Degree Critical, Fall 2020

Friday 09/25/2020

 

Selections from “The Making and Unmaking of Memories, or The Fragmenting Force of Memory”

by Sahar Khraibani (Class of 2019)

In August, alumna Sahar Khraibani (Class of 2019) wrote “The Making or Unmaking of Memories, or The Fragmenting Force of Memory” as a recipient of the Montez Press Writers Grant, which was created to support artists and writers amidst the pandemic-induced financial crisis. Khraibani’s collection of seven segments interweave narrative points-of-view as a device to grapple with gaps in identity and language. Included here are segments 3 and 5Click here to read the full publication.

—Lune Ames, Managing Editor


3.

In “How Not To Be Seen,” a sketch from Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the narrator, John Cleese, is trying to explain the importance of not being seen. Monty Python were a British surreal comedy group who created the sketch comedy show Monty Python’s Flying Circus, which first aired on BBC in 1969. This particular clip purports to be a British government film presented for public service. It opens with what seems to be an empty field, a still and lifeless image. The narrator goes on to state that there are forty hidden people in the landscape. He singles out one character by means of a looming voice over, and asks the said character, Mr. Bradshaw, to stand up. When Mr. Bradshaw complies, a loud gunshot sound startles the viewer and signals the character’s death. After this incident, the narrator coolly states: “this demonstrates the value of not being seen.”

In a theory she calls “the state of zero probability” artist and critic Hito Steyerl gives a semblance of an idea as to what disappearing can look like: “In the state of zero probability, whatever is impossible—like people being swallowed from the face of the earth—happens all the time and nobody thinks twice about it.”[1] This is a condition that is brought forth by a deluge of digital images, which continue to circulate and multiply while actual people either go missing, or are the victims of over-visibility and an overbearing architecture of surveillance. “The state of zero probability” could exist anywhere: in a warzone, in a museum, in data analytics, or even in a book. According to Steyerl, it is a portal that opens up whenever anyone asks:

“is this really happening?”

On disappearing: Write in a language that is foreign to you, a language that is not yours. Self-impose a linguistic exile from your mother tongue. Do away with the first person on your way to being just a being. Do away with the third person on your way to becoming an image. In the opening page of his novel “Drown,” Dominican-American writer Junot Diaz quotes Cuban writer and scholar Gustavo Perez Firmat: “The fact that I am writing to you in English already falsifies what I wanted to tell you. My subject: how to explain to you that I don’t belong to English though I belong nowhere else.”

[ . . . ]

5.

On the phone with my friend, a Libyan-born Bosnian writer, I ask: “why is western civilization infatuated with war-torn countries? What is it that they see in us that I don’t? And why aren’t they turned on by their own shortcomings, their own discomfort, their own wars, their own atrocious histories of settler-colonialism, inherent racism, and stained ancestry?”

I had been adamant about not addressing the Lebanese civil war in my writing, not falling into the traps of history, or using it as a sure-fire way to please international art markets, and as an art critic, I definitely did not want to address the works that dealt with it. I never felt it to be my own struggle, or maybe, I felt it to be too much of my own, too close to home, too related to trauma passed down by generations before me. It slipped through most of my life without me noticing, when my parents worried about me being out past a certain time, or going to “Christian” areas. It lived with us, in our household, in our move from a secular neighborhood to a more religiously specific one. It moved around seamlessly in our lives: an imperceptible, ghost-like trace of a manufactured forgetting that always worked towards rendering itself invisible. And invisible it was, safe for a couple of stories here and there, the story of actually living through the civil war in Lebanon was never told to us growing up. It was absent. No nitty-gritty details, no details of grocery runs during cease-fire hours, no stories about leaving in the middle of the night, evacuating houses, dodging snipers. I felt robbed of stories that were supposed to form my history, so I adopted new histories: ones that rejected my parent’s experiences, histories that made me relate to the West more than I related to my own culture.

I became a writer because I wanted to hide. I wanted to hide from other people’s histories and create my own. I wanted to be in control of my narrative and take it whichever way I wanted it to go. I wanted to challenge stereotypes of writing the same stories over and over again, terms such as “collective memory” and “collective traumas” never featured. [I feel this is a little unfair because it is a history still very much in flux, being contested and rewritten].[2] Here is where I posit the first lie: “I became a writer.” One simply doesn’t become a writer, and certainly not when one is hiding from themselves. In Memory for Forgetfulness: August, Beirut, 1982, Mahmoud Darkish writes: “It’s as if we were here as caretakers of fragile substances and were now preparing to absorb the operation of moving our reality, in its entirety, into the domain of memories forming within sight of us. And as we move away, we can see ourselves turning into memories.” I liken the act of seeing oneself turn into a memory as akin to the act of writing one’s story, one’s narrative—writing the things we are most afraid of. For people like me, ruled by the duplicitous nature of their multiplicity, the self becomes hard to access. I step outside of it and try to entangle it, first, second, and third person narratives; I ask questions that cause discomfort, questions such as “why is western civilization infatuated with war-torn countries?” I cringe away the thought and leave it dormant, somewhere in a chamber whose doors remain closed. [what does it mean to cringe? Second-hand embarrassment or something steeped in history?—look into “cultural cringe”][3] Perhaps I chose to write about art because it gave me an excuse to be elsewhere. The right to exist as one of many—many who have not been born into conflict, into the sly ways that torn histories shape those who are.


[1] “Interview // Hito Steyerl: Zero Probability and the Age of Mass Art Production.” Berlin Art Link. November 19, 2013. Accessed November 04, 2018. http://www.berlinartlink.com/2013/11/19/interview-hito-steyerl-zero-probabilityand-the-age-of-mass-art-production/.

[2] Personal notes from revision number 2.

[3] Personal notes from revision number 2.


Sahar Khraibani is a Lebanese writer, artist, and educator based in Brooklyn. She is interested in the intersection between language, artistic production, and geopolitics. Her writing and work have appeared in the Brooklyn Rail, Hyperallergic, TERSE Journal, Degree Critical, The Outpost, and Bidayat Mag, among others. She currently teaches at Pratt Institute.