A Field of Flowers

The first of five responses to the May 2017 bombing of Manchester Arena by scholar, artist, and educator Asif Majid.

Note from the author:
In this series of time-delayed field reports, I reflect on my observations of the sociopolitical responses to the 2017 Manchester attack, responses that have taken place over the past year. They appear within the city of Manchester, across the UK, and around the world. All five posts, the first of which is below and the remainder of which will be archived here, lead up to the first anniversary of the attack on May 22, 2018. The italicized portions of each post are my original thoughts, while the regular text represents more recent reflections. Much of this is linked to my ongoing research as a PhD candidate in the Anthropology, Media, and Performance program at The University of Manchester.

I recently took a walk through central Manchester, a city that has a history of refining and shipping cotton all over the world. The downtown area is laden with a sense of what was — walking through the street, I can feel the weight of imperial pasts, presents, and futures. Most buildings in this part of the city were paid for by cotton. And although the honeybee is the city’s mascot, demonstrating its hard-working and community-oriented nature, the cotton flower is Manchester’s other major symbol. It appears in tilework and mosaics in and on notable buildings around the city, including the town hall where the City Council and the Mayor have offices. The cotton flower also appears in another important place in Manchester, the one that my walk unexpectedly took me to: St. Ann’s Square. At one end of the square is a statue of 19th-century reformer and former Member of Parliament Richard Cobden. At the other is a fountain, sculpted in the shape of a cotton bud. But it’s what was in between the two that I want to focus on here: flowers. Not just one or two, but rather hundreds upon thousands.

Since the attack on Manchester arena on May 22, St. Ann’s Square has become a constant floral vigil. Mourners from across the city and country have come to pay their respects to the 23 people who died in the attack — most reports say 22, discounting the life of the attacker, Salman Abedi — leaving messages and cards, teddy bears and balloons, candles and flowers. While the oldest blooms have started to wilt, the newest remain bright, bought from flower shops or the ad hoc stall set up just outside the nearby St. Ann’s Church for which the square is named. Handwritten notes accompany the bouquets, poems in chalk decorate the sidewalks, and mourners hold one another while taking pictures and selfies alike.

Critical theorist Judith Butler has a term for the types of lives that Abedi’s was: “ungrievable.” For Butler, this relates to those lives that we can mourn and those that we can’t. Abedi, as a minority from a Muslim background who committed a heinous act, is one of those lives, evidenced by the fact that he is never included in the count of people who died in the 2017 attack. Somehow, an act of violence makes his life less worthy of being remembered. Indeed, some mosques refused to perform Islamic funeral rites on his behalf.

Once a public square, St. Ann’s has now turned into hallowed ground. Almost as if it is sacred, the perimeter of the field has been cordoned off using velvet rope that you might find outside a regal movie theatre or delimiting a red carpet. Transgressing the rope barrier is only possible to contribute to mourning, by laying flowers or tying a balloon. It is a physical example of the Qur’anic concept of barzakh, a principle that famed 13th-century Sufi philosopher Ibn ‘Arabi understood as the interstitial barrier between life and death. Regularly named as angels in messages and cards left at the makeshift memorial, the victims of the attack have become otherworldly and holy in their deaths, their innocence imagined as cherubic and childlike. Their departure within the cordoned off square is a transcendental truth, leaving the mortal among us to reflect and remember while passing along and looking in from the outside.

City officials report that the temporary tribute will need to be “respectfully relocated” at some point soon, in advance of developing a more permanent memorial in consultation with the victims’ families and their wishes. Indeed, given enough time, flowers decompose and die, as do all things. British mourners have known this for some time, as floral outpourings of sympathy for victims of violence have become a theme since the passing of Princess Diana in 1997 led to mountains of flowers being placed outside royal buildings throughout the country. In some instances, they took six weeks or more to be cleared. The improvised memorial that is St. Ann’s Square echoes the temporary garden recently set up on the grounds of Kensington Palace to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Princess’ passing this year.

Manchester has responded with a field of flowers and balloons, candles and teddy bears to the deadliest terrorist attack in Britain since 7/7. How it will carry on this legacy of remembrance in one, five, and twenty years’ time, however, remains to be seen.

Plans for memorials are ongoing, with organizers of the memorial efforts preferring to take their time rather than rush into a particular form of commemoration. Flowers have already been donated to the Whitworth Art Gallery, where they will be preserved or pressed into memorial books. Other materials are being maintained at the city’s two major libraries: Manchester Central Library and the John Rylands Library. A host of events are planned for the upcoming anniversary, including a memorial service at Manchester Cathedral, a minute of silence at the preceding weekend’s Great Manchester Run, and a public vigil in the city’s central Albert Square.

Asif Majid was born outside Baltimore, MD. His mother grew up in Tanzania on the shores of Lake Victoria, and later became an avid gardener and public health expert. His father grew up in northern Pakistan as a poetry enthusiast and budding engineer. As an infant, Asif enjoyed playing pots and pans at his mother’s feet, resulting in a lifelong passion for performance that has led him to mosques, schools, churches, cafés, festivals, treetops, concert halls, and community centers. He graduated summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, and valedictorian from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, where he designed his own major focusing on peace and conflict. Asif then earned an MA with distinction in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University, during which time he devised and assistant directed Generation (Wh)Y: Global Voices on Stage at The Lab. Currently, he is pursuing a practice-based PhD in Anthropology, Media, and Performance at The University of Manchester, for which he is doing an ethnography of devising theater with British Muslim youth. As an educator, Asif has engaged thousands of young people in the United States and abroad through summer programs, Model UN activities, and work at Arena Stage, Seeds of Peace, and Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Talented Youth, using online and theatrical simulations to develop their understandings of racism, identity, and conflict.