“Tejas Verdes: I was not there”: Poetic responses

The following poems were written by Dr Steve Willey and Serena Braida, after attending ‘Tejas Verdes: I was not there’ – a collaborative project between sociologist Dr Margarita Palacios and London-based Chilean visual artist Livia Marin, held at the Peltz Gallery from 3 June to 15 July 2016.

Bringing together Palacios’s research on violence and Marin’s work around loss and care, the project consisted of visiting several ex-detention and extermination sites in Chile – such as the Tejas Verdes concentration camp – and the performing of an aesthetic intervention in each of them. The result of the intervention was the production of a series of abstract realist objects that registered traces of the material remains of these sites, marking the materiality of the violent event in its multiple layers of meaning and yet registering its unreadability. This aesthetic intervention explored the possibilities of representing violence without reproducing it and the challenges of non-colonizing experiences of witnessing.

As part of the event series around the exhibition, attendees were invited to provide a textual response to their experiences of the artworks. The following are two poem which were submitted.

Tejas Verdes

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

‘Nine Speculations on Colour’
Or ‘30 Minutes in Tejas Verdes: I Was Not There
By Steve Willey

I.

A frayed edge of brown on white, a thread,
A point of oblivion. Fire has caught it. An analogue.
A wall has come away at a point of oblivion. I forget.
Each projection, a recess, each recess a receding secret.
My tongue, a hand, my eye. I am here. Touching
A shadow of hair, or ash, or grass.
One more analogue for colour.
A pebble, a red, a catalogue. I forget.
The walls have been brought back, to yellow.
The colour of witness. Red earth: the colour of witness.
The refusal of words: the colour of witness. A process
Of whiteness. Clay for contrast. I forget.
A frayed edge of sun. The brick. The blue paint. Doors.
Drips in latex. A mouth. A point of oblivion.
A crease. A frayed edge of brown.
Respond or forget. I forget. The black earth turns.
Forget. There is symmetry in it. There is a mirror in it too.
The upturned smile of a suture.
A frayed edge returns. Here in this too uncertain brown.

II.
In the middle of the room rests a long white table.
On the table lie eight restless corpses.
The corpses have recorded their own coffins
They sing in the earth of themselves.
Their coffins are the state. Soundless and surgical
A clean violent hum. A topography of pain, unapparent –
We, the mourners, gaze. Insufficient. Permitted as frequency
To block out the I. Stuck here with this language,
I insert a corpse into my mouth. I suck on it.
I roll my tongue around to salve its amber doubt.
Unnecessary, I return
To the corpses. In the sunlight, the corpses.
I return to them a tongue. A shoulder runs.

III.

This is the aesthetics of the record.
This is the aesthetics of the transport.
This is the aesthetics of the guest-book.
This is the aesthetics of ill-attention.
This is the aesthetics of a peeling.

IV.

The walls of the gallery display the walls of the extermination camp.
The walls of the extermination camp do not forget this grave insult
And display their disdain. This is how abstraction becomes blame.

V.

The walls transform to cloth
Irreducible buildings become coats
Your face becomes a wall I peel
Where only the blind listen
A fragment of bone bursts the fattening river
Process becomes a ripping or a photograph
Violent, noisy, too soft the invasive
Now all the rhythm of a timed-out pen.

VI.

A single grain, its head is bowed in shadow and in custom.
Sprouting from a map, a country and a promise
The lyric of this grain is the corpse
I keep missing. A poetics of diminished architecture
Builds no poem-world around
This grain, or pins the motivation to move from silence to song.
This grain, this corpse, this only single grain,
Caught up in a focus of exclusion
Cannot know about the dead, but it has thrived on them, fed.
A forensic throng. An analogue. A rhyme. A no sudden song.

VII.

Rage is in this. Desperation too.
In the gap between breath and insulation.
I am reminded of Frankenstein.
Of how the monster hid his monstrosity
Inside a wall to patiently learn their language.
And when he spoke, he was heard.
When he was seen, the walls refused to house him.
In this configuration walls are not architectural: they are guilty.
Rage is in this. Shock too.
Step back and breathe the walls apart.

VIII.

Acid, eggs, grain, ulcers, phlegm.
Tape, celluloid, plague,
Pathogen, alchemy, dogs.
In this desert of graves: glass
In the inadequacy of testimony: walk.

IX.

The colour is repellent,
Almost revolting
A smouldering unclean yellow

Strangely faded
By the slow-turning sunlight.
It is a dull yet lurid orange
In some places,
A sickly sulphur tint
In others.

The paper stained everything it touched
Yellow smooches on all my clothes,

There are always new shoots
On the fungus,
And new shades of yellow all over it.

I cannot keep count of them.
It is the strangest yellow,
It makes me think
Of all the yellow things I ever saw

Old foul, bad yellow things.
A yellow smell.
Outside you have to creep
On the ground,
And everything is green
Instead of yellow.

But here I creep smoothly on the floor,
I cannot lose my way.

All text in IX taken from words surrounding the eight appearances of ‘yellow’ in Charlotte Perkins’ short story ‘The Yellow Wall Paper’

­– – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

TEJAS VERDES*

By Serena Braida

hip room. far-off. spitzer Schrei
disjointed. un-jazzed
unlike our kitchen
unlike delighted pecks.

Son of man, man, mum
mum’s recipe for defending our memories: grind orange dowel until
azure and chalky
&
to take stubborn strata smells
off your clothes, agitate

here is my pupa
the peeler nothing
lovelier than her fuzzy  surface
to be translated into mortars, that is, male
purity of sounds.

a theory of arms for the arms she never cared for.

deserted snow to hydrate her a fecund
quality of salt on her lips,
the shit of warriors smeared on the geographical nape,
lime buttocks, almendras breath, a new Democracy,
a batch of hell

* This poem was written upon visiting the Tejas Verdes: I was not there, and attending the roundtable the Aesthetics of Witnessing: A Conversation about Violence and the Challenges of its Representation, held on the 9 June 2016

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Kebab and Mezze in London – A preview to Late@BBK

This post was contributed by Emeritus Professor in Politics and Sociology at Birkbeck. This text first appeared in The Middle East in London Volume 9 – Number 5 October – November 2013.

Prof Zubaida will be in conversation with Dr Alex Colas on the topic of ‘A Life Through Food’ on 25 February at Late@BBK – a special event open to staff and students of Birkbeck’s School of Social Sciences, Philosophy and History. Find out more here

Mantoo

Mantoo

A recent survey revealed that 41% of British households have hummus in their fridge (Guardian Shortcuts Blog 7 August 2013). This is an astonishing index of the degree to which Middle Eastern food, alongside curry and other selected items of world cuisine have been globalised, and in the process, transformed.

Taboule, essentially a Levantine parsley salad dotted with bulgar/burghul grains and tomatoes, is widely eaten in France, only transformed to a couscous salad. Supermarket shelves display a wide range of hummus, many unheard off in its native land, chilli, sun-dried tomatoes, cream cheese and Moroccan hummus, which must come as a surprise to Moroccans. Kebab shops are on every high street, mainly offering doner kebab in the form of rotating meat loaves made in factories. European supermarkets now offer packets of ‘kebab’, slices of pork or turkey ready for the microwave. This globalised cornucopia is surely to be welcomed, but the discerning diner will also search for authenticity and depth, which can be found in plenty in the diverse range of Middle Eastern restaurants and groceries in London.

London’s landscape of Middle Eastern food

Hummus

Hummus

Middle Eastern food establishments dot the geography of London, following patterns of diaspora, settlement and commerce. At the heart of London’s West End is the Lebanese/Arab enclave of Edgware Rd and Marble Arch, into parts of Mayfair. The sound and smell of narguila smoke pervades the area, from the many Arab café terraces when the weather permits.

Groceries and supermarkets are emporia of every sort of Middle Eastern food: vegetables, olives and pickles, meat counters, cheeses, bakeries offering flat breads and pizza-like crusts of cheese and herbs, called manaqish, and jars and tins of everything. Restaurants, snacks and juice bars intermingle with pharmacies, hair dressers and estate agents, all announcing themselves in Arabic. These are mainly Lebanese establishment, catering to a clientele of Arab residents and visitors for whom that part of London is a focus, especially during the tourist season in summer.

Further up the Edgware Rd into Maida Vale and beyond to Kilburn and further west, there sprung many Iranian and Iraqi (mostly Kurdish) eateries and shops. Arab establishments have also spread in many suburbs: Shepherds Bush and further west to Acton and Ealing is a mixed area featuring foods of many nationalities, including Maghrebis alongside more Lebanese. One Moroccan food stall there has recently been written up in the food columns and awarded prizes.

Kensington, long frequented by the richer Middle Easterners, is home to many Iranian and Arab establishments. Turks have inhabited NE London, Hackney and Stoke Newington, and further north and east, where you find many ocakbasi grills, as well as restaurants catering for local workers and offering stews and pilafs (rice or bulgar). There is even an iskembe (tripe) saloon. From these original areas of settlement and commerce, Middle Eastern restaurants have now spread into all areas of London.

On the menu of these restaurants are diverse regional foods, but meat grills, kebabs, and mezze are constant items. Kebabs, of course, go beyond the vertical skewers of Turkish doner and Lebanese shwarma (also derived from Turkish), the best and original form being layers of meat and fat and not an industrial meatloaf. Cubes of meat and ground meat patties on skewers are common to all, though with different composition and seasoning, reflecting regional origin: the Iranian ground meat koubide tastes quite different from the Turkish or Lebanese kofte. Iranians also have distinct genres such as barg, sheets of meat rolled over a skewer. Chicken kebabs are ubiquitous, but, to me, lack distinction. Other grills include liver, kidney and sweetbreads. Garnishes and accompaniments are another source of regional variations.

Khosh mezze

Middle Eastern flatbread

Middle Eastern flatbread

Mezze is a Persian word, meaning ‘taste’, khosh mezze means delicious. It is widely, and wrongly, translated as hors d’oeuvres. It is not an opening course in a multi-course meal, but specifically related to drink, usually alcoholic. Items of the mezze repertoire can be meals in their own right, such as hummus, vine-leaves, bourek pastries (stuffed with cheese or meat), and so on. But they only qualify as mezze when served in small portions with drink, which is also the case with Spanish tapas.

The mezze repertoire is offered primarily by Lebanese and Turkish restaurants, as well as the many Middle Eastern and North African restaurants who have adopted these modes. Iranian restaurants have their own particular ‘starter’ dishes: aubergines in different combinations, wild garlic, musir, in yoghurt, sabzi paneer, an abundance of fresh herbs with white cheese, and kuku sabzi, a kind of herb frittata. Typically, prosperous Middle Eastern diners would not have considered the mezze as a meal, but would have proceeded to more meaty dishes. Now, however, especially in the globalised dining fashions, meals consisting of a variety of small dishes are popular and superseding the three-course meal: Spanish tapas, Italian cicchetti, Russian zakuski, and the ‘tasting menus’ offered by many restaurants. Mezze fits in very well with this trend. Many other restaurants are now eclectic in including items from all these different regional traditions.

Beyond kebab and mezze

Bulgur koftesi

Bulgur koftesi

There are, of course, many other genres of Middle Eastern foods, beyond kebab and mezze: stews, breads, pies, pastries and sweets, some of them offered in restaurants and leaking into globalised menus. Of the flat breads pitta has become most common in eateries and markets, convenient for sandwiches and wraps; lavash, thin flat bread, is especially good for wraps; Persian noun, is now more recognised in Indian naan. Pies and dumplings, especially kubba/kibbe/icli kofte, typically made with bulgar (cracked wheat) and ground meat, entered the mezze repertoire, and are also served as snacks and take-away, as has bourek, wraps or pies of filo stuffed with cheese or meat. Sweet pastries of the baklava family are widely offered in Middle Eastern establishments, and now in supermarkets, not always of appetising quality.

The typical everyday meal for many in the Middle East is a stew of meat and vegetables eaten with rice and/or bread. There are endless variations in modes of cooking, spicing, ingredients of vegetables and herbs, and rice cookery. This genre is not so well represented in restaurants. Iranians are justly proud of their refined rice cookery, and their restaurants reflect this taste: rice served with grills or the khoresht, stew, of the day. Turkish eateries in London’s ethnic enclaves, where local workers eat their lunch, offer a display of different stews and rice or bulgar.

London is now home to so many diasporic communities and their food, and the Middle Eastern contingent is very well represented, at both the gourmet and the mass catering levels, and items of their food are now prominent in the ‘fusion’ cuisines of the global scene.

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London’s history: The ups and downs of an unrivalled metropolis

This post was contributed by Guy Collender, a PhD candidate in History at Birkbeck. His research focuses on the port of London from 1889-1939.

London and the NationLondon inspires love or hate. No-one is indifferent towards the capital, and that’s as true today as it has always been. London has suffered disasters and celebrated triumphs through the ages, but its status as the UK’s largest city has been constant. The capital is unique and the dominance it exerts upon the nation’s affairs is unmatched by the role of other capital cities in other countries.

Having been born, bred and employed in London, I was keen to learn more about the capital’s history at the London and the Nation conference at Birkbeck. The event, organised by the Raphael Samuel History Centre, was also an opportunity to test some early research undertaken as part of my PhD studies at Birkbeck.

Professor Jerry White, of Birkbeck’s Department of History, Classics and Archaeology, opened the event on 10 July by highlighting how London has always been different from the rest of the UK, and he traced the roots of anxieties about the capital’s dominance and “adamantine metropolitan hubris” to the eighteenth century. White continued by emphasising how London’s fortunes have fluctuated in the twentieth century. The interwar period witnessed the “age-old lure of London.” Population growth, suburban expansion, industrial development and rearmament saw the capital expand hugely. In 1939, 20 per cent of the UK’s population lived in the capital

But restrictions were to follow with limitations on office growth and decentralisation, all leading to inner city problems in the 1970s. Michael Ward, Visiting Research Fellow at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, also referred to decline in his presentation, showing how London’s population bottomed out in the 1980s at 6.6 million. Surprisingly, the capital’s population has only just surpassed its previous 1939 peak of 8.6 million.

The world’s greatest port

My presentation showed how the port of London was in a crisis at the turn of the twentieth century. Its standing as the world’s greatest port was in jeopardy as the waters of the Thames were too shallow for the draught of the new, large steamships. Rival dock could not invest in dredging and dock facilities because of ferocious competition. Following a Royal Commission to investigate these problems, the capital’s dock companies were nationalised in a £23m takeover and the Port of London Authority was born in 1909. By 1927, the PLA – a public trust – had spent £12m on improvements in the port of London, including dredging a 50-mile channel in the Thames and building the George V dock, complete with electric cranes and refrigeration facilities.

The transition from a chaotic port to a coordinated one was largely inspired by, and achieved, because it followed similar transformations in other ports, notably Liverpool and Glasgow. Legislative action and multi-million pound civil engineering projects began on the Mersey and the Clyde in the 1850s and were used as a blueprint to grant the port of London a new lease of life in the early twentieth century.

London’s dynamic past – a familiar tale?

Guy Collender

Guy Collender

I kept on making parallels throughout the conference as I learned more about London’s dynamic past. I realised that the challenges and opportunities facing London today, although different in detail, bear an uncanny resemblance to previous eras. Let me elaborate.

In 1913, the port of London was the heart of imperial and international trade (it lost this crown to New York during World War I). In 2015, London is booming, its population is at an all-time high and the capital is increasingly referred to as a city-state. Before WWI, major infrastructure projects were underway to dredge the Thames and expand the docks. Today, London is investing in infrastructure to accommodate its growing population. A prime example is Crossrail – Europe’s largest construction project. It is due to open in 2018.

However, as history has shown, this is no time for complacency. The breakdown of international cooperation and the outbreak of WWI undermined world trade and ships were diverted from the port of London. The capital’s port never regained its status as the world’s greatest port. Similarly, storm clouds are on the horizon today. Problems in the Eurozone and the question mark about the UK’s future in the European Union are creating uncertainty – a bad situation for the global economy and London’s financial sector. Let’s hope there is no catastrophe around the corner, and let’s hope policy-makers reflect upon London’s history when they take decisions affecting its future.

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