Local writer helps commemorate Iraqi casualties of war through art

September 7, 2011

Thomas Montgomery-Fate

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(Flickr/andyphelan45)
Author Tom Montgomery-Fate recalls his reaction to 9/11.

The events of September 11, 2001 unleashed a myriad of sentiments for artists. In his new memoir, Cabin Fever, Tom Montgomery-Fate wrote about his participation in an art installation that reflected on that tragic day and how its effects are still felt 10 years later.

Why am I lying here wrapped in a sheet in the middle of a huge city on a busy work day, just a few feet from the honking congestion of Dearborn and Adams? Why am I pretending to be dead?  

The die-in was an art installation. The organizers were artists; I was a piece of art. Our 40 bodies and 40 white sheets and 40 red carnations were arranged on the cement canvas into a death grid; a grave yard.  We symbolized the number of Iraqis who died every day from the war. We sought to create the antithesis of war––art––and through it, a reverence for life.   

I still remember: On September 12, 2001––after the skies were emptied of planes and we were assured the Sears Tower would not be hit––I had an urge to visit the Chicago Art Institute, to counter the tragedy in New York with O’Keeffe’s voluptuous lilies, Hopper’s gritty streetscapes and Pollack’s wild spatters. But parts of the city were closed down and so were some parts of me––lost in the spiral of sadness––so, I settled for a coffee table book of Marc Chagall’s paintings. As I leafed through the stunning images, while the grainy towers fell over and over on TV, I wondered how Chagall would have depicted the absurdity of the planes-turned-missiles, of the people leaping into the flaming canyon: What would he have seen, and created, in the face of the destroyed? 

I had only been dead for a few minutes when someone dropped a long-stemmed carnation on my chest. The soft, sudden weight of the flower was an epiphany, a moment of attention that connected me, reminded me that I belonged to everything and everyone; that we are all related. I felt it deeply––the flower, the sun, the wind––their quiet resilience and forgiveness.    
A gull screamed. I imagined the feathered, flattened M coasting high above me; glowing in the sunlight, then veering to the east—a white silhouette pumped through a four-block corridor of skyscraping shadows, which finally opened onto the lake and sky––a watercolor painting that had no borders, no endings. From under the white sheet, I imagined the lake at a great distance: a shimmering blue body whose fingers touched other lakes, whose branches fed into rivers, which emptied into oceans, which reached around the world and touched the soil, the homes and the daily lives, of every enemy we ever appointed or imprisoned or shot or carpet-bombed in the name of freedom or God. Whether we called them collateral damage or terrorists or people, we were closely related; closer all the time. 

A woman with a cheap microphone and little beat-up amplifier began to sing the names of the dead. She nursed vibrant and haunting tones out of the cracking, echoed sound system: Rafid Naji Hasan, 9 years old; Jumma Ibrahim, 14 years old; Fadhel Mohammed al Dulaimi, 45 years old. The names went on and on. 

I was dead a long time before I finally caught the sweet, delicate scent of my carnation—just a trace, and only for a second.  Then a little girl––one of the children of the temporarily dead—started giggling about something. Her clicking shoes skipped through the odd labyrinth of flower-adorned bodies.  

I thought of my own kids and began to wonder about the time. But I couldn’t lift my arm to read my watch without disturbing the art. I needed to leave right at 2:00 p.m. to make it to Lincoln Elementary by the first bell to meet my son, Bennett. My daughter, Abby, had to be taken to soccer, and Tessa, her sister, needed a lift home from a cross country meet. What the hell: I slowly turned my arm and raised it so I could see that I had been lying there for 10 minutes; it seemed like an hour.
I’m not even sure why I went to the demonstration. I needed to go grocery shopping and I had stacks of papers to grade. Was it guilt? Yes, partly. The belief I was making a difference?  No, I don’t think so. The hope that this theater of the absurd would help alleviate the suffering of the Iraqi people? No, that was unlikely. My motivations were less noble, less clear: I was just trying to learn how to believe in something; how to see in the dark.       

It was Thea, the 11-year-old girl, whose name I could not let go. My daughters are 10 and 13. I saw Thea skipping rope in the red clay dust behind her home in Najaf, perhaps munching on a sour green mango with a friend. Thea: I saw her exasperated face when her parents said her bombed-out school would not be reopened. Thea: I saw her lithe body running wildly away from something—what was it? What was she running from? Thea: I saw the name wheeled up toward the sun like a dove that has been released so it can return home. Thea: The enemy. A dead little girl. Her. Me. Us.

Tom Montgomery-Fate teaches creative writing at College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn. This essay is excerpted from his new memoir, Cabin Fever, which was released in June.