„I am preparing the official launch of the 12th edition of Récréâtrales (the pan-African theater festival that I have been directing since 2016 and which will be 20 years old this year. I will probably tell you about it in another mail and especially I would like you to come and celebrate the 20th anniversary with us. It will be from October 29th to November 5th.
-I am finishing the adaptation of The Most Secret Memory of Men by Mohamed Mbougar Sarr (this year’s Goncourt Prize) that I will read with Odile Sankara next May at the FTA (Festival Trans-Amerique in Montreal). It is a pleasure to work on this magnificent text by this talented author with whom I have been working for several years. Have you already read it?“
(Excerpt from an E-Mail from Aristide Tarnagda to Rabab Haider dated April 23, 2022)
Hope this letter finds you well and sound.
…From this place, looking through time: Every search for beauty is an act of resilience. All production of Art is an act of fighting back the confusion and despair that the absurdity of war keeps creating.
The act that exposes, re-arranges, draws out directions, gives names to forgotten faces, and draws the faces of the forgotten, any act that sets the story straight so as not to lose context, is a brave act of fighting back.
I remember back in Syria, we presented the biggest problem, I know they wanted us, artists, all out, as fast as possible, so no one could draw the maps right. They wanted to control writers and thus control the narration, the tale; s literature is the narrative beyond the official news, the picture that was not taken by any cameras, the real memory of the world.
The truth: It is very convenient now to say one does art to document, thus one tries to learn from the mistakes.
It is proper to say we do art to oppose the ugliness of war, to resist.
However, during eight years of war in Syria, I wrote as an attempt to keep my sanity, to make sense of what is. Through those attempts, we, the comrades, as a by-product, restored facts and presented the narratives of the men and women on the streets that did not suit the narratives of the fighting sides. We tried to do the right thing, and the right thing was always associated, one way or another, with beauty and art -to enter a camp or smuggle oneself into a town under siege with a proposal of making theater sounded delusional and absurd, yet the young armed men and their mothers and wives, protected by their fathers and uncles, dedicated hours of their day to Theater and broadcasts, they wanted their stories told, some wanted to feel human as war dehumanizes us, some wanted to feel connected, not forgotten. And we wanted to set the records straight. we all needed to hold hands, our hearts needed to feel lighter, to heal.
And as you can imagine, not everyone liked that, as patriarchy flourishes in wartime. The illusion of separation and the false hierarchy -what patriarchy does best- is the best soil to nourish the conflicts among us.
Explosive times, as they expose the poison of the human, purify the hearts.
It was the early morning of early autumn in 2018. Driving through one of the main streets of Damascus, we watched a murder of crows eating off a dead man’s body. We did not stop, we did not shout or cry. We continued driving, angry, betrayed, and aggrieved.
„Aggrievement is another norm of war. It has always been like this. Every one who plunged into a war, international or civil war, a coup, or a failed revolution, will be able to agree upon this fact: aggrievement is one of the norms of war. The world would aggrieve us as we aggrieve each other.“
We stood, we wrote, we rearranged the land, we lost our temper, we cried in rage, we laughed. We were not sad, as sadness was a luxury, sadness needs space one cannot find in a time of chaos and illusions.
WE dug deep to rebuild the story that fought back.
Digging deep is to put your nails and teeth into the fabric of „what is supposed to be real,“ look under your skin, search inside the hearts of fellow human beings, tear apart, just to look, eyes wide open, and write. An exhausting act but a must.
Dear Aristide, I can only imagine how tall you and the comrades are standing!
When ugliness ignites and starts burning faces, yet you stand.
When nameless battles with faceless soldiers rumble, yet you stand.
When you might surrender and disappear or die, yet you stand.
„-I am writing to you from my land. For there is my country and in my country there is my Land. And in my country my land is called Origin. By my Land I mean that part of my country that welcomed me even before my parents saw me, even before I saw myself, so even before my country saw me and recognized me. It is that which circulates in my veins as blood, fertilizes my dreams and my passions, gives rhythm to my heart, broods over my soul and is my shield in the face of adversities.“
“I am writing to you from the Origin: Tenkodogo. I am there with other comrades to conduct theater workshops with and for young people from a project called Terre ceinte; eponymous title of the first novel of Mohamed Mbougar Sarr.”
Of art and the aftermath of war,
I would like to write about this one day, once I manage to replant my feet on the ground.
As war is an experience that cannot be un-experienced. Unfortunately, what one saw cannot be unseen is something that brands the survivors with a permanent seer.
Sometimes I wonder if I survived or if something in me just shifted so I can continue living.
Dear Aristide, I am in the final stages of finishing my novel about the beauty and cruelty of the human heart, the ugliness that can be branded on our soul if we surrender to the grotesques of lies. It is called Cooking the Heart of A Wolf. The novel takes place between 2011 and 2016 and stretches back to what made the men and women of the tale.
Thus, I try not to engage in reading any books right now, as I fear it might distract my characters from what they want to say. Nevertheless, I read some articles in The Most Secret Memory of Men by Mohamed Mbougar Sarr. Yet I am trying to keep not reading till I complete my work. Maybe I will be able to watch your recreation of the novel!
Of lands and names,
I would be more than happy if I could be in Burkina Faso during the pan African festival, Récréâtrales, in Ouagadougou, to visit the old land of Tenkodogo „the land that saw you before your parents did, the land that circulates in your veins!“ Dear Aristide, your words hit a soft spot!
If one believes in the power of language, it is, among many things, a portal, and reading those lines, I, unprepared, was shifted to a different time and place, to the land of forgotten history and mysterious names, the village of my father and his father since many generations ago: the ancient, prehistoric, orchard luscious land of Megarit. It cannot be found on Google -then Google would try to correct you and suggest bronze-age Ugarit- ‚Ugarit,‘ that you can easily find. The pre-historic Phoenician port on the Mediterranean, where the first known fully documented Alphabet was found, the first known musical piece in human history to be written down -and was composed with a big, well-deserved round of applause from the world. Ten km from Ugarit is Megarit, an ancient land with vague history and left only with the name of the old Kingdom. My family owned this land for generations. The land of luscious fruits was well known to be stubborn -thus some fruit trees were wild, sharp, dry pears, and bushes of wild grapes, and sour, juicy apples.
The land was divided by inheritance among many sons and daughters, some sold their property, and some went to other families‘ names -as the woman would give her property to her sons and daughters as inheritance, but not her name. The last piece of land of Megarit that was still in the possession of my direct family belonged to my aunt who passed away in the first year of the war.
Before her death, she managed to divorce her estranged husband and stood by her eldest daughter get while she got her divorce from an abusive man. My uncle, the youngest in the family of twelve daughters and two sons, like the rest of the men of the family, did not like that, „another divorced woman in the family!“ he shook his head.
Well, what to do with sharp, dry pears?
At the wedding of one of my many cousins, and before my uncle got drunk, he whispered -rather loudly- „hope this will not end in divorce as well.“ It was the joke of the wedding, and every wedding has one or more jokes to be remembered by. The joke came true, the divorce did happen after a couple of months. -The groom and his whole family recalled the joke with awe!
„Why don’t the women of this family swallow up the idiocy of men, as is the norm for women?”
he said in a family meeting.
„A generational curse!“ a cousin would add with a laugh.
Well, how to explain sour apples?
Funny how memory works: as I was writing, the faces that visited me were smiling. Were we happy before? Or it is a mirage?
I am fascinated by language; how can one create worlds by sounds. Rearrange the world to redirect it right where the compass points, with tales.
Looking at your female protagonist in Ways of Loving, born without a right arm, yet the courtroom required an oath, with her absent right arm. In my head, she is still standing, carrying her stigma high, high in a courtroom, among men.
What do you think the role of literature and beauty is? To set the s you are adapting a novel for the younger generation and for yourself!
Looking forward to reading from you.