How War Eclipsed Syrian Culture

Pulse co-editor Robin Yassin-Kassab speaks at the BBC Arabic Documentary Film Festival:

Transcript via Dick Gregory:

“In Syria, there is so much going on culturally. Again, this is a story which isn’t being told, so as well as the films we’re going to see this afternoon, we’ve got free newspapers, free radio stations; these are being set up even in places that are being starved and bombed every day. So, despite the horror of the Assad régime, and the horror of ISIS and the extremist jihadist groups and so on, in the middle of that, there are still people doing their best in awful circumstances to express themselves, to develop culture, to develop ideas, and that’s one hopeful thing in this big mess.”

“I think it’s really significant because we hear all kinds of political discourses about the Arab world, the Middle East, we hear about the wars, and the Islamism, and the sectarianism, and the international intervention, and the proxy wars and so on;but we hear very little actual human stories, what’s actually happening to people on the ground, and I think therefore we in the West don’t have the material to understand what’s happening on a human level, why people have been revolting against their régimes, why in some countries it has all collapsed in a horrible way, what’s the background to this, what’s going on in people’s heads, so we need a lot more of this kind of stuff.

I fear that this kind of thing is drowned out by the stereotypical images of peple with guns and beards, and so on, by the big news events.But we hope, and we keep going, there is as well as all the chaos and nastiness in the Arab world at the moment, there is also a bottom-up cultural revolution, and I think that will inevitably become more and more visible as time goes on. I think the Arabs themselves will demand to be heard, they are demanding to be heard, and I think eventually they will be heard much more than they are now.So thanks to the BBC for doing this, it’s a great thing, and I hope it gets some notice.

I think there should be a huge London audience for this kind of thing. Firstly because we have lots of communities in London from all over the world, we’ve got lots of Arab communities, we’ve got lots of people who maybe for religious, or political reasons, or just because of their personal interest, people want to know what’s going on in the world. So, someone may have a purely English background, but they want to understand this turmoil not far away, in the Southern and eastern Mediterranean. So, I think there is an audience, I think we’ve got quite a sophisticated cultural audience in London, and I hope it gets bigger and bigger, for this kind of thing in particular.

Some people suggested about some Iranian films, some aspects of iranian cinema, that after Iranian cinema got a lot of international recognition, some people suggested that there were directors making films primarily with the Cannes Film Festival in mind, the foreign audience in mind, rather than people in Iran. I don’t know enough about it to comment whether that is true or not, but I don’t think that is going to happen with the Arab cinema, because there are so many urgent social issues, and I think that Arab directors, or Middle Eastern directors of all kinds of backgrounds, at the moment, want to address their people. They want to take part in very real debates which are happening in those countries. So I think inevitably the cinema from the Middle East will develop, and change, and diversify. I don’t think that process is going to be governed by the reception of these films abroad, I think it’s going to be governed by realities inside those countries.

I think it would be great if people could understand that the Middle east is made up of human beings, complicated human beings, self-contradictory human beings, all kinds of ideas are bubbling up, all kinds of strange events are happening. it’s impossible to reduce or simplify this without losing the reality of the story. That’s what the media does in general, it reduces and simplifies, perhaps necessarily, and in some ways not at all necessarily. I think that cultural artefacts like this can convey the human reality, and that’s what everyone should be engaging with. I think we could all forget our grand narratives of what’s happening in the world, and just engage with human beings and cultural products from this part of the world, and learn a lot more lessons.”

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