This was first published (with some great links) at the Guardian. Picture is Abu Hajar. More stories about him and many others in our forthcoming book ‘Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War’.
In the first heady weeks of the Arab Spring commentators made much of the role played by social media, and certainly Facebook in particular provided an indispensable tool to young revolutionaries throughout the region. But less noticed, and ultimately far more significant, was the carnivalesque explosion of popular culture in revolutionary public spaces.
The protests in Syria against Bashaar al-Assad’s dictatorship were far from grim affairs. Despite the ever-present risk of bullets, Syrians expressed their hopes for dignity and rights through slogans, graffiti, cartoons, dances and songs.
To start with, protestors tried to reach central squares, hoping to emulate the Egyptians who occupied Tahrir Square. Week after week residents of Damascus’s eastern suburbs tried to reach the capital’s Abbasiyeen Square, and were shot down in their dozens. Tens of thousands did manage to occupy the Clock Square in Homs, where they sang and prayed, but in a matter of hours security washed them out with blood.
This April 2011 massacre tolled an early funeral bell for peaceful protest as a realistic strategy. In response to the unbearable repression, the revolution gradually militarised. By the summer of 2012 war was spinning in downward spiral: the regime added sectarian provocation to its ‘scorched earth’ tactics of bombardment and siege; foreign states and transnational jihadists piled in; those refugees who could got out.
Civil revolutionaries did their best to adapt. Alongside self-organising committees and councils, Syrians set up independent news agencies, tens of radio stations and well over 60 newspapers and magazines. Kafranbel, for instance, a rural town become famous for its witty and humane slogans, broadcasts discussion, news and women’s programmes on its own ‘Radio Fresh’ – despite a recent assault by Jabhat al-Nusra fighters. And Enab Baladi (My Country’s Grapes), is a newspaper published by women in Daraya, a besieged, shelled and gassed Damascus suburb. Remarkably, the magazine focuses on unarmed civil resistance.
As a result of both security concerns and communal solidarity, anonymous cooperative endeavours proliferated, amongst them photography collectives such as the Young Syrian Lenses.
In stark contrast to the elitist and top-down nature of Syria’s official culture before 2011, the new revolutionary culture came from the bottom up, and was debated and judged on the streets. “The street is not an ignorant listener,” writes Hani al-Sawah, also known as rapper al-Sayyed Darwish. “It can distinguish the good from the bad.”
It also allowed for more diversity than before, space for genres not traditionally associated with Syria. The liberated city of Raqqa witnessed its first public hip hop concert shortly before it was choked by trans-national jihadists (Raqqa is now the ISIS ‘capital’ in Syria).
A small heavy metal scene was developing before the revolution, but was often perceived as ‘Satanist’ and was subject to bouts of state repression. Playing up its ‘secular’ image, the regime became more tolerant of metal after 2011. Some groups took advantage of this to perform in regime-held areas – so long as they censored themselves; others – like Anarchadia – performed in liberated territory, or left the country. Monzer Darwish’s film ‘Metal is War’ surveys the groups and fans making their own noise against the guns.
In Syria there’s often no distance at all between the battlefield and the site of artistic creation.
Novelist Khaled Khalifa, two of whose books – “In Praise of Hatred” and “No Knives In This City’s Kitchens” – have been shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, continues to live in war-struck Barzeh, Damascus. Perhaps somewhat protected by his international reputation, Khaled’s arm was still broken by regime thugs when they attacked the May 2012 funeral procession for murdered musician Rabee Ghazzy.
Ibrahim Qashoush, who sang his anthem “Get Out, Bashaar!” to the crowds in Hama, was soon found in the River Orontes, his vocal chords ripped out. Through such exemplary punishment the regime enacts its own grim symbolism. When the internationally-recognised cartoonist Ali Farzat depicted Assad hitching a lift into exile with Qaddafi in August 2011, security men broke his fingers. Today Farzat lives in Kuwait. The cartoonist Akram Raslan was less fortunate. It has recently been confirmed that he died under regime torture in 2012.
When actress Fadwa Soliman, descended from the same Alawi sect as Assad, led protests in Homs in 2011, she shared a soap box with star goalkeeper Abdulbasset Sarout. As the regime’s assault on the city intensified, Sarout became a fighter. Soliman fled to Paris, which is refuge also to the feminist writer Samar Yazbek. Yazbek has published two indispensable books in exile. “Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution” documents the first months of the uprising. “The Crossing: My Journey to the Shattered Heart of Syria”, describes in searing prose her return visits to the ‘liberated’ but bombed and fiercely contested north.
Assad’s barrel bombs, and to a much lesser extent the ravages of ISIS, have displaced almost 12 million people, most internally, huddling either in unregulated camps along the border fences or under trees outside their destroyed villages. Over four million are abroad, the vast majority in neighbouring states, others washing up on unwelcoming European shores. Today it seems the only Syrian who doesn’t want to leave is Bashaar al-Assad.
The refugees have carried their creativity with them. One of the most pressing cultural initiatives has been how to educate the lost generation of Syrian children. In the Atmeh camp, for instance, the basic Syrian curriculum is taught, but pictures of the president are ripped out of the textbooks and the propagandistic ‘nationalism’ class is dispensed with. School days begin and end with a revolutionary song and a shouted question and answer (Our Aim?… Freedom!). For the Kesh Malek organisation, now based in southern Turkey, this is depressingly reminiscent of the old Baathist catechism. The organisation’s Zaid Muhammad is trying to build an alternative: “Our aim now is to build a generation through non-ideological education. For this reason we don’t accept the revolutionary flag in the classrooms of our schools – even if we’re ready to die for it on the streets.”
In Europe, Syrians are organising politically and culturally. The Palestinian-Syrian crew Refugees of Rap fled Damascus after receiving regime death threats, and when their studio was destroyed. Now based in Paris, the 20 powerful tracks of their 2014 album “The Age of Silence” recount tales of life under bombs.
And Abu Hajar is a rapper originally from Tartous, a coastal city where Sunnis are a minority and Alawis the majority. He describes himself as “neither Sunni nor Alawi” (his current beliefs lie “somewhere to the left of Marxism”).
He helped form the cross-sect anti-regime group Ahrar Tartous (the Free People of Tartous). The organisation held protests, but more importantly it created social links between Sunni and Alawi revolutionaries in order to deflect potential sectarian strife in the city.
Abu Hajar was imprisoned and maltreated from March to May 2012. “It was so tough for me,” he says. “I didn’t want to leave Syria, but I didn’t want to die in prison. If I’d gone back to prison I’d have died there, I know.” Security men returned to his door in July. This time he didn’t wait to be detained but jumped over the garden wall, fleeing from safehouse to safehouse and finally over the border. “I left Syria when I could,” he says, “because I had some money in my bank account. Not everyone could find a way. People who’ve fled the country are really financially able to flee; that’s something not a lot of people will think about. To flee the country you need at least $1,000. This money will soon run out and you’ll need to work, but just to leave, you need to pay a smuggler, and that’s not less than $1,000, but I know a lot of people who would never think of saving more than $200, and these people are still there, they can’t leave, so they’re doing anything they can.”
Now resident in Germany, Abu Hajar writes fascinating journalism (find his ‘A Syrian Communist Alone in Berlin’) and continues to perform. For him, the experience of migration has brought definite creative benefits: “The first thing is, we are free to speak. We can find better equipment and techniques here. It’s much easier to record. Besides all the state censorship in Syria, there we face society’s conservative approach to music. So this is an enrichment. Here we have the possibility of fusing eastern and western musical ideas. This is the idea behind our new band called ‘Give Me A Paper’, which is composed of both Syrians and Germans.”
His finest track – one which exemplifies the all-critical revolutionary attitude – is “Down With the Homeland.” The rap starts by attacking Assad’s massacres and provocations, its opening line quoting a threat frequently painted by regime thugs on urban walls:
“My first message goes to ‘Assad or We’ll Burn the Country’/ If only he’d left the country instead of proclaiming himself the one and only…”
Next Abo Hajar takes on authoritarian militias in opposition-controlled areas: “You’re supposed to protect us/ How could you take advantage of us?/ We didn’t start a revolution to replace his boot with you/ Not to create a similar tyrant/ We’re the ones who give you protection and power/ When you try to cross the line we won’t permit it…”
And then a third group: those who “derailed and deformed the revolution with money”.
A powerful chorus rages through: “Down with the homeland if I must live in fear/ And shoot a Kalashnikov or Molotov/ If I must live in humiliation/ If everyone must leave or be habituated to slaughter…”
Some notable documentary films also focus on the Syrian experience of exile. “Our Terrible Country” examines the relationship between the young Ziad Homsi – who was tortured by Assad, fought for the Free Army, and later fell into ISIS captivity – and the leftist thinker and former political prisoner Yassin al-Haj Saleh. The story should be an inspiring document of the generations pooling revolutionary wisdom, but it takes place amidst savage violence, the regime’s persistence, and the rise of jihadist extremism. At the start both men are living in besieged Douma, Yassin with his wife, activist Samira Khalil. By the end, both Yassin and Ziad have fled to Turkey, and Samira – one of the ‘Douma Four’ – has been abducted by Islamist militia.
In “On the Bride’s Side”, five Syrian and Palestinian-Syrian refugees smuggle themselves from Italy to Sweden disguised as a wedding party. The assumption of the Italian filmmakers – that no border policeman would demand papers from a bride wearing a white dress – paid off. The film provides tragi-comic commentary on European attitudes to the crisis as well as the suffering of Syrians themselves.
Those Syrians able to transform their pain into cultural production are the relatively lucky ones. From her Turkish exile activist Marcell Shehwaro comments: “That which doesn’t translate into anger and can’t translate into hope remains as it is: self-destructive behaviour, sadness, a disequilibrium. It makes some drink too much, some smoke too much hashish, some become workaholics…”
And activist Aziz Asaad, from the Ismaili-majority city of Selemiyyeh, adds a warning: “Previously Syrians were among the least travelled of peoples. Now they’re present in every country, being influenced by the people there and influencing them in turn. Added to that, a whole generation is growing up in the camps of exile – these children who’ve lost a father to shelling, a friend’s brother to bullets, a sister’s husband to torture. When they grow up and realise that life is more than a refugee camp, that it isn’t natural to lose everything to tyranny… this generation will bear a culture of revenge and anger, and a permanent sense of injustice.”
Syrians are rightly infuriated by their abandonment by the world’s states. But there’s good reason to hope their responses will be more positive and diverse than mere terrorism. Already Syrians have changed the image of refugees in Europe. Before, clandestine migrants crossed borders in silence, in the dark. Today – thanks to their revolutionary training – they march in broad daylight, in their thousands, still demanding dignity.