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Gardens Speak: A Story Inventively Told

In the early 2010s, the Arab Spring brought the hope of revolution to Middle Eastern countries oppressed by regime control. Subsequently, a civil war broke out in Syria that, nearly 11 years later, has taken its toll on human life. Recent reports estimate that over 500,000 deaths have occurred in Syria since the war began.

It’s difficult to admit, even to myself, that this current event is easy to forget. It’s easy to disconnect from it, seeing this as the problem of the “other,” something that’s happening thousands of miles away on the other side of the world. With a growing need for connectednessto each other, to humanity, and to the world–Gardens Speak just might be the solution, in a small, but significant way.

“In 2011, I saw an image of a mother digging a grave for her son in the garden of their home. The image was from Syria, and it carried with it the horrors of the costs of the uprising, the transformation of domestic and safe spaces into morbid and mourning spaces, and the reality of the Syrian regime’s crackdown on its rebellious population.” – Tania El Khoury, artist

Tania El Khoury’s interactive sound installation, Gardens Speak, is currently on view in the Fermentation Hall at the Momentary. I had the opportunity to experience it this past weekend. From the moment it begins, the experience becomes somewhat ritualistic. We began by taking off our shoes and socks, donning a raincoat, and choosing a card that assigned each of us a martyr of the Syrian civil war. We were then led into the darkened, soundproofed Fermentation Hall by flashlight. 

Rounding the corner, the room was transformed into a gravesite. A giant patch of dirt adorned with lanterns held 10 headstones. In bare feet, we were instructed to walk in the dirt and find the headstone that matched the symbol on our card. Music was heard beneath the dirt as we approached, like sounds from the other side of the veil. We had to kneel and dig into the dirt to find the source of the sound and the name of our martyr. Mine was Mustafa. 

Gardens Speak, Tania El Khoury
Photo courtesy of the artist

As I heard Mustafa begin to speak, I laid my head down in the dirt, fully succumbing to the experience. I wanted to give Mustafa my full, undivided attention. The essential oil of camphor wafted from the dirt and helped to relax my nerves as I sank further into the gravesite. Mustafa told me about his dreams of being a writer or director, of the uprising, and the story of falling in love with the woman who would eventually become his wife. They went to protests together, and both dreamed of something bigger, similar to the couple portrayed in Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West. For a minute, I forgot where I was, the soothing scent of the dirt crawling up my nose as I kept my head situated in the crevice I had made for myself, but then I remembered. I knew exactly how this story was going to end. 

“I wanted to tell her I loved her, and that I would be with her no matter what happened, but death was faster than both of us.” – paraphrased from Mustafa’s story

When Mustafa’s story ended, music flooded the Fermentation Hall, and we laid on top of our graves in a few moments of meditation. I thought about Mustafa. I thought about his wife and the family members he left behind. I thought about how grateful I was to be able to live my dream of writing. I thought about how sorry I felt that Mustafa couldn’t.

Storytelling connects us, and getting to hear Mustafa’s story in this context brought him all the way from Syria to Bentonville, Arkansas. 

Tell Me What I Can Do, Tania El Khoury
Photo courtesy of the artist

After the lights came back up, we were encouraged to write a letter to the person whose story we had just heard, and bury it in the dirt next to their grave. Over the years, the artist has collected these letters and created a responsive installation called Tell Me What I Can Do to share them with others, the name of which comes from the most popular response from guests. Momentary visitors can actually view this installation for free in the Boiler Room, just across the galleries. 

In 45 minutes, I had traveled to another dimension and back again. Life goes on, as it does. Afterward, I bought a salad in the Breakroom, sat down, and began to process my thoughts. With dirt on my face and on my clothes, the lingering effects of Gardens Speak were both mentally and physically apparent. During an afternoon at the Momentary, I experienced a few brief moments of connectedness, and a story was told and carried on. 

After all, we’re all stories in the end. 


Gardens Speak and Tell Me What I Can Do are only on view for a limited time at the Momentary, now through March 8. Get your tickets for Gardens Speak here. Students get in free with a valid ID.


Written by Erica Harmon, copywriter, Crystal Bridges.