Tuesday, May 29, 2012

I am sitting in Nandita’s apartment in Pune, enjoying the feeling of the hot summer breeze on my bare legs and shoulders one last time before we head up to Kupwara.  I had braced myself for both the June Indian heat and the North Indian religious values, but somehow my brain had neglected to make the important leap of considering those two elements in combination.  Nandu abruptly connected the dots for me as I unpacked my ill-planned wardrobe of tank-tops and cut-offs: “In Kashmir?  Are you crazy?!”

As I soaked in the sights of this incredible new country on the drive from Mumbai’s airport, my head was a flurry of questions.  Who was everyone honking at?  Was the guy in a dress shirt who stopped and interrogated us on the back-road a real cop?  Why was everyone sleeping on the fruit stands?  And seriously, what was up with the honking?

Nandita has answers for “what” and “how,” but consistently furrows her brow every time I come to “why.”  In a place with such a multiplicity of narratives, she tells me, “why” isn’t really a question one asks.  Things just are. 

After a few days here I’ve relaxed into a quiet observation that allows for this kind of unquestioning acceptance.  I wander for hours through twisting streets that take me past garbage heaps leading to gorgeous perfumed gardens on pathways that appear and disappear with a logic of their own.  After crossing a stretch of beach I arrive at a massive octagonal structure filled with pigeons and seeds, a sign attributing its presence to the Lodha Charitable Trust.  Is Lodha trying to keep the pigeon population confined to this area of beach?  Or does he just really like pigeons?  Maybe he’s a Jain?  These questions melt into a silent  and goofy smile as I step back and observe this massive birdfeeder.  Whatever the reason, it’s here in front of me now…and how weird and awesome is that?!

Nandita and I picked “Kashmir,” and everything else seemed to pick us after that.  An organization running orphanages for girls affected by armed conflict has invited us to conduct a theatre project at one of their centers near Srinagar.  Their level of support and hospitality has been incredible—even before our arrival in Kashmir they are on the phones with us constantly, sorting our travel and putting us in touch with some of the center’s older girls who are studying in Pune so that we can stay with them and discuss our ideas for the piece. 

The girls tell us that based on their backgrounds, the theme of ex-combatants should come fairly organically and will be relevant and worth exploring.  Nandu and I brainstorm side-projects and the issue of access comes up.  If we reach out to combatants and ex-combatants in Srinagar, she counsels, we should stick to female fighters.  This is purely for practical reasons, given who we are and where we are going.  I smile inwardly and realize I’ve managed 9 months on this project without really having to grapple with the subject of gender.  Strangely, this “restricted access,” the technical narrowing of our scope, doesn’t feel like a restraint or limit.  I’m not too hung up on ‘why’ we’ll be working with women instead of men.  Yesterday I was looking at an octagon full of birdfeed.  Today I’m looking at sleeves in the sun, unparalleled hospitality, and the female perspective on conflict.  That’s what is; that’s what’s here in front of me.  Awesome. 

A grant from the European Cultural Foundation lands me back in Lebanon for a week of follow-up on “A Drop of Honey,” the script that I left behind for Mike to translate and stage.  Mike and his students have done an excellent job, the team reports.  The video hasn’t been cut together yet, so I get to live the entire thing through hearsay; little by little I begin to piece an image of the performance together via a mixture of photos, descriptions, and anecdotes. 

I meet with the students who performed the piece, and they point out—quite rightly—that coupling the ex-combatants’ civil war stories with their own stories from today will emphasize and clarify our allusions to similarities between the growing civil tensions then and now.  Excitement builds.  The team discusses re-writes. We draft a proposal for a 2-year plan to bring the piece to 20 schools.  We evaluate our remaining budget and plan another showing, this time for potential funders and participating schools. 

It’s very strange to work so intensely with and around a piece that you’ve never seen performed.  In some ways it feels like a dream, or a game, and the only thing grounding the experience in reality is the faith in the people who report back to you after experiencing the thing first-hand.

While I’m in the country, fighting breaks out in Tripoli, Lebanon's northern hub.  It’s on the news, it’s happening in a place I visited last week, and it’s not so far away from where I am now.  It’s also the very reason that the five of us decided to write a play about civil conflict, targeted towards a Lebanese high school and university audience.  But in many ways, for me, it’s still not “real.”

The fighting in Tripoli continues.  A few days after I leave Lebanon, Assaad writes me this: “Ailin if you pray, please pray for Lebanon, for all of us as a team and especially for Ziad and I who are called to many speeches, talks and activities to stop the slide towards a civil war.”

And that’s as close as I get to understanding, and perhaps as close as I will ever get.  I re-write the script, and draft grant applications, and keep this blog, and pray.  Not because I can feel the weight or “reality” behind any of these things or their effects myself, but simply because they’re real to the people who I care about.

Crispin's Poem
(translated from Kinyarwanda)

In foreign lands, it’s foreign.
I knew how to create
When I was still young
And I knew how to fight as well;
But it wasn’t me
I did it because of the forest
Because in foreign lands
There were conflicts.
Those who laugh, let them laugh
Those who talk, let them talk.
I knew to eat forbidden things
Because I detested
Those who spoke to me of the future.
Good things became
Bad for me,
What was cooked became raw.
I wanted to go to the place they spoke of
They spit on my face
And when I asked “why?”
They threw stones at me.
I understood that
In foreign lands, it’s foreign.
When we live in foreign lands
Our emblem is shame.
It’s serious
In foreign lands we cross a strange cunning
Who fixes you in his unrelenting gaze
And who embraces you in reprimanding you;
Instead of asking you
how the night passed
He shouts at you.
I arrived at Nyabihu
With great shame.
I arrived at Marembe
At the end of my strength.
By dint of chasing the wind
I arrived at Kasonyi
Dying of shame
Full of regrets.
At last I arrived at Bunyakiri
I arrived at Kabogoza
And God shielded me with his hand.
There where I lost
Those who I called my family,
There too I lost my irreplaceable one.
I arrived at Kigogo
I found my sight
And I took the student’s path
I smiled for the first time
I studied with courage
As if learning to create
As if to revive my mother.
But those I called mine
Did not permit me
Saying, "Come quickly, we need you
in the army, others like you
have already taken half of Rwanda."
Angry, I asked:
"What is Rwanda? "
They responded with:
"What? "And hit me.
I knew that in foreign lands, it’s foreign.
I take my bow
And I fight
See, I had so many misfortunes
Since I was called soldier.
I plotted
And I amused myself
With the property of others
I laughed and I bashed my head against those I met
Saying: "Those who have no country
Spend their time in the brush. "
It’s there that I decided,
I will take the road and return.
And the road showered me with luck

I went to my homeland
Where I got another parent, RDRC.
He raised me
Today I am an artist.
Once upon a time, there was a boy named Chance. There was war in the region where Chance lived, and so his family had to abandon him. Chance was discovered by a man who raised him as his son, and then, when he was old enough to fight, entered him in the army. Chance had both of his arms cut off in the fighting, and decided to return to Rwanda to find his family…

I sit here trying to understand why it’s taken me almost two months to write about the CRC play. April is a blur of contrasting memories competing for space in my undecided narrative. Images of joyful drumming and tearful goodbyes are wedged unceremoniously between heated arguments, uncomfortable contracts, and confusing artistic compromises.

Chance’s family didn’t recognize the boy, who was all grown up and had no arms. The real Chance, they said, had arms and hands. But they took the boy in anyways. Chance’s mother had long since passed away, and his stepmother disliked him because he ate too much food. Eventually she had enough, and one night when he was sleeping, she picked him up and threw him in the river, where he was swallowed by an enormous fish.

We asked the boys to present us with their stories, hopes, and fears, and what they came up with was a bizarre but ultimately eloquent collection of scenes and stories that captured, quite poetically, their protected emotional state as they transitioned out of their lives as fighters and prepared themselves to meet and live with their long-lost families and communities.

The fish swam across the world and spit the boy up in America. On reaching the shore, Chance discovered that he had arms again. He met a rich man who taught him how to fly a plane. Chance returned to Rwanda in his plane. When his family saw him—able-bodied, rich, and flying a plane—they repented their decision to reject him, and asked him back into the family. But Chance rejected them in turn, and flew back to America where he lived happily ever after.

After an initial showing for the Programs Coordinator at the RDRC, the boys were given a speech asking them to reflect on what their time at the center had taught them. They were given pointed suggestions which were eagerly adopted and incorporated into the piece. Our free-flowing devised theatre collage was starting to look, in moments, like that dreaded monster of arts in the developing world: “NGO Theatre”.

The fish swam across the lake and spit the boy up in Gisenyi. On reaching the shore, Chance discovered that he had arms again. He met a commissioner from the RDRC, who brought him to the rehabilitation center and taught him valuable job skills, and how to read and write. Chance went home to see his family, and because he had arms and job skills, they wanted to take him back. But Chance was too proud, and rejected them. The RDRC man scolded Chance for his pride, and told him to make peace with his family. At the same time, Chance’s family lamented ever rejecting him. Chance returned to his family who embraced him with open arms, and they lived happily ever after.

So much was a fight in Rwanda. Just getting the T-shirts printed in the right color (a battle lost), at the right price (lost), in the right sizes (won), and in time for the show (won, barely) all took such an enormous amount of effort. We didn’t know for sure until 2 days before the performance whether or not the boys would even be allowed to perform at all. So I didn’t really get a chance to pick my battles, because I was necessarily immersed in so many just to tackle the simple logistical task of staging a play—any play. When the boys were asked to change parts of it, there were enough sound reasons provided (the need to combat FDLR propaganda, a desire to avoid awkward allusions to the slave trade…) that I didn’t really feel inclined to dig my heels in and fight yet another battle for the sake of “poetic voice and artistic authenticity.” Also, I was scared. I was scared that if I didn’t compromise a little, the whole project would be called off.

But at the end of the day, any disagreement was a simple question of aesthetic difference, and contrasting ideas about how change occurs. We all wanted to arrive at the same place; it’s just that I believed the best way to get there was through exploring process, whereas others believed in the effectiveness of propounding messages. And either or both of us may have been right. So that’s not why I took two months to write this. It’s not an anger thing, or even a fear thing.

I think, if I’m really honest, what happened in Rwanda was that I lost focus. My focus going in, my focus this whole year, has been “ex-fighters and their voice.” Their voice. And towards my last weeks in Kigali and Musanze, my focus got fractured and spread between filming rights and documentary crews and logo permissions and t-shirt orders. Coming away, looking at all of the things I fought for in those last weeks, I regret not having stood up for the only one that I actually deeply cared about: the boys’ thoughts and ideas. I’ve been waiting to post this last entry for Rwanda because there’s a poem that Crispin wrote which I wanted to publish here, in lieu of all of my rambling musings. Unfortunately, I don’t have that poem yet; it’s on a friend’s computer in Rwanda, because while my collaborators were translating the boys’ words and stories from Kinyarwanda to French and English for the subtitles, I was choreographing movements and calling T-shirt companies and running the sound board. 

I never learned Crispin’s poem. That’s why I haven’t posted anything yet. Because all of the other stuff, all of my little personal dramas, don’t actually matter as much. They take up space that should be saved for something else entirely.