By Kaila Schedeen, Blogger-in-Residence
To Tania El Khoury,
The room smelled slightly sweet. I came in hurriedly, put on the white one-armed jacket I was given, and sat on the only stool in the room. As my attention slowed and came to the space, I noticed the narrowness of the gallery where I sat, the emptiness of the walls, and the cars passing by. Friday afternoon revelers flocked outside to La Barbecue, taquerias, and to the very same performance I was currently experiencing. It felt like being in a fish bowl; the sense of seeing, and of being seen, through a glass barrier.
Across the border of the gallery wall, with my headphones on, I was asked to slip my arm through a small hole. Basel Zaraa took my hand. His touch was reassuring. He began to tell me about his life as a Palestinian refugee in Syria, a story that he drew in pen and ink across my arm as he spoke. My fingertips were pressed into something wet…wiped…inked again. A song began to play as I read lyrics printed on the wall next to me. I felt the pen repeatedly meet my skin without any sense of where it was going, or what marks it was leaving. Trust is inherent to As Far As My Fingertips Take Me. Both on Basel’s part and mine. He entrusted me with his story, and I entrusted him with my body for that short period. It was an exchange that has left me reeling.
Tania, you asked: what does it mean to touch a refugee?
I want this conversation to be beautiful, moving, and thoroughly affective- all the things that your performance was- but instead it feels stunted and awkward, like the way I ran quickly from the room after it was over. I didn’t know what to say. As I grasped Basel’s hand when he came around the wall, all I could mutter was a thank you. The irony that as faceless strangers we had been more intimate than when we met face to face was not lost upon me. In fact, I could not lose the thought. It gnawed at me as I walked to my car and stared at my newly transformed limb. The people traversing across my arm told a story of this man’s life that I could never fully comprehend, but I had been left indelibly marked by.
The drawing remains on my arm as I fall asleep. I couldn’t bear to let it go. It seemed a crime to wash away the only physical evidence of our meeting with soap and water; it seems a crime. So instead, I let the ink leave traces on the clothing it rubbed upon and those I touched during the day, and it slowly started to fade through perspiration and wear. When people asked me about the drawing, I told them Basel’s story. I told them what it felt like to touch a refugee, and of your vision for communication across borders.
I know it’s not enough. But thank you.