Letter from the Artist: Invitation to contribute to The Book of Debts, VIII

Debt  – like love – is a source of human drama and can both make and break social, personal and political bonds. Many of the wars in human history have arisen from – or been manufactured out of – debtor/creditor conflicts or agreements, and yet this is often the hidden agenda, lurking beneath a moral or political stance.

Burning the Books was an idea for a project that I felt compelled to make once, and never thought I would repeat. Arising from personal experiences, it changed the course of my life and work. It began in 2011 in Liverpool and will end in May 2015.

            I create one Book of Debts per location, inviting the public to (anonymously) contribute entries – in person or online. These form the basis of a public recital of The Book, unique to each place, which is then ceremoniously burned. Entries range from unpaid corporate taxes, lost lives, social or political injustices, ecological damage, family feuds and missed opportunities – to numerous debts of gratitude for acts of generosity, kindness or courage.

    I invite you to contribute to The Book of Debts, VIII and to consider what is in your – or our – book of human accounts?  Money, rights, lives, time, love, attention?  Shame, regret, anger, injustice? Who owes what to whom? Do all debts have to be repaid?  How do you repay a debt that is not financial? The Book has been related to in several different ways: as a political provocation, as a form of Jubilee (the periodical forgiveness of debts found in Holy Books) and as a source of healing for past hurts, bordering on the therapeutic. Whatever you think it is, I offer it to you as a playful way of deepening your understanding of this often confusing yet powerful subject  – and the role it plays in both our consciences and communities. With increased understanding comes increased compassion, the antidote to conflict itself.

Alinah Azadeh, September 2014

To contribute to The Book of Debts,VIII, write in The Book at IWMN or contribute via this site  before November 20th when The Book will be recited and burned at 5.30pm outside the Museum, at the end of the ATM14 Symposium. You can also meet Alinah  in the museum with The Book of Debts on November 17/18th, 11.30 -12.30 and 2-4pm.  

Salford/ Manchester


Photo 23-09-2014 17 31 34









The Book of Debts  VIII opened on September 27th and is in residence as part of  Asia Triennial Manchester (ATM14) at Imperial War Museum North until Nov 20th, when it will be recited and burnt at 5.30pm outside the Museum at the end of the symposium ‘Conflict, Compassion, Resolution’. Open and free to the public, meet in the Main Exhibition Space.

Contribute to The Book anytime here until November 20th or visit the Museum.

Alinah will be at the Museum on November 17th/18th  11.30-12.30 and 2-4pm preparing, editing and taking any contributions to The Book in the lead up to the finale.



Meeting beyond belief

Beyond our ideas of right-doing and wrong-doing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about. Ideas, language, even the phrase ‘each other’ doesn’t make sense any more.” Rumi

Book of Debts V recital/burning, Brighton .Daniel Yanez Gonzalez Courtesy Fabrica. 22.5.2014

Book of Debts V recital/burning, Brighton .Daniel Yanez Gonzalez Courtesy Fabrica. 22.5.2014

The Book of Debts is finding a natural resting place in its current home at Navigations, a group show at the magical Red Gallery exploring the nature of belief and part of the Urban Dialogues Arts programme supported by the 3FF – the Three Faith Forum. It sits alongside some very powerful works, curated by fellow artist Barby Asante (who invited me to be part of the show).

I wasn’t familiar with 3FF but it was always my desire (since it has been both at Birmingham Cathedral and part of the Jubilee Debt Campaigns conference ‘Life Before Debt’ ) to place the book at some point in an interfaith context and so it feels like wish fulfilled (or will be once we have burnt the book this coming Sunday). At the opening night festival I felt the energy and power, alongside 450 others, that creativity and dialogue across borders of belief and medium can create and I am expecting the same this weekend.

Many of the ideas for this project were rooted in questioning the impact of beliefs around debt – both positive and negative – for example, those that are synonymous with sin, wrongdoing, judgment and also confession absolution, redemption.  Not to mention the core element of The Book, full of powerful words containing both broken and dishonoured contracts, praise for generosities bestowed, acts of social justice and often soul-searching question on the messy and magical threads of human relationships that bind us to one another. Then, it synthesized into its current form as I found my imaginary role in all this, reading Margaret Atwood’s enriching book Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, where she charts many literary and mythological narratives to explore the multifaceted nature of debt and how it seems to rule us all from birth to death and beyond.

She introduces Thoth and Anubis in the Egyptian underworld, measuring and weighing, and acting as supernatural scribes; Archangel Michael weighing souls; Angel Gabriel, recording and keeping God’s ledger up to date. And then all those notions of last judgments, the scales of justice, sacred laws regarding fairness and charity (and debt itself, in Leviticus), laws regarding the payment of interest in Islam, and my favorite  – the notion of the Jubilee, the periodical forgiveness of all debts and freeing of slaves that is in the Bible, Torah and in some form in other holy books. (Note: this has somehow been phased out centuries ago, though has its remnants in the 6 years duration of a credit record)

I have noticed how many of the debts coming into the current book are emotional /moral ones. Last week I was at the funeral of an old friend. I felt sadness at her loss, but greater sadness in the knowledge that there were a number of mutual friends with whom she had unresolved conflicts, as if something remained unfinished. Despite the English folk saying ‘Death pays all debts’, (though not true in contemporary financial culture where we are bound to pay our deceased relatives’ debts – or in the case of Argentina currently being pursued in court over debts incurred by previous authorities to fund the inhuman actions of the junta.), I still ask my self, what happens to these loose ends? If you’re Buddhist there is karma and in many theological stories these loose ends come back to haunt you in the next life.

How we negotiate our own set of human accounts, or own loose ends spoken or unspoken, may be dependent on our relationship to our own moral compass as either external – a third part god or deity, or internal – the god/divinity/deep knowledge in us that is more characteristic of the mystic and secular traditions. And on whether we believe in the power of an intermediary (Jesus, a priesthood etc.) or have simply our own selves to face in dealing with what remains unpaid, forgiven, unbalanced or unaccounted for.

Debt  – like many grand themes – is a morally and emotionally dense subject with no clear cut answers and the only real elements that can penetrate the confronting moral confusion that often arise from reflecting or voicing it is the transformative power of sharing and making things public in appropriate contexts, of which are can be one.  capacity that human beings to work together to address injustices in a human but rigorous way (truth and reconciliation hearings, jubilee debt campaign etc.) and to empathies, to feel compassion for suffering and to work on the idea that is at the core of a lot of social, political and cross-cultural initiatives right now, that one persons suffering is on some level, whether visible or not, everyone’s suffering, that every human action, interaction and response matters in an interdependent world.

So, as I work with this subject which can be so very divisive, evoking sometimes suspicious, angry or painful responses (as well as wide-eyed recognition and relief in being able to articulate on the subject),  I get more and more inspired at the finales when either someone’s understanding of the subject, and compassion for themselves or another has visibly increased, in the alchemical process which is a communal ritual, which acts as the core of the final performance.

In Roman Krznarics recent book Empathy: a Handbook for Revolution  (which I highly recommend) he talks about the role that culture has long had to play in the evolution of an empathic consciousness, beginning with literature, quoting George Eliot thus:

‘Art is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow –men beyond the bounds of our personal lot’

To read or contribute to the current Book of Debts, you can go online or visit the Red Gallery by Sunday afternoon. Volume VII will be recited and burned as the finale to the Navigations show at 5pm this Sunday September 21st, in collaboration with the Mixed- up Chorus. Events start from 1pm, Free. Info here.