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Syria Speaks: art and culture from the frontline

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Syria Speaks‘ – published by Saqi Books (London) in 2014 – is an anthology of artistic expressions (essays, excerpts, installations, comics, graffiti, pictures, videos, banners etc.) that tell today’s Syria and celebrate the creativity and resilience of a people demanding freedom of expression.

Between 2012 and 2013, the editors, Malu Halasa, Zaher Omareen and Nawara Mahfoud, worked on an exhibition on the arts flourished since the 2011 uprising. The exhibition toured northern Europe, from Amsterdam (Prince Claus Fund Gallery), to Copenhagen (Roundtower) and London. The anthology was born out of this experience, says Malu Halasa.

The question underlying the book is: what is the value of art and culture amid the Syrian tragedy? What is the role of art and culture within a revolution? ‘Syria Speaks‘ provides an answer in its very first page

Creativity is not only a way of surviving the violence, but of challenging it.

In order to explain the extraordinary importance of the revolutionary art, Malu Halasa talked about the cultural landscape of Assad’s Syria (that is, the Syrian Arab Republic since 1971). The book defines it a “forty-year-long history of silence“. Malu Halasa says,

The cultural landscape before the uprising was for the most part state controlled. Sometimes in theatre or in film there could be some kind of ‘letting the steam out’ ie the odd dissident idea would be aired but for the most part art and culture were heavily regulated or had some kind of regime control over it or regime approval.

(Dissent existed, of course. For years, prisons were filled with political dissidents and troublesome artists.) This is why, as the uprising commenced, a flow of free expression flooded the entire Syria. A flood that surprised the custodians of the official culture, themselves.

It was one of the first times throughout the country that people expressed themselves. Prior to the 2011 Syrians were hesitant to join civil society initiatives because it would bring the attention of the mukhabarat or secret police on them. Once there was a countrywide movement towards expression, as Ali Ferzat maintains, the barrier of fear in Syria was broken.

This is what the Syrian revolution was about, originally. It was a non-violent, socially inclusive, cultural and aesthetic movement. It was Bashar alAssad‘s regime that introduced the narrative of sectarianism, states Malu Halasa. It created a climate of terror and violence, forcing the people to react to daily brutality, to the killings and the rapes. As ‘Syria Speaks‘ puts it,

art is a tool of resistance […] emblematic of a life that is shared, not destroyed

It will shelter Syrians from the regime as well as from any other form of integralism. All over Syria, unique and original visual vocabularies sprang. As in the case of Kartoneh in Deir al-Zour, and their chalk banners and cartoons, or in the case of Kafranbel.

Furthermore, the Syrians started telling their own stories and narrating their lives. Citizens became journalists and started documenting what happens in Syria with hundreds of thousands of testimonies – often with low-quality mobile phone videos. In fact, the Syrian revolution is “the most YouTubed“. People were so outraged at the lack of media coverage on violence and massacres, says Malu Halasa, that started reporting the news personally, at the risk of their own lives, and publishing the material on the internet, with no caption nor subtext. The movement of citizen-journalists organised to acquire equipment and smuggling cameras in the country. They made up for the censorship in the media of the regime and for the absence of international press.

It was a mass consciousness movement that was in part started and organised by Mazin Darwish and Rezan Zeitouneh.

(Darwish spent three years in prison until his release last August.)

From the streets to Assad’s prisons, ‘Syria Speaks‘ is one of the few volumes to include prison memoirs. They belong to Darwish, to his wife Yara Badr, who was arrested in 2012 along with her colleagues of the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression, and Dara Abdallah. They have an illustrious predecessor, Mustafa Khalifa, who wrote ‘The Shell, in 2008. It is on the wall of a solitary confinement cell in al-Khatib Branch, Damascus, that a prisoner, Abu Khaled al-Saaour, wrote:

Crushing the flowers will not delay the blossom of spring.

The great merit of this volume, that includes an impressive amount of diverse and profound artistic expressions, culturally and aesthetically considerable, is that it gives the Syrians a voice. Using different media, the actors of the revolution express themselves without mediation, they tell their own version, they speak their truth. They prove that violence does not necessarily drawn art and culture. On the contrary, they prove that art and culture are effective means of expressing dissent, tools of resistance, ways of challenging the order of things and fight the violence itself. Art and culture allow to report the reality of things as well as to imagine the future.

The book main message is that

For Syrians and non-Syrians alike, there are many reasons to wake up every morning and reach for the pen, the easel, the camcorder or the laptop – instead of a gun.

It is an important message, indeed. One that brings back humanity in an inhuman setting like Syria, a country torn by four years of blood and violence with no peaceful solution in sight.

Undoubtedly, among the most effective initiative is that of the anonymous collective Masasit Mati. They created the popular series ‘Top Goon: Diaries of a Little Dictator‘ (available on YouTube with English subtitles). A brilliant satire that talks about the regime and the revolution through emblematic characters turned into finger puppets. Coming soon, a conversation with the director, Jameel alAbiad.

The original version of this article was published in Italian on L’Indro on October 7, 2015.

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One thought on “Syria Speaks: art and culture from the frontline

  1. Pingback: A conversation with Jameel | Do I Have Anything to Say at All?

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