I’m drawn to group thinking, it’s erotic charge, the excitement that emerges from minds colliding around a sentence or a paragraph whose meaning keeps resisting us. There are books I would only want to read with others (shout out to my beloved Debt reading group)– typically, these books address their audience with a sense of urgency.
Of reading groups, more than the content, I remember the hesitant tone of an argument nervously made, the unexpected alliances formed in a room, or the palpable tensions resolved in the articulation of a shared impression. I have joined and left these rooms multiple times. When Jens Maier Rothe, Lore Deselys, and Siska, the curators of Redeem, an artistic platform connecting a growing network of artists from Beirut who now live in Berlin, (a city where they found refuge after or before the port explosion, financial bankruptcy and other ongoing calamities), asked me if I wanted to contribute to their project, I suggested reading Inflamed: Deep Medicine and the Anatomy of Injustice by Raj Patel and Rupa Marya. In suggesting this, I hoped that the book would help me find language to describe the slew of chronic symptoms I had been struggling with for years that I was unable to put language to or diagnose other than through vague descriptions of bodily sensations: a thickening on the side of my neck, soreness in my hips, an overall sense of heaviness. The pandemic, collapsing healthcare system and private pain that led to the book and the subsequent formation of the reading group all exist in a dimensional blur whereby I was trying to understand something as I was experiencing it.
There was Lore , Jessika, Jesse, Yalda, Setareh, Miha, Caitlin, Mattin, Jumana, Khalid, Anna, and James—friends with whom I once shared a city, an ex, a building, dance floor, and more friends, although few showed up more than once. We took notes on Post-Coronialism, a platform Jessika co-created with Solveig Suess and Alberto Granzotto. We began using expressions such as “the history of my exposome” (“the sum of lifetime exposure to non-genetic drivers from conception to death”). We took notes: “This dualism of mind and body is fundamental to colonial cosmology and permeates every institution created through colonialism—especially medicine.” “Healing needs healing” and “the etymology of 'conspiracy': is breathing together.”
We discussed the way air, like any other “resource,” is unevenly distributed (Anne Boyer, The Heavy Air). The word “agnotology” (“the condition where more knowledge of a subject creates greater uncertainty”) appears in the notes, just below the mention of The Sick Building Syndrome and the Problem of Uncertainty although I don’t recall the presence of the book in our discussions. Johanna Hedva’s Letter to a Young Doctor also appears and was read aloud, I remember.
I also remember the chapter on immunity and the language around it, how the book was skeptical of the martial lexicon related to illness, as if health could only result from a defeat, the crushing of an enemy and patrolling of unwelcomed organisms. What is foreign must be kept outside imagined yet violently enforced borders. We lingered on the etymology of the word “immunity” (“an exemption from performing public service or charge” “a class of foreign residents who, under the Roman Empire, were exempt from certain kinds of duties”). To be immune is to be foreign from within, not unlike the community of diasporic artists that formed the reading group.
We also dedicated a session to mothering and motherhood. Making Love and Relations Beyond Settler Sex and Family by Kim TallBear, which appears in our notes, seems important. The notes remain as traces of what was said, or an archive of the distance between the actual conversation and its documentation—what was said might have been entirely different, in fact, these notes only stand for a fraction of otherwise tentacular conversations that eventually fizzled out as the group dissolved and the pandemic entered a phase of normalization. I realize that these recollections are partial and biased and don’t do justice to the contribution of each participant, and that my use of quotation marks don’t include the original source it is quoted from. Most of the quotes come from the notes and the notes come from our conversation of the book (as well as other references with no direct connection to the book). I also realize that what I was seeking from the book—language to express how the numbness in my feet and my pain in my hips are the outcome of forces larger than their singular manifestation— only exists beyond the book. To heal healing, explanation or written theory isn’t sufficient; the book must extend itself to a room full of conspiring bodies.
I’d like to thank Lore Deselys for her organizing efforts in bringing the group together and Jessika Khazrik for providing the platform Post-coronialism, as well as all the reading group participants: Jesse Darling, Yalda Younes, Setareh Shahbazi, Miha Brebnel, Caitlin Berrigan, Mattin, Jumana Manna, Khalid El-Awad, Anna Ptak, James Goodwin, and Redeem for their initial invitation.