How to describe No Longer Without You, which made its US premiere in FIAF’s Crossing the Line Festival last week? Part performance, part conversation, journalist and “modern Dutch woman,” Nazmiye Oral engages her mother, Havva, a “traditional Muslim immigrant living in the Netherlands,” in a confrontational conversation about parenthood, tradition, religion, sex, and independence, accompanied by the strains of the saz (Turkish string instrument) and vocalizations of Seval Okyay. The audience look on (and occasionally participate) in the “staged living room” of FIAF’s Skyroom. The atmosphere is one of calculated intimacy. The audience removes their shoes before entering and is invited to take a seat on the creamy piles of cushions, artfully arranged around the room. The Skyroom is already an inviting space, the floor to ceiling glass wall providing a flood of natural light that is rare in New York. Dressed head to toe in vibrant red, Namiye cuts a striking figure against the white carpet and graduated blue walls. Her mother is a more discreet presence in pale blue and seated for most of the performance in one of two white chairs at the front of the room. Before the performance proper begins, “storytellers” circulate, politely interrupting audience members to tell the story of one of the immigrants and their family member depicted in Çiğdem Yüskel’s captivating photographs. Nazmiye leads her mother around the room to shake hands and welcome the audience as guests.
Nazmiye begins by reliving a conversation with a young friend who dreams of becoming a photographer and who has been told unequivocally by her parents that to do so is nothing short of betrayal and abandonment. This leads into Nazmiye’s reflections on her own desire to live in fulfillment of “the autonomous ‘I’” within her, while also laying claim to her place within her culture and her family. Her proclamation early in the piece to her mother conveys its essence and provides the work’s title: “I will not do what you say. I’ll follow my own path, but I’ll not let myself be disowned. I will be different, but no longer without you.” It is bold. It is intimate. It speaks to the troubling feelings of anger and love that surely exist between any parent and child, even without such a strong divergence of worldview.
I find myself conflicted, however, in my response to No Longer Without You. There are strange moments of cognitive dissonance, such as when Havva throws small pebbles at Nazmiye, telling her she is a witch who will go to hell. Havva lobs them so gently, and it is, of course, a staged moment—doubtless conceived by Nazmiye herself—but the words, we know, have been said in more spontaneous contexts with greater vehemence, and the stones have been thrown at transgressing women with much greater violence. Nazmiye comments on this cognitive dissonance herself in a way, remarking that it is only when she translates certain words from Turkish into English or Dutch that she hears the real violence behind them.
The melding of the improvisational and rehearsed is indeed troubling throughout the piece. The conceit is that this is a genuine conversation, made possible by the utopic space of theatre, and yet we know that this is not so. Nazmiye refers directly to this contradiction at certain moments—pointing out, for instance, to Havva that she agreed to be there, to take part, and that the posters showing Nazmiye with bare torso and Havva, headscarf askew, have been plastered all over Amsterdam bus stops. The balance of power is disturbingly unclear too. Nazmiye is pushing against the restrictions and sense of disappointment imposed by her mother, and yet it is she who controls the performance. Nazmiye owns the space, walking with purpose and energy; she speaks with assertive resonance. Havva remains seated, speaking with little expression, dependent not only on a discreet mic, but also on—first Havva, and then her delegate, Seval Okyay—to translate in order for her words to be heard and understood. By the end, when Nazmiye urges the audience to surround her mother for a “new family photograph,” I felt uncomfortably insincere and slightly manipulated.
But Nazmiye is not an unsympathetic performer and her mother is a frustratingly fascinating paradox. We want, like Nazmiye, to question her—where is the powerful woman on horseback, punching men out of her way in whom she apparently still sees herself? How can she condemn her daughter’s independent spirit, while also being generous and bold enough to travel the world and take part in this curious performance? The most performative moment in the piece—and for me, the most compelling—also acts as a powerful embodiment of this conundrum. Nazmiye tells her mother that she is going to expose herself, that Havva will try to stop her, and that if “the world sees [Nazmiye’s] tits” it will be her mother, Havva’s fault. Nazmiye kneels in front of her mother, fighting to pull up her top and bra. Havva fights just as forcefully to hold it down. The moment is staged, but the struggle is real. It is a curious embrace, as much as it is a skirmish; as full of love, as it is of conflict.