Spaces of Forgetting

[Part of a Series. Introduction: For Movement]

Lisbon, June 2009

From the outside, it looks like a lovely building. Broad and imposing, with a certain faded but still palpable elegance. Like all buildings are at some point in their lives in all cities, it is surrounded by construction gates. The sign says that it is to become, like more and more buildings in more and more cities, luxury condominiums. I think of a friend’s words at a conference a few days before. In the contemporary, he said, inequality is made through making the city. The Portuguese word for “building” is edificio, from the Latin aedis, or dwelling, which itself comes from the Sanskrit inddhh – to burn. Aedis and facere [to make] together make aedificium, to build a dwelling around a hearth, around fire. The word is close to aedes, or temple. It also skirts around aedificare and hence the English “edify” – to improve spiritually. A lot is built in building a building.

This building, more than others, seems to travel through each of the layers of inddhh, aedis, and edificio. Its flames, however, are not of an aedes, but burned to a different end. The building was the headquarters of the PIDE, the dreaded Portuguese secret police that, under the over forty-year rule of the dictator Salazar, captured and tortured many political prisoners in these very rooms. In 1974, the dictatorship was overthrown in a revolution that brought democracy to Portugal, though Salazar himself had died a few years earlier. Standing outside one of the buildings where a dictatorship sought to edify and build another kind of reality, there is scarcely a mark, a sign, or any indication of what it was. No big plaque, no board, no story, no sign. Just the technical specifications of the project that construction companies are required to display. Name of architect. Name of firm. Start date. End date.

I remember other words from a historian friend’s words about the past. He would say that it is the most intimate insight into the present because it only exists in the present. It is made, constructed and contested by us in the present, he says. History is a study of the contemporary. Put that together with the urbanists and geographers – the past is made not just through time but through space. Put those in the city and you see this urbanist’s preoccupation as he stares at a building being converted, constructed and remade.

I ask my Portuguese friend and he says there are days like the 25th of April where the revolution is celebrated. But it is not celebrated equally by all, he says. A recent poll saw the Portuguese elect Salazar as one of the most important Portuguese of the past century. There are no public memorials to over forty years of dictatorship. No museums. No plaques. No public memories. No marks on the city. Perhaps it is too soon, he says. There are still generations of Portuguese who lived here that served under Salazar. Is the past too recent?

Another friend’s paper on public memory about disappeared Tamils in Sri Lanka comes to mind. You must remember, she said, in some way or another in order to cope but there are many who don’t want to remember – memories are caught in a civil war of their own, one that cannot be ended by one last offensive and a cyanide pill necklaced around a throat. My mind flashes to another memory: standing outside the Toul Seng genocide museum in Phnom Penh, a simple municipal school turned into a torture chamber by the Khmer Rouge. I think of the Apartheid Museum in Johhanesburg, and of Truth and Reconcilliation commissions in South Africa and in Rwanda. In all of these, the past is also so recent, but the fight over public memory seems to have taken a different turn.

What explains these differences? How do we choose what to remember and what to forget? Are memories in space different from memories in time? Why? Do they change the city? Do they change us? The Portuguese remember. Of course they do. There has been strong protest against the conversion of the PIDE headquarters into housing. Somewhere, somehow, edificios cannot forget their inhabitants so easily. They must not.

I wonder about my own intentions. In my own head, do I see public memories as somehow bigger, better and stronger? More valid? Why my own surprise at the lack of a memorial? Walking away, because we always travel to see where we left in a different way, I shake my head at my own surprise that Lisbon has no spatialized public memorial to the 1974 revolution and to the end of the dictatorship. There is no memorial for 1984 in Delhi, 1992 in Mumbai, or for 1977 anywhere in India. Saying “1977” doesn’t even evoke a quick identification for me. We, like everyone else, are in our own battles about what to remember.

I think of another small space that few know about in Delhi. On the corner of a main city axis is a small clump of trees. It’s a green part of the city so you wouldn’t notice that the clump is slightly denser than the city trees, or that a small green fence encloses a hidden area within the clump. The area has a small plaque, with five names on it. They were killed in a car crash on that interchange. The mother of one of the boys who died in that attack, a boy who many people tell me I remind of them of, fought her own journey to build that site. Fought the state, fought the police, fought demolition. She needed, she told me once, a site in space, not just in time. There are, no doubt, countless spaces in Lisbon that are silent markers of the dictatorship. Cities always remember, and citizens remember through the spaces of their city. If not collectively, if not publicly, those memories are still part of the city’s space. Perhaps the memories of the everday shape the city far more than plaques and memorials. Perhaps I just need to learn and remember to look differently.

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