Karachi Biennale Silent Dinner 2017

photo: Humayun M

Musings or Reflections on the Silent Dinner

By Omer Wasim

Biennale continues—November, 2017.

We stand outside the Karachi Parsi Institute for Berlin based artist, Honi Ryan’s Silent Dinner. Waiting to be ushered in, we talk and take last drags from our cigarettes. Anticipating to be silent for the duration of the dinner/performance, we fill in all the silences, awkward pauses, flustered run-ins with people, with words—language saves us. 

However, language also fails. Fails me, fails us. 

Most of the time, I am caught with how to align words, align them in such a way that makes me intelligible. 

We are language, and that is how we understand ourselves and others. It constitutes us; we are able to comprehend, make visible our ideas, through language. We think through language; we become and embody it. How then can one think about being silent? Would being silent entail another kind of consciousness? Is it another, perhaps a more intricate or complex, way of being. These are some of the concerns that I brought to Ryan’s Silent Dinner

The language I think in and mostly engage with has a binary structure; it is an unstable field of conflicting/conflicted ideologies and desires; it is fragmented, and by nature demands to be continuously pieced together, and also by extension fragments the self, beliefs, ideologies, and desires. What I have been trained to do for as long as I can remember is to internalise those conflicting beliefs and ideologies, and present to the world, or people I am in contact with, a cohesive self. A self that is stable unlike the language it speaks, albeit only on the surface. 

Would being silent then reflect our true selves? Because, of course, one wouldn’t have to present or communicate a cohesive self to people or the world. 

When I signed up for the meal, I was asked to be silent, to which I consented. For me, this was an act of collaborating with uncertainty from the very beginning—I had never deliberately made an active choice to not speak, or have a meal with people that I did not know, or know well, from before.

When we were finally inside the Karachi Parsi institute, we were guided to our thaals. We did not get to decide who we sat with, or who sat next to us, it was up to the artist to make that call. Collaborating with uncertainty, with not knowing what comes next is exactly what followed—and I think that there is poetry in that because so much of our lives revolve around continuously making decisions and communicating them, and to give that up opens a unique space of inquiry for the self. A simple act, sharing a meal in silence, did that.

Eating together is a part of most cultures, and it comes to us almost naturally or automatically. That said, it is also extremely rehearsed because we do not eat with people we do not know. And in a way, eating with strangers, or with people we do not know well, in silence can enable us to become mindful of them, their bodies, boundaries.

Karachi is home to more than twenty-two million people; its ethnic and cultural landscape is rich and diverse, but majority of its population lives in their respective bubbles, with little to no multicultural dialogue and access. It is also a city that is fragmented—like the language I speak—and makes no effort to hide or clean those fragments. Languages mark and activate, give and deny access to, its neighbourhoods. Its residents have had a difficult time because of the languages they speak, or do not speak.

So to host a Bohra dinner at the Karachi Parsi Institute—two seemingly disjointed cultures, weaved together through the context of the city, and especially thinking about it now, while writing—makes sense. Karachi’s culture has no centrality, the location of which is not always clear, or it is muddled, mimicking how it has grown, both organically and inorganically, peacefully and violently. There is beauty in this haphazardness; this muddled way of being and thinking, the embracing of which accounts for many attendees of the Silent Dinner

In my interactions with the Bohra community, I later learned—but witnessed and experienced first—that each meal begins with having a pinch of salt. According to them, it cures and prevents ailments. Salt comes from the earth, without which most meals would never be complete. Salt is earth.[1] Karachi is salt—it is in its air, in its soil, on its buildings. 

Immediately followed by salt, comes sweet. Salt leading to sweet, setting up a binary only to be pulled and stretched later. 

Communicating without language needs another way of being, and requires patience—especially for those who do not necessarily know how to sign and communicate without words (both written and spoken). The Silent Dinner provided us with a space where we learned, albeit slowly, to communicate differently, where failed attempts at making your intensions known was, of course, a part of the experience.[2] In these failed attempts at communicating, I realised, albeit with reluctance, that in the larger scheme of  things operating in real time, inconsequential ones do not necessarily matter—and that one can let go, and immerse himself/herself in the experiences that are offered; and sometimes immersion can only happen if one is silent, silently absorbing his/her surroundings; listening, eating, and being with others in silence. 

[1] Same can be said about most naturally occurring food, but this signification of salt as earth (for me) is immediate because of the frequency with which we use it. 

[2] Language, even though central to our understanding of ourselves and the world, can interfere with the experiences that we have, making it difficult to fully absorb, pause, and appreciate.