The critic and novelist Robin Yassin-Kassab said that, in a way, it is less depressing being in Syria or just across the boarder, than over here because individual lives are being revolutionized; every single man, woman and child has an horrifying story to tell but still, people have stayed on, working under very dangerous circumstances giving hope to the future.
Yassin-Kassab was referring to all those across Syria whose stories do not get a platform in the media. But an artistic and cultural outburst has been telling these stories, providing a vibrant and creative platform for voices right across Syria so that art and culture has become ‘a critical line of defence against tyranny’. There are over 80 independent newspapers being produced and distributed even in regime-controlled areas and numerous anonymous art collectives document what is happening in drawing, film and photography. Before 2011 this was unthinkable in a country known as The Kingdom of Silence, where no one dared to voice opinions even in private.
Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Frontline brings together many of these anonymous voices along with established and emerging writers & artists like Khaled Khalifa and Khalil Younes amongst others. It maps the art explosion of the past three years in a unique anthology of essays, stories, poems, songs, photographs and cartoons that attests to how Syrians have been fighting the regime through art and culture. This is not a soft approach of pretty images but extraordinarily powerful work chronicling what is happening and shedding light on the ‘real faces of Syria’.
The launch of the book has been marked by a series of event, including a UK tour that stopped at FUSE Art Space in Bradford last Sunday for readings and discussions on the cultural resistance in Syria. Together with Yassin-Kassab, the line-up included award-winning Damascus-based novelist Khaled Khalifa, cinematographer and video artist Khalil Younes, filmmaker Zaher Omareen and author Malu Halasa.
In the tranquil space of FUSE, the discussion chaired by Malu Halasa proved highly stimulating and enlightening. Khaled Khalifa spoke the ‘shared life’ lived amongst his friends in Damascus, of the ‘personal question’ that is language and of how before the revolution Syrians ‘lived in the same country as strangers’ speaking in a coded manner. Discussing some of his drawing, Khalil Younes talked about the the impact of social media, the fast consume of art and the need to create permanent icons that stay, rather than fade as more and more youtube videos of atrocities come out of Syria. Having lived in the US, much of his work includes references familiar to a western audience, such as Our “Saigon Execution” or Madonna and Missing Child (see gallery below), in an attempt to bridge the cultural gap between the West and the Middle East – in his own words, it is about portraying ‘Syrian thoughts [to] catch western attention’. Yet for Younes, the most important medium in the cultural and artistic uprising has been the written word, being the most accessible with today’s technology, in everything from Facebook status to Twitter – every word posted online, every word uttered being a ‘direct reflection on events’ happening.
Syria Speaks is all about storytelling. Towards the end of the discussion at FUSE, Robin Yassin-Kassab quite rightly said that people should move to see the situation beyond political theory and instead engage with Syrians ‘to come to [their] own conclusions’; to search out those Syrians stories ourselves, hear them and make our mind up beyond what newspapers and politicians say. The Government is still awfully short of fulfilling its promise of taking in just 500 Syrian refugees (with only 24 granted sanctuary to date), but as Refugee Week happens throughout the country, there are plenty of opportunities to get involved with the Syrian (& other) refugee and asylum-seekers communities. If you really want to know about Syria, close the newspaper browser down and go hear Syrians tell their story in their own words.