A translator working on English subtitles for the videos of Abounaddara, a collective who produce and disseminate footage of the Syrian civil war online, is stuck. He can’t find the right words for the violent description of a prisoner whose throat was slit ‘from ear to ear’. Something that won’t sound like a smile. Another translator featured in the same video installation – Joe Namy’s Purple, Bodies in Translation – Part II of a Yellow Memory from a Yellow Age (2017) – points out another impossible-to-translate term: shahid, ‘to have been witnessed by God’.
To witness, Susan Sontag writes in her book On Photography (1977), precludes intervention. Yet forms of witnessing can still be active: listening, reconstructing, sharing. In Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige’s film ISMYRNE (2016), Hadjithomas and the poet and painter Etel Adnan (whose drawings are included in this show), try to reconstruct an image of the city of Smyrna (today Izmir in Turkey), where both their families are from. Together, looking at maps and photographs, they tell their family histories, trading memories of a place now gone. Basma Alsharif, born to a Palestinian family in exile, presents The Story of Milk and Honey (2011), an attempt to write a love story about the Levant not marred by politics – the impossibility of this task becomes the subject of her video.
‘From Ear to Ear to Eye’ focuses on sound and stories from the Arab world, and music as a form of shared culture resonates throughout. Jumana Manna’s video A Magical Substance Flows into Me (2015) uses the work of ethnomusicologist Robert Lachmann, playing excerpts from his radio show Oriental Music to musicians of Kurdish, Samaritan, Palestinian and Sephardic Jewish backgrounds. Haig Aivazian’s project Hastayim Yasiyorum (I Am Sick but I Am Alive, 2016) departs from the story of Turkish-American oud maker Udi Hrant Kenkulian, a proponent of Turkish art music, which fuses Ottoman and Western classical music and was adopted by the Turkish Republic as a hallmark of its new modern state. In Ruins in Space (2014), Raed Yassin tells a tale, which may or may not be true, about a lost record he supposedly found on eBay of an unknown performance by the hugely popular Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum aired on Korean radio in 1968. It’s such a good story it makes you want to believe that which you cannot verify – until you remember that evidence instigates change.
Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s Earshot (2016) is a sound, video and data installation imagining the trial of two Israeli soldiers who in 2014 killed two Palestinian teenagers. An acoustic analysis of the recorded gunshots, which Abu Hamdan produced in collaboration with the Forensic Architecture research agency based at Goldsmiths University in London, serves to discredit the claim they used rubber bullets. A branch of Forensic Architecture, Forensic Oceanography, present Liquid Traces – The Left-to-Die Boat Case (2014), a visual report comprising video, sound, interviews, maps, photographs and other material documenting the tragedy of 72 refugees aboard a dingy that ran out of fuel halfway between Tripoli and the Italian island of Lampedusa in 2011. The boat drifted for two weeks in the most surveilled waters in the world.
To witness has a legal connotation, but also an ethical one. The works in this show do more than make politics, history or place relatable, they add a multiplicity of sounds, stories and voices. In the museum’s staircase is Malak Helmy’s sound installation Music for Drifting (2013), a 42-minute compilation of soundscapes from sites of historical importance across Egypt. Helmy intended to send the recordings to a lost lover by homing pigeon, but the plan was interrupted by the 2013 military coup. Hearing the sound of a faraway wind from years ago is a reminder that the experience of conflict is always personal. Lives are complex and multifaceted and their stories are always worth listening to.
Main image: Basma Alsharif, The Story of Milk and Honey, 2011, video still. Courtesy: the artist and Galerie Imane Farès, Paris, France