Dancing in Damascus

wissam

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.

souad-al-jundi

“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.

How it came to this

mohjaBy Mohja Kahf

 

It Came to This

 

i.

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

Continue reading “How it came to this”

stargazing on the backs of our children

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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.

It happens to be one of the few things coincidentally saved from my now-disabled account — please sign here to demand that Facebook reinstate it.

Read more about this horrifying oppression by the Indian Occupation in Kashmir – Scars of Pellet Gun: The Brutal Face of Suppression by Mannan Bukhari.

 

The Syrian Revolution and the Project of Autonomy

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”

Syria Speaks on Tour

left to right: Khalil, me and Khaled. photo by Khalil.
left to right: Khalil, me and Khaled. photo by Khalil.

This was published at the National

For a week in June, Syrian writers and artists toured England, giving readings and workshops to promote “Syria Speaks: Art and Culture From the Frontline”, a book reflecting the country’s new revolutionary culture. British-Syrian novelist Robin Yassin-Kassab describes the experience.

*

In Bradford we met a woman who had tried as hard as she could to forget she was Syrian. We didn’t discover her original trauma, but we heard its symptoms over a British-Pakistani curry. She hadn’t spoken Arabic for years, and never told anyone where she was from. Once a policeman detained her for an hour because she refused to tell him her origin.

In Bristol, on the other hand, we met a little old woman who, with her red hair and flowery dress, we might have mistaken for English. But she was a Damascene, and she wept when I read a description of her city. Afterwards she came to introduce herself. “I’ve lived in England for thirty years, and I didn’t realise until the revolution that I had a fear barrier inside. Then I noticed I’d never talked about Syria. I’d tried not to even think about it. But those brave youths gave me courage; they gave me back my identity and my freedom.”

So the Syrian revolution is alive and well in Bristol if not in Bradford, for this is where the revolution happens first, before the guns and the political calculations, before even the demonstrations – in individual hearts, in the form of new thoughts and newly unfettered words. Syria was once known as a ‘kingdom of silence’ in which public discourse was irretrievably devalued by enforced lip-service to the regime and its propaganda pieties. As a result, many Syrians describe their first protest as an ecstatic event, a kind of rebirth. In “Syria Speaks”, Ossama Mohammed’s story “The Thieves’s Market” concerns a woman who attends the state’s official demonstrations, until her friend is murdered for participating in an oppositional one. “I grew up,” she says, “came of age, abandoned someone and was abandoned, on a march that finished yesterday.” When that coerced march ended and a thousand new ones began, Syrians found unprecedented liberation simply by expressing honest opinions in the presence of their neighbours, by breaking the barriers of fear.

Continue reading “Syria Speaks on Tour”

Free Kashmiri Political Prisoners, End the Occupation of Kashmir

We send you this request in hopes of garnering your crucial and valuable support for the letter attached below. This letter is a response to the dire conditions of thousands of Kashmiri political prisoners, both adults and minors, under the Indian Occupation. Your support will help bring global attention to this critical and urgent issue.

Indian Occupation Forces and their 'Fearsome' Targets: Young Kashmiri Boys
Indian Occupation Forces and their ‘Fearsome’ Targets: Young Kashmiri Boys

Greetings,

We send you this request in hopes of garnering your crucial and valuable support for the letter attached below. This letter is a response to the dire conditions of thousands of Kashmiri political prisoners, both adults and minors, under the Indian Occupation.  Your support will help bring global attention to this critical and urgent issue.

On the ground, in Kashmir and elsewhere, we have a concurrent month-long campaign, the “Fast for Freedom,” first initiated via Facebook, which involves optional fasting, sit-ins, protests, lectures, and film-screenings.  This will culminate in civil protests, fasts and sit-ins by various organizations – including the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons(APDP) – and campus events in Srinagar, Delhi, and Berkeley et al, from 9th to 11th February 2014.  It is an opportunity not just for Kashmiris but for all people of conscience to show solidarity with an oppressed people, to protest an illegal military occupation, the illegal detention and torture of thousands of Kashmiri political prisoners, and incessant human rights abuse, including mass graves, fake encounters, forced disappearances, mass and gang-rapes, and daily humiliation under the ongoing military occupation.  (Please see the linked report Alleged Perpetrators for more details.)

Your endorsement of the attached letter will help bring urgently needed political attention to this long-festering issue, as well as help to generate intellectual energy to begin necessary conversations on military occupations with regard to power and privilege, coloniality and postcolonialism, sexual assault as a weapon of war, imperial and decolonial feminisms, the colonial politics of prisons and capital punishment, post/colonial tourism, the construction of the “terrorist,” Islamophobia and other forms of racialization in the context of Kashmir.   Continue reading “Free Kashmiri Political Prisoners, End the Occupation of Kashmir”