Amal Hanano on Kafranbel

kafranbel1First published at Foreign Policy, the great Syrian journalist Amal Hanano describes her visit to Kafranbel last June (I was honoured to accompany her), and the revolutionary town’s changing strategy in the face of global indifference to (or orientalist misrepresentation of) the Syrian people’s struggle. “Many activists inside and outside Syria,” she writes, “realize that there is no longer a reason to convince the world to action. No one is coming to save Syria.”

KAFRANBEL, Syria — The Syrian revolution’s heart — not yet ravished by the regime or Islamist extremists — beats on in the northern town of Kafranbel, where a group of dedicated activists has captured the world’s attention through witty posters and banners that reflect the state of the revolt since spring 2011. And even as the Syrian narrative has increasingly focused on the extremists or an international plan to dismantle the Assad regime’s chemical stockpiles, the artists of Kafranbel have been engaged in their own struggle — to win back the support of residents of their own town.

The 40-year-old Raed Faris and his partner, 33-year-old Ahmad Jalal, are the creative duo behind the banners. Faris — a tall man with a booming laugh — writes the banners, while Jalal, quiet and shy, draws the cartoons. Together, they spend their time brainstorming, researching, and connecting with others on how to display Syria’s tragedy to the world.

The banners express sophisticated geopolitical analysis in the simplest of forms. They are often inspired by iconic pop culture references: Faris and Jalal have used a Pink Floyd album cover, the Titanic movie poster, and even The Lord of the Rings to describe what is happening in Syria. No side in the crisis was spared — not the Syrian regime and its allies, not the Western powers and the United Nations, not the exiled Syrian opposition, and not even the radical jihadists who eventually came to live among the activists.

Kafranbel’s messages traveled the world. A large collection of the posters and banners was smuggled out of Syria to protect them from being destroyed, and they were displayed as exhibitions across the United States and Europe. One poignant banner — carried in front of the White House last spring on the second anniversary of the revolution — adapted and adopted Martin Luther King Jr.’s timeless words: “I have a dream, let freedom ring from Kafranbel.”

Banners like this one — along with the famous response to the Boston Marathon bombing — drove home the universal and historic nature of the Syrian struggle. Kafranbel’s artists consistently made these connections to show that Syria’s war was not an event isolated by time or geography.

What made Kafranbel’s messages unique was their relentless insistence to reach out to the world. The banners expressed empathy and solidarity: “You are not alone; we suffer with you.” But another message was always embedded: “Do not leave us alone. Do not forget about us.”

But the world read the banners, and did nothing. Eventually, Kafranbel — and by extension, Syria — were disappointed by their global audience.

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Journey to Kafranbel

This account of my trip into Syria’s partially liberated Idlib province was published by the Guardian.

DSCI0172To cross the border I had to climb a wall three times my height. It was the most frightening part of my trip into liberated Syria.

At Atmeh camp (where I’d been working, just inside Syria on the Turkish border) there’s no passport control but only a gap in the barbed wire. On the day of our journey, however, the Free Syrian Army and PKK-linked Kurds were facing off nearby and the Turkish authorities blocked access as a result. This meant we had to go through the official border at Bab al-Hawa. Two of our party possessed Syrian passports, and were waved through. Two of us didn’t, and so were smuggled across by Kurdish teenagers.

We skirted a deserted shack which our escorts pretended was a policeman’s house. One disappeared for a while, pretending to pay an expensive bribe. Our winding path led through a red-soiled olive grove, far away from the border post, but then wound back towards it, and to the wall. I could see the backs of soldiers through the trees, smoking not patrolling.

There were no security cameras. The boys told me they’d taken Chechens across like this.

At wallside a whispered negotiation ensued. We soon haggled a price for their service. The next part was more difficult – They wanted us to scale the wall into what was obviously still the Turkish border post.

I looked at my fellow smugglee. “Do you believe this?” I asked in English.

“I don’t know. Talk to them some more.”

So it went on, until at last Abdullah, one of our hosts inside Syria, phoned to advise me to do as the boys said.

So I climbed too fast for vertigo to strike, scissored my legs over the railings, dropped onto concrete, rolled, picked myself up, then endeavoured to walk across the neatly-trimmed lawn with a nonchalant but entitled and entirely legal air. I strolled through the airconditioned duty free zone and rejoined my companions to wait for the bus through no-man’s-land. (No private cars have been allowed here since a car bombing in February killed thirteen). Sitting in front of me on the bus: a fattish version of Che Guevara, in curls, beard and black beret, but with nogodbutgod printed on the beret.

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