Conversation with Mohamed Ali “Dali” Agrebi, Pepón Osorio, Lisa Kraus and Tania El Khoury
As part of ear-whispered, Lisa Kraus, project director, and Pepón Osorio, project consultant, were slated to visit Beirut in January 2018 to meet area artists and better understand the context out of which Tania El Khoury’s work arises. Unfortunately this trip was prevented because Bryn Mawr College’s insurers don’t provide coverage in Lebanon. Instead, a series of video-conferences were held. The following is a lightly edited version of one of those conversations, with Mohamed Ali “Dali” Agrebi, a young LGBT activist who had the task of scanning the letters written during performances of Gardens Speak in preparation for the new installation Tell Me What I Can Do. The conversation took place on January 17, 2018 and addresses the content of the letters and the thoughts that arose when working with them.
Tania El Khoury: I met Dali [Mohamed Ali “Dali” Agrebi] last year when he worked with me on the pieces I did in Tunis. He’s a young guy who is an activist in LGBT rights in Tunis. When I worked there, they assigned him to me as an artist assistant, which is usually having a local person who would help with getting around and helping with everything in the process. So we bonded and we had a really good relationship. And because of how he affected me and getting to know his story and what he does in his everyday life, I started to work with other activists in the LGBT community in Tunis when I did the show there. And he ended up performing a little piece in the show. So now I invited him to come to Beirut, he wanted to visit anyways, and I said, “Please come and help me with the letters, you can digitize them,” and then we can be in the process of working together again. So we’ve been in this tiny room—but with a nice view of the sea—with loads of letters, and I’ve been having massive allergies and putting all sorts of masks and stuff on because of the dust. So he will also be able to give you insight on the letters as objects and as material.
Mohamed Ali “Dali” Agrebi: Hi.
Lisa Kraus: This is Pepon Osorio and I’m Lisa Kraus. This conversation is mostly with Pepon. He will have some questions for you.
Dali: Nice to meet you.
Pepón Osorio: I am trying to assist Tania in creating a space that best represents her intention in the work [Tell Me What I Can Do]. Let me ask this question: What do you think is at the center of those letters. If you put all the letters together, what do you think is at the core, at the center, of those letters?
Dali: I see that a lot of people talk about the revolution in the letters. It creates a sort of revolution inside of the person who writes the letter. It raises a lot of . . . [asks El Khoury to translate a word from Arabic]
Dali: Anger, yeah. A lot of anger inside the person who was listening to those persons [in Gardens Speak].
Pepón: Can you describe a little about anger? Is it anger as in a force? Or is it anger as in a state of . . . ?
Dali: It’s related to there being a lot of persons that say, “I cannot do anything for you, so you are dead because I didn’t do anything.” So there is this anger for themselves, and for their state, that they didn’t do anything for those persons. So this anger is what creates this revolution of “I will continue your way,” “I will remember you in anything I will do,” “I will not forget your name.” It’s a lot in the forms of things that they will do after they listen.
Pepón: The letters, it’s a traditional form of communication. It’s the most traditional way of communicating and I understand by seeing Tania’s work that she’s interested in the contemporary—the contemporary reality, or the contemporaneity of the object. Where do you see the space of tradition, and what does tradition mean in a contemporary work?
Dali: There is an example of our work in Tunis. I worked as an assistant there. We were in the Medina, so in a traditional city, and we were working with a lot of traditional things, like songs, like clothes. The way the performers talked, they were talking in a traditional way, in old words. In this example, I saw a lot of traditional things in the work of Tania. You say that the letters are traditional things, but related to a contemporary moment. I saw that to talk to a dead person, I saw the book that the audience writes on, and it’s to friends and family, but a lot of persons, when they wrote it, wrote to the persons themselves. It’s a kind of letter that they know that is without someone, a destination, but they want to write it to say something for him. So I think it’s like we talk with God.
Pepón: Right right. Ask me a question!
Dali: Why do you ask this question about traditional things?
Pepón: I ask because I also think that my experience in Gardens Speak was one of a deeply grounded in traditional experience but moving forward into a reality, placing it into a completely different reality, which was more contemporary than anything else. We were in the back of a theater. I had just left the city, the rush of Boston, and went into a space in the back and my brain was in a very contemporary world and then I was confronted with a tradition from a completely different place that I was unfamiliar with. And I began to look at the place of tradition in the contemporary and what does it do and how does it translate meaning that moves you somewhere else. That’s why I’m asking this question. It’s important because in showing the letters, we will be reading something of an event that happened and we will most likely have just left the Gardens experience. It’s important to understand space, environment, and reality as it moves forward and back in Tania’s work. That’s the idea. So I wanted to ask you another question. Tell me about the presence of death and how do you feel about it as you begin to touch and read and move through the letters?
Dali: I will say that yesterday I was talking with Tania as the persons in the piece, for me, is not someone who is dead. I talk as persons, as someone alive. In a lot of letters, I feel as if this person is still alive inside other persons or in another form. For a lot of people, they said “I will see you again,” “I hope that I will see you.” This word is repeated in a lot of letters and “I will not forget you” and “you will not die” and “we will continue your way.” So this person is not really dead. I didn’t really see death in the letters. I see a certain sort of hope, a sort of life.
Pepón: If you can, give me one word that you can use to describe your experience with the letters?
Dali: Hmm. One word? I will say the same as the beginning, “revolution.”
Pepón: Ask me a question.
Dali: The same question. This work and this experience for you in one word.
Lisa: You have been disturbed.
Pepón: Yes. In the past. That’s what it felt like to me. How many letters?
Tania: Five thousand.
Dali: I said to Tania I want to meet a lot of people that are the writers because I was reading a lot of letters. There are some who talk in a very good way, or write in a good way. You see a lot of images, they made it and they date it themselves. There is a lot of interesting things inside the letters.
Pepón: You were talking about the “still alive, still the present, still not dead” and I began to think of the spirit. In Gardens Speak the spirit was very present. And I’m wondering if you saw any elements of spirituality in the work and if you do, can you describe how—I don’t want it to be personal, I don’t want it to be about you—but how do you perceive that in the letters, if you do. I don’t know if you do.
Dali: Yes. Yes. I returned to the letters today and I was reading one, I didn’t tell this to [Tania], and there is one who said, “but I will pray for you, to see you in another world.”
Pepón: He keeps coming back to hope.
Dali: It’s the kind of thing that happens in the letters. There’s a lot of persons who are sure they will see these persons and talk to him and see him in the other world and talk with them and have a conversation with them about this piece and they thank the person for the experience. And even there is someone who talks about the experience for the person, like “dear Ahmed, I am in an experience of Tania El Khoury . . .” and he is describing feelings for the person who listens to them. It’s kind of spiritual thing. A lot of people believe they will talk to a person and he will listen to them—and these kind of things.
Pepón: Have you experienced the power of the letters? And I think you have because you described it as the words hope and revolution, and those words have power.
Pepón: Where do you see the power in the work? Where do you see the power in the letters?
Dali: The power of the letters for me, if I did the experience, I will live it for one moment. But with reading all the letters, but for each letter I read, I was leaving the experience it in another way, in the way they wrote it.
Pepón: I think that the power in the work is in the experience of it. The presence is already powerful. The object is already powerful. So what I’m hoping to do, is that after you bury the letter, you keep that experience until you read the rest of the letters so then they don’t become “Part 2,” they become an integral part of something that is much bigger than us. And I’m glad you mentioned that—it’s not an exhibition, it’s an experience. So thank you. That’s what I was trying to see, the totality of it. Thank you.
Lisa: I have a question that has to do with the fact that the work has been done in many different countries and I’m sure some of the letters are in languages you don’t speak.
Dali: So there is Arabic, Chinese, Korean, Greek, German . . . a lot of languages.
Lisa: So I wondered if you could talk about whether there is anything that you perceive in the differences of language. What is that experience like—to be in relationship with each of these?
Dali: Sometimes I like the letter just for the way it was written. I don’t understand, really, the words in this letter, but when I see it, it’s something amazing. I’ll say to Tania it’s a “really nice one.”
Lisa: It’s interesting because it has this quality of relating to all areas of the world through this experience that people have had. What a process! One by one by one. And do they feel delicate, fragile? How do they feel in your fingers?
Dali: There are a lot of letters that feel fragile. And I even wrote on the envelope “fragile” for letters that are a little bit torn. And then somehow people put the letters in a way . . . they fold it in a way that we don’t want to open it. And there is a lot of sand in the letters.
Lisa: Sand or dirt.
Dali: And there are some people who are painting with the sand, with water and sand.
Pepon: With water?
Dali: So it’s like sand is on the letter with their hands and . . .
Lisa:. Something interesting that I’m hearing now is that, the people who wrote the letters never got to see the person whose story they heard, they never had physical contact, they never got to see them. You are never getting to see the people whose letters you’re reading so it’s another layer of human beings who are all part of this but who are aren’t physically present at all.
Pepón: Dali, do you feel a sense of responsibility when reading the letters?
Dali: Yes. Somehow you are responsible for the letter, you want to share the response. I want to really leave the experience as someone who writes the letter and the response of the work, also, of those persons who are dying in Syria.
Pepón: Right. Right
Dali: Yeah, in the war. So yes, there is this response—that’s why I said the letters create this sort of revolution on you and the work and the experience create it too.
Pepón: How long have you been reading the letters?
Dali: Three days.
Pepón: Where does that go? The sense of responsibility.
Dali: I’m caring for the letters. And now, even for some letters that we don’t know the destination of, we want to read it and to know it and know each person is *destinated* and put it somehow in digitizing them and this responsibility too—I was talking with Tania to have the show in Tunisia and to let people do this experience and to “leave it” [the letter].
Lisa: Are you talking about imagining people also reading the letters or for them to experience Gardens Speak?
Dali: Both. I was reading the letters and I was asking Tania a lot of questions, like are there some places that there are some reactions of people more than others or like what kind of person or kind of place was more reactive with the show. In reading the letters you can feel a lot of things about those moments and those cities, too.
Pepón: Thank you, Dali!
Lisa: Thank you, thank you.
Dali: Thank you.