I’ve been told to wait for him inside the metro station, the one off the city’s flea market, across from the Old Mosque and the ruins of Hadrian’s Library. I am not to address him; he will speak to me if he needs to. He will find me and I will follow him.
I stand waiting for him in front of the wall by the escalators, holding a paper sign with his name. It looks like an African name but it could be Iraqi or Tamil. I don’t how it’s pronounced because I have never heard his voice. I wonder if it will sound like music when—if—he says it; I imagine it as the strum on a double bass, a mix of hums and plosives.
There was surely an easier way for us to meet than waiting here with the sign. I could have worn something distinctive like a bandanna in my pocket, as one used to do in bars. But amid the coral and peach and robin’s egg blue and the dozens of other colors that are the insignia of fetish for the initiated, there is none that would have been appropriate for this encounter.
A few of the passengers ascending the escalator glance at me as they turn to head out of the station. If they give me any thought at all, they think I’m waiting for a visitor or business client from abroad. An innocent ascription, but I feel uncomfortable being looked at in this way.
I recall times when I provoked the gaze of others. But if I walked the streets of Berlin in a bomber jacket and skinhead boots, it was within the radius of a tolerant neighborhood with a cluster of bars frequented by like-minded patrons; my uniform served only as a coded message, like good shoes worn to an elegant restaurant. But this is different. I am the start of a story.
I realize why I am holding this sheet of paper. He wants me to experience this sense of losing my anonymity, of becoming visible against my will. I have become a spectacle and an object of speculation both. The stories the others tell of me are different from the ones he would be cast with, but I am on exhibit nonetheless.
If he were in my place, of course, he would be scrutinized more. He’d be an immigrant day worker waiting to be picked up by a new foreman, a poor soul in the eyes of some, an unwanted interloper in the eyes of others, but in any event a man unmoored and adrift, destined to go back to wherever home had once been or to move on, for few would believe he wanted to stay here.
I don’t know if he’s coming by train or by foot. Looking for a man I have never seen, I scan the commuters that emerge in waves from the tracks below and the more irregular procession of those walking into the station from the square outside. Though I have no reason to believe so, I have decided he will be beautiful. My gaze lingers on men I think might be him–or want him to be–waiting for a sign of acknowledgement. I’m surprised how often these beautiful men appear, rising up the escalator like sailors emerging from the hull of a ship to begin their shore leave.
As instructed, when the hour changes I put on the headphones I received. An unexpected luxury, they’re a better pair than the ones I own; the padded earcups cancel out much of the noise in the station. The player to which they are attached will begin to play on its own, I’ve been told, and once it does, I am not to touch it.
Is this also part of the ritual, to yank me out of my surroundings so that I can see him more fully?
And then he appears. He’s standing five meters across from me, a tall, black man in his 30s, thin and narrow-shouldered, his head shaved as mine is, looking at me with a faint smile on his face. He walks up to me as first music then a voice comes on through the headphones. “This is my face,” it says. “This is not a disguise.” It tells me that the voice I am hearing is not his voice. But I know that already. He has borrowed the voice of a native son to tell his story.
“Walk behind me,” the voice says
Then he turns around and I follow him out of the station.
He leads me along the back streets of an old working class neighborhood near what once was the city’s gas works. I know the area. It is home to a handful of galleries and a makeshift sidewalk market where I sometimes pick up bok choy and mustard greens on Sundays. But it is also home to cheap brothels and hookah lounges and dimly lit storerooms stocked with cheap Asian imports, places I never visit. I have no friends who live here. I am a tourist to the neighborhood, as I am to this man’s life.
Most of the buildings are cheaply constructed apartment blocks from the 1960s, a monotonous sheet of concrete façades and stingy balconies broken now and then by the vestiges of an earlier neighborhood, one of modest dwellings with courtyards shaded by bougainvillea and decorated with begonias potted in olive oil drums.
I’ve read the numbers in the papers. One in four apartments is empty. One if three residents is an immigrant. This could be his home, his neighborhood, though few in the city think of this area as such. For most, it is only a sign of the crisis, a no-man’s land.
He stops and turns around. I stop too. The voice on the player says, “Look at me”.
I do, but timidly. I feel awkward standing before him on the sidewalk as we silently look at each other, as if we were performing an intimate act in public. But not sex. This is not cruising. I would feel less uncomfortable if it were. I know how to tell him with my gaze that I want him. Now I need to tell him something different and with my eyes alone: I want to know you. This is harder to do.
His gaze is more relaxed, more confident, more direct than mine. He’s obviously done this before. He is not appraising or undressing me; instead he looks at me with concentrated curiosity, as if he were memorizing my features should he need to find me again. It is more than an act of scanning, however. The faint trace of an occasional smile suggests there are features of my face that please him.
But what? I am too old for specifics. A man might still tell me after we make love, “that was hot.” Not me. That. The act, the experience, but not me, or at least not directly me. Perhaps my authorship, or my direction and attentiveness, but not the line of my jaw or my eyes or the sound of my voice. I’ve become a generic, valued for my agency and not my packaging.
I’ve accepted this blunting of compliments as an inevitable part of getting older. One could make love to this body even when one does not praise it. But there is something he sees in me that he likes. Something physical, unless he can divine character in my carriage and mien alone, though I wouldn’t be surprised if he could; constrained by language the newly arrived immigrant is by necessity a careful observer, obliged to extract (and at first often doomed to misinterpret) intent and meaning solely from the signs and gestures of others. With practice, the immigrant comes to observe more carefully and read more faithfully.
I begin to contemplate him in turn. I see his smooth skin shine in the sun, his well-formed white teeth and the ridge of his collarbone protruding above the line of his tank top. As I look longer I notice the trace of a smile that keeps resurfacing. He is indeed beautiful, though I would not have noticed him coming up the escalator.
He’s making himself visible in a way that would not be otherwise possible had we met in the street or for coffee for a hastily arranged date. He is giving me time to look at him.
He—how quickly I have come to hear this voice as his—tells me how as a student he read the stories of the gods and heroes of this fabled, ancient land, how he expected upon his arrival years later to see the modern equivalents of Pericles and Euripides on the streets of the city, but instead found ordinary people of ordinary imagination caught in a crisis that seems will never end. He tells me of hearing the native’s surprise that he, a foreigner, can speak the language so well and has read the poetry of Cavafy and knows the words to the songs they sing on feast days and weddings. I know this experience, and it is something that binds us, the first sign that we have more in common than I first imagined.
He tells me other stories of his life, but these are dark tales that mark our difference. He tells me of being held at knife-point and forced to watch rebel soldiers rape his sister. He tells me of almost drowning on the unseaworthy boat which brought him here.
I call up memories of loss in my own family, a young uncle who took his life, my mother’s death from cancer. I grieve these losses no less than he does his own, but I don’t pretend they are the same. They are an approximation to a horror I have been spared.
The man signals to me that we should resume our walk, and eventually leads me to a shack on an empty lot. He opens the door and sets me down on a chair before a small screen. Standing behind me, he takes off my headphones. For the first time I can feel his flesh against mine. Though it is just his hands against my ears, I feel his touch I feel the warmth of his touch seep through my body. I want to clasp his hands and turn around and look at him again, but I know I am not supposed to move.
A video is projected on the screen, perhaps scenes from his native land or a collage of home movies his father had taken of him as a child. But I remember nothing. I can only recall the pressure and gentle heat on my ears. If this is all I can have of him, I think, it is enough for now. And then the screen darkens. I wait for five, ten minutes, but he doesn’t speak. And then I realize the headphones are back on my ears. I turn around but he’s gone.
Readers familiar with the work of Dutch director and set designer Dries Verhoeven will know that I have based this text on his award-winning experiential performance “No Man’s Land. In this piece, 20 viewers at a time are paired with one of 20 political refuges or immigrants, who then leave, each pair on its own, for a 40-min. walk through one of the city’s central neighborhoods to join up at the end with the other pairs at a row of 20 shacks on an empty lot.
Although the text reproduces the structure of the performance—the meeting in the subway station, the iPod and headphones, the walk and the story—I have chosen to focus on only one aspect of this particularly rich work and re-appropriate it for my own purpose (and in ways not intended by its creator), namely, to explore the various acts of seeing that are present in this piece.
I have no way of knowing whether the stories I heard were my guide’s. I learned that Verhoeven spent considerable time in Athens before the performance, interviewing refugees and immigrants and collecting material for what I suspect (after talking with a friend of mine who also “viewed” the performance) was a single narrative shared by all guides.
“No Man’s Land” was presented in Athens at the Fast Forward Festival organized by the Onassis Cultural Center in May 2014. Here’s a short clip about the work; it’s in Dutch but even if you don’t know the language, it gives you a sense of what transpires during the performance.
The image for the post is by Grace Tatlow, a young British photographer. Though the photograph was taken as part of a fashion shoot, I find it a striking image of the act of looking. I was particularly moved by the contrast between the barbed wire (that speaks of separation) and the look of desire and expectation in the subject as he looks down the street (that speaks of union, in whatever way one imagines it). The palette, too, of the photograph is intriguing, with its myriad shades of greys punctuated by the dark maroon of the man’s shirt and suspenders, which in turn is echoed in the building at the end of the walkway.