ZAHRA SALEKI PHOTOGRAPHY
CALL MY NAME
There are teenagers up to 16 years old in the Middle East who have never seen peace in their lives; these are the relatively lucky ones because they lived to be 16. They could have been among hundreds of thousands of kids who died and were wiped off of our minds and memories. What is more troublesome than the normalization of war in the Middle East is the normalization of dehumanizing the casualties of war in the West. For every western life lost, there are hundreds of articles, detailing every aspect of their lives, yet all we get from the loss from the Middle East are numbers, representing casualties. The purpose of this project is to remind people that behind these numbers and lifeless mathematical figures there used to be a life, a child with a small body, small hands, and just maybe a smile. This installation includes small light-boxes that will be hung from a tree and will have writings on them, written by the audience, first about how they (the audience) imagine these children would have been like if they were alive and second how and why the audience will remember these children.
1,106 kids-Syria 2018
461,000 -Civilians-2003 to mid-2011- Iraq
These are some random, but true numbers, from the Middle East Conflict. As an Audience have this in mind, and when you enter as the end of the room, to the globe just see and look how small this part of the world is.
Nuit Blanche Toronto at Laurier, 3 October 2019.
Reflections by Kim Rygiel, Wilfrid Laurier University,
on Nuit Blanche art installation, Call My Name, by Zahra Saleki
When I first learned of Zahra’s work Call My Name –and seeing the installation here today – I was struck by the haunting images of the figures of the children. And I use this term haunting deliberately because it makes me think of the work of scholar Jessica Auchter (2014), who writes about the role of haunting and memory in politics. She uses this idea of haunting – or “hauntology” as she calls it– to think about how “statecraft is implicated in the construction of life and death” (2014:3). I have used her work to think about how the thousands of refugees, including Syrians, who have risked their lives, many dying, as they flee from Syria and undertake precarious journeys often through Turkey to Greece and elsewhere in Europe (Rygiel 2016). In 2018 alone, nearly “32,500 refugees and migrants made the perilous journey from Turkey to Greece by sea, and over 18,000 crossed by land – an average of 4,200 people per month. An estimated one third of those who crossed are believed to be children” (UNICEF 2018).
The fact is that we have an international refugee system in place but under the current system very few Syrians are resettled as refugees. Some 5.6 million people have fled from Syria since the start of the war in 2011 and 84% of Syrian refugees now live in the neighboring countries such as Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Turkey (UNHCR 2018). Turkey hosts some 3.6 million registered Syrians, perhaps as many as 4 million if we include those who are not registered, and over 1.7 million are children (UNICEF 2018)
The Turkish government is often applauded for taking in so many refugees (especially when compared to other European countries) and because it offers greater rights and services to Syrians when compared to neighboring countries. Nevertheless, Syrians are still living in precarious conditions in Turkey -and because they are not considered to be refugees in Turkey, but rather live under temporary protection, they do not have access to permanent pathways to become citizens or to permanently reside. Instead, they are often subject to the whim of the Turkish government’s ever-changing policies, with the latest being in July/August, when I was there, with the mass round-ups of Syrians, many of whom were deported back to Syria (often being forced to sign forms which many thought they were signing in order to stay in Turkey, but which were actually so-called “voluntary return forms”). This practice is known as refoulement and it is illegal under international law. So yes, the policies of governments are directly implicated in a politics of life and death that should also haunt us.
But Zahra’s work also made me think about the power of the image of a child. Here, too, I was reminded about the power of the image of one child, in particular, who became a figure for mobilizing people to care about what was happening to refugees fleeing from Syria to Turkey to Greece. And I think this image was also partly responsible for public support behind the Liberal government’s successful sponsorship of Syrian refugees to Canada.
I am speaking here, of course, about Alan Kurdi, who unlike these children shown here in Zahra’s exhibit, is one of the few Syrian refugee children who has died and whose name and story is widely known. Alan Kurdi was a little boy of only 3 years old when he died. The image of his little body, clad in a red t-shirt and blue pants, washed up and lying face down in the sand on a Turkish beach, caught international public and media attention in early September 2015. Alan Kurdi, along with his five-year old brother Galib and mother Rehana, were among a group of Syrians who drowned as their overcrowded boat capsized off the Turkish coast and Greek island of Kos on September 2 (Kurdi 2018). And what I also remember about this image was the response by many Canadians, encapsulated by comments made by one CBC news reporter, who said that when she saw the photo and the way he was dressed, she thought “this could have been my son.” And it was something about her connection to the image as being possibly her son that moved her and made her want to do something.
This response is important, I think, because it draws attention to the ways in which images - and I will extend this now to the role that art can play - in changing how we think about refugees, those dying and those living, who are fleeing persecution and seeking new homes.
Discussions around migration and refugee issues are often accompanied by problematic representations of people, either as simply statistics – numbers without names, faces and histories-– or in ways that either portray them as victims without agency or as criminals – illegals who have crossed borders. Images matter. Images do political work. They are used and evoked at different times for political reasons, and the representation of images of “refugees” effect how we / how others come to think about people on the move, and then the types of policy responses that emerge and are accepted.
I have been keenly aware as a teacher over the past several years that students are moved differently through art to think about statecraft, and this politics of life and death that is migration. Many students who have not had their own personal experiences of displacement start seeing the personal stories and multiple identities that people have (of which fleeing war becomes but one) and so they start to connect their own lives with others.
Art has an important role to play in facilitating an understanding of the interconnectedness of individuals, the societies we live in, and our environment. Art can create deeper understandings between different groups - such as between newcomers and local populations - and provide platforms for marginalised groups to represent themselves and gain visibility in situations where they may otherwise be excluded from fully participating in society. Photo and art exhibits can provide opportunities to get to know more about one another and for local populations, especially, to understand newcomers, such as refugees, beyond stereotypical representations, as multidimensional human beings (Baban and Rygiel 2018).
Zahra’s work does exactly this by asking us to see these images of so-called “refugee children” as children and in their multiple dimensions – to imagine them as they could have been. She also does this, paradoxically, by presenting us with somewhat dislocated figures of children who are shown without specificity, details and context, drawing attention both to how they are often reduced to an unknown body, on the one hand, and making us critical of this by asking us to engage in correcting this way of remembering them by imagining their names and stories.
I am also particularly struck by the name of this exhibition Call My Name, dedicated to the thousands of children who have died in war, and whose names get lost in the larger reporting of wars. They become numbers, rather than people, children with lost names and stories, lost hopes for a future, which Zahra invites us to share with her – and with the child spectres – in imagining.
I am reminded, here, of the artistic project, Remembrance (2010), by Chinese artist/activist Ai Weiwei, which was on display at the AGO in 2013. Beginning on 24 April 2010, Ai Weiwei invited people through twitter to commemorate the students who lost their lives in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake in which 87,150 people died or went missing, many of whom were children. In the art installation, standing before a white board with a list of written names in what resembles an accounting leger, the viewer/listener hears a recording of 3,444 voices of people reciting the names of some 5,000 of the 87,000 who perished. For Ai Weiwei (2013), names are important for as he explains, “A name is the first and final marker of individual rights, one fixed part of the ever-changing human world. A name is the most basic characteristic of our human rights: no matter how poor or how rich, all living people have a name, and it is endowed with good wishes, the expectant blessings of kindness and virtue.”
Zahra’s work Call My Name also provokes for me thoughts about the role of personalizing, naming, knowing, not just about the numbers and the statecraft behind this politics of life and death, but also as a way of telling about this politics by putting people and their stories at the heart of our telling – something which art is particularly well-suited to do.
By doing so she asks us to think about what is happening politically through what I would call a “politics of connectivity” (see also Amin 2014)– a politics that goes beyond nation-state borders - whereby we start to think through relational ways of being: How are our lives connected and how do we over here in Canada make possible or impossible the lives and living conditions elsewhere? For it is only when we start making such connections that we can ask ethical questions about what are our responsibilities and duties of care and what are the rights of others to our places and spaces.
Finally, Zahra’s work also asks us to think about the children whose lives have been lost in war and to imagine their futures and so I will end with one child’s story and ask you to imagine together his future……….
I go to Turkey regularly for research but also to visit family and friends there. A few years ago, we were visiting with a Syrian family living in the Syrian neighborhood of Ulubey in Ankara in 2016. This was just after the neighborhood had been trashed and Syrian stores ransacked. This was the start of more open attacks against Syrians, which we have seen on the rise in Turkey (like elsewhere). The mother of the family had come to Turkey from Syria after her husband was killed with her 3 boys, the youngest Zakariya and then Muhammad and Ismail. Muhammed, who is 10 years old and Ismail, who is 12 years old, both work in a small auto repair shop. Together, they were making 100 liras a week – so about $25 Canadian dollars. The mother had worked in a restaurant but stopped after her son Zakariya was hit by a car. His leg was badly damaged permanently so that he had trouble walking. The mother told us that she had to stop working because “Now I worry every time they step into the street; you'll see them now; my boys are young.” She points to Zakariya - “Now when I tell him let's go to school, he says I'm afraid of the cars.” When we asked her “if you could change something, what would you change to improve your life?” She said: “I would have liked my children to go to school. Education is a good thing.”
It is estimated that some 400,000 Syrian children remain out of school in Turkey (UNICEF 2018). With more than 70% of the Syrian families in Turkey living below the poverty line, families often send children to work. Imagine this future for children like Zakariya, Muhammad and Ismail, their first years traumatized by war and the loss of their father, now working in very difficult conditions for little pay and without the opportunity to run on the streets, to play and to get an education.
And these are the lucky ones, because unlike Zahra’s children, they have lived.
Amin, A., (2004). “Regions unbound: towards a new politics of place.” Geografiska annale, 86 B (1),
Auchter, J. (2014). The Politics of Haunting and Memory in international Relations. London and New York: Routledge.
Baban, F. and Rygiel. K. (2018) Living Together: Fostering Cultural Pluralism through Culture and the Arts. Report commissioned for the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts, Cultural Policy Development projects. Istanbul: İstanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (iKSV). July 10, 127 pages. Online: http://www.iksv.org/en/reports/living-together-fostering-cultural-pluralism-through-the-arts.
(accessed 2 October 2019).
Kurdi. T. (2018). The Boy on the Beach: My Family’s Escape from Syria and Our Hope for a New
Home. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Rygiel, K. (2016). “Dying to Live: Migrant Deaths and Citizenship Politics along the European Border.” Citizenship Studies 20 (10): 1-16.
UNICEF. (2018). “UNICEF Turkey 2018 Humanitarian Results.” December. Online: https://reliefweb.int/report/turkey/unicef-turkey-2018-humanitarian-results (accessed 2 October 2019).
UNHCR. (2018). UNHCR Global Trends Forced Displacement in 2018. Online: https://www.unhcr.org/5d08d7ee7.pdf (accessed 2 October 2019).
Weiwei, A. (2013) “According to What?”, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, Canada 2013
Call My Name was presented as a photo-installation piece as part of the Nuit Blanche 2019 festival in Toronto. This installation was hosted by Laurier University.
In this installation, the audience walked through faceless kids, which were installed on black boxes, and the lead to the globe that they could only see the middle-east and Afghanistan. Through this globe, the audience could hear lullaby from all over the world, and there were hundreds of light boxes around the globe, ready for the audience to give names and stories to these faceless kids.