The End of Beauty
At 8.30 am on the 9th of August this year, the driver of a school bus parked up on the main road of a busy market area in the town of Dahyaan, in the Saada province of Yemen. The driver parked near a number of small shops and next to a street food restaurant. Traders whizzed by on bicycles carrying their wares in baskets; schoolchildren passed by carrying their backpacks.
The driver got out to buy water from a supermarket and took it back to the bus for the schoolchildren. Then he went to get himself a sandwich. As he returned to the bus it was hit by a US manufactured, Saudi Arabian fired rocket, killing 40 of the children on board.
The father of one of the murdered schoolchildren, Mohammed al Haraji, described the moment of the attack as the ‘end of beauty’ and for many days loved ones experienced great difficulty in separating and identifying one deceased child from another.
Reporting of this incident largely came and went in line with the function it served as part of the rolling news cycle. By contrast, reporting of the recent killing of Saudi journalist and critic, Jamal Khashoggi, has ridden the breaking waves for the last week and continues to do so. In being complicit in the killing of Khashoggi in Turkey the Saudi Arabian government has only now been deemed to have violated established norms; their complicity in firing a rocket at a school bus didn’t quite achieve this. The political reverberations following the killing of Khashoggi have been much greater and the media interest wider and more prolonged.
In 1985 Sarah Kane’s debut play Blasted premiered at London’s Royal Court Theatre. The first two acts feature the disturbing sexual relationship between an older man and a vulnerable young woman with apparent learning disabilities. The play is set in a cheap hotel room in Leeds. And then, two thirds of the way into the play, a bomb blast destroys one wall, and from outside a brutal unspecified foreign conflict breaks through into the reality of the dramatic world, bringing with it a violent series of non-naturalistic dramatic moments that resulted in shock, panic and critical rejection for this young playwright.
But Sarah Kane continued to write. She was supported by the theatre community and wrote five more plays before she took her own life four years later at the age of 28. During her short life Blasted was rightly reappraised as a modern classic and following her death, as is the way, was elevated to the status of masterpiece.
What is it this play understood? It’s this: it’s a school bus in Dahyaan; it’s the lives we lead; it’s the relationship between the two which is otherwise impossible to understand and intolerable to sustain. How can we tolerate the awareness of the incident which happened at 8.30 am on August 9th this year just after a bus driver had bought a sandwich in a busy, crowded market town? We can’t and we don’t and we won’t. And the horror of what ensues in the play, following the intrusion of war, shows exactly why we can’t and don’t and won’t.
Two or three months ago Motor Neurone Disease (ALS) started to diminish my bladder and bowel functioning. With my left hand I still just about have strength to piss into a bottle. Life will be easier when I don’t. Just as it will be easier when my feeding tube has been fitted so that I no longer have to chew to digest my food. I mention all this because I can see the horror on my own mother’s face as she looks at me. I also know that not all friends will have the stomach to see their relationship with me through to the end: to the point when I am lifted by a hoist to have my diapers changed. It’s just too much. I know I have a disease and I face an experience with my wife and children that is too much. But here we will be, like the father in Daahyan or the couple in the hotel in Blasted. We will exist outside; our bombs on mute; our lives apart from others because they cannot be commodified or easily integrated or tolerated. I always admired Sarah Kane’s Blasted but I now understand it with a closeness and clarity that I could never have previously possessed.
But what about the end of beauty? This life outside and separate and intolerable. Was the father of this boy correct? Had he glimpsed the end? Is this sadness or destruction or grief the end of beauty?
No, it’s not that; not for me. Nor is it the end of beauty for this father who buried the remains of his son in Dahyaan, even though profound shock and grief informs him that it is. And even as extreme violence, mutilation and cannibalism envelop the dramatic landscape of Blasted it remains an exquisitely beautiful play. A play about peace, as the playwright herself said. Nor for Sarah Kane would it have been the end of beauty, as she contemplated the end of life. Why should we assume that it would be? There can never be nothing, no matter how much is destroyed. It’s never the end of beauty.
If you are the person in this life buying arms: a shotgun, a surface to air missile or the warhead for a trident submarine – you really should be asking for your money back. Whatever promises are made at the point of purchase, it won’t bring about the level of destruction that it says on the packet, just as it will never bring about the pop & fizz that fills your daydreams. Standing sloppily as you do at the munitions checkout with your wallet and your mouth wide open, you have deceived yourself. And everyone sees you. And everyone knows you. You can’t destroy everything. It’s never the end of beauty.
by joe hammond
With thanks to Orla Guerin for her interview with the bus driver. First broadcast on BBC Radio ‘World Tonight’ on Oct 16th, 2018
cover photo by Jane Brown
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