A Slow and Steady Commotion: response to Sister Sylvester’s Maps for a War Tourist

Photo Caption: Kathryn Hamilton, founder and director of Sister Sylvester. Photo by Maria Baranova.

Sister Sylvester’s Maps for a War Tourist, playing at Dixon Place through June 17, sets out to tell the story of Ayse Deniz Karacagil, a young Turkish woman who was arrested at the Gezi Park protests in 2013. The basic coordinates of Deniz’s story are these: after her arrest, Deniz was sentenced to 90+ years in prison for wearing a red scarf, the so-called color of socialism. Eventually released on bail, Deniz fled Turkey and traveled through Syria to Iraq, where she joined the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a militant, leftist organization the Turkish and US governments have both deemed a terrorist group.

Days before Maps for a War Tourist opened on June 2, Deniz was killed by a Daesh sniper in Raqqa.

Maps for a War Tourist, like all of Sister Sylvester’s work, is a complex, deeply reflective work that weaves together strands of the personal, political and mythological with deft subtlety. This is a piece about many, many things. One is how to continue living, to keep a life moving forward, after tragedy and with the knowledge of war. How do you read the news in the morning, grapple with the most harrowing human suffering you can imagine, and still maintain the pieces of your life? How do you immerse yourself in all the other business of your day?

The piece proposes turning to a tortoise. Kathryn Hamilton, Sister Sylvester’s Artistic Director and the performance’s main narrator, reads from a dimly lit folding table on stage left: “As antidote to the chaos we’d fallen into, we turned to the slowest thing, most calm and ancient thing we could think of: a tortoise.”

We see two such tortoises on stage, passing time in a plywood pen, tended by a watchful young woman. For me, these tortoises—live animals on stage—draw a through-line to one of Sister Sylvester’s previous works, They Are Gone But Here Must I Remain. In They Are Gone, a chicken has a starring role, and the creature brings an edge of unpredictability. The chicken is dangerous and exciting: if it misbehaves, it could ruin everything. But the tortoises bring a different element. They are indeed very slow. Exploratory, perhaps, but ploddingly so. They seem trustworthy. You can really count on them to play their part.

Early on in the piece, Kathryn mentions that a friend, a Turkish director named Onur, advised her against trying to tell Deniz’s story. “To make work about politics is to avoid dealing with yourself,” Onur said. Maps plays consciously with this idea – the dealing and revealing of oneself through the process of making art—by relaying who among the team of collaborators would have played who, had they actually made the “play” they purportedly set out to make at the very beginning. Kelsea Martin would have played Deniz, because she is about the same age and knows how to shoot a gun; Cyrus Moshrefi, the son of Iranian exiles, would have played Abdullah Ocalan, founder of the PKK, because the solitary nature of exile appeals to him, and so on.

Why the conditional tense here? Why didn’t they make the play they thought they were going to make? The reasons Kathryn gives us are significant. The political landscape in Turkey and Syria, for one, is a chaotic and shape-shifting warzone. Deniz’s own story, too, is in constant contextual flux. She is lauded by some as martyr and a hero, by others as a cautionary tale. No part of this story, if you can even call it a story to begin with, lends itself to straightforward narrative: it is all too murky, too splintered.

When Kathryn mentions this unmade play, that word, “a play,” is almost a slight. It lands with the same weight as if she had called it “a plaything.” To make a play about the war-torn Middle East, about political corruption in Turkey, about Daesh, is too reductive, too trivial. The very notion is discomfiting and silly.  

The pivotal question here is how do you tell a story that carries so much consequence? How can Sister Sylvester, makers of inquisitive, often playful experimental performance, share Deniz’s story, and by proxy a larger political context, with the weight and honesty they deserve? How can you put human suffering on a stage? Should you even try? And a perhaps even more perturbing question: how do you market such a thing? How do you convince people to buy their tickets?

Maps for a War Tourist submits and accepts its failure to give Deniz’s story full justice from the beginning. Failure is the piece’s most generative launching pad. Likewise, Kathryn Hamilton acknowledges and considers her own role here as the eponymous war tourist—a self-deprecating moniker if there ever was one. She took a journey to learn about someone else’s suffering and returned with souvenirs and stories; her own life, in the grand scheme of things, remained uncompromised (this is where her friend Onur proves wrong: in making work about politics, Kathryn very much has to “deal with herself”). I thought often throughout this piece about a line in David Foster Wallace’s Consider the Lobster that twinges me every time I travel: “As a tourist, you become economically significant but existentially loathsome, an insect on a dead thing.”

But if Kathryn is a war tourist, then we-the-audience, by extension, are war tourists too. It’s best to call things as they are, like it or not. We bought our tickets to Deniz’s story round trip.

So they didn’t make a play. Instead, they made a quiet, sober, performative essay. I might describe the aesthetics of this piece as anti-theatrical. It’s dimly lit, with very little movement, and narrated in a subdued, even tone. The effect is that the piece feels, to put it bluntly, honest. They made a genuine effort to tell an impossibly painful story. And god damn it, they did the best they could.

Midway through the piece, while mapping connectivity between the Middle East and the Lower East Side, Kathryn mentions Murray Bookchin, the anarchist and former LES resident whose theory of libertarian municipalism inspired PKK founder Abdullah Ocalan. Bookchin, we learn, was a fervent ecologist who nonetheless insisted on driving a “gas guzzler car,” which he did, in part, “to reinforce his idea that individual choices are irrelevant in the larger scheme of things.”

This line ignited a slow, bubbling question for me, that eventually seemed to spread like a fine dust over the entirety of the piece. I have to wonder if Kathryn struggled with this while making this piece. Is this performance, this individual action, irrelevant in the larger scheme?

Maybe it is. Or maybe it’s not, and that’s where the tortoise comes in. Maybe the ripple effect for low-budget, political art is hard-won and imperceptibly slow, but if you keep doing it, even in the face of inevitable, constant failure, you’re sure to get somewhere.

Maps for a War Tourist is playing through June 17 at Dixon Place, 161A Chrystie Street, between Rivington & Delancey. More info and tickets available here.

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