Artistic Performance Brings Solidarity to Sept. 11 Mourners

A line of posts wreathed in red flowers cut across Harvard Yard last Sunday. On each was a poem reflecting on the event of ten years ago. An excerpt from Martín Espada’s “Alabanza: In Praise of Local 100” reads, “When the war began, from Manhattan to Kabul / two constellations of smoke rose and drifted to each other, / mingling in icy air, and one said with an Afghan tongue: / Teach me to dance. We have no music here. /And the other said with a Spanish tongue: / I will teach you. Music is all we have.” The poem was dedicated to 43 employees, many of them immigrants, who lost their lives while they at work at the Window on the World restaurant on the top floors of the World Trade Center’s North Tower.

These poem pillars were part of the Mahindra Humanities Center’s September 11 memorial—a tribute that culminated in a reflective performance in Sanders Theater. Director of the Mahindra Humanities Center Homi K. Bhabha described the artwork’s intent:  “I wanted to create a sense of community that was aware [that] the dangers which afflict the world today cannot be combatted without people working in solidarity … [and] people considering the common survival of the human race irrespective of race or country or class.” The intent of the memorial, nestled as it was in Harvard’s multinational campus, was to encourage serious reflection through a different means than others offered on campus. Executive Director of the Mahindra Humanities Center Steven Biel said that the purpose of the outdoor poem pillars and performance was “not just to focus on the events of that day, but to look back at the ten succeeding years.” He noted that the Mahindra Center’s intention was “not make this an academic event”—as it was felt that there would be no shortage of discussion on campus already. Rather, the center wanted to express that “out of the fires of destruction, great art, great culture can emerge,” Bhabha said. The memorial’s intent was to use this artwork to pursue meaning in solidarity.

Sanders Theater was filled to capacity on Sunday afternoon for “The Art of Survival: A 10th Anniversary Observance of 9/11 in Words, Music, and Dance”, a performance sponsored by the Mahindra Humanities Center and the Office of the President. The memorial began with a presentation of photographs taken from the aftermath of September 11—among them images of a fire smoldering in front of the ruined towers, a fireman standing in rubble and holding up his hands, a family holding a vigil, a New York skyline lit up with two white searchlights where the towers would have stood today, and a woman wearing a hijab at a candlelit memorial. As the photographs were shown, a woman recited a poem by Toni Morrison titled “Whose House is This?” It discussed a sense of being estranged from one’s own home: “The House is strange. Its shadows lie. Say, tell me, why does its lock fit my key?” Morrison’s poem reflects Bhabha’s  thoughts: “What happened on 9/11, what happened on Madrid on 7/11—what happened on these days was that people woke up expecting a perfectly ordinary day … and suddenly, the world became dark. You were in your home, but you could not recognize it.”

This idea of ordinary life being darkened resonated through the memorial, carried through by spoken word, musical pieces, and an original performance by Harvard Dance Director Jill Johnson and Harvard student dancers. The opening display of photographs was complemented by a series of readings which included transcripts from inteviews with World Trade Center rescue workers and letters from American soldiers in Iraq. These readings echoed the theme of how ordinary life can be and was so terribly shattered—not simply in the immediate wake of September 11, but, as a reading from an Iraqi blog expressed, in the violence that Iraqis still suffer “on a monthly basis.” A transcript from a New York E.M.T on the morning of the attack finished with the terrible question, “What just happened?” The eloquent letter of one American soldier written shortly before his death expressed how much healing remains for those still fighting in the War on Terror, in lands where terrorists and innocent civilians live in close conflict. Spoken aloud during the performance, the soldier’s letter revealed   bitterness, and of hope for a clearer solution: “I can only hope that God forgives us for the way we treat these people.”

Woven together, the voices, music, and dance were united by their common sense of loss and estrangement, a sorrow that one reader at the perfomance described as a “plunge of consciousness into a ground zero of anxiety.” The myriad artistic pieces reflect the unity of its audience: “Solidarity is like a patchwork or a mosaic—different pieces are differently colored, different shapes—and yet they hold together,” Bhabha said. What brought solidarity to last Sunday’s performance, perhaps, was each piece’s reflection on the beauty that is lost when ordinary life is shattered—and the realization again of that beauty as mourners found solace in the art, and in each other.

—Staff writer Aisha K. Down can be reached at aishadown@college.harvard.edu.

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