It’s a revolution: the cultural outpouring fueled by Syrian war

Cartoon by Amjad Wardeh depicting Bashar al-Assad snorting dust as if it were cocaine
Cartoon by Amjad Wardeh depicting Bashar al-Assad snorting dust as if it were cocaine

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miriam cooke is Braxton Craven Professor of Arabic Cultures at Duke University and holds a PhD in Arabic Literature from Oxford University.

Of all the Arab Spring countries, Syria has been the most artistically and culturally prolific. Smartphone videos, feature films, art photography, oil paintings, watercolors, songs, and theatrical plays have flooded the Internet over the past four years.

The wall of fear that had crushed the souls of the people under the draconian regimes of Hafiz and Bashar al-Assad has indeed broken. Not only can the name of the president be mentioned, unthinkable before the revolution broke out in 2011, Bashar is consistently ridiculed and even openly attacked. The YouTube finger puppet series “Top Goon” shows Beeshu (a diminutive nickname for Bashar) to be a butcher and a coward. Caricaturists are having a heyday; in this image Amjad Wardeh depicts Beeshu getting high after an explosion as he snorts a noxious mix of crushed bones and building dust.

The only materials to be exported from inside Syria, YouTube shorts are estimated to number 300,000. Made by professionals and amateurs, they provide an invaluable archive of the events and atrocities from the beginning of the revolution. Moreover, they are beginning to create a “new audio-visual language that contains techniques of immediate cinema and eye-witness reports.”[1] All are powerful, but two are particularly poignant: “Jasmenco” and “Art of Survival.”

While Facebook played a vital and well-advertised role in disseminating information and mobilizing protests, its role in providing a home for artist collectives has not been acknowledged. Facebook hosts countless sites with countless works of art produced inside and outside the country. A treasure trove of oppositional art is “The Creative Memory of the Syrian Revolution” site.[2] It features hundreds of cartoons, banners, murals, drawings, graffiti, calligraphy, sculpture, design, stamps, photography, cinema, video, music, theater and radio from 2011.

The “Syria Art—Syrian Artists” page, opened on 28 September 2012, specifically calls itself a “Museum/Art Gallery.” Despite that apparently exaggerated comparison with the stone structures of the world’s great capitals, this museum/gallery is everything it promises to be. Moreover, some of the art is for sale. Like conventional gallery owners, the administrators of “Syria Art—Syrian Artists” choose the artists whose work interests them, and they invite the artists to contribute some of their work. The utopian goal, art photographer Khaled Akil now in Istanbul said, is to “unite Syrians through art.”[3]

In what has come to be an expected caveat in Syrian aesthetic projects, the “Syria Art” site eschews “ideological, ethnic, religious or political beliefs or issues. Our motto: We do neither politics nor religions, we do ARTS.” Quoting Kahlil Gibran, they write: “We live only to discover beauty. All else is a form of waiting”.[4] This desire for political blindness has become critical at a time when so many new political groups are forming and it is less and less clear who is an ally, who a friend and who an enemy’s ally. The artist’s party affiliation does not matter only how a piece of art renders the humanity and pain of the crisis and says No to the violence whoever the perpetrator.

Surfing the several Facebook pages dedicated to Syrian art, one meets hundreds of artists, the dark matter of Syria’s current aesthetic production. These pages marry the real to the virtual by inviting visitors into the artists’ studios and to their exhibitions. But these pages do something else that may be as important as the site itself; they create communities of visitors who “like” the images and the videos. With their names and faces listed next to the liked image they become “friends.” As such, they can discuss the art as though at a literary salon and they can also, when necessary, intervene on behalf of the exhibited artist when she is in trouble, or, on behalf of the page when it is censored.

There are real galleries also. Notably, the Damascus Ayyam Gallery that moved operations to Beirut, Dubai, Paris and London after 2011. The curators have supported the work of Syrian artists by arranging numerous exhibitions. One of the most-often-displayed artists is Tammam Azzam. He developed a series of digital images made up of 19th and 20th century European paintings by such masters as Klimt and Matisse superimposed on found images of recently shelled buildings. Thanks to art dealers’ promotion of his revolutionary art, his works are now fetching thousands of dollars. He is not alone at a time when art from Arab Spring countries has acquired surplus value and dealers are scrambling to discover new lucrative art.

In the aftermath of the early euphoria, despite the overwhelming odds against them, artist-activists continued to create, hoping that their art, fiction, films, testimonials and poetry might make a difference and help to uproot the oppressive regime of Bashar al-Assad. While a few have remained inside, most Syrian artists fled to Dubai, Beirut, Istanbul, London and Paris where they have produced works that bear testimony to their belief that the revolution is on-going. The regime has arrested many of the artists who stayed. With a war on its hands, it is remarkable that goons are charged with finding and punishing those who dare to oppose its brutality. But this reality testifies to the moral authority that still inheres in Syrian artists’ work.

The tragedy of the Syrian revolution can be read in the numbers: at least 220,000 dead; millions internally displaced people; unknown number of disappeared; and about 3 million refugees. Living in camps in Turkey and Jordan and scattered throughout Lebanon and making up a quarter of its total population, some of these refugees are making art and theater.

At the end of March 2014 in Jordan’s Zaatari camp, 100 Syrian children performed for fellow refugees scenes from Shakespeare, including King Lear.[5] Throughout the chorus cried out “hypocrite” when the evil sisters lied to their father and “truthful” when Cordelia spoke. The director, Syrian actor Nawwar Bulbul, worked with the children for months, preparing them for this one moment of happiness in the desolation of the crowded camp. Even if only for a short while, art brought dignity and a measure of agency to Syrians who had lost everything.

Theater, especially ancient Greek theater, provided women refugees in Jordan and Lebanon with a crucial outlet. In the fall of 2013 in Jordan 25 Syrian refugee women put on Euripides’ Trojan Women. Giving them language–classical Arabic translation of the classical Greek–with which to express the agony of exile, the play was a success. Director Yasmin Fedda filmed parts of the play and its rehearsals. She interspersed the dramatic scenes with the women telling their stories in their miserable apartments somewhere in Amman. The women seemed astonished at how similar their tragedies were to those of some Greek women who had also witnessed the murder of their loved ones 2500 years earlier. The documentary titled Queens of Syria[6] premiered at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival and in October 2014, Fedda won the Black Pearl Award for best Arab director. In December 2014 in Beirut, another group of Syrian refugee women reimagined another classical Greek tragedy. They performed Sophocles’ Antigone about civil war in Thebes to render their own experiences and their struggle to bury their men.

The story of the cooptation of the Syrian revolution by the Assad regime and then by extremist mercenaries is well known. Most pundits claim that if there was a revolutionary moment it was brief and now it’s civil war. Artists and intellectuals beg to differ. With pens and brushes they have insisted on the importance of naming and representing the protests and demonstrations “revolution.” Charif Kiwan, one of the founders of the Abou Naddara documentary film production, said: “We don’t feel we are dealing with a war. We are dealing with a revolution. I don’t know what revolution is; I can’t explain what it is, but we have the feeling that we are in front of huge breakdowns, ruptures, something very violent and also very beautiful. So, we cannot qualify this. We accept the idea that it is a revolution.”[7]

[1] Zahir Amrain & Shad Ilyas “The Incomplete Syrian Cinema” in Zahir Amrain et al. eds. Suriya tatahaddath: Al-thaqafa wa al-fann min ajl al-hurriya Beirut: Dar al-Saqi 2014, 264

[2]See accessed 17 June 2014

[3] Conversation with Khaled Akil, Istanbul, 5 September 2014

[4] accessed 4 September 2014

[5] Ben Hubbard, “Behind Barbed Wire: Shakespeare inspires a cast of young Syrians” NYT 31 March 2014, see (accessed 4 June 2014)

[6] Feb 24, 2015

[7] accessed 7 September 2014

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