Tomorrow’s Myths - Eman Abdelhadi and M. E. O’Brien - Sharaner Maash, or a haunting from the time before

Sharaner Maash, or a haunting from the time before

Eman Abdelhadi and M. E. O’Brien

Long Island Sound, ca. 1760–1800. Source: Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library, New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Tomorrow’s Myths
May 2023

My friend Latif,

I’m on Fire Island, and I met a ghost. I had to tell you, and apparently the only way to do so is a handwritten letter! They cut off our phones and augs. This is such a bizarre format, but here we are.

I think I told you that I had decided to go to that memory thing Belquees invited me to. She called it a Sharaner Maash. So, two days ago, I arrived here on the ferry. I love the beach, and the island isn’t flooded this time of year. Horribly hot, but the marsh has shade and we can swim in the ocean.

We are sleeping in a campground that is set up in the marsh about a ten-minute walk from Cherry Grove. Belquees’s friend Nourah was assigned a tent near mine—do you know her? Short, curly hair? Chicago-based? That first night we were both clueless and both looking for Belquees, so we stuck together and explored the grounds.

Belquees stayed vague when I asked about this all, so the ghosts came as a surprise. The first night they walked out of the marsh suddenly while we were milling around waiting for things to start. Nourah called out, pointing as the first ghost came walking up towards us. Others trailed behind them. I had seen the holo projectors mounted on trees, but it still came as a shock. In a few minutes we were surrounded.

It was chaotic. The ghosts started talking to us. They seemed to have no idea where they were, what they were doing here. I realized that based on their dress and accents, they were most likely holos of pre-rev people. That filled me with dread. I have never really understood people from the time before. I hate to say it, but I think they disgust me a bit. I never got into the popular historical dramas set in the twenties. I love early century horror films, but slasher movies don’t help me make sense of their sad lives.

One ghost came up to me. She was a brown woman dressed in a weird monochrome outfit. She was so agitated, she kept asking me if I could help her get to “Elmhurst Hospital.” I asked if she was injured, she said she worked as a Nurse’s Assistant. She kept saying, “I won’t get in before curfew unless I leave now.” I have no idea what a curfew is. I kept thinking about her afterwards though.

Belquees and the other organizers clearly put a lot into historical authenticity, because the people felt real. The holo projectors were spread through the whole campsite, so the ghosts could appear and go anywhere. You can see through them, but it still feels like a presence. It’s creepy, in ways both exciting and unpleasant. I dread the idea of having to spend a month having much of anything to do with that past, but I like the horror genre elements of it all.

Do you want more letters? My hand hurts writing this, but I’d do it if you will actually read them. I need to figure out how this letter sending thing works too. Let me know you got this.

—Kayla D. H. Puan
Friday, 2 Aug. 2086, Cherry Grove, Fire Island, Mid-Atlantic


Sun., August 4, 2086


I got your letter girl. Yes! Please write more. I am actually really excited to hear about your experience. It connects up to my current project.

Remember how I got into hospice work a few years back? When Matt overdosed, it hit me hard. I realized I had to think a lot more about death. I’ve spent my life doing gestational support, and it felt like the next step. Long story, but eventually I got involved in building a memorial at Hart Island in the Bronx. I’ve moved into the City Island Commune to work on it. I think what you are doing is a variation on a project from Rio called mêses de memória. I heard Belquees took a clipper trip to Rio last year to research them. The memorial park at Hart is a similar model. I am worried I might be giving too much away if I tell you details about the project, as you seem like you actually have the chance to discover it by actually experiencing it. So cool.

We are still in an early design phase of the park, so I’d love to hear more about how things are structured there. Like are you with the “ghosts” the whole time? Are you mostly with one or are you meeting lots of different people? I love that you are calling them ghosts, that really resonates. Do you think they know they are dead?

—Latif Timbers
City Island Commune, Long Island Sound



Oh, that is wild. I knew you were involved with something about Hart since you moved up to the Bronx, but I had no idea it was about this memory stuff. Tell me more about Hart Island. It’s a graveyard, right? Where does the name Hart come from? If you are doing holos of dead people, what do you base them on?

The ghosts come and go. I keep running into the woman I mentioned. I try to avoid her gaze to be honest. She makes me so uncomfortable, just radiating anxiety. She keeps asking me about the hospital. I finally had to make up some story about how she was in an accident and was here to recoup. She seems confused, about the decade, the being a dead holo thing, and a lot else.

Because our phones don’t work here, I had to find a bot to explain what a curfew is. Apparently, the armies or police from the time before would ban people from walking around the street at a particular time. And you could die or be locked up if you “broke curfew.” Can you imagine living like that? How did these people put up with that? It’s pathetic.

No one has claimed the second bunk in my tent, should I offer it to Nourah? Her tent-mate didn’t show either.

—KDHP, 6 August 2086 (Tuesday), Fire Island


(Next day!)


It is totally a ghost story, I was right. I haven’t sent you yesterday’s letter yet. Last night when I got to my tent, there were two surprises.

The first was a note, signed by Belquees. I should have realized with the Bangla name that this whole thing was her deal. She wrote:

By now, you’ve met your partners on this journey. Each of them died an unmarked death. They were not buried properly, mourned properly. It is your job to shepherd them out of this life with a kindness they could not have in the time before. In so doing, you will learn about their time and, we hope, come to better appreciate your own.

The dead who haven’t been grieved right, that is definitionally a haunting. I’ve always been into ghosts in my photography and film work, and I loved watching old ghost stories. I am not sure I want to be in one though.

It all got more intense when that anxious woman wandered into my tent and sat on the other bunk. She has been assigned to me! Apparently, many of the ghosts drifted off through the afternoon, and those left moved into tents.

I finally asked the woman about her life. I have been replaying it in my head ever since. Here’s what I remember.

My name is Feroza. I was born and raised in a slum on the outskirts of Dhaka. My dad drove a rickshaw, my mom cooked and cleaned and took care of us. My brothers and sisters and I would help her out when we could. I was good at school. When I got good marks, my parents told me to focus on studying. My siblings all stopped going after grammar school, but I kept going. Everyone worked except me, I felt bad about that. I begged my mom to let me work with my sister; our aunt had gotten her a job cleaning rich people’s houses in the city. But my job was to study. I studied and studied and studied. I even got all the way to university. Our whole neighborhood celebrated when I graduated from high school. Everyone bought food and sweets. I wore my mother’s best sharee and felt like a bride that day.

I met my husband at university. Osman and I were both from poor areas and everyone knew it. We studied together and talked about our dreams. I wanted a life outside the slums, but his dreams were even further away. He wanted to take us to America. He finished his degree before me and made his way over to New York. The only work he could find was driving a taxi, nothing in engineering. He got tired, and finally sent for me. I knew I would need to work. A woman in my building, another Bangladeshi lady who became like a sister to me, introduced me to a rich family in Manhattan that needed a housekeeper. I ended up cleaning houses with my sister after all. I started studying for my nursing assistant license nights after work. Then we had Belquees.

That was when it all kind of crashed down inside me.

“Belquees? Belquees Chowdhury?” I asked.

All these things about Belquees’ family started whirling in my head. I remembered suddenly where I had heard the hospital name. Oh Latif, my chest hurt, and I almost started crying. I excused myself and ran outside. I felt overwhelmed. I sat by the fire for a long time thinking of Belquees. Of her father, still in love with Feroza after all these years, still mourning her. I had forgotten Feroza’s name; in my memory she was just Belquees’ mother.

You must remember what happened to Elmhurst, to Belquees’ mother?

I am crying now as I write this. Fuck history, I hate it. I have always told myself that people from before were weak, that I would have fought back harder, I wouldn’t have just suffered like they did. I hate them. I don’t like it here. I want to go back to Newark, to be home.

I’ll send these both in the morning with the ferry mail.

—Kayla/7 Aug./Wed.


Friday, August 9, 2086


I’m anxious to hear what happened. Yes, mourning those that haven’t been grieved adequately, that is part of the whole idea of memorial parks and the mêses de memória. Please write again.

You asked about Hart Island. It was used for a century as a burial ground for the extremely poor and many imprisoned people of New York City. Over a million people are buried there. It has mass graves from three pandemics—AIDS in the twentieth century, COVID in the twenties, and LARS from the forties. No one knows the origin of the name Hart. There hasn’t been any connection established to the early settler family with that name. It is land of the Siwanoy, but we don’t think they had a name for it.

We are designing these holos to be run by AIs. Everything is based on historical people buried on the island. We construct their personality drivers through social media, bureaucratic records, and recorded video calls. We imagine the holos will be sitting or standing near where the person they are based on is buried. They’ll have conversations with people who come by, recounting to visitors the stories of their lives. But there is a lot we haven’t worked out.

Much of our current memorial design is trying to explain to park visitors the basic concepts of poverty and houselessness. But I don’t want the holos to just be pedagogical tools for kids. I want to—to hold the dead. I feel like if anyone would have given some thought to taking seriously the import of honoring the past, it would be Belquees.

I recommend, as a friend, sticking with the whole thing. I trust Belquees and know you do too. I hear you that it is painful.

—Latif Timbers, City Island, Bronx



It has been an intense week since I last wrote to you. The night I figured out who Feroza was, I couldn’t sleep at all. I crashed the next day, sleeping until sundown. I didn’t want to tell her what happened to Elmhurst, I didn’t want to face any of it. I know it is not my trauma, but meeting her brought up so much. I went through a phase when I was young, around my sojourn, of learning to grieve my father. I went to where he was killed fighting fascists in Colorado and did a whole ceremony for him. But mostly I’m not someone who spends time in the past.

When Feroza was assigned to my tent, I already felt pretty … frayed. Like worn thin and vulnerable and more open than I’d like. I have heard from my parents and my crèche and the movies about how people lived. But talking with the ghosts those first few days it felt—closer. Like they were all so stressed about food, money, housing, health. Everything was about money and scarcity and desperation. “They all look so tired,” that was Nourah’s comment.

The day after Feroza came to my tent, when I finally dragged myself out of bed towards dusk, we started talking. I avoided the heavier topics. Strangely, Feroza and I actually really hit it off. We are about the same age, but kind of pretended like we were adolescent girls at camp. Since then, we have spent a lot of time together. We went ocean kayaking (me lugging around a portable holo projector!), we went to calisthenics, we did a pottery project together. She used holographic clay. It was a little silly. We got along really well. We could make each other laugh, it was sweet and kind and really fun. The silliness helped us talk.

She decided I was an older friend of Belquees; at one point she said I was probably one of her daughter’s school teachers. I asked her to tell me stories about Belquees as a small child, and Feroza had some really good ones. Apparently, one time, Belquees got mad at a guard at a military checkpoint and her parents had to carry her off before she started hitting him. She kept yelling—in Bangla or English, I’m not sure—“You show respect to my daddy!” Another time, she was beaten up trying to defend a kid who was being bullied in her grade.

Feroza also asked me about my life. I told her about my many parents, my photography teaching, about having a child with my five-set, and the life of the commune at Ironbound. I tried to be careful not to reveal too much about the discrepancies between our timelines. I think at some point she just decided to roll with the incongruities and strangeness of her being here and it all not matching up.

I found myself really caring about her, and I pushed myself to not just tune it out when she said stuff I didn’t understand. There was so much I didn’t understand, still don’t. The desperation, the exhaustion, the fear she carries every day. I couldn’t fathom how hard she worked. Eight hours! Twelve hours! So incredibly long. Over and over and over and over. She didn’t seem to notice how terrible that all was. I wanted her to hate it, I wanted her to get angry. I would push her, but she always said, “We make do.”

I know you read a lot of history. Some of these words are probably more familiar to you than they have been to me. Sometimes I make a mental list of words to look up next time I find a bot. But “make do”! Make do I still cannot understand. I will not understand. It is everything weak and sad and terrible in the world before.

Feroza told me about her neighbor whose cancer treatments used up their families’ “savings.” The neighbor died anyway, when the hospital shut down right after they had paid a deposit on her surgery. I barely understand what money was, but their whole lives—their literal lives—were ruled by it! No other hospital would take her as LARS-47 had already taken off, and no one could afford another deposit anyway. Then at the end of the story, again she shook her head and said, “We make do.”

I was worked up, so I asked her “What does that mean, when you say you ‘make do’?”

“It means we try our best with what we have.”

I lost it.

“You try your best? That was your best?! I’ve read about your time! They were living in mansions! They had personal yards as big as this island! There were people with their own private orbitals, their own private armies. There were people drinking flecks of gold on cappuccinos! You let them run all over you and your people. What was wrong with you? We’d never let that happen now. I don’t understand, I will never understand what you people were doing.” I stomped off, already regretting my outburst.

I fucked it up, the whole experiment. I am supposed to be caring for this broken person, but instead I shamed her over her friend’s death. I hate them for not fighting harder. Like they just lived with their souls crushed out of them. I told you once that I felt like human history began with the communes, with the revolution, and I wasn’t entirely joking. Living under the rule of money was already death; they were never alive in the first place.

It’s been a few hours since all this happened. I’m still very worked up. I’ll write to you again when I calm down.


Kayla DH Puan, 14 August 2086 (Wednesday afternoon)


14 August (Wed. night, same day)

I avoided Feroza through a lot of the afternoon. When I finally went back to the tent, she really laid into me. She was so mad. Here is what I remember.

You think you are better than me. You are from the future, I can tell. You won’t tell me, but I have heard other people talking, I get it. I don’t understand how it is possible, but it doesn’t make you better than me. Do you know how we fought? We fought every day to stay alive. We fought over and over for something better, even when we failed. They tried to close our hospital last month. We wouldn’t let them. We’re running it for the people. We took it over. We were not going to let them shut another hospital down. We’re not taking any money; we are giving healthcare to everyone who needs it. We took over the supplies, we’re our own bosses now. We’re working for us, for each other, for our sick friends and neighbors and family members. We’re feeding ourselves, but it’s hard, it is so hard. We’re not the first ones you know. To try. Others before us have done it for generations. After storms and fires, during protests and occupations and disasters, in the midst of battles. We took care of each other.

But we fail, again and again. I know we fail, but that doesn’t mean we were weak. We were always up against so much. We are up against it now. The curfews are getting more strict. The army is closing in. I know I will die in that hospital. I feel it in my bones. And when I do, others will come in and try again. Because it’s that, that’s what makes us human. I don’t know which generation will win. But I know every generation will try. You are from that time, aren’t you, after it all? After someone wins. I am not stupid. I see what you are. Your contempt, your confidence, your ease. You don’t understand me at all.

We were quiet. I told her that she does die in that hospital. She asked the year she died—2049—and it was the present for her. She asked how. I finally told her the longer version that Belquees told us after our oral histories were published. I told her how the hospital occupation was a huge inspiration for communization throughout New York City. About how it went on for months and became successful as a vision of healthcare for need, beyond the money economy. About the US army bombing the building, killing everyone inside, including her. About how her family couldn’t find her body, despite days of searching, because no one was identifiable. And how this was a pivot in the struggle in New York, about the communes and assemblies and driving the army and police out and that we did win, we did finally win. I told her what they did at the hospital was key in it all.

She asked about me knowing Belquees. “Yes, your daughter is my friend. Belquees. She goes on to do great things, talks about you all the time. Osman-Uncle too. They keep you alive, in memory.”

She asked why she was here. I said, for her janazah.

She is sleeping now in the cot. I will be going to sleep soon. I feel pretty sure she won’t be here when I wake up. I get it now, what we are doing here.

—Kayla DH Puan


Aug. 16


Holding you close, my friend. I know you aren’t into religion, but keeping both you and Feroza in my prayers today.

—Latif, City Island Commune


My beloved friend, Latif—

We just finished the ghusl. After Feroza disappeared, I spent the next two days building a sculpture in her likeness. They had all the materials to do it here. Then another two days glued to a bot, learning everything I could about the proper way to wash a Muslim body, to prepare it for burial, to send it to the next life.

The day of her ghusl, Belquees and her father Osman joined me.

“I knew I could trust you with this,” she said. We washed Feroza from head to toe in warm water, gently massaging her hair, her hands, her feet. We wrapped her gently in a sheet of cotton and carried her to her grave. We lowered her into the earth, and Belquees cried and recited Quran.

The other campers gathered, and I told Feroza’s story. I had not really known the past. I thought they had all had their spirits ripped from their bodies, and were all just empty shells of defeat. I thought they weren’t like us, just the false consciousness they warned us about in crèche. The commune, I thought, was the beginning of humanity, when we went from pathetic broken things to full creative beings in charge of our destinies. But Feroza was human. Feroza was human all along. Feroza was gloriously and beautifully human even in defeat. She missed the commune by three years, but helped birth it. She did not wait for it to give her life, she was life.

I come home soon. I have a couple of other memorials to help with before I do. I’d like to see you, to spend some time together.

I’d like to help you with the memorial park. I can tell you one meaning of the word “Hart,” because it is one of my middle names. A hart is an old word for a deer, often an adult red deer. There aren’t any more red deer now. They were fast, usually furtive, and so beautiful. My parents saw one when they were on a group hiking trip in Vermont. That day they decided my old name, and included Hart in its honor. When I took my new name, that was the one I kept. That was one of the last times anyone anywhere reported seeing a red deer. I imagine that maybe the deer had already gone extinct, and my parents saw a ghost. Maybe I’ll design a holo of a red deer to roam the island. There is so much to grieve.

Thank you for the letters. I love you so much Latif.

Your comrade and friend,

Kayla Dorothy Hart Puan
Sunday, 22 August 2086
Cherry Grove, Fire Island, Mid-Atlantic Seaboard, North America

Tomorrow’s Myths is a collaboration between e-flux Architecture and “2086: Together How?,” the Korean Pavilion at the 18th International Architecture Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia curated by Soik Jung and Kyong Park.

Architecture, Urbanism
Fiction, Futures, Artificial intelligence, Death
Return to Tomorrow’s Myths

This story is a continuation of the authors’ speculative novel, Everything for Everyone: An Oral History of the New York Commune, 2052–2072 (Common Notions, 2022).

Eman Abdelhadi is an assistant professor in the Department of Comparative Human Development at the University of Chicago.

M. E. O’Brien writes and speaks on gender freedom and capitalism.


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