Saqi Books £12.99. Order for £11.69 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Frontline, edited by Malu Halasa, Zaher Omareen, Nawara Mahfoud - book review: A moving testimony to dissidents fighting for democracy
Boyd Tonkin is Senior Writer and a columnist at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Literary Editor at The Independent, and before that Social Policy Editor and then Books Editor at the New Statesman magazine. He has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes and has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize. In 2001, he re-founded the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for literature in translation, and serves on its judging panel every year.
Tuesday 22 July 2014
Can finger-puppets strangle a bloodthirsty dictatorship? The dissident artists of the Masasit Mati group began to use the tiny caricatures who populate their satirical series Top Goon because they were easy to transport, and therefore to smuggle. An internet cult after the Syrian uprising started in earnest in 2011, with more than a million YouTube and Facebook hits, Top Goon mocked Bashar al-Assad and his henchmen in merciless Spitting Image style, with episodes such as "Who Wants to Kill a Million?" and "Skyping Putin".
Syria Speaks, an invaluable and deeply moving testimony to resistance in word and image, gathers work by more than 50 artists and writers over the entire range of modern media. Online platforms offer an especially fertile ground for protest against the barbarism of the regime. From the agitprop posters and stencils that came out of Deraa, a cradle of the revolution, to the politicised surrealism of artist Khaled Younes and poems, stories and memoirs by activists given a voice by the insurrection, this work clamours for liberty and turns its back not only on tyranny but on religious division.
Writer Samar Yazbek, now exiled in France, typically dreams of "a united Syria where the only sectarian belief is freedom". In his survey of revolutionary literature, the novelist Robin Yassin-Kassab mentions that Yazbek's reward from the regime for her literary courage was to be "walked through a display of meat-hooked and flayed torture victims". Other creative artists have joined those victims. The street "chanter" or rapper Ibrahim Qashoush, who led protests in Hama with his song "Come on, Bashar, Get Out!", was soon found dead with his throat cut.
In mid-2014, one reads and views these fragments of a fledgling secular, democratic culture not only in awe but also in sorrow. Violent sectarianism has returned – indeed, in a shrewd essay on Syria's frail "culture of citizenship", Hassan Abbas refers to an Assad plan to unleash "sectarian chaos". That chaos and the paradigm of "civil war" have enfeebled if not silenced the kind of art showcased so boldly here. Dissident intellectual Yassin al-Haj Saleh regrets that "the influence of culture has declined" since the rebellion began.
In any case, this anthology records and celebrates an extraordinary moment of liberated tongues and eyes. From amateur video-makers to working-class poets and photographers' collectives, art broke down the walls of the "huge cell" of Assad's Syria. After what Omar Alassad calls "the collapse of the fear barrier", a hundred flowers bloomed. Let's hope that they can flourish in the future.
GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival
TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride
FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head
Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treattv
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 10 ways we damage our teeth – without realising
- 2 Fifa corruption arrests: Nike reported to be 'multinational sportswear company' at centre of bribery claims over Brazil shirt deal
- 3 Facebook Messenger sends 'creepily' precise location data, as revealed by Marauders Map Chrome extension
- 4 Photo of wedding guest proposing to girlfriend in front of bride and groom goes viral
- 5 Charlie Charlie Challenge explained: it's just gravity — not a Mexican demon being summoned
Grace of Monaco film panned: Screenwriter pours scorn on biopic starring Nicole Kidman as movie gets US debut
Royal Academy of Arts' Tim Marlow: Bronze statue of lovers embracing at St Pancras station is a lesson in 'how not to do' public art
Big Brother contestant Aaron Frew removed from house for 'inappropriate behaviour' after flashing fellow contestants
Britain's Got Talent 2015: Jamie Raven divides Twitter as fans expose mind-boggling magic trick
ASAP Rocky gives nauseating response to explicit Rita Ora rap: 'I'm not saying she's a terrible person'
EU referendum: David Cameron's rules are a 'democratic disgrace', says French-born Scottish politician set to be denied a vote
SNP fury as HS2 finds 'no business case' for taking fast train service to Scotland
British tourists complain that impoverished boat migrants are making holidays 'awkward' in Kos
Australian man punched in the face for defending Muslim women from abuse on train
A nation of inequality: How the UK is failing to feed its most vulnerable people
David Starkey 'tells Amal Clooney to shut up and stop over-promoting human rights'