Ayşe Deniz Karacagil, a 25-year-old PKK militant who earned notoriety as “the girl with the red foulard (scarf)” during Istanbul’s Gezi Park protests in 2013, was killed a few days ago in Raqqa, “fighting,” reports the Turkish newspaper Sabah, “in the terrorist group’s Syrian offshoot…near the Daesh [ISIL] terrorist group’s bastion in Syria.” Note the wording: the fighting pits one “terrorist group” (the PKK, which battles for Kurdish rights and independence) against another (Daesh, known in English as ISIS, ISIL, the Islamic State, or, my own favorite choice the “so-called Islamic State”).
Deniz, as her friends and family called her, died just days before a performance piece by the troupe Sister Sylvester and inspired by and dedicated to Deniz opened for a three-weekend run at Dixon Place. Billed as “A Performance Essay,” Maps for a War Tourist isn’t a play, but a reading of a narrative essay by Kathryn Hamilton and her collaborators accompanied by a sound and video performance. The bodily stars are two real tortoises, captured on video live on stage and projected, tremendously magnified, on a huge backdrop where the perhaps footlong animals become gargantuan juggernauts, ponderously eating, walking about, and pushing against the walls of their pen. Their forms and surfaces, and those of a few props (including a pair of socks we must now consider relics), alternately suggest art, monsters, abstract nightmares, geological terrain, and, yes, maps.
Though Turkey and the U.S. label the PKK a terrorist group, Karacagil died fighting with a PKK affiliate in a coalition backed by the U.S. in opposition to Daesh. The contradictions of the revolutionary’s situation helped lead Hamilton, who is based in New York and Istanbul, and Sister Sylvester to frame their exploration of Karacagil’s life in this way, instead of writing a script with actors playing the characters in her life. During video sequences in which two of her associates draw and explain maps relating to their related experiences, the pace drags and my interest flagged. But on the whole Maps for a War Tourist is fascinating, simultaneously visceral and avant-garde.
Some of the text deals with the creative process, the reasons for the unusual format. Much of it talks about Deniz, her family and associates, and their philosophies and inspirations. It intertwines all that with metaphors and allusions relating to the tortoise’s multifaceted symbolism, as a slow and steady creature but especially as displaced people who must call wherever they are home. Deniz was “displaced” by her own activism, rather than through war or persecution directly, but the metaphor clangs through to our awareness of the millions of uprooted people in the world’s war-torn regions.
Fully conscious of her status as a “war tourist,” Hamilton transforms herself into a kind of war correspondent, conducting interviews and giving dimension to Deniz’s story. Meanwhile live-action video of the tortoises, an interview with Deniz’s mother, abstract colored shapes, and references to the ancient tale of Aeschylus’s death by falling tortoise compel attention, convincing us that the story of “the girl with the red foulard,” suddenly killed just as this production prepared to mount, deserves more than an asterisk in the connected and seemingly neverending sagas of the war on terror and the struggle for self-determination in the face of what may seem destiny.
In just one of its many resonant connections, the script first describes the world of Greek drama created by Aeschylus and his peers as “a clearly defined moral universe in which the actions of every person are predetermined by fate, all meant to maintain a delicate social balance.” Then, relating some of the political action of Deniz and her fellows, it tells us this: “The world described by agitprop theater like this is a clearly defined political universe in which the actions of every person are predetermined by ideology, all meant to maintain an unwavering commitment to the cause.”
Coincidentally, just today here at Blogcritics we published a brief piece on why more Americans should travel abroad. We should all commit ourselves to the cause of knowledge and understanding. Maps for a War Tourist by Sister Sylvester contributes powerfully. It runs Fridays and Saturdays through June 17. For tickets visit Dixon Place online or call 866-811-4111.