Lying in the dirt, listening to voices from beyond the grave at Gardens Speak

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      By Tania El Khoury. A PuSh International Performing Arts Festival presentation. At the Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre on January 28. Continues at various times through the day and evening until February 2

      The most overwhelming initial sensation is the smell of heavy, musky black soil, and then the cold, wet feel of it against your bare feet and ankles.

      A group of us are lying in thick darkness, beneath tombstones, on makeshift grave plots. We're outfitted in long, white hooded coats pulled on over our clothing, ears turned to the ground beneath us. The dead are whispering their stories to us from beneath the earth.

      It's eerie, visceral, and thought-provoking. In her deeply moving, interactive theatre work-art installation Gardens Speak, the Lebanese artist Tania El Khoury invites us not only to listen to the words, but feel the weight of them with all our senses.

      Needless to say, this way of physically engaging with the tragedy in Syria has a far greater effect than absently swiping through news headlines on your iPhone.

      The show is inspired by the fact that Syrian families had to bury their loved ones secretly, in their yards, because they were activists killed as part of the rebellion against the brutal Assad regime. A formal funeral for a martyr of the resistance would be too dangerous for surviving relatives.

      And so come these voices from beyond the grave, recorded stories meticulously reconstructed through letters, diaries, and accounts from family.The one I listened to was a bright young filmmaker who had fallen in love--someone with dreams, with potential, and with a desire to make a difference.

      The brilliant thing about El Khoury's creation is that she not only puts a human face on the war, but turns our act of listening into a solemn, poetic ritual. Upon arrival, a guide gives us a card with an Arabic name on it, and leads us 10 at a time into a dim chamber. There we have to find the name on a tombstone, kneel to remove enough dirt to expose a buried speaker, then lower our bodies to listen to it. Afterwards, we wash the dirt off our feet in a row of illuminated bowls, reminiscent of the foot-washing areas you see outside of mosques.

      What you probably won't be able to wash away is the lingering effects of such an intimate, vulnerable experience, one that makes us work to listen to the quiet, individual voices of courage lost amid the noise of war. For added impact, visit the exhibition hall's art installation, where Khoury displays hundreds of letters to the dead collected at Gardens Speak installations around the globe.