i love to we


“Detrás de nosotros, estamos ustedes”(1) is almost impossible to translate satisfactorily into English as it contains a paradoxical use of plural terms for self and other. It is another way the Zapatistas articulate the encompassing and inclusive reach of their movement and ideology. Such notions of “I Am You” and “They Are Us” are central to my current work with communities in Mexico, Lebanon, Iran, and the United States. Living and learning with different families in these places, I have built and continue to create spaces where I locate both myself and others together, inextricably linked by our convictions, day to day work and lives we lead. It is a kind of a reciprocal solidarity, even at a distance, that evidenced on May Day 2008, when members of the Port Workers Union of Iraq shutdown the ports of Umm Qasr and Khor Alzubair in solidarity with the shutdown of all West Coast ports by members of ILWU in opposition to the occupation of Iraq. “You Are Us” and “We Are You.” Solidarity becomes intimate when these acts leak from the street into our homes, when your family becomes like mine and ours like theirs. I cross the globe, only to find families, who like mine, are living across several countries: where a mother and her two sons live in Al-Ain, UAE so that she can work as a teacher and send home money to her husband and eldest back in Beirut; where a husband works in Pakistan, and his wife in Lebanon, so their daughters in Australia and America can go to university. And so it is that I, a Mexican-born woman of Basque-Tarahumara (Raramuri) and Danish-Australian descent, finds herself living nomadically between Beirut, Chicago, now the Bay Area, and afterwards Chiapas, while her parents live in Mexico City, closest sister in Istanbul, and many cousins scattered up and down the migratory routes of undocumented Mexicans trying to carve out a dignified existence of more than just survival. My/your, our families in southeastern Mexico and southern Lebanon, in both places being assaulted in wars of low and high-intensity then and now. I am all of them; we are you.

arab performance

How do I learn to We and how to (re)build a We with You in it? It is both a social and deeply personal, even spiritual, practice. Like that of many others, my art/ life incorporates different ways of seeing, experiencing, being and doing using different media and learning/teaching strategies in multiple and constantly shifting settings – shifting because of my own travel between the different places where I live, work, and have family; places which change rapidly due to gentrification, globalization, and war. I have no career template to follow, which makes for unstable employment and labor conditions, not to mention the difficulty of articulating what I do. There are no existing words or terms that successfully sum up the vast field of creative ideas and actions that happen within and between the realms of aesthetics and spirituality, political and economic activism, personal and social transformation, relationship building and joining of issues around food, education, and health – all which involve crossing back and forth and in-between a public commons, our most intimate spheres, and the most mundane aspects of life. Doing this work requires constantly taking on different roles and identities, positions of power and vulnerability. Sometimes the work manifests as an art piece, other times as research, writing, farming, or an ephemeral experience of collaboration, facilitation, or travel. Essentially it is a process of teaching and learning, organizing, activating situations, objects, ideas, and people (both myself and others). Always it involves flexibility, uncertainty, and risk-taking. Often with little mentorship or guidance, this kind of work requires deep inner convictions, held intuitively while maintaining openness to different ideas and changing conditions.

For years now, I have juggled and struggled with different words and worlds in an attempt both to understand for myself and to explain to others what it is I do. Many others find themselves in similar predicament. We exchange terms like artist, activist, activator, bard, caretaker, cook, cultural worker, dancer, director, energizer, facilitator, farmer, grower, healer, instigator, jammer, learner, maker, mover, nurturer, organizer, producer, questioner, reresearcher, singer, teacher, traveler, walker, wrangler, writer…in an attempt to describe our person, path, and activities. Notions of community, self and other, their distinctions and dissolutions, engage me in a constant exploration of lines drawn and re-drawn, smudged, and sometimes erased, in the making, growing, and negotiating of the relationships present in my life and work. It is an individual and collective effort, located regionally but reaching out trans-locally through the networks I belong to. These are “rooted networks, relational webs and powers of connection”(2) to use the terms of Dianne Rocheleau, a geographer who describes the power of networks connecting various territories (natural, cultural, social, political and otherwise) – territories, she says, that can no longer be considered as fixed. Such networks are having a huge impact in the way we, as individuals and communities, are seeing anew. Radical transformation of our ways of being and doing is the work-inprogress. Creating more sustainable ways of living, learning, and loving is the focus. It includes a wide range of projects, from those deeply involved with food and waste cycles, to de-institutionalizing our lives by creating more autonomous ways of learning, healing, feeding and governing ourselves. It requires unlearning unhealthy habits of thought, speech, action while simultaneously creating new ways of seeing, with spaces and rituals for creativity and well-being. And always, always, fore-fronting a politics of care. This work involves close collaboration with groups and individuals in many places, which for me has taken me to live and work in three countries where I have built significant family and communities. Yet it is also simultaneously often very solitary work, where the constant mobility and shifting contexts leave me with only myself as a consistent presence.

Sometimes, my work manifests in ways that participate more tangibly in the Art World, such as with my Suitcase Project: ORD-BEY-ORD, which became part of Feel Tank Chicago’s investigation of political depression through the exhibition “Pathogeographies or other people’s baggage” (2007). The resulting book only gave a glimpse into the real substance of the project, which consisted of intimate connections made through the action of carrying small objects between my communities in Lebanon and the U.S. after the 33-day war in the summer of 2006. Another example is the video self-portrait “Sorry I Am Here, Not There, But I Am You” (2005), a long-distance collaboration with three women on Mount Lebanon who recorded their every day activities over a summer and then sent it back to me along with emails that chronicled both the difficulties and celebrations of a family living at great distance from each other. Such intimate yet collaborative media making comes out of my years working with Street-Level Youth Media in Chicago, where we focused on transforming ourselves from media consumers to active producers of our own stories. This became the foundation of much of the video and performance work I did afterwards with youth in Lebanon while working as an artist-in-residence at a village school in the mountains above Beirut, which then in turn led up later to the Learning Societies workshop entitled Scheherazade, the Untold Stories. In all of these, my interest was to produce creative learning experiences that spoke directly to people’s lives, where we were all active creators and participants whose goal was as much the process itself as the final product we might then share with others. As this work evolved over the years, I found in recent projects that the process itself was becoming more the focus, and thus more invisible to the outside, especially in situations which resulted with no product to share with others, no residue or debris of what we went through together, except for what we carried with us, inside.

As an independent artist, I am part of several local and trans-local collaborations with others who are creating new strategies for living and learning, part of a “Grassroots Post-Modernism” (3) constituted by everyday people to deal with the ravages of a universalizing globalization and modernity that hold the interests of the “social minorities” (4) over that of a common good – both natural and social. Our Learning Societies Network, which currently spans India, Iran, Japan, Lebanon, Mexico, Nepal, Pakistan, Palestine, Turkey, and the US, grew (and continues to grow) out of conversations between several individuals and community organizations (5) who came together in the spirit and action of researcher conceptualizing the dominant paradigms of education and development while regenerating those traditional ways of being and doing that hold the history and strength of our communities and cultures. Many Learning Societies strategies, like those in action at the Universidad de la Tierra (UniTierra)(6), utilize local community members in apprentice-based learning and teaching that deinstitutionalizes education. UniTierra shares with Al-Jame’ah (7), the strategy of creating an informal “university” on very different terms than the more common institutionalized versions. Both initiatives also draw from traditional ways of being, knowing, and doing in order to nurture inherent cultural and community strengths and knowledge bases that can begin to unravel the damage done by colonial education and development practices. These community approaches to de-schooling society involve a process of unlearning much of what has been given and taken for granted by our contemporary modernity, alongside a reclaiming of knowledge in daily practice.

As part of my collaborations with the Learning Societies Network, I cocreated several Al-Jame’ah knowledge-generating workshops in Iran (2007) and Lebanon (2005) (8). One, called Scheherazade, the Untold Stories, was with youth workers from the Palestinian refugee camps from throughout Lebanon. I worked with other friends from the Learning Societies Network, Shilpa Jain from Shikshantar: The People’s Institute for Rethinking Education and Development in Udaipur, India, and Munir Fasheh, of the Arab Education Forum. The workshop revolved around themes that were the intersection of what the three of us brought in: the powerful metaphor of Scheherazade and the notion of untold stories from my previous multimedia performance work with youth in Lebanon; Shilpa’s work with school Walkouts (usually referred to as school dropouts) in India, and Munir’s developing philosophy around Imam Ali’s statement queematu kullimri’en ma yuhsenoh. (9) We used writing, performance, storytelling, and play to bring forth the participants’ experiences, histories, and imagination in the sharing of further conversations that greatly increased our individual and shared learning. We had no interest in having a ‘product’ or a ‘result’ from these activities other than our learning. Rather, these were means by which to better understand our own worth, our challenges and our possibilities, and to see where each of us is at in his/her own learning journey. Each process also helped to illustrate that there is no one ‘best’ path; that each path offers learning and unlearning. Perhaps my biggest unlearning at that time was realizing that I did not need to rely on any particular media to create an art experience. This was huge for me, as I had previously identified heavily with all the technology I used to create images, videos, and/or performances. I had brought my camera and laptop computer with me, but at the end of the workshop, they remained packed in their bags, and I felt liberated from having to depend on them to manifest my creative abilities. For others, there were deeper unlearnings, such as letting go of the idea that the Palestinian Refugee Camps needed to depend on the UNRWA (10) schools for knowledge. What emerged over the course of our workshops was a strengthening of our selves and of our We, deeply sharing of our minds, hearts, bodies, and spirits. New understandings emerged, often as re-appreciations of traditional wisdoms and community knowledge. We also were taking time to ask hard questions, to notice what goes unnoticed, to appreciate our experiences and each other. In addition to knowledge that was constructed about our selves and our communities, we also examined the meanings of words and concepts such as wisdom, pluralism, dignity, humility, and values – with no attempt to come up with one common universal meaning to any of them.

Learnings from our Al-Jame’ah workshops in Lebanon and Iran remained with me in my subsequent collaborations in Oaxaca and Chiapas, Mexico. As a result of our Learning Societies gathering in Tehran last September, I’ve been considering the role of language in Learning to We, examining the connections between the notion of Fahm (“Language for Understanding” in both Farsi and Arabic) and the Zapatista notion of Palabra Verdadera (“True Word” in Spanish). In subsequent written reflections, I write about a relationship between language and the body, of a place where they intersect, that perhaps renders more powerful understanding, in that it is felt, rather than intellectualized. For Zapatismo, speaking is also linked to the body, specifically to the heart, and Fahm is impossible if word is not felt. Marcos (11) explains: “Cuando las zapatistas, los zapatistas hablamos, ponemos por delante el rojo corazón que en colectivo latimos. Entender lo que decimos, hacemos y haremos, es imposible si no se siente nuestra palabra.”(12) (When Zapatistas speak, we put forward our collectively beating red heart. Understanding what we say, what we do, and what we will do, is impossible if our word is not felt.) The notion of Palabra Verdadera followed me along a “Learning Journey” to Oaxaca and Chiapas organized by the Berkana Institute. (13) Amidst a group primarily from the U.S., the trip felt like “radical tourism” for a comfortable, albeit progressive, lot. My main discomfort was with the very premise of being on such a trip, and yet it was also intriguing to me: I wanted to know what kind of learning journey this was, to try and understand its vantage point. Although I felt missing a more overt confrontation of our privilege vis-à-vis the people and places we visited, each other, and our selves, there was tremendous learning throughout.

We encountered the embodiment of Palabra Verdadera in the stories of many people we met. It was in the fervent desire to tell their truth that led grandmothers, mothers, and children to take over a state-run radio and television station during last year’s resistance in Oaxaca. The women created Radio Cacerola (Radio Pots and Pans) in order to tell the world what the main- stream media wasn’t reporting. The film Un Poquito de Tanta Verdad, “A Little Bit of So Much Truth” (2007) (14) tells the story of this takeover during the struggle in Oaxaca as an attempt by ordinary people to get at some of the obscured truths of what actually happened. We invited some of these women to have dinner with our group. Estela brought her pre-teen daughter Cecilia and Evelinda brought her eight-year old son Daniel, who had accompanied his mother on all the marches. Daniel had never been in a restaurant before and expressed worry as to whether there were oficiales (police) amongst the waiters. I sat between him and his mother over a delicious dinner of pollo con mole and chiles rellenos, witnessing stories told with both their bodies and their words. Daniel got up on the chair every so often to call out one of the chants from the marches ¡Zapata Vive! ¡La Lucha Sigue! Evelinda’s shining eyes spoke of her simultaneous pride in her son, but also of her worry for his future well-being now that the local police knew who he was. Estela’s daughter told me about her mother’s difficult battle with cancer (15) while simultaneously resisting the state’s violent oppression. As Estela says in Un Poquito de Tanta Verdad, theirs was a resistance of word and body in several ways: first, defying the lies told by the mainstream media by telling a little bit of their truth on the airwaves; then walking the 600 kilometers to Mexico City; on the way there being fed by complete strangers who barely had enough to eat themselves; and going on a hunger strike once they got to Mexico City. The generosity and hospitality of ordinary people lining the roads also manifested during the Zapatista marches to the capital, as with La Marcha de la Dignidad, del Color de la Tierra, the March of Dignity, of the Color of the Earth in 2001, when the Zapatistas made another attempt to get the Mexican government to honor their word. This is the kind of word and the sorts of actions that are essential to the construction of a We with You. If one does not honor word, it seems, then bodies and earth are also dishonored, depreciated, rendered disposable and forgettable.

Faced with the speed, amnesia and disposable culture of a hyper-capitalist, mass-media world run amok, grassroots post-modernisms all over the globe are engaging in both a remembering and re-membering, an unlearning and re-learning, coming together in the formation of a We with You. How does this learning happen? Does it occur in accidental or only in intentional ways? Can speaking from the heart really be translated into mind, across cultures, and from periphery to center? Can the kind of internal travel that is necessary to create Fahm and Palabra Verdadera occur without the constant and consistent addressing of relationship and owning of one’s own power and privilege?”(16) These were questions I carried with me as I listened to the presentations at a symposium called “Planet Earth: anti-systemic movements” that took place in Chiapas, Mexico this past December of 2007. It was a unique and powerful gathering that merits translation and an article of its own. But I want to here at least allude to some of the points made, (17) in closing, about the learning/unlearning work ahead. First, about our need to recognize the work itself: to behold it before us and think it anew, wipe clean our gaze – taking off those monocles and distorting lenses. This is necessary to then be able to invent new roads to walk on. Then, to act: to channel discontent and protest into viable initiatives, transforming resistance into liberation. Part of this requires the imagining and building of new political horizons; we start by creating autonomous forms of organization in our social life that go beyond the dictates of development, globalization, and the logic of capital. And let’s not forget the Zapatista rojo corazón que en colectivo latimos, “our collectively beating red heart.” In Learning to We, one of my main concerns is about how to unlearn our numbness and competitiveness, how to truly feel what we say and do, nurturing Fahm and Palabra Verdadera all the way through. Let’s co-emote instead of pro-mote our individual agendas, leave behind debates about who does and who does not have power, focusing instead on a relationship called Dignity. Alongside this dignity, there exists in the Zapatista maxim "Detrás de Nosotros, Estamos Ustedes” a dynamic element (18) that links the us/we nosotros, and you (all) ustedes, without collapsing their difference. Ustedes is not subsumed under nosotros; it keeps the space of difference alive. It speaks for a “let’s learn to be together, but not scrambled.” It reflects how you, I, them and us…are all learning (or remembering and re-membering) a We that deeply understands our connection through the many visible and invisible networks and relationships that already exist across natural and social landscapes, across distinct geographies of different languages, bodies, and ecologies – while valuing our differences and each one’s dignity. Your Us, Our You…learning slowly, con cada paso, cada palabra.

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