‘In Syria, culture has become a critical line of defence against tyranny.’ This single statement brings together all the different reasons, for creating Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Frontline. It’s a book now made infamous after a British Muslim woman was detained under Sec 7 of the Terrorism Act, for openly reading an art book on a Thompson flight to Turkey. Rather than the cabin crew asking her what the book was on the journey to her honeymoon destination, Thompson alerted U.K. security and they picked her up at the airport back in Britain.
On a visit to Hull we welcome the two co-editors of Syria Speaks Malu Halasa and Zaher Omareen and contributor Robin Yassin Kassab.
The book that caused the cabin crew such distress is a book of poems and poetry with street art and photographs of protest posters, that speak out against the occupation of Syria and against Bashir Assad’s regime. The book has also been the subject of discussion at the BBC, where a producer asked Malu Halasa whether she would have changed the cover, given the opportunity. Malu suggests that this kind of response makes her very concerned, even after the producer brushes away questions over ‘BBC censorship’, with a line on ‘BBC balance.’
Syria Speaks has work in it from over 50 artists – potentially more because some of the work remains anonymous – the contributors are made up of three types. The first being a group making an immediate response to the uprising ,who had not done it before. The second group are artists who interact with the uprising as artists and activists. The third group are commenting after the fact, professional artists reflecting on the values of the uprising. Syrians no longer talk about freedom and dignity, they focus on building a bridge between Syria and outside Syria. Would you participate in an uprising if you knew it would lead to war?
‘Before 2011 most died silently, after 2011 they were screaming before they die’
Zaher Omareen cannot return to Syria at the present time he is on a black list, for that he would be arrested, tortured and killed by the Assad forces. He presented two films one made by a Syrian activist using secret filming the other a short concept film that is part of a longer series.
The first film A Day and a Button by Azza Hamwi, opens with a shot of a purse hanging against a net curtain, the narrator talks about her bed and her cat. Outside in the street the sound of gunfire against an Assad news reel. Using hidden camera filming she shows the viewer the vast chasm between the liberated areas of Damascus, here people are shopping, going about daily lives, and the un-liberated area, where starving children stare out from the screen amidst the rubble of bombed buildings. Overhead the roar of a plane, the sound is so fierce that it sends a chill down the spine. These two worlds exist just ten minutes away from the other.
The second film ‘Flickering’ is an essay in the new visual lingual of Syria, beginning purposefully abstract, a series of close ups, that are red, that are flesh. The camera pulls out to reveal projected images of torture, mapped on to a human back; the back being the canvas and the back being the focus of the assault.
It is difficult to understand the fast moving events in Syria since 2011. The news coverage we see is laden with agenda, there are so many moving pieces, by moving I mean pieces swapping sides, and then all the different factions, and allies, religions and sects, incomers from other countries such as Iran and more recently Russia. As vacuums are created extremists move in and somehow ,change a story that was once about about a human struggle against oppression, into one with far grander narratives.
‘It is not a repeat of Iraq. It is not regime change. There was no popular revolution in Iraq in 2003, like there was in Syria.’
Syria and the subsequent migration from the country by those trying to escape full-scale military attack, has but Syria sharply into focus on the world stage. The migrant story has global repercussions, whether it’s horrendous drowning in the Mediterranean, Angela Merkel’s backfiring migrants mercy mission, the state controlled closing of European borders by force, Syria and immigration dominating the U.S election race and also the influence the immigrant story had on Brexit. Somehow the fate of Syria and the Syrian people has become one of the most important and difficult questions of the early 21st Century.
‘Became used to the daily torture quicker than expected’
I went to Sunday’s event armed with one question and that was whether Syria was in control of its own destiny. The response from all three of the speakers left me with no clear answers, but with a shred of hope for the future.
‘There is hope to return after securing a future for the children, but that return can only take place after the country of Syria is no longer occupied by foreign forces and Assad is over thrown.’
Asking where can we find reliable sources of information about Syria, the group identify a number of sources including:
Janine di Giovanni The Morning They Came for Us
Buy Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Frontline Here