Masasit Mati – the Arabic name for the straw used to seep maté, a very popular drink in Syria – is a Syrian anonymous collective, based in Beirut, which produced the popular series ‘Top Goon: Diaries of a Little Dictator‘. The series, available on YouTube with English subtitles, describes Bashar al-Assad’s Syria using a brilliant and caustic satire. It makes you laugh, it makes you cry. The actors are finger puppets that represent typical characters of contemporary Syria. One of them is Beeshu, the Syrian dictator himself – with his inability to pronounce the letter ‘s’ correctly – constantly guarded by his faithful goon. ‘Top Goon‘ three seasons follow the unfolding of the crisis. They go from the enthusiasm and hope of the revolution early days, to the brutal reaction of the regime, to the disillusion of a worn-out community. I decided to contact the director of the series, who goes by the pseudonym of Jameel, to answer a naive question: what’s the value of art and culture amid the Syrian tragedy?
When I started looking for a way to get in touch with Masasit Mati, I had no idea I was going to be answered by a man who had crossed my life in Damascus. I didn’t know yet that an interview about the role of art as an instrument of activism was going to turn into a deeper conversation on the emotions, aspirations, hope and disappointment of the Syrian people. We had met Jameel in Damascus, some years ago, when the city was still a lively metropolis. We had no idea that Syria would turn into a nightmare filled with blood, death and destruction. We used to attend cinema festivals like Dox Box, and go out in the Old City to familiar bars, I experienced a country hospitable and incredibly beautiful.
My very first question is about Masasit Mati, so, the group. How many people? Where do you come from? How did you get together?
Actually, we are a big group because in every season there’s a new artist and a new actor joining the project. All of us, we are until now around 25, but usually we are 8 to 9 persons working on it and most of them, most of us, we are originally from Syria. We have some friends from Europe and from Arab Countries, but the majority of the group is from Syria. The actors and me and the scriptwriter.
What about the original group, the founders?
The story started in 2011, when the Syrian revolution started. I was thinking about a way, a safe way to talk about the situation in Syria without any danger – you know – and at that time I thought maybe with puppets we can hide the artists. After that, I talked with two actors and other artists about the idea and they liked it. That’s in very few sentences.
So, you basically came up with the idea of finger puppets because it was easier and less dangerous?
Yes of course, of course. The main reason was safety. You can talk about anything with them, without any danger. Because – you know – the Syrian regime is very dangerous; you hide to talk about it and about Bashar al-Assad. You lived in Syria, you know about the situation. This is the main reason. The second one was actually to make satire. Puppets are very, very funny tools to talk about things – you know? – when you make Bashar al-Assad a muppet, nobody can take him seriously. We tried to destroy this fear the people in Syria had in 2011, because nobody could talk about the Assad regime, Bashar al-Assad or his father or any figure from the regime. We simply tried to destroy this fear.
Yeah, I understand this very well because I do remember being always afraid of speaking with the wrong people about the wrong things.
So, you made all the puppets and the costumes and everything. Is that correct?
Yeah, yeah, everything. For the first season of the series we made the puppets in Damascus and smuggled them to Lebanon to shoot the series because we couldn’t do that in Damascus. It was a very dangerous situation in 2011; a lot of secret police would be there and they’d try to oversee everything or control everything – you know this. We need cameras, we need lights, tools… It was very difficult to shoot in Damascus. Because of that, we took the puppets and clothes and hardware and all of the stuff to Beirut.
So, again, two seasons…
Three seasons!? Really?
Yeah, we just finished the third one…
I’m so glad to hear that!
A month ago, we finished this season. It was five episodes about the current situation. It’s really a little bit dark. It’s very dark comedy.
Well, I meant to ask you about how you developed the contents and the production from the first season to the second season, because I think there’s a huge difference. The second season is far more complex.
Well, the first season we did without any support. We just did it, with friends, I asked the actors, I asked the costume designer and the actress to make this as volunteering and all of them were very happy to work for this project. But the second season, the second part… it was very expensive – here in Beirut is more expensive than Syria; because of that, we needed support and of course when you have support you will develop the atmosphere, the puppets, the work; you can make more details; you can take your time; you work in a better situation.
And then there was more space for feelings and emotions…
Yes, of course. This was very important to us. In Beirut, it’s safer than in Damascus. Here, we can’t work in public either. We’re working undercover, but of course is less dangerous and less tense here.
Another thing that struck me in the second season is that you bring in women’s voice – literally. Episode 7, in particular. Can you tell me more about that?
At the time there were a lot of rumours. The regime talked about the revolution as a religious revolution, very conservative, and maintained that all the people in this revolution were religious and they were with al-Qa’ida bla bla bla – you know this. Because of that, we did this episode about the role of the women, the role of Syrian women in this revolution. Of course, we had an actress in our group. This is the reason. Actually, in ‘Top Goon’ we tried to go against all of the rumours in the regime’s media that lied about the revolution but in the end they won a little bit – you know? Now the revolution goes in another direction. We are now between two rebel groups, in the midst of a war with the Syrian regime and the Islamic State and these Islamic rebels… and the regime can succeed because it conceived this plan. It did a really good work.
Did you ever experience any threat from either the regime or these Islamist forces?
There are a lot of letters and messages sent to us every day, and when we make an episode against religious extremism or against the regime. In 2013, we decided to go to Aleppo to play there – to play our work in the countryside of Aleppo. We had some problems, we were always afraid of kidnappings or attacks or something like this, but in reality nothing happened.
So you just mentioned you went to Aleppo. I read on ‘Syria Speaks‘ that you were planning to tour refugee camps in Lebanon and cities and towns back in Syria. So you did tour Lebanon and Syria, didn’t you?
Yeah, yeah we did it. Actually, we went there [in Syria] twice, one in the end of 2012 and again in 2013.
My last question is more about your view – your personal view about the revolution given present circumstances. You know, also in light of all the talks that are going on in international gatherings. I don’t know if you agree with that, but I have the feeling that everyone keeps talking about Syria but no one is actually listening to the Syrian people and I think this is really, really disturbing.
You are right. We tried a lot to speak out during these four years. Not only us, but a lot of artists, a lot of journalists and activists tried to talk. The main problem in Syria is this dictatorship and all of the other things are the result of this problem. But, actually, I think – I’m not political – but I think nobody would care if the problem stayed in Syria, if they kept it in Syria; but now, nobody can hold this problem. Europe has a problem, refugee problem, and neighbouring countries have the same. Now Russia came in and all this war… And the friends of the Syrian people, they don’t act. This democratic world which we thought would do something to help us demand democracy for ouselves… we were trying to make a new future for Syria, but nobody acted and this is the result, now. Actually, we are a little bit frustrated – we have big frustration – not only me, a lot of Syrians now, we don’t believe in the democracies [,anymore], Europe and America. Now we are in a new zone. Now, we are under barrel bombs; we have two enemies, not one, the Syrian regime and now we have al-Qa’ida and we have Da’esh and we have a lot of problems, and I think the situation is getting worse and worse. And you can see that, in the third episode, the third season of our series. It gets very, very dark. You start with very light episodes and the third one, the fourth one and the last one are very dark and very hard and this is the same, like the situation in Syria. Every time we think this is the worst thing, we discover there is something worse.
My fear is that the Syrian people is actually losing hope and I don’t really want to see that.
Actually, Paola, I can’t say that because we fear it. We are trying to find our way, but yes is a very sad the situation, an hopeless situation. You could see this hope like two years ago or three years ago and when the Syrian revolution started, you can’t imagine the energy, at that time. You were in Damascus, Damascus was like the whole Syria, it was like a big festival! We met a lot of people, we worked together, that was the first time in modern history in Syria that people were talking with each other and working together and they did a lot of work, a huge work, in the media, in the art, in the cinema, in many ways. But now, you can’t. We are tired… we don’t have any relief… And we know we are alone. We tried to quit this romantic idea about the world – about this democratic world and about the people that will not leave us alone… very romantic. Now, we are more realistic and a lot of people around me – even me, I’m more realistic, I’m trying to do what I can do, if I can help with very small things, I do it, I don’t have very, very big dreams. Because I know, nobody wants a big change not only in Syria, in other countries, too.This is a huge system around the world. Now Europe is working with Saudi Arabia and with Sisi in Egypt, it’s very funny [laughs]. In the end, we have to be very realistic. About everything, about development, about economics, about making this small State… Because of that I don’t have a lot of expectations, but at the same time I believe in people around the world, I know there are a lot of people who are trying to help. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not upset or else, but this is the situation. I’m being very honest, this is the situation that we have, there’s no hope, at this point. No hope.
It’s a very lucid analysis and very disenchanted, too. My questions are over. Is there anything you wish to add to this?
I wish we could save the Syrian people, now. These people who are trying to reach a safe place. They run from all these barrel bombs everywhere – you can’t imagine. In Aleppo, for example. When I was in Aleppo this year… that’s a nightmare, really a nightmare – you can’t imagine! You can’t imagine how… the situation it’s really a nightmare… Every day, every two days, there’s a barrel bomb. I can’t explain – even in Arabic, my English is not very good but even in Arabic I can’t explain these explosions… It’s something like… [sighs]. You can’t imagine how… the fear! With the people, with the children, with the families. It’s really sad. They are trying now – because there are frustrations, because they know the Syrian regime will continue, because he has a lot of support from Russia, from Iran, even from Europe. Two years ago Germany sent equipment to the Syrian regime, imagine. Because of that, now everybody knows we can’t continue like this. We can’t continue waiting for Da’esh, we have to escape. I hope they can survive because I don’t care about land, about buildings… What I care about is the people, the children, this humanity.
For what is worth, I believe that the work that Masasit Mati does and the work of many other activists and artists is very important to raise awareness and tell the story of Syria around the world so that the international community cannot close the eyes and be blind and deaf.
We try, Paola, but [sighs] the problem is we feel we are alone. Everybody – from out now – we are working, but what can we do? What can art do? Let’s wait and see. We continue…
The original version of this article was published in Italian on L’Indro, on October 9, 2015. The present version offers a transcript of my conversation with Jameel.