I had a similar reaction to this performance. I wanted to place my arm back through the hole in the wall, to reach for this person that I couldn't see. Because there was time before the next performance, I was able to meet Zaraa face to face and convey how moved I was by the experience. And I also, did not wash the figures off of my arm.
Invisible Touch: "As Far As My Fingertips Take Me" explores the universal refugee crisis through a one-on-one encounter
Whenever I see news footage of refugees, I always think, “How bad would things have to get before I packed a bag and fled from my home?”
The answer, of course, is really, really bad, especially when doing so would likely put me in mortal danger and leave me vulnerable, indefinitely, in countless ways.
So I knew that As Far As My Fingertips Take Me -- a one-on-one installation performance that’s part of University Musical Society’s No Safety Net 2.0 theater series -- would likely challenge me and make the pain of diaspora more tangible. But what I couldn’t have guessed is how strangely attached I’d become to the visible marks it left upon my skin.
Created by Tania Khoury and performed by Basel Zaraa (a Palestinian refugee born in Syria), the experience begins when you bare your left arm to the elbow, sit next to a white wall, pull on a pair of headphones, trustingly extend your arm through a hole in the wall, and listen to a recording of Zaraa telling his own refugee story, accompanied by an atmospheric rap inspired by his sisters’ journey from Damascus to Sweden.
On the recording, Zaraa introduces himself and says, “This is me, touching your arm,” and there’s something both unnerving and comforting about experiencing touch without being able to see its source. First, you feel the pads of your fingers being inked, one by one, and then you feel different areas of your arm being gently drawn upon: a line from one fingertip to a small boat full of people at the center of your palm; and from your wrist to your elbow, a caravan of walking figures, dragging their possessions toward a distinct border.
Zaraa completes the figures before the music ends, leaving you to look at your newly decorated arm and read a long poem (printed on the same wall) that contains the refrain that gives the song you’re hearing its thematic shape: “We only want what everybody wants.”
I found myself resting my hand in the hole as the recording finished, both because I didn’t know if Zaraa would draw anything more, and because, to be honest, I kind of wanted there to be more. Experiencing that disembodied sense of touch, without the baggage and self-consciousness that comes with visual cues, was a profoundly powerful part of Fingertips in and of itself, in that it underscored our universal humanity.
And although the recording explained that the ink figures could be easily removed with water, and a bowl and towels stood nearby, I was far more drawn to the recording’s invitation to “carry them with me” as I went about my day.
For the performance lasted but a few minutes, so having a day or two to look at the artwork, drawn on the canvas of my skin by a refugee (who notes, on the recording, that he hasn’t seen his parents in seven years), allowed me to more fully process this unique, multi-sensory interaction.
Plus, in the same gallery, Fingertips attendees could also take in Khoury’s video installation Stories of Refuge, which invited visitors to sit on barrack-like bunk beds, pull on earphones, and watch and listen to footage -- projected onto the walls -- from three different Syrian asylum seekers who were living in refugee camps in Munich. The pieces complemented each other beautifully, and the pairing served to deepen the emotional impact of both.
As it happened, my scheduled Fingertips appointment fell on Super Bowl Sunday, so after watching a halftime show that both celebrated Latinx culture and slyly critiqued -- by way of young people in neon cages -- America’s increasingly xenophobic immigration policies, I looked again at the art on my arm and felt both utterly helpless and cautiously hopeful for a more humane world.
It’s a feeling I’ve gotten pretty used to these days.
Jenn McKee is a former staff arts reporter for The Ann Arbor News, where she primarily covered theater and film events, and also wrote general features and occasional articles on books and music.