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100,000 Rings

Day 1
Mouths Wide Open's first day in Union Square -- 12-2 and 4-6 went smoothly. We handed out information flyers with the numbers of Iraqi dead and we read one name per minute for the four hours. Many people who stood silently and looked at our display with some photos of the dead (from Dahr Jamail's website.) The pictures were laid lovingly on a muslin sheet with rose petals and a dirt circle. Every minute we read a name, with age and cause of death, with bells accompanying it. Several people accepted the offer to put rose petals on the cloth as they offered thoughts to the dead. We had some beautiful responses: an Afghani man who sat for awhile and then said thank you so much for doing this. Several park cleaners from West Africa wanted flyers and to hear about what we were doing. There was a large confluence of cops at Union Square, but the one that came up to me early on stood with me for awhile and offered the comment at how lamentable it all was, and made no move to interrupt our work. Of course, many people walked by quickly with cell phones and didn’t/wouldn’t look -- but that level of unconsciousness is exactly the reason for which we were doing this action!

Day 2,3 4
Mouths Wide Open continued our 16 1/2 hour bell ringing of 1,000 names in Union Square in 2 two-hour shifts Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. There was a mean pelting rain the second day and it was very cold, but we stood with umbrellas and felt it was important to keep going. Be and I were the constant representatives of our group and formed the 2-pronged core energy -- Be standing still, ringing the first bell and in a strong clear voice, intoning: ”We honor and grieve for…” out into the cold air and bustling square: and then reading a name of an Iraqi civilian, with their age and cause of death. I stood on the side and sent my thoughts to those dead, but also walked around and interceded with the public -- I told them what we were doing, invited them to take a flyer with information re the mortality studies, and brought many people close up to the muslin cloth to take some petals from the basket and scatter them over the pictures of dead Iraqis with me.

Other members of our group joined us at every session, so the bells were amplified and our presence was compounded: Be’s sister Sally, Rory, Mitzi, Puy, Noni (and Oliver), Steve, Kevin, Kristin, Fred, and Barbara were wonderful additions. We all shared a feeling of grief and determination during the cold weather to offer a witness. Standing through the reading of each name and living through a minute thinking of that person had a cumulative and visceral effect on each of us; at the end of every session there were another 120 names on our hearts.

Many people stopped. Both Middle Eastern and American people thanked us for doing it. Many expressed gratitude for being offered a way to show their concern. Some people stayed listening for several minutes with bowed heads looking at the photos of the dead we had on the muslin cloth. Many responded to taking a handful of rose petals from the baskets we had to scatter on the photos. I have pictures still in my mind of many big young men I encountered in their loosely hung coats and their youthful swaggers. When I told what we were doing and invited to scatter some rose petals, I was amazed how many of them agreed and did so with deep respect and compassion. One day a woman came up to the cloth and stayed for about 20 minutes. Without asking, she started signing each name as Be spoke it and the gestures for each cause of death made the image far more graphic. The Union Square Park cleaning crew, who had been intrigued the first day, grew more supportive. A few of the crew offered to clean up for us -- the petals kept blowing off the cloth during the strong winds. Another crewmember embraced us on the final day and said he was in solidarity with us and with the call for compassion. Of course many people were dashing by on their lunch hour or had appointments and kept talking on their cell phone -- my favorite was the woman who told me she had “pledged” that morning, mistaking my proffered flyer for a solicitation.

We had only two real hostile reactions -- one was a guy who hung around for quite awhile, applauding loudly each death and said he was “glad we racked up another one for the good old USA -- the greatest country in the world”. I was taxed to find a way to engage with him and not have our solemn ceremony jeopardized. Even in this case, though, we were supported. A fellow who had stopped by in the days before came back and stood between the jeering guy and me and told me just to ignore him. After a certain period he had to leave, and I was sorry to lose my buffer. Soon after another man sidled up and in a very disarming way he engaged with the ranting guy. He was very unassuming and almost to agree with him to some degree. Every once in a while he slipped in his own points about how, after all, Iraq didn’t have WMD after all etc and slowly drew the guy away. I only just caught his eye to thank him, and he winked back. We continued on with our names.

It was clear to us though that the bell ringing experience was not linked to people’s approval or disapproval. We loved those who joined us and could feel that the energy was amplified as it was being sent out. But the most fundamental part of the event was the actual saying of the names. Even if no one else had heard us we could at least say them out loud and send our sorrow through the air to them and their family.

On the last shift Cathy from VITW came by and asked us to read some names of academics she had been sent after she had completed her bell ringing. We were honored to pronounce their names, and their field of study and position. We experienced another sense of loss as we read these names -- and because we knew what they did, we felt the additional loss of their gifts to the country. In the moment between each name, I felt the weight of all the years of study that each person had made, all the thought they had developed and then passed along, and of the collective loss of their contribution to Iraqi society.

Be’s lovely elegy captures our feeling of the event:
“I hold in my hand the list of 3,000 names out of the 30 to 100,000 Iraqi civilian deaths we ring the bell sisters and friends in shame for our country’s battle cry of freedom in the name of Nur the light Al Haqq the truth I pronounce the names of 29 members of Metaq Aliâ‘s family 8 25 46 81 6 months 9 months killed in an aircraft attack 7 year old girl Zhra Talad Kder Hmod shard from her home through her heart school boys and professors scientists and engineers 9 16 42 68 Hdea the guide burned to death Rashid the teacher Karim the generous died in their homes on their streets at work 64 38 77 flower petals and stones returning to the earth we speak your name your age our names our ages 53 55 59 26 in remembrance Ar Rahman Ar Rahim merciful and compassionate in the cold and wind and rain we mourn for those dying in the desert 13 17 67 Basirah sees with the eye of the heart Khabir Shakur the thankful the aware Gbar 5 year old boy 2 3 1 and a half killed by a bomb a missile a rocket Fatma the wife 19 36 72 shot to death we honor and grieve for Alea Abra Kata a 23 year old Iraqi woman killed in a tank attack I ring the bell and pronounce your name Jawad Kathom Faris Hussen Al-Aane 33 year old Iraqi man killed by shrapnel Issa Maryam Yosef Musa Abrahem Mohammed shapers of beauty parents and prophets 12 29 87 Shahid the witness Hakim the wise Ghafur the forgiver for 16 and a half hours we ring the bells and call your names.”

Mouths Wide Open was very happy to have the chance to do the bell ringing and express the personal dimension of these terrible losses. Thank you to all who participated. We send our wish for peace to the souls of the dead.

Merry Conway and Be LaRoe for Mouths Wide Open

click here for a pdf of the 100,000 Rings poster

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