Responsibility in Crisis: Knowledge Politics and Global Publics

Kitchen Prayers in Istanbul

Glenda Dickerson conceived and directed three previous openings of Kitchen Prayers in Ann Arbor in December, March and May 2002. Between July 10 and July 19, 2002, she and her troupe—Walonda Lewis, Denise Lock, Kim Staunton Ramsey, and Lisa Richards, with the assistance of Kenneth Daugherty—performed in Istanbul. These were performance dialogues. They stimulated powerful discussions based not only on what was performed, and what was said in response, but also on what identities and experiences allow certain expressions and understandings to be realized. [24]

Kitchen Prayers began as an American reflection on September 11, 2001, and a consideration of the kinds of losses others throughout the world have experienced through violence. It brings classical tragedy, ethnography and contemporary headlines together. There is no adequate name for this kind of performance; it is not quite an oral history on stage, but it's also not simply a play, although some of Glenda's academic colleagues have called it Brechtian. It differs from Brecht's work because Glenda combines the performers' voices with the voices of real people recorded in various sources—newspapers, the director's own research, and the research of others.

This is an especially woman-centered reflection; it focuses on how war, disease and violence affect mothers and their children across the world. In America it began with the particular experiences of five women on stage as they recalled the losses and fears they experienced on September 11. Glenda in particular worried about her daughter; Anitra was at the time of the attacks traveling on the A Train beneath the Towers. Anitra survived, but of course many did not, including Yvette Adams, a Black service worker who worked in WTC that day.

These performances privilege African American perspective, experience and loss. For example, in the final performance in Istanbul, the troupe returned to an original presentation, drawing the headlines from the obituaries of the Black fathers, sons, brothers and husbands who also were firefighters lost on September 11. While applauded in Istanbul, this privilege was not obviously so comforting in an American context. I recall one reaction from an early performance—"why does Glenda conceive this in solely African American terms? Wasn't this a loss felt by everyone? Shouldn't we be together in this?"

In many ways, it was hard for Americans not to feel together after 9/11; the extent of loss overwhelmed every citizen. But sometimes I thought that the emphasis on the unity of suffering was overdone. Shortly after the attacks,Page  166 the U.S. Ad Council issued a commercial on television, with a variety of faces and a variety of accents all proclaiming "I am an American." One could feel the progressive charge in this effort—to do what was possible to remind bigots that Americans are of every faith and color, and that no American should be at risk of hate crimes based on an imagined association with terrorists. But it also had another effect—to say that we are all the same when it comes to American citizenship. While perhaps true in law, the rights and obligations of American citizenship certainly vary by race and gender. By uniting as we are standing, it is difficult for some to remember that such a unity is based on certain powers and privileges of race, religion, class and gender. Glenda's play has been a startling reminder that we could be united under a different umbrella, with African American women in charge, instead of those who lead the war against terrorism.

The leadership embodied in Glenda's performance has a different style. It is certainly powerful—but it is not based on the size of an arsenal or an investment fund or on one's position in a dynasty of political leadership. Its power is rooted in a deep spirituality, a faith of survival, of knowing sorrow as a part of life and of knowing joy regardless. It is based on Denise's operatic voice leading us into a wish that our "circle be unbroken"; it is found in Walonda's wail when she, as Tantalus's daughter Naomi, cries with unimaginable anguish as Apollo and Artemis strike down her children. It is rooted in the power of African American women sitting around the metaphorical kitchen table, sharing their interpretations of the world and sharing their wisdom with us.

But this is not only their personal testimony; in contrast to earlier critical expressions where performances were dedicated to one's own liberation to speak, Kitchen Prayers is based on the loan of words from real women, from the "ordinary women" whom Glenda describes as "those we don't remember." This play is designed to help us remember those ordinary women suffering extraordinary losses across the world, from Rwanda and Sudan to Afghanistan and Pakistan. But before July 2002, this play had not been performed outside the United States, even if it was a reflection on global loss.

To play outside the United States, several challenges had to be recognized. First, in non-English speaking environments, one has to find a suitably versed English language audience. That could be found in the higher education sector in Istanbul, at Boğaziçi and Sabanci Universities. This also meant that thePage  167 audience came from a very cosmopolitan audience. With an extraordinarily open environment for cultural productions from across the world, and an extensive repertoire of cultural productions, including that of political theater, the Istanbul audience is a sophisticated and critical one. And as it happens, it was a difficult time—the middle of summer, three weeks after the international theater festival.

Second, this audience should have sufficient American experience to recognize the distinction of the voices. This is harder to manage. For the greatest distinction to appear to a cosmopolitan but insufficiently American audience is that these are American women telling an American tale, one that recognizes its own losses and struggles to make connections to those of others. It's no news, one Turkish colleague told me, that women in other parts of the world suffer. Indeed, as Glenda herself emphasized in a presentation to an audience of Turkish undergraduate students learning about African American literature and film (taught by U-M Alumnus George Junne at Boğaziçi University), Americans are often "dumb" about the rest of the world's losses. They are ignorant about them, not as worldly as those of Istanbul. This is why, as Kim Staunton Ramsey recalled, one audience member in Ann Arbor called the play an "informance" rather than a "performance."

We might presume that Istanbul's residents, especially the highly educated, are a more "worldly people" (as Glenda called them), of necessity. Although the language of 68 million in Turkey alone, Turkish sits with English in adverts. The language of instruction in these two universities is English; Boğaziçi was itself originally Robert College, founded in 1863 by an American financier and philanthropist. It's hard to overlook the world's diversity when one's own language in one's own homeland is not the language of global advertising or scholarship in higher education. Simply put, the diversity of the world is clearer beyond the United States. It's easy, within the United States, to think that the diversity of the world comes to America, and can be known from within our borders, in English, or in Americanish enclaves abroad.

There are many other challenges to be sure, but it's more interesting to consider what can be learned in bringing a performance on global loss originally designed for American consumption to such a worldly place that has known more pain and violence than America might even imagine. The learning begins already with one exchange on being a woman across the world. Glenda repliedPage  168 that women have something in common, regardless of the differences about which one young man asked. She said, "We're fighting for the same kind of liberation that can't be won with a gun." But to recognize that similarity from without, and from across the kitchen table, requires extending and enduring conversation.

The first challenging conversation concerned a reading of what it means for women to cover. In the second and third American versions of the performance, Glenda introduced the pain and suffering of Afghan women oppressed by the Taliban, fearful to come from beneath the veil before, finding liberation after the American defeat of their oppressors, now finding the possibility of deciding for themselves whether or not to cover.

In Turkey, however, women are not allowed to cover on university campuses. Militantly(?) secular, Turkish authorities deny that right to choose. Indeed, one of the troupe's Turkish student assistants covers when she is beyond campus. While we were visiting another campus, she and her advisors wondered whether she could cover when she visited that other university. After all, the law says one cannot cover if one is a student or employee of the university, but doesn't specify when one isn't of the university. In the end, she wasn't able to come, and the law didn't have to be tested.

Here, then, the same symbol of oppression that might unite the women suffering after 9/11 in America with the women suffering under a common "enemy" in Afghanistan finds no simple resonance in Turkey. Does this mean women are different, as the young man asked during the workshop? Or could we say that women should have the right to choose whether to cover or not? That freedom should unite Americans and many others around the world, we should believe.

In their initial Istanbul performance, Glenda and her troupe did not have time to revise as they would wish for a Turkish audience. Arriving on Wednesday, performing on Friday, they replayed a version of the American play along with an extended section from the classical Trojan Women, a play Glenda knew well having directed its performance since 1972. In two acts, Glenda's troupe covered a lot of ground.

For some of their audience, it was too much ground. Each world situation received too brief attention, one viewer told me. It felt superficial, and when it came to Turkey, it felt wrong. Of course there were moments in the firstPage  169 play where political sensibilities could be offended, as when Kim read out a statement she found in one publication about Turkey, "It is allowed to say bad things about God in Turkey but not to say bad things about Ataturk." Whether one finds this to be a reasonable statement, as my informant did, or if one finds it audacious for a foreigner to say such a thing, as others said, of course comes with politics. But it is a politics that is made even more complicated by simple references gone wrong. In the course of the play, one of the actors referred to the Bosphorus as a river rather than as straits, which gave the critically disposed audience members assurance that the troupe did not know Turkey, and thus had no right to pick such a delicate phrase to represent their nation.

Nevertheless, Glenda and her colleagues prepared extensively for Turkey, reading a great deal about the place before coming and then meeting with various circles of women while there. In respect for the country of their hosts, they elaborated the play extensively beyond the slight references to women's suffering they earlier included. They retained a section originally produced in America that evoked women hunger strikers in Turkish prisons. They began with greetings in Turkish, asking how to say things like "I love Turkey"; with the shift enabled by the performance's trademark chant of "Down the Road Lord, way down the road...." they turn not to the Kitchen Table, but to the storytelling enabled by the Bazaar, its dependence on extensive trade and the lessons learned about the effects of war, disease and famine, especially on women and their children.

This time the performance did not begin with America. They began by discussing experiences across the world, drawing on the horrors of whole villages suffering in Rwanda under the assault of systematic rape by soldiers' regiments, and then of the power of a Esther Okloo, a woman entrepreneur in Ghana, who taught other women how to find their survival in economic power and independence. Concluding that lesson of empowerment, the women sing a few lines based on three words: "We are wonderful." The women radiate genuine warmth fueled by internal resolve and joy in self-respect and accomplishment, inspired by and inspiring women's survival across the world. But real women were also finding themselves, and not, on stage.

Clearly there are important cultural differences of which the performers and their American colleagues may not be aware. I subsequently learn that it's impossible, within a Turkish context, for women to sing, or even to say,Page  170 that they themselves are wonderful. Culturally appropriate humility prevents it. While I might also find difficulty in issuing such a phrase, I nevertheless can myself feel empowered by it, seeing in my friends and colleagues on stage an inner strength that can be acquired through proximity itself. Perhaps, as my sociology colleague Fatma Müge Göçek, herself an American and Turk both, from the University of Michigan and at home in Istanbul, wondered, Turks might also be able to celebrate more, and be less critical of themselves and one another, to be in such proximity.

Glenda and her colleagues, of course, recognized the distances before coming to Istanbul, and thought to extend the space on which common ground might be found. In an act of respect, Glenda and her performers developed an extensive session in the second performance to reflect voices of women in Turkey. They began with a Western clad expressive and beautiful woman encountering a "dark shape" only to see that it was a woman fully covered from the same place. Revealing the thoughts of each to the audience, distressed for the exposure/coverage of the other, they circled around each other, back to back, until they turned once more to discover the other anew. After offering one quote from Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, in which he says that one should "allow women to see the world as we do," they shift scenes once again. Drawing on the work of a Stanford University anthropologist, they present a young professional woman in Central Anatolia surrounded by her friends getting ready for her marriage, talking with her friends about whether to veil or not. They stand around her, braiding her hair in an intricate detail symbolizing the practice in that region. Don't religious men treat their women better, after all, the young bride asks in the end?

Breaking the performance for a moment, the actors then reflect on quotations that they found intriguing about Turkey. After two general and kind comments, they introduce the risky comment about the greater space for criticizing God than Ataturk, and then return to a "safe" subject, Lisa's reference to Mt. Ararat. Another invocation of Turkey, they say, but some Turks also wonder: Why do they invoke it? The answer from the performers' side is simple: Mt. Ararat is in Turkey, and it is central to the African American Christian imagination, for it was on that land that Noah's Ark could find salvation after the floods punished humankind for its immorality. Few Turks would know, of course, that Mt. Ararat is so significant for African Americans,Page  171 but they do know of its importance for Armenians. It is unlikely that either the collective conscience of Armenians or of African Americans is fully aware of Ararat's significance for the other, but in the course of the play, Turks could wonder what Armenian-African American connection there might be. And given the politics of Armenian-Turkish relations, that connection would, again, not be so simple.

The performance then shifts to August 17, 1999 when an earthquake rocked Istanbul. Initially the counts were 14,000 dead, later estimated to be over 40,000 people lost. Men and women jumped out of buildings choosing that death over one to be buried in the rubble of collapsed buildings. The performers compared these losses to 9/11, where men and women made similar choices, but out of very different origins, one natural, the other man-made. This was the final effort in this second performance to extend the link.

The troupe moved toward conclusion with a reflection on 9/11 through a metaphor based on the ancient Greek story of Naomi, whose arrogance ("insolent words are always heard in Heaven and are always punished") ultimately leads the Gods to turn her into a rock forever weeping. Naomi stood for America, her father, Tantalus, was "the nomadic peoples of the Middle East," while Apollo and Artemis, those who kill her children, are the planes that attack WTC. And a final reference to Yvette Anderson, an "ordinary woman" lost in 9/11.

The dialogue begins here at the end, rather than in the middle as they had in American performances. It is quiet at the start, beginning with a polite question about the American reaction. But the dialogue quickly moves into a fundamental challenge. In a command of English apparently strong but also subject to an occasionally misleading choice of phrase, one female student challenges the performance's representations: "You have a Western understanding of third world women...women all over the world are suffering.... The new pressures are not about religion...do you realize the policy of the U.S. or the policy of other first world governments....?" A male student reinforces the point: "There is a silence about suffering in the first world countries...images of the third world are frozen, too stabilized...and what about critique of the U.S.?"

The conversation is not easy. It was made more difficult by the woman's choice of words: "you must change the story about Turkey at least." Offending the artist's privilege, Glenda replies that she need not change anything. MorePage  172 than that, perhaps, is that the troupe is stunned; they worked intensively before the trip, and especially after arrival, to find a way to extend their performance to Turkey. But instead of seeing effort and work, some in the audience saw appropriation without knowledge, an act made worse by what they saw as "symptomatic" insensitivities—the rendering of an Armenian lullaby at the moment of the Turkish flag's unfolding, and the counterposition of arrogant America/Naomi with "nomadic peoples of the Middle East"/Tantalus. The former, wholly unintended, was an association made by poor timing; the lullaby was supposed to be linked to a reading of a fragment from V. S. Naipaul. It was, nonetheless, a horrible juxtaposition. The latter, all too unfortunately, fit perfectly into the postcolonial vision many of the students embrace, and provided an anchor around which to organize the whole problem with the performance. Metaphors are sometimes better left without explicit description, Glenda said later.

Subsequent conversations outside the hall were animated. Most in Turkish and beyond me, I could nonetheless talk to those I knew to ask them to explain. I could only capture some of what they said above, but the major point was startling. The performance was devastating to some, as was their reaction to Glenda and her colleagues. Why didn't they just represent themselves? Why not talk about American reactions to 9/11? Why not a critique of American policy? Glenda and her performers, in the eyes of the Turkish audience, lost the African prefix to their American identity. They were "Western," something the performers, and Glenda herself, could hardly appreciate. Gender's bond, anticipated by the elevation of women's suffering, was lost before nationality's trump card.

In the final performance, responding to the criticisms they heard and returning to the things they could feel in their souls, as Lisa later put it, they bring the African American parts of their performance back to the center. They leave out several parts of the Turkish performance—the meeting of differently dressed women, the Armenian lullaby and the earthquake among them. It was the best performance, even though it came at the end of an exhausting week. The company finally found their balance in this new environment, and in a smaller hall and audience of 40, instead of the 100 or so in each of the previous performances.

Nevertheless, they could not balance the cultural contradiction for whichPage  173 they were unprepared. They lost their prefix across all three performances. Even in this final performance, where race in America was brought to the front of the presentation, the audience continued to position them as Americans. One, an American herself doing fieldwork in Turkey, asked whether American privilege wasn't obvious in some ways, whether in the ease with which they could get a visa to Turkey and the difficult Turks have in visiting America. In response, Lisa recalled her surprise at being identified as "the American girl" when in London; she never thought of herself simply as American. Kim's response magnified the point, for she spoke not only as a Black woman but also a mother, whose fourteen-year-old son is already cast as the threat that has to be watched. What must her husband and she do to prepare her son for this life in America, where young Black men are presumed dangerous at first glance? This was a powerful reminder that W. E. B. DuBois's observation on the 20th century extends to the 21st; that within America, the color line remains the American hallmark, even if there are other colors that complicate the story in Black and White. But the intervention for which most Americans were most unprepared came from a Turkish young woman.

Can you really say that those people lost in the World Trade Center were "victims"? She abhors violence, nationalism, and is herself an advocate of human rights across borders, she says, but these are not the same kinds of victims as others. They are like those in the Gulf War. Indeed, while violence is wrong, sometimes social change is made through violence, and thus these victims are not quite victims. They are the casualties of war.

The cast was shocked. Denise told her that but for a change in her plans on September 10, when she decided to go downtown and take care of business rather than wait until September 11, she would not have been before her that evening. This was unconvincing; accidental locations happen, our Turkish inquirer said. After all, those killed at the wedding in Afghanistan just a couple weeks earlier are innocent, and the commentator suggested, may be even more innocent because they are not associated with the superpower setting the conditions for war.

I thought I must have misunderstood. I, too, advocate human rights across borders, but it seemed that I valued peaceful change more than this audience member. Perhaps it was simply that the circumstances didn't enable sufficiently clear expression, so I talked to her afterwards. It appears, however,Page  174 that I understood her properly.

She offered the most extreme statement of the problem. It is inconceivable to most, if not all, Americans that those who died on September 11 in any way deserved their fate, regardless of their association with the superpower. While there are also many Americans who will not accept the notion that innocent deaths like those at the Afghan wedding are ever justified, there are equally many if not more Americans who will accept "collateral damage" as the unintended consequences of war. Perhaps this young Turkish woman finds that this acceptance of American power's insufficiently discriminate violence justifies the victims of 9/11. My Turkish friends assure me that this is an extreme position, and that Turkey is America's best friend in the Muslim world. But they also say that many Turks find the American presumption to redefine the world in the wake of 9/11, especially as war loomed in Iraq, to be the underlying problem that makes the distinction of African Americans appear slight in the overall scheme of things, and gender, as a basis for common identification, hardly important at all.

Although each audience raised the question, Glenda never felt obliged to undertake the critique of America in Turkey. She does that plenty in the United States, she said, and for those who know African American cultural politics, they can assume that as starting point. But the Turkish expectation is not only that America should be critiqued, but that Black women in particular should focus less on America's suffering and more on America's responsibility for it.

For Glenda and her cast, nothing they say can be torn from the experiences of Black people in the West, in their origins as slaves, in their struggle to be free. Of course, they could critique the West, and America. They do it all the time, and as Glenda said, without any necessary prompting by Turks. But in the performance's failure to critique the West, and in the appropriation of Turkish materials without sufficient expertise or appropriate identities or identifications, many Turks found a familiar Orientalist disposition. To appropriate the Turkish story without sufficient expertise plays the Orientalist card, one observer told me, regardless of their position in America.

This frame could overwhelm the audience, especially when it is made explicit. The ensuing emotions flowing from the stage and from the audience also made subsequent conversations hard to carry out. Müge and I introduced the discussion following the final performance, channeling some of the emotionsPage  175 into a safer academic discourse. That technique might have enabled the second performance to find a different mode of dialogue, but not necessarily.

The safest strategy would have been for the troupe to stay within their experience, to represent only themselves, or the category they are perceived to embody, and to share those representations across the world while trusting that all are reading the same thing into self-representations. That is possible, and common, and ideally designed for creating epistemic communities with more or less common understandings of the world with varying languages at home. Indeed, several expressed disappointment to me about the first and second performances, that there was not more African American in it.

Müge observed this reaction, too, and suggested that it might itself be a kind of reverse Orientalism: where Turks expect that African Americans should know their own experience and that is their proper place in the world of representations. They are certainly not as worldly as the cosmopolitans of Istanbul, and thus may not have much to say to them about the third world. After all, these are Americans, from the superpower, perhaps oppressed within, but not of the third world as Turkey is. But what third world is this? While few ever embrace the term in full sincerity, the conflicts in this dialogue—over gender's cross-cultural sensibility and over the competing salience of race and of Orientalism in the construction of global loss—place the wretched of the earth in very different lights.

Each has the symbol of the other's misunderstanding at the ready. To call a strait a river stands for the appropriation of material without full understanding. To say that Kitchen Prayers displays a Western gaze denies the significance of race for understanding America. Both performers and audience, however, frequently told me that they wished that Kitchen Prayers could have stayed longer. Of course to extend the endurance of ties always makes it possible to represent oneself and others better, if never adequately. But maybe there is point in trying to represent others after all. For recognizing both the salience of America in the Orientalist problematic and the distinction of Blackness within and beyond America doesn't seem to belong to anyone, but might be found in the dialogue about it.

The performance's reactions surprised the troupe; I was surprised by the reactions, too, and by the troupe itself. Although I should have, I would not have expected Glenda and her company to put so much work into bringingPage  176 Turkishness into Kitchen Prayers. As many said in audience comment and in private, this was a brave act. It evoked passion, and the articulation of differences that might have remained hidden in more familiar cultural exchanges where we reflect only who we are, and leave to others the making of our place in their imagined communities. However, I become only more firmly convinced, after this play and its reception, that we must find ways that not only construct internationalism by representing ourselves elsewhere. We all should find ways to invite others to construct us as they see us, and give everyone the opportunity to say what's right and wrong with the representation. And in that, perhaps we won't rest so comfortably with collateral damage anywhere. We might even find a new strength in being able to say "we are wonderful" without arrogance, and without metaphorical or deadly assault.