Garden Burials

In Syria, the dead bodies of some activists and protesters are buried by their families at home, in their gardens. This isn’t a cosy eco-burial initiative, though. It’s a response to the political situation, documented in a unique interactive sound installation: Gardens Speak.

Audience members are given a plastic coat, and directed to one of ten unique and specially designed wooden gravestones. They must dig in the nearby soil to uncover a cushion containing an audio file. The audience members lie with their head on the cushion to hear a story about an individual who died between 2011 and 2013 – in the Syrian uprising against the Assad regime. Each story is carefully constructed by talking to the family and friends of the dead person and using material from diaries, letters and YouTube videos.

Watch the video here to get an idea of what it is like uncovering garden burials.

The performance-maker, Tania El Khoury, explains that “the audience is not passive. They are asked to interact: physically, politically and emotionally. They quite literally have to dirty their hands to uncover the story and to make an effort to uncover the truth. That’s important in Syria, where what is happening is contested. I like the idea of putting your ear to the ground and hearing the stories that normally go unrecorded and unheard.”

In the installation, the “living protect the dead by conserving their identities, telling their stories, and not allowing their deaths to become instruments to the regime. The dead protect the living by not exposing them to further danger at the hands of the regime.”

“The garden burials are often an act of resistance”, explains El Khoury. “Funerals in Syria often lead to more deaths: there have been incidents of the shelling of cemeteries while funerals are taking place, and in some instances before the burial can take place the families are asked to sign documents exonerating the Assad regime from their loved one’s death. The lack of liberation follows people even into death.”

Gardens Speak gives the silenced back their voices and provides a gravestone for those whose burial place often has to remain unmarked.

El Khoury wants to underline that many ordinary Syrians have resisted the Islamification and militarisation of a conflict that has created 3 million refugees and killed an estimated 200,000 people. The stories “remind us that it is human beings involved. During big historic events, it’s the small voices, the individual human voices, that get lost. These individual histories are not part of the grand geopolitical narratives that are unfolding and get reported in the west. They are the history below, the histories that seldom get told.”

I have a hard copy of the garden burial stories. I can’t say that I’m lucky, although of course I am – because I’m alive and living in a country where the regime doesn’t shell us. But I am privileged to have read some of the stories: I’m taking them slowly.

If you too want to read the stories and more about the background, you can buy the book here.

Or read more about the performances in Birmingham and Cairo.





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