The Creative Expression within Syria’s Non-Violent Movements

In a time of destruction, death and displacement despair is an easy state to fall into. However for many Syrian artists it is during this time that their creative expressions are needed the most. We can see throughout history and across nations that it was during such times of disaster that artists, writers and thinkers were at their most powerful, in spite of the persecution they may have endured. The case is no different in Syria. Even though we may not always hear very much about it in the mainstream media.  Distinct from these geo-political, violence fuelled narratives that are so prevalent, Syria’s artists have decided to create their own narrative: of a struggle for freedom and justice against a five decade long repressive regime.

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The subversion of the uprising into a battle ground for a proxy war has created additional adversaries and as such has added further dimensions to the creative production of the artists’ fight. The actions and violence from these different parties may have crippled the nonviolent movements’ ability to move beyond peaceful demonstrations into a fully engaged civil resistance. But they have been unable to prevent those involved in these movements from continuing with their work, even in the face of hostility, kidnappings, detainment, exile and death.

History has shown us, and current events only further highlight the powerful nature of art, literature, film, creative action and critical thinking. It is such things as literary discourse and artistic expression that form part of the collective memory and consciousness of a culture and society. It is from the writer, the artist, the poet that a challenge can be made to the systems of oppression. They are able to “upset the power structure[s] by tearing apart what holds [them] together” while at the same time reminding the reader, the viewer that there is the “possibility of the existence of a better world.”  Their unrivalled power in these situations can be seen by the fear that such activities invoke in dictators and tyrants who “routinely begin their reigns and sustain their power with the deliberate and calculated destruction of art: the censorship and book-burning of unpoliced prose, the harassment and detention of painters, journalists, poets, playwrights, novelists, essayists… Such despots know very well that their strategy of repression will allow the real tools of oppressive power to flourish. Their plan is simple: Limit or erase the imagination that art provides, as well as the critical thinking of scholars and journalists”.[1] However, as the abundance of artistic expression within and without of Syria will show us, all the adversaries’ attempts to repress the imagination and critical thinking have failed significantly.

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It was the detainment, torture and murder of the young boys in Dar’aa for their scrawling of slogans taken from the Egyptian and Tunisian demonstrations that lead to protests across the country. As such with the drawing of graffiti and its subsequent consequences being the ember that set alight to the people’s uprising graffiti has become a significant element of artistic expression within Syria. One of the most poignant examples of the use of graffiti is the works of the Lovers’ Notebooks on the walls of Saraqeb, east of Idlib. Upon the liberation of the city from regime forces in late 2012 many in the city began to “celebrate their new-found freedom by painting the walls of their city”[2] depicting the experiences of their lives and using quotes from famous Arab poets. However with the increasing presence and dominance of extremist groups including ISIS, many of the works were painted over and the activists’ ability to continue their work was made impossible, with many having to flee the country. Some of them do however continue their work in exile, recently releasing a film on the subject of the Lovers’ Notebooks.

In a similar attempt to express themselves through slogans are the internationally visible satirical banners, often in kafranbelgennieEnglish, from the town of Kafranbel. The messages on the banners not only reflect the struggle of the people of Kafranbel and the rest of Syria but also highlight the hypocrisies of the international community, feature international current events and use international cultural symbols and icons in an attempt to universalise and humanise their struggle. Another group known as Kartoneh, an anonymous collective of artists and activists based in Deir Al Zour, who create banners using chalk and black paper which they put online in order to “lift even a small part of the media blackout”.[3] Political posters are alskartoneho a feature of the artistic expression of the uprising, with one group Al Shaab Al Suri Aref Tarekh embedding the posters with motifs of nonviolent resistance.

In contrast to the activities across a number of other areas of Syria life in central Damascus is often referred to as relatively ‘normal’, where life apparently carries on as normal under government control.  There are however a number of daring campaigns that continue to be undertaken right under the noses of the brutal and unforgiving regime, including that of the work of the group Save the Rest which attempts to highlight the plight of the prisoners of conscience held by the Syrian regime. save-the-rest-campaign3They distribute pamphlets across the city which are disguised as folded 500 Syrian pound notes with information about the suffering; some with messages from the prisoners themselves. Their activities also extend beyond Syria with their work being taken to various Arab and European cities in an attempt to expose the long practice of unlawful detainment. Indeed, pamphlets have become a common means of spreading information in various areas of Syria including to “warn people to avoid areas of regime violence and shelling”.[4]

In Aleppo, where people have been in the middle of a brutal conflict between rebel fighters and the regime, the ironic comedy series Umm Abdo Al Halabiyah, a housewife, played by a 9 year old girl, depicts life in the rebel held areas of Aleppo. It attempts to highlight the hardships and dangers faced by the people of Aleppo as a result of both the regime and the extremist groups that have taken over areas of Syria.aleppo-youtube-star In a similar fashion Daya Al Taseh, who are now based in Turkey and who continue to be threatened by extremist groups, direct their attention towards creating short satirical films about ISIS and their hypocrisy. According to one of its founders “the media… obsessively reproduce ISIS propaganda portraying them as strong and intimidating. We want to show their weaknesses… It is time to deflate them, to expose their lies and laugh at them. When people laugh, they lose their fear.”[5]  In fact a great deal of the art created within the Syrian uprising is of a satirical nature including such works as Masasit Mati a comedic series using finger puppets which were easy to get through check points when they were forced to move from place to place and between borders to ensure their safety. masasit

As a result of the danger that many of such artists face there are a number of organisations outside of the country that have been set up to support those in the creative industries, one of which is Bidayyat which “support[s] and produce[s] Syrian documentaries and short and experimental films and … organize[s]specialized training courses on documentary filmmaking”[6] with the aim of creating a “creative, independent, open and interactive cinematic and audiovisual culture that is influential in Syrian society”.[7] One of the prominent films Bidayyat have produced is Oimagesur Terrible Country which follows Yassin Al Haj Saleh an intellectual and dissident and Ziad Homsi a young photographer on a dangerous journey through Syria, eventually having to flee into Turkey as a result of the increasing presence of the extremists. It is a film about “the relationship between two generations, each caught up in the revolution, with all their hopes, disappointments and breakdowns”. [8] The film has been shown in many cities around the world and has subsequently won international awards.

There are an extraordinary number of people and groups that have been creating such works of art including numerous musicians, photographers, writers, poets and artists that we have not been able to explore at this time. And the works exhibited in this festival only just begins to scratch the surface, providing only a glimpse of some of the artistic and creative expressions of the Syrian people that have had to learn to be creative in order to get their messages out. Of course it must be said that the presence of such creativity is by no means new to Syria. Creativity and free thinking has been deeply ingrained in Syria’s civil society which “pushed the limits of censorship long before the advent of the Arab Spring.” [9] grenade As such in many ways it was the values of democracy, freedom and justice, the activities undertaken and the struggles faced by those in Syria’s suppressed civil society that inspire the nonviolent movements of the uprising.

In this way the undertaking of many of these activities is a reminder to people of the original aims and values of the uprising. A spokesperson from Kartoneh highlights this sentiment regardless of the struggles they have faced “we did not carry weapons, despite the siege… we still insist on expressing ourselves in the same simple way in which we started”.[10] And these original values can be seen to be presented more even vividly by the juxtaposition of the imagery and symbolism adopted by the various groups to the cult personality imagery and symbolism of the regime. They have purposely steered “clear of creating new icons”[11] and leadership figures and instead have adopted images of the children and youth of Syria, symbols of the breaking away from the fear, paralysis and silence that their society was riddled with for soalshaab long and instead focus on “ideas based on choice, not force”.[12]

Furthermore, these movements attempt to show people that there are alternatives to sheer brute force when it comes to political rule. It presents a glimpse of a civil society that exists for the service of the people, for dialogue, debate, creativity and free thinking. It is here amongst the nonviolent movements of the uprising that a new space is emerging, a new civil society, in which “culture as an active system” is able to influence “individuals and groups and pushes them to move beyond the basic structures of their lives to adopt new positions, embrace new behaviours and engage in creative work”.[13]

[1] http://www.thenation.com/article/198465/no-place-self-pity-no-room-fearm Toni Morrison

[2] http://www.syriauntold.com/en/creative/walls-saraqeb-vitality-colors-war-weary-syria/

[3] Syria Speaks pg. 60.

[4] Syria Speaks pg. 123.

[5] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/mar/12/laughing-at-isis-syrian-video-artists-jihadis-refugee-islamic-state

[6] http://bidayyat.org/about.php#whoweare

[7] Ibid.

[8] http://bidayyat.org/films_article.php?id=146#.VRh3RPnF8tw

[9] https://www.opendemocracy.net/arab-awakening/leila-nachawati/syria-and-emergence-of-grassroots-artistic-production

[10] Halasa, M. et. Al. (2014). Syria Speaks. P. 62.

[11] Syria Speaks. P.75.

[12] Syria Speaks. P. 101.


[13]
Abbas, H. Syrian Speaks. P.49.


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