Syria Speaks: Arts and culture from the frontline, ed by Malu Halasa, Zaher Omareen & Nawara Mahfoud

 

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The Independent Culture

Syria Speaks is essential reading for anyone interested in human rights or a better understanding of the current conflict. Comprising essays, stories, poems, songs, photo- graphs and cartoons, this impressive collection shows how artists and activists operate under repressive regimes and how their work can become “tools of resistance” in war.

Four decades of rule by the Assad family has wreaked untold havoc on Syria and its people: dissidents describe horrific methods of torture and claim that the testing of chemical and biological weapons on political prisoners was routinely practised by Syria’s Air Force Intelligence.

When Dr Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father in July 2000, he appeared keen to modernise Syria and expressed a desire for “creative thinking”, “constructive criticism” and “transparency”. The “Damascus Spring”, was short-lived, however. As the accounts and artwork in Syria Speaks amply demonstrate, Bashar has not only matched but far surpassed his father Hafez’s brutality in the past three years alone.

Given the silence that followed Hafez al-Assad’s devastation of Hama in 1982, it is fitting that the anthology begins with a veiled photomontage of victims of the massacre. Since the start of the revolution in 2011, many artists have revisited the events of 1982 in their work and compared the killing in Hama with current atrocities. A poster from the anonymous arts collective The Syrian People Know Their Way, depicts a child underlining the words “It will not happen again” next to a waterwheel, a landmark symbol of Hama. This also powerfully recalls the fact that it was the arrest of schoolchildren for painting anti-government graffiti in the southern city of Deraa that sparked the first protests in March 2011.

The difference between the uprising in Hama and the current conflict is that ordinary Syrians now have access to mobile phones and the internet. However, people quickly become inured to images of violence and, as the academic Miriam Cooke observes, the opposition needed to find new ways to retain the outside world’s attention. Many Syrian artists have risen to the challenge. After one massacre, the filmmakers’ collective Abounaddara posted a piece that depicted corpses wrapped in shrouds and joined by flowers. Artist Sulafa Hijazi vividly contrasts life and death in her illustration of a pregnant weapon.  

Interviews with former political prisoners sit alongside work from the raft of citizen journalists who have come to the fore in recent months. Yassin al-Haj Saleh, a prominent writer imprisoned for 16 years, compares the role of the intellectual then and now. Meanwhile, the Syrian activist Assad al-Alchi talks to co-editor Malu Halasa about the role of local  co-ordinating committees. This network grew out of the early protests in March 2011 and serves to teach activists non-violent civil disobedience.

Much of the writing explores the effects of imprisonment and torture. Especially poignant is “Lifetimes Stolen” by Yara Badr who was imprisoned like her father before her. After listing “the dictionary of torture techniques” she describes what it means “to live on the verge of death … you are lost, as though drifting in the sea, waiting for the wind to bring you a sail that will take you back to life”. Her husband, Mazen Darwish, remains in detention and Syria Speaks includes an extract from his “Letter for the Future” smuggled out of jail, in which he wishes his torturers “happy lives for your children, with no fear and no torture”.

The anthology also documents the importance of revolutionary songs as a means of resistance – the popular Syrian singer Ibrahim Qashoush was murdered after inspiring crowds in Hama with his song “Come on Bashar, Get Out!”. As one activist explains, folk music has largely escaped censorship and “has therefore become a means by which street protesters have proclaimed their Syrian identity in the face of government claims of an ‘international conspiracy’.” Similarly, cartoons and comic strips can convey “subversive narratives” and, like mobile-phone images, are easily uploaded to social media sites.

This then is the central message of Syria Speaks. Artists and activists have had to find new ways to communicate and protest from the frontline. One of the most humorous and imaginative creations must be the popular internet series “Top Goon: Diaries of a Little Dictator”, available on YouTube and described as a “modern-day morality play”. It’s reminiscent of the British satirical television series Spitting Image, although far braver – finger puppets are used so they can be smuggled through checkpoints. Syria Speaks pays tribute to many extraordinary acts of courage and shines a light on the dark deeds of a brutal regime.

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