I wore Basel Zaraa for three days. I had stretched my arm into a literal hole in a wall for him to etch his journey as a refugee on, while a headset blasted his tale into my ears. He pressed my fingertips into an ink pad, then drew a tossing boat on my palm, before sketching two flocks of people marching north – an image that would haunt me long after I had washed Zaraa’s illustrated life off of me with hypoallergenic soap.
Photo: Tania Khoury
My brief tactile interaction with Zaraa came as part of Lebanese live artist Tania El Khoury’s latest installation performance, As Far As My Fingertips Take Me. The piece was initially commissioned by the Royal Court Theatre and the London International Festival of Theatre for their On the Move edition, which showcased a collection of new works exploring themes of displacement and diaspora as they pertain to the current refugee crisis. “These are not my stories – I’m not a refugee myself. So I asked a friend of mine, Basel, a Palestinian refugee to collaborate with me on this piece, to make a song about his and his sisters’ journey,” Khoury explains. “The idea was pretty much the conversation between a refugee and an audience member through a gallery wall, using the spoken word.”
Since its UK debut, As Far As My Fingertips Take Me has been shown across Europe and the United States. “Personally, I didn't think As Far As My Fingertips Take Me would tour, I thought of it as a piece for this particular event [On the Move], but it has been ever since. And it's generating important discussions,” Khoury says.
The installation came to Cairo last month, for the 2018 edition of the city’s Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival, where I was momentarily immersed in Zaraa’s diaspora, all at once and much, much too completely.
Basel Zaraa and Tania Khoury. Photo by @MO4Network's #MO4Productions.
Zaraa has been a refugee his whole life. Born in the Yarmouk camp in Damascus, Syria – where his grandparents had settled in 1956 after their village in Palestine was seized by the Israeli army. The percussionist, spoken word artist, and muralist’s family members found themselves on the run once again when the war erupted in Syria. “[The refugee crisis] is not an issue that started with the Arab Spring, it has been happening for a long time – Palestinian refugees, for instance, have had to deal with this for 60 years,” Khoury says. “It is important for us to remember that some people were born and have lived their lives as refugees, and it is part of their identity. This is the premise of the piece.”
It is important for us to remember that some people were born and have lived their lives as refugees, and it is part of their identity
As Far As My Fingertips Take Me peels away the layers of our facile understanding of life as a refugee, and the indignity and dolour that accompanies statelessness and diaspora, to its kernel: an endless and soul-crushing search for a home and constantly being denied one. Much like European Jews, most notably Otto Frank, whose family – his wife, Edith, and two daughters, Anne and Margot – all died in Nazi concentration camps between 1944 and 1945, after they had repeatedly failed to secure visas to the United States, today’s refugees too are systemically denied entry and asylum status. Like the 900 passengers of the MS St. Louis, they too are often turned away and sent back to their countries of origin, where their bodies now litter the streets.
Border 'control' is a form of legalized ethnic filtration, and a person's passport is their pedigree
In a broken global immigration system that deems undocumented Western aliens ‘expatriates’ – or worse, ‘free-spirited citizens of the world’ – and refugees ‘illegal immigrants,’ border 'control' is a form of legalized ethnic filtration, and a person's passport is their pedigree. The Dublin Regulation, the European Union law that regulates and processes asylum seekers, requires refugees to apply for asylum status in only one member state, the country in which they are detained, hence the installation’s title. “It forces refugees to live in the country where they were first registered and their fingerprints were taken – the idea that your fingerprints or something as logistical as this chooses for you where you would live,” Khoury explains. “That's why it's called As Far As My Fingertips Take Me, because they can take you wherever the police catch you and wherever you get registered, as opposed to where you want or plan to live.”
In As Far As My Fingertips Take Me, Zaraa retraces his family’s history of dispersion and endless search for refuge, using human flesh as a canvas on which to redraw his and other refugees’ journey. He marks the audience as he was marked – he takes you on a long boat ride, aboard his very own MS St. Louis, in a vast, tempestuous sea of apathy, he takes you hiking through forests and unfrequented roads to avoid detection, and finally he takes your fingerprints and brands you like he was branded. “We started it almost like a joke, Basel and I – the idea that people need to feel, literally feel, refugees to understand or to feel empathy. Part of it is what marks and what doesn't – seeing those figures fading on your arm after a [couple of days] and what that makes you feel. It is a 10-minute piece that lasts 3 days,” Khoury says pensively.
The refugee crisis is not an issue that started with the Arab Spring, it has been happening for a long time – Palestinian refugees, for instance, have had to deal with this for 60 years
With the rise of social media, stories of human suffering are commodiously delivered to our pockets, brazenly condensed and pre-packaged in convenient 200-300 word articles and 1-2 minute videos. This is the word count/time allotted to the biggest wave of forced migration since World War II. It is all our attention span permits and all the moral outrage we can muster in an age marked by its hyperbole – truthful and otherwise – and its 24-hour news cycle and mindless punditry. In this not-so-brave new world, unquantifiable and unfathomable loss is reduced to a statistic for your convenience and news is a commodity to consume with your morning coffee.
In As Far As My Fingertips, Khoury attempts to refocus the biggest news story of our time on its forgotten title role: refugees. She breaks through the layers of accumulated apathy that rendered the biggest refugee crisis since World War II a case of 'banal evil,' to bring the story to our deaf ears and desensitized skin.
But, like the ink from Zaraa’s black marker, our compassion too is short-lived and transient.