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Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 25.1 (2005) 138-151

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Stories and Song in Iraq and South Africa:

From Individual Trauma to Collective Mourning Performances

How do stories and songs assist former guerrilla fighters to work out trauma? This article compares the importance of cultural performances for two specific groups of resistance fighters who have both faced ethnogenocidal or extreme state draconian measures of terror and torture: the Kurds in northern Iraq and the Xhosa in South Africa. In stark contrast to the helplessness of the experience of torture or severe oppression, group performances can break through the individual's traumatized alienation; furthermore, a story or song—especially through the acting agent's choice of movement, pace, length—offers a measure of reassuring control. Thus this degree of artistic control and this group setting for performed memories of the past offer psychological closure and a public, embodied sign that a shift in context (from former terrorized state to a new transitional state) has occurred.

In Iraq in 1993, many Kurds told me stories of chemical bombings, torture, and disappearances. I was given a video of Saddam Hussein's military and secret police gunning down Kurdish men in a public execution. In another scene, a young boy in the video described the way everyone in his village was brought to a large bulldozed pit and shot. He was wounded and buried in the bodies and crept away at night to a neighboring village. These stories, related through oral and media forms, also circulated in songs, were reworked with ancient legends, emerged in poetic laments at funerals, and were redesigned as songs of Kurdish courage to be played during festive dances. Similarly, in South Africa, stories of the apartheid police raiding and burning homes, arresting and torturing the Xhosa, emerged in performances and songs. Working as an ESL teacher and humanitarian aid worker with the Sorani-speaking Kurds in the village of Shaqlawa, Iraq (1993–94), and directing a play with Xhosa-speaking survivors of apartheid political violence during my Northwestern University research fellowship (1999–2000), I found instances in both groups where performances move individuals from debilitating isolation (personal trauma) to communally embraced mourning.

Shifting an individual's horrific recollections to a communal form is difficult because of the painful and paradoxical nature of traumatic memory. To present a traumatic narrative is to remember and tell what one most desires to forget. Yet once told, these presented memories allow the group to share grief, and the process of sharing grief offers a measure of closure because of the group's acceptance of these narratives of mourning. When group members validate each other's stories and songs of past sorrow, it resembles the witness's role in a testimony. [End Page 138] In Testimony, Dori Laub argues: "Bearing witness to a trauma is, in fact, a process that includes the listener. For the testimonial process to take place, there needs to be a bonding, the intimate and total presence of another—in the position of one who hears. Testimonies are not monologues; they cannot take place in solitude."1 Sharing stories or songs—part of witnessing each other's acts of mourning—defines the performing group's identity and reaffirms its members' common social bonds of witnessed suffering.

Cycles of Vengeance or Commemorative Closure?

In considering how cultural performances can work through traumatic memory toward healing, one must first confront Western bias. General Western perceptions of Africa and the Middle East associate these areas with cycles of violence; thus public recollections of tragedy are often conceived of as a preface to vengeance. Yet these generalizations fail to consider how years of ethnogenocidal attacks must find a release valve. Cultural performances incorporate these emotions into a larger narrative in an artistically bound, controlled form, which can work toward social healing.

In the two case studies of this article, I find that the stories as well as songs, expressing sorrow or protesting...


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pp. 138-151
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