, US, who goes back to Bosnia every summer to search for the body of his five-year-old girl. “A Bosnian Serb soldier killed her in front of his eyes. . . . [Her] body was buried in the nearby church graveyard. The horror of the loss of his daughter got even worse when the perpetrators scattered the remains of people buried there in other hidden mass graves” (2).
On July 12, 2016, Bosnian Muslims gathered to bury newly found bodies of their loved ones in Srebrenica. Twenty-one years have passed, but as Edina Budic, who lost her husband in the massacre, says, for the survivors “it’s as if they disappeared yesterday” (AJ+).
Despite the attempts of the search teams, there is an estimate of one thousand bodies still missing. That search for the “lost bodies” becomes the subject of the documentary Red Rubber Boots by director Jasmila Žbanić (Salecl 6). The film depicts the journey of a mother who joins forensic expert and chairman of the Bosnian Federal Commission for Missing Persons, Amor Mašovićlooks, to find the bodies of her two sons. The mother hopes that since plastic doesn’t decompose, the red rubber of the boots of one of her kids would one day lead her to their burial site.
In the feature film documentary Nostalgia for the Light, the lost bodies that are the subject of the film are those of Chilean dissidents, prisoners, and miners who were disappeared under the Pinochet regime. Director Patricio Guzmán pays tribute to the old women who have been digging into the soil of Atacama Desert since the 1970s in search of their loved ones’ bodies, of which sometimes nothing remains but the tiniest bones. He weaves their (hi)stories with the natural landscape of Atacama Desert with the accounts of the archeologists who work there in search of more distant histories of human life and those of the astronomers who work at the observatories in the desert in search of the origins of life in the cosmos.
In an interview with Film Quarterly, Guzmán recounts the behind the scenes of a moment in the film when the women meet with one of the astronomers in the observatory. He explains that the women were hesitant to meet with the astronomer and the two groups were able to connect only when the astronomer told the women, “The moon has been watching the earth for millions of years. The moon knows everything that has happened on earth. Therefore we should ask the moon where those disappeared have gone” (qtd. in Guzman’s interview).
But until we can gain access to the language of the moon, we have no option but to keep our feet and our gaze on the ground. Atacama Desert is the driest place on the earth, so salty that no form of life can sustain in it. But this absence of life does not equal an absence of history. The natural characteristics of the landscape allow for us to find “the footprints from a past that has not been destroyed,” (Guzmán’s interview with Carmen Boullosa, CUNY), for the containment and preservation of the secrets of the dead, over the earth and underneath it. Guzmán thus speaks of Atacama being referred to as “an eternity container.” And it was the fear of this eternity that led the Pinochet regime to open the mass graves, unearth many of the bodies, move them to other locations or throw them from helicopters into the Pacific Ocean. The Pinochet regime desired to rewrite history with the erasure of the bodies. But even with the loss of dead bodies, even when dead bodies cannot find respite in a cemetery, our bodies carry their shadows and continue to hold on to their memories. The living become containers for the ghosts and/or souls of the dead, becoming symbolic mobile resting places that replace the rectangular permanent ones dug into the ground and engraved in tombstones.
And this is perhaps true even when the bodies are found; even when they have graves; even when the living choose silence, do not speak the memories, and pass away without ever speaking them. The memories along with the trauma of loss and violence continue to be transmitted from one generation to the next by the genes. The body has its own memory and the genes will carry out the burden regardless of what we decide for them.
In response to Guzmán’s point, the interviewer Carmen Boullosa says, “Without memory, as Ida Vitale says, as all poets say, we all know that, without memory we have no meaning. We become a grave ourselves” (CUNY interview with Guzman). But I want to argue with and disagree with that point. Can we ever be without memory? And aren’t we graves ourselves exactly because of memories? Our bodies contain all the past that has come and gone before us. Sometimes we are aware of these pasts in the form of conscious memories. Sometimes we are not and the memories live in our unconscious, affecting our consciousness and our emotions and our worlds and thus the worlds around us. The past will forever continue to be buried within us. We as humans with a past, individual and collective, cannot not be graves ourselves.
Even when we accept that our bodies are graves and burial sites, questions continue to remain about bodies of the dead, their burial, and the sites for their burial. In the context of the bodies from the Bosnian war that were scattered across many gravesites, Salecl discusses the complications around what constitutes a body that can be buried. “Some claimed that at least 70 percent of the skeleton has to be recovered before a person gets a proper funeral. But a few years ago, the religious leaders of the three largest religious groups (Muslims, Orthodox Christians and Catholics) decided that even if only one bone of the body is found, the person can be buried” (13).
What does the need for finding material remains of the bodies, of legal consensus about what is a proper body, of containing the human flesh or bones within coffins or shrouds, and then letting them rest in the earth, what does this need mean to the bodies and to us as survivors, intimate or distant? And if burial is possible, what kinds of meaning are inherent to and made in relation to the ceremony of burial? Or in relation to the location of the burial? What meanings will be created if the body can be buried within the borders of the once upon-a-time homeland? What if the borders of the homeland become reconfigured as a result of the very conflict that has led to the death? What if the bodies are to be buried beyond the borders of the homeland, in lands the very bodies set out toward to save themselves and their families but never reached in their living breathing state? What if the beloved is to be buried in a land that the living are passing through to get to another destination? What if the body of the beloved is welcomed to be buried in a land but the land is hostile to the living and rejects their presence? Does the burial and the permanence of its site turn a place that was once of no meaning for the survivors into a place of all meanings? Does the burial turn the land into another homeland?
I see this news segment about an artist creating an underwater museum representing the refugees’ realities. I keep thinking about the images and the project for many days. Statues. Standing. As if in movement. Perforated. Faces already disfigured. Sitting in a boat. Lying. As if already dead. Surrounded by cacti. As if already taken over by the natural vegetation. Suitcase in hand. Cellphone in hand. Book in hand. Or perhaps a map. They are transferred from a space of creation to the port to a boat to where they are submerged by help of machines and chains and humans. The statues are installed on the seabed and arranged properly by several people in diving attire. The process is documented, watched by onlookers, photographed, filmed. And then when everyone leaves, these people are to remain there, underwater, surrounded by water and by the sound of the currents underneath and the human silence.
The headline says the museum “offers a stack reminder of the refugee crisis” (Segal, PBS). But I wonder about that. A museum hidden from the eyes of a regular audience, this demands another audience, an audience of art or of entertainment, who can access it only if they set out for an excursion, conditioned by all the practical and symbolic that that word and that experience bring with it; or perhaps the museum is created for the ghosts of the drowned or for the creatures of the world underwater. Sculptor James deCaires Taylor is quoted as saying, “The work is not intended as a tribute or memorial to the many lives lost but as a stark reminder of the collective responsibility of our now global community.” I question the differentiation he makes. How can the work be a reminder of responsibility without paying tribute to the lives that have been lost as a result of an absence or lack of the same responsibility? How can such an artwork bring attention to the direness of the situation and change anything? Doesn’t this very text face a risk and raise questions similar to the museum? What kinds of meanings does the location of the museum add to it? What emotional affect does it have on us the viewers? Isn’t the museum yet another burial site, a symbolic cemetery? Even though I keep thinking about the project and questioning its rational, aesthetic, and ethical aspects, I feel it does something to me emotionally, something different than the news coverage of the crisis. It continues to haunt me on another level, reminding me of the bodies in Pompeii forever eternalized by the volcanic ash.
In an interview I watched on a news outlet, I don’t remember which one, somewhere in the labyrinthine world of the Internet, a Greek old man speaks about the need for and his attempt to make possible proper burial rituals for the bodies of refugees washed ashore, explaining how giving them a proper tomb is the least they can do for them. I wonder what he means by “the least” and who “they” really are? The least perhaps is not just for the bodies and the dead but also for the living, for us, for the both of us, the dead and the living. In the same report or another, someone speaks of how Greek cemeteries are now hosting a large population of Syrian refugees. It is as if the cemeteries are changing nationality or becoming more multinational while the cities they are located in generally resist becoming so.
David Jasper, in the book The Sacred Desert in which he discusses the concept of the apocalypse, writes, “The first true cities in human history (since they lived as nomads) were cemeteries, cities of the dead. It is only in death that one can stay in one place, that being the tomb” (60-61).
This image of the “true city” troubles me. I see his point and I agree with him. But I also wonder if cemeteries of displaced bodies can ever be “true cities.” I also want to put out there a desire for “fake” cities, or for a redefinition of “true cities,” for the imagination of cities and countries that do not find their truth in making people stay in one place; for cities and countries that do not build walls, physical or symbolic, in order to hold on to their truths; for spaces that are open to constant revisitations and reconstructions of their identities and futures based on acceptance and openness rather than rejection and blind allegiance to historical power plays. Maybe the desire I want to give voice to is for the possibility of going back to being nomads, to accepting that we are all nomads, have been once upon a time and will be again, and have thus to strive for aesthetic, social, legal, and ethical constructs that would allow that nomadic reality in our world.
In a drone footage from October 2015, a river of refugees is shown from above flowing through green patches of land. The location is along the Slovenian-Croatian border, but the date of its publication and the medium of the recording by a drone remind us that this mass of bodies most probably belongs to the Syrian refugees and others from the Middle East. The various shades of green shine under the sunlight and weave in and out with the various shades of brown of the farms and of the hills with the blues of the sky. The land plots are separated by imaginary lines and borders and by their being in different stages of farming, ploughed or not, ploughed one way or the other the particularities of which I have no knowledge of. The fact that the images are from the Slovenian-Croatian border makes me think about how the landscape in the region already carries the memory of a not-so-long-ago human catastrophe. It makes me think about how in areas where everything, the hills and the farms and the plains and the trees and the sun, seems normal and beautiful suddenly a mass grave might be discovered, a wound opening up a pain that continues to silently reside in the earth and in the bodies of the humans living that earth.
The footage reveals electricity poles and houses and buildings along with the natural landscape in the distance and then there are the railroad tracks and then there is the asphalt road stretched along the tracks. The road that begins somewhere outside the frame of the image and extends into an infinity beyond it disappears and hides under the footsteps of women and men and children, refugees who carry only what they can of their lives and their homes, forcing themselves to take one step after another, walking, running, pausing, moving away from a shattered life, gathering around to rest or to strategize but only for a moment, before setting off toward an uncertain future.
It is not that I was unaware of the extent of the humanitarian crisis that Syrians and other refugees are facing, but it is in this coming together of the bodies that form a river in search of refuge and home flowing through the landscape that I suddenly come face to face with the extent of the exodus. It is as if devoid of the context of disaster and a background of calamity, devoid of any sound or voiceover, the drone footage becomes even more troubling. This is not a war zone in which the wounded and the surviving are running and struggling to find shelter. The image disrupts because it is a peaceful landscape of beauty and bounty, the earth being there for the human with the promise of growth, a future, and yet this river of suffering, of pain and loss, of forced exile, cannot stop and can only continue to run, to flow, to flee, moving through the green fields, wherever the humans in charge of the land allow them an opening to move through, to breathe and to be, disheartened and broken but still clinging to a hope arising from urgency or lack of choice that somewhere someone or some government can accept their humanity. It is a moving image of the human will to continue but it is also a devastating image of the violence and trauma that is passing through the earth leaving its footprints everywhere.
How do we sit still in the face of this? How do we not feel the earth trembling under their wounded feet under our bodies? How do we, can we, begin to touch, to reach out, to care, to caress? How do they do it? How do we do it?
In the book Ethical Loneliness, The Injustice of not Being Heard, Jill Stauffer discusses how victims of traumatic events, be it personal or collective, feel lonely in the aftermath of these events. It is not just the event that devastates them, but having to suddenly face this world in which nobody listens to them or even if listening happens hearing or understanding or caring about doesn’t. Stauffer calls this loneliness “ethical” because it is the result of a failure of our ethics as human beings.
Stauffer talks about the importance of collecting stories, versus facts and statistics, and how they can be helpful in such settings. “[Pumla] Gobodo-Madikizela [a commissioner on the South African TRC] suggests that collecting stories not only of harm but also of context, and of the drawn-out effects of violence and unjust systems, may in some settings shed more light on what the problems are and how they might be addressed and redressed than would a legal trial” (Stauffer 45-46). Storytelling can “reveal the truth about what oppression did to people—not just the recitation of events, but what the oppression felt like, how it changed and destroyed lives, even lives not touched by a specific crime. Because so many stories can be told, a larger picture emerges in which individual victims can see their place in a community of survivors (Phelps qtd. in Stauffer 46).
In a series of images, photographer Dario Mitidieri sets out to create portraits of Syrian families at a refugee camp in Lebanon. Mitidieri creates a makeshift stage made with black curtain that inherently reminds me of the black banners mounted to announce the death of someone or a mourning ceremony in Iran or the black of the ISIS flag. Mitidieri, however, makes sure to include in the photographs the space surrounding the black as well, the mountains and the tents and the life going on around in the camp. The portraits are particular in another sense as well. They are not what we expect of family portraits. They leave spaces empty for the “missing” members of the family (Moorhead, The Guardian). A chair is left unoccupied or a void is left among the standing bodies, symbolizing the person who should have or would have sat there if he/she were present. The strong juxtaposition of absence and presence forces our gaze not toward the bodies who are frozen in a moment in time looking into the camera and into our eyes but to that space left empty that is filled instead of with a body with the black behind and underneath.
Mitidieri explains that many families were resistant to participating in the project, because they feared their portraits being taken or their full names being used could have consequences for the missing members. I keep thinking about how the resistance might come from another unconscious reason: the fear of being forced to pause, look into that void, face it, and rearrange themselves around it; the fear that the moment the experienced absence is translated into a recorded visual document they will have to acknowledge the new definitions of their meaning as a family. A family with a lack with a wound with a loss with a question mark forever haunting them.
The Chilean poet Raul Zurita keeps returning in his books of poetry to the corpses and the disappeared of the 1973 Pinochet coup. He keeps returning to these absences giving them voice through the mountains and the rivers and the flowers, through the cliffs and the clouds and the stars of Chile, and through words and voice and art. In a talk at the University of Denver in spring of 2016, Zurita said, “In a mathematical equation if you change even the smallest element, the equation is going to change. Each and every one of these absences, it changes the whole equation.” Believing that “all humanity disappears in one disappeared human being,” Zurita writes poems to address this change of equation, this disappearance, because “poetry has to bury those who have disappeared.”
If poetry has to bury, then what is the role and the meaning of the poet, the poet-witness, the witness-poet?
In a dream, I see a few people from an organization who are busy discussing a new art project. They are speaking about art pieces that are going to be buried so that one day they are unearthed by our successors, and can thus become witnesses to our times, historically and aesthetically. Or they might remain forever buried. They mention that they have already gotten work from Yanara Friedland. I love Yanara Friedland. As a human being. As a friend. As a writer. She and I share many concerns in writing and in our existences in the world. Among them our bonds with the dead and with borders and languages and translations and all the ways these define our selves as writers and human beings in the troubled realities of the world of today.
In Unknown [sound of water against stone], a piece for the “National Corpse Month” for the Poetry Foundation, Friedland writes, “The dead are dear to me. Not because I am romantic, though probably nostalgic, but because they are good collaborators.
“The dead are also a charge, and writing whether this or that, cannot escape charge: ‘to command,’ ‘accuse,’ ‘a rush forward,’ ‘the responsibility of watching over,’ and also an early etymological root for the word ‘care.’”
What does it mean for her name to be uttered in a dream of mine? What does it mean for her artwork to already have been part of this dream project of art burials that are to witness? The people discussing the project mention another name but I do not recall that name upon waking up. I remember that in the dream I decide to talk to the person in charge to see if I can be part of the project.
I wake up with a clear image about a ritual, artistic and spiritual, that I might or rather should perform with a section of my novel trans(re)lating house one. The section narrates/translates the stories/histories lived/created around that threshold moment of death, in the moments before and after it, behind and in front of it; moments in which materiality becomes immateriality, the physical becomes the spiritual, life becomes memories of that life, the present becomes the past and the future, the body moving toward death becomes the body originating from death. And meanwhile the self and the event is transferred from the personal and private to the public and political and historical, becoming more intimate than any intimacy contained in the private.
The dream makes me imagine myself printing or writing pages from the section that I sometimes call “an encyclopedia of corpses,” knowing too well that it is so full of life, if not more as much as the other sections of the book; and then folding the pages over and over until they cannot be folded anymore. Later, I realize this idea is perhaps influenced by a scene in a book I hope to soon translate into Persian, which I just finished reading a few days before the dream: Firmin, by Sam Savage. It is about a rat that lives in a bookstore and reads books, and in this particular scene that ends the book, the neighborhood and the bookstore are being demolished to open way for urban developers, and he, the rat, in his final moment of life, tears and folds as much as he can a page from James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake and devours it before leaving us with the blank space of the finality of the book.
I now have this vision of me burying the folded pages containing the bodies or the memories of the bodies in my book, burying them in a specific location in the main cemetery of Tehran, allowing the bodies in the book, my ancestors, the city, the homeland, my individual and collective histories, and me to symbolically come full circle in the ritual of that burial and the future that that funeral will allow me to walk into.
While working on this piece, I go see an exhibition showcasing the artworks of students in the low-residency Image Text MFA program in Ithaca College. I sit down for one of the students to do me a reading using tarot cards. They have created their own cards using photographs they have taken and attributing to them titles and descriptions. One card represents the past, one the present, and one the future. Pointing to the card in the middle, the student explains, “This one represents the present. This is the death card.” She tries to explain to me that it is not a bad card, a dark card, as if she wants to put my mind to ease. I assure her. I know why the card is there. It is there because of what I am writing. And then I suddenly realize. It is there to offer me a title for the piece.
Minutes later as I speak to a friend at the event about the serendipities of the world of writing, about the cards and the title, I remember something else. I have already used this very title “The Death Card” for another essay I wrote a few years ago. Back then I had arrived at it through “The Dance Card,” a short story by the one and only Roberto Bolaño who keeps inspiring and guiding me in my path as a writer. I was using the format of the story, that of the numbered list, to write a piece about how the sanctions against the Iranian government were hurting and even causing the deaths of the civilian population in the country. I was collecting and putting together news, statistics, and quotes from various news sources and officials, and creating a collage that would reveal the complexity and the truths and untruths of the situation. I was going to tell that story by simply arranging the documents and not adding even one word to the text. In the end of that process, Bolaño’s “The Dance Card” naturally and mysteriously became my “The Death Card.”
I, however, never got the piece published. By the time I figured everything about it and finished editing, the news were already too old. New statistics appeared. New consequences arose. New layers of historical and geopolitical complexity came to my attention. It demanded an updating, a rewriting, a lot of more work and digging and expanding that I could not commit to at the time.
And so beyond their titles, there are other connections between this piece and that older piece. Both “death cards” reveal how politics affect the daily lives of people who have no say in it; how multi-layered and inter-related the issues around the world are; how little we have access to and how much remains a secret; and how, with both of my pieces, reality, its complexity, and the speed with which it changes, keep overtaking text and language and our ability to decode and understand the whole picture.
From the moment I start working on the present piece until I finish writing this draft, several other attacks and killings have happened around the world. Attacks in Nice, Afghanistan, Munich, Pakistan, and elsewhere have led to many deaths; more black men and women have been killed in cities around the U.S.; bodies have stood against the tanks and been shot at on Bosporus Bridge in Turkey; a young man has committed suicide in Tehran by jumping from the Bridge of Nature, etc. They all remind me that this piece is not going to end here or soon and that I have to not let the reality overwhelm me and my text. This time I cannot abandon writing and I will instead look further and deeper into the meanings, intellectual and emotional, individual and collective, of these events and deaths and our own reactions and actions in the context of surviving them. This time I will continue to write “The Death Card.”
Meanwhile, as the world goes on and I continue with the research and the writing, I find myself going back to and obsessively repeating words from a scene in a documentary (by Channel 4) about the conditions of the children in Aleppo. In the scene one of the children is resting his head on the window of a van that is taking him and his family away from the city. It is not the landscape and the ruins and the narrative that devastate me, though they really are heartbreaking, but this one sentence that the young boy utters in a murmur amidst tears he lets go on his cheeks, “We love you Syria. Forgive us.”