On June 6, I moderated a panel discussion in Chicago on Yassin al-Haj Saleh‘s momentous book The Impossible Revolution: Making Sense of the Syrian Tragedy. The event was presented by Haymarket Books, the volume’s North American publisher (it’s published in the UK and worldwide by Hurst). The panelists were Wendy Pearlman, author of We Crossed a Bridge and it Trembled: Voices from Syria; Lina Sergie Attar, co-founder of the Karam Foundation; Firas Aladai, director of the film Winter; Sarah Hunaidi, an activist and co-host of the Hummus for Thought podcast; and Behzad Tehrani with Haymarket Books. The discussion starts a few minutes into the video. Sorry for the uneven audio quality. Turn the volume up!
A new edition of our book Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War has now been released. That’s it in the picture bearing a Folio Prize Shortlist rosette.
This edition contains a long new chapter called Syria Dismantled, which attempts to update the situation from the summer of 2015 to the present. It covers the stages of defeat through Daraya to Aleppo, the Russian assault and Iran’s militia surge, and the sectarian cleansing, and the PYD’s expansion, and Turkey’s intervention… Of course it’s already out of date.
But buy it, do, and ask your local library and bookshop to stock it. In order to understand the current situation (globally, not just in Syria), it’s necessary to understand how the democratic revolution started – and how the counter-revolution’s response sparked an endless series of wars. More importantly, our book does its best to give voice to Syrians themselves, those who dared to create new possibilities, and who paid an unfathomable price.
Published by Pluto in the UK, distributed by Chicago University Press in the US.
This review of miriam cooke’s new book was published at the Guardian.
Syria’s revolution triggered a volcano of long-repressed thought and emotion in cultural as well as political form. Independent newspapers and radio stations blossomed alongside popular poetry and street graffiti. This is a story largely untold in the West. Who knew, for instance, of the full houses, despite continuous bombardment, during Aleppo’s December 2013 theatre festival?
“Dancing in Damascus” by Arabist and critic miriam cooke (so she writes her name, uncapitalised) aims to fill the gap, surveying responses in various genres to revolution, repression, war and exile.
Dancing is construed both as metaphor for collective solidarity and debate – as Emma Goldman said, “If I can’t dance, it isn’t my revolution” – and as literal practice. At protests, Levantine dabke was elevated from ‘folklore’ to radical street-level defiance, just as popular songs were transformed into revolutionary anthems.
Cooke’s previous book “Dissident Syria” examined the regime’s pre-2011 attempts to defuse oppositional art while giving the impression of tolerance. The regime would fund films for international screening, for instance, but ban their domestic release.
“Dancing in Damascus” describes how culture slipped the bounds of co-optation. Increasingly explicit prison novels and memoirs anticipated the uprising. Once the protests erupted, ‘artist-activists’ engaged in a “politics of insult” and irony. Shredding taboos, the Masasit Matte collective’s ‘Top Goon’ puppet shows, Ibrahim Qashoush’s songs and Ali Farzat’s cartoons targeted Bashaar al-Assad specifically. “The ability to laugh at the tyrant and his henchmen,” writes cooke, “helps to repair the brokenness of a fearful people.”
As the repression escalated, Syrians posted atrocity images in the hope they would mobilise solidarity abroad. This failed, but artistic responses to the violence helped transform trauma into “a collective, affective memory responsible to the future”.
Explicit representations of “brute physicality and raw emotion”, from mobile phone footage to Samar Yazbek’s literary reportage, soon gave way to formal experimentation. Notable examples include “Death is Hard Work”, Khaled Khalifa’s Faulknerian novel of a deferred burial, the ‘bullet films’ of the Abounaddara Collective, and Azza Hamwi’s ironic short “Art of Surviving”, about a man who turns spent ordinance into heaters, telephones, even a toilet. “We didn’t paint it,” he tells the camera, “so it stays as it arrived from Russia especially for the Syrian people.”
This section also covers full-length films such as “Return to Homs”, which follows the transformation of Abdul-Basit Sarut from star goalkeeper to protest leader to resistance fighter.
Cooke’s consideration of the role of social media is better informed than the somewhat superficial journalistic takes on the cyber aspects of the Arab Spring which filled commentary in 2011. The internet provides activists anonymity and therefore relative safety. It also offers a space in which to display and preserve art, even while Syria’s physical heritage, from Aleppo’s mosques to Palmyra’s temples, is demolished by regime bombs and jihadist vandalism. Online gallery sites archive the uprising’s creative breadth and complexity. One such is the Creative Memory of the Syrian Revolution, whose multimedia approach sometimes “connects specific elements within each genre to produce a film about the process of painting that responds to music.”
Certain digital images ‘aestheticise’ sites of destruction in order to both lament and humanise the war. The best known are works by Tammam Azzam which superimpose Klimt’s “The Kiss” on a crumbling residential block, Matisse’s circle dancers against a rubble-strewn street, and Gaugin’s Tahitian women on a refugee camp.
A section on arts produced in exile examines refugee theatre created in the youth centres of camps and urban slums. Via Skype, a cross-border Shakespeare production played by Syrian children cast Romeo in Jordan and Juliette in Homs. The performance was completed despite bombs, snipers and frequent communication cuts. The play’s conclusion was optimistically adapted. The doomed lovers threw away their poison and declared, “Enough blood! Why are you killing us? We want to live like the rest of the world!”
Through ‘applied theatre’ techniques women performed Euripides’ “Trojan Women” and so found a way to talk about the regime’s mass rape campaign. Director Yasmin Fedda incorporated the rehearsals into her prize-winning documentary “Queens of Syria”.
Of course, “Dancing in Damascus” doesn’t tell the whole story. There’s nothing on hip hop or several other important genres. The book tends to concentrate on ‘high art’ rather than the arguably more significant bottom-up production. Yet, with admirable concision and fluency, it assists what journalist Ammar al-Mamoun calls “an alternative revolutionary narrative to contest the media stories of Syrian refugees and victims”. It shows how, despite everything thrown at it, the revolution has democratised moral authority, turning artist-activists into the Arab world’s new “organic intellectuals”. As such it is an indispensable corrective to accounts which erase the Syrian people’s agency in favour of grand and often inaccurate geo-political representations. Beyond Syrian specifics, it is a testament to the essential role of culture anywhere in times of crisis.
By Mohja Kahf
It Came to This
For Kurdish rights in Syria
For Kurds stripped of citizenship since 1963
stripped of their land their language their names
whipped by the Arab Belt of the Baath
no economic justice no equality no
dignity for prisoners of conscience in Syria
families of prisoners assemble on the curb
outside the Justice Building in Damascus
for Tal Malouhi, 17, imprisoned for a poem
for a word for an essay for a blog
no charge no warrant no
redress and no recourse
for Raghda Hassan, imprisoned for her novel manuscript
her ten-year-old son on the curb beaten at the vigil
no charge no warrant no
accountability of government
its rubber-stamp parliament
its executive all powerful for life
its security branches all powerful
all seventeen of them
its Mr. Ten Percent lining his pockets
the Assad family plundering the country
by Huma Dar
stargazing on the backs of our children
what kind of heaven lies under our feet, yet
starry, starry nights on the backs of our beloveds:
“Andromeda, you see, sweeps from right to left. Ursa Major just above it, Cassiopeia is the loose bunch near the shoulder, within, there are all the signs.”
stars, also, on the pitch-black eyes of our daughters, our sons
dying stars, supernovae of frightful beauty
freedom’s terrible thirst clotting into black holes
amidst galaxies of desire
desire of freedom, both deadly and rejuvenating
the dead(ly) gaze of our youth
still threatens to annihilate the brutal
despite their guns
turn the enemy into stone, my dear child!
look him in the eye.
“Make this your star gazing, your horoscope for the week, for all of tomorrow. A starry eyed tomorrow…”
they shoot our young on their backs, on their eyes,
our eyes will petrify them still
the battle will be won
Medusa, the freedom fighter, will have her day
P.S: This poem was originally written as a Facebook post on Aug 27 or 28, 2015, inspired by Najeeb Mubarki’s caption, within quotation marks above, of a photograph of a Kashmiri youth’s back, shimmering with scores of pellet injuries… Pellet injuries that are touted to be “non-lethal,” but are anything but.
Read more about this horrifying oppression by the Indian Occupation in Kashmir – Scars of Pellet Gun: The Brutal Face of Suppression by Mannan Bukhari.
For more, see the New York Times: Syrian Protesters Take to Streets as Airstrikes Ease.
Syrians took back to the streets during the cease-fire. This is the revolutionary spirit the regime and the Russians are trying to bomb away.
What follows is a series of variations on Yassin al-Haj Saleh’s observation that “Syria is a metaphor for a global crisis of representation.” It describes aspects of the present situation of the Syrian revolution, a process of tremendous strength and courage that has been rendered almost illegible in the West. It also looks from the present to possible futures, which are necessarily speculative, in order to pose three questions for discussion.
By Stephen Hastings-King
Note: This is a revised version of a presentation I made at Hamisch, the Syrian Cultural House in Istanbul, on October 16, 2015. I would like to thank the comrades of Hamisch for their hospitality and for the chance to make something new. Then as now, my hope is to contribute to a widening of conversations about the Syrian revolution and the ways in which the struggles of the Syrian people are interconnected with global struggles for basic human dignity.
Where I am from there is no political future. There is only repetition of the same. The present is a ubiquitous horizon. Only the details will vary.
Where I am from the future has been privatized. People worry about their children.
We need to make new significations, ways of thinking beyond the horizon of the present.
What follows is a series of variations on Yassin al-Haj Saleh’s observation that “Syria is a metaphor for a global crisis of representation.” It describes aspects of the present situation of the Syrian revolution, a process of tremendous strength and courage that has been rendered almost illegible in the West. It also looks from the present to possible futures, which are necessarily speculative, in order to pose three questions for discussion. Continue reading “The Syrian Revolution and the Project of Autonomy”