Syrian graffiti

Anti-government graffiti in Banias, Syria, in April 2011. 

The postcolonial theorist Edward Said wrote that the experience of the exile is one of enduring grief. In “Reflections on Exile,” he asks: “But if true exile is a condition of terminal loss, why has it been transformed so easily into a potent, even enriching, motif of modern culture?” 

Mohammad Al Attar — a Syrian playwright whose work focuses on the civil war  — answered that question during a panel discussion at the University of Chicago’s Chicago Center for Contemporary Theory (3CT), held last Thursday, March 18, to mark the tenth anniversary of the Syrian uprising. 

“You become — as a Syrian artist — the artist in exile, only,” he said. “Or you become the artist from the war zone, and your topics should be always associated with the expectation of this market.” 

Syrian curator and cultural advisor Alma Salem, journalist Lina Sinjab, and Al Attar discussed exile — the condition of living outside of one’s country of origin — and their roles as creatives in the struggle for Syrian liberation. 

On March 18, 2011, during the Arab Spring, residents of Daraa, a small Syrian city near the Jordanian border, gathered to protest the arrest of children who had written anti-government graffiti on school walls. Security forces opened fire, killing several people; over the next week, according to Human Rights Watch, at least 36 people would die in the protests. 

The killings in Daraa galvanized existing demonstrations across the country, which eventually escalated into a multi-side, now-decade-long war. 

During last week’s discussion, the panelists addressed the effort to build a Syrian narrative of the war — what that narrative would look like, however, was under dispute. They agreed that the Syrian voice was overwhelmed by the interfering groups with vested interests — a proxy war, the fight has several homegrown and foreign combatants. They also noted, though, that there could be no universal Syrian voice owing to the diversity of the country.

In Sinjab’s view, “this is not a civil war, but a war organized by a government fortified by its army and supported by players like Russia and Iran.” As such, the Syrian narrative is under constant threat.

“The whole world is in Syria … at the same time Syrians are across the globe, exiled and displaced,” Al Attar remarked.

“This is not a place for all the armies of the world to come and take the lead on our story. We have to write our own story and take agency of it,” said Salem. 

The arts, she elaborated, has a paramount role in both shaping the narrative and also in fighting in the war. “All our art spaces became the … agoras where artists meet and renegotiate a social contract.”

“We need to start by appreciating the word and the narrative itself as an action.”

Sinjab added that it is necessary to raise the voices of the creative community — they will provide a future image of Syria when it is once again possible to return. She commented that Syria fatigue is an issue for audiences — the public is bombarded with depictions of the country entrenched in the maelstrom of war. It becomes important, Sinjab said, to tell new stories. One she told was that of Azza Abo Rebieh — a Syrian artist who was entrapped and detained. Abo Rebieh drew the women who she was imprisoned with so that they could see themselves

Salem also noted that, right from the beginning, artists in Syria reclaimed public spaces. She recalled that people threw tennis balls with slogans like “Free Syria” written on them off a mountain, and colored public fountains. 

Anxieties over public spaces often underscore revolutionary movements — take the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing or the 2011 revolution in Egypt where protesters occupied Tahrir Square. The reclamation of public spaces by citizens serves as a form of resistance, rebuffing the obtrusiveness of the state. How people reclaim space, though, varies — and some forms of reclamation can limit others. 

In Cairo, for example, bourgeois actors and middle-class aspirants reclaimed public space in Tahrir Square in the aftermath of the demonstrations by cleaning the square of debris. However, clearing rocks and detritus meant that they deprived their revolutionary counterparts of potential weapons in future clashes against security forces. This is what sociocultural anthropologist Jessica Winegar calls “aesthetic ordering”: defining space through aesthetics in order to express desires for and efforts at political and social change. 

And yet, Salem emphasized that the Syrian resistance was active far before its voices materialized in public. “All the words that were said in hidden circles suddenly became loud voices on the street.” 

She also argued that it is key to recognize the interrelatedness of liberation movements across the world. “It is very important for us to open up for intersectionality and to find those artistic and historical references.” 

Salem praised Syrian resilience in the struggle for liberation. “If the revolution taught us something it taught us that we are fluid. We as people, as Syrians are fluid,” she said. “We adapt easily. We create. We are creatives by nature. We are craft makers.”

Watch the full discussion here

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