Syria: a cinematic revolution

I’ve just published this piece on Hyperallergic that I’d love to share here. It’s about what I feel to be a “new wave” in Syrian cinema…


A New Wave of Syrian Films Exposes the Failure of Images



Still from Avo Kaprealian’s ‘Houses Without Doors’ (2016) (image courtesy Bidayyat and Avo Kaprealian jointly)


In an increasingly appalling atmosphere of political stagnation, failed negotiations, and yet another ceasefire that won’t last, there is at least some good news coming out from Syria these days. A new wave of talented filmmakers is silently but powerfully emerging in the midst of a social media-driven compulsion to upload images nonstop and share them in real time.

In the immediate aftermath of the March 2011 uprising, Syrian activists and ordinary citizens have widely employed filmmaking to bear witness and denounce human rights abuses, in the hope that the sheer amount of visual media will provoke outrage and push the international community to find a solution to the conflict. However, these efforts have only contributed to aestheticize violence and anesthetize spectators from it. In the end, the incessant documentation of Syrian life has overexposed it — as well as daily deaths — turning the everyday into a banal, uninteresting, repetitive thing.


The endless visual production has taken life away from the art of image-making. Yet an emerging wave of Syrian directors is finally revitalizing it, as they bring life back to film. In particular, three cinematic gems have surfaced from Syria in the past five years: Ammar al-Beik‘s “Syria Trilogy” (The Sun’s Incubator (2011); La Dolce Siria (2014); Kaleidoscope(2015), Sara Fattahi‘s Coma (2015), and Avo Kaprealian‘s Houses Without Doors (2016). Far from being a mere documentation of Syrian everydayness in wartime, these documentary films start from deep inside the home and the well of family memories.


Sara Fattahi’s Coma takes her childhood apartment in Damascus and turns it into a lively setting where her mother and grandmother — and herself, behind the camera — move calmly and proudly as they go about their daily tasks. They are like gentle souls from another era, whose feelings and memories have not surrendered to the desperation and annihilation brought by war. In Houses Without Doors, which is screening on Sunday at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London, Avo Kaprealian transforms his balcony in Aleppo into an open stage where we watch life in the making: both in the streets of his neighborhood that he frantically films, witnessing the war silently swallow the grocery shop, the fruit seller, the bicycles and the market, the kids playing; and in the filmmaker’s apartment, where his parents go on with their daily routine of watching TV, washing the dishes, smoking, and wondering when all of this will be over. In his trilogy, Ammar al-Beik films all things that make up an ordinary life: the birth of his own child, kids visiting a circus, a man and a woman fighting, then making love. Yet suddenly some extraordinary events break into these insignificant, mundane moments: street demonstrations and a revolution in the making; Scud missiles being launched on vulnerable cities and its people; the persistent soundtrack of barrel bombs falling from helicopters.

We do not get to see the war in any of these films, but we sense it. All of a sudden, insignificant actions of ordinary life take on a somber shade, and we feel that darker times are coming. In Coma, we perceive it in the way in which two Damascene women watch Egyptian TV melodramas, their crying intensifying as they will soon have to say goodbye to their daughter and nephew. We sense the war in Houses Without Doorswhen the young director films his mother packing her bag, just like her Armenian ancestors had to do before, with the bitter awareness that history inevitably repeats itself. And in La Dolce Siria, two children play with a 16mm camera as if it were the heaviest, most inexplicable thing compared to the lightness of Scud missiles crossing the blue sky.


Against the social media mantra of real-time documentation and compulsive sharing, Fattahi, Kaprealian, and al-Beik do not film to assert truths or provide evidence of the thing documented, as if the being there of the camera would turn the witnessed event into a quintessential historical testimony. Rather, the directors link different layers of time and spaces, creating connections between the present, old movies from the history of cinema, documentary footage of Syria in past and present times, and their own family archives.

All these layers of images enjoy the same status, which is that of uncertainty. Here images that belong to the collective memory of Syria’s history, such as the first space mission live-broadcast on state TV at the presence of former president Hafez al-Asad in order to celebrate “the most beautiful country in the world,” appear together with footage from the 2011 uprising, where peaceful activists joyfully throw down the statue of the leader and transform a military tank into a kids’ swing. Both sequences, which appear in La Dolce Siria, seem otherworldly and carry the same level of ambiguity, especially when interspersed with oneiric images from Federico Fellini’s Clowns. Which images are truer, more real? What kind of knowledge are we left with, if fiction films have become part of our collective history and imagination, and digital documents are blurred, fuzzy, and endlessly reproduced and remixed in the endless circulation of the web 2.0?

By showing scenes from a Chilean movie from the 1970s — Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo — to illustrate both the violence inflicted on civilians in contemporary Aleppo, and the historical Armenian genocide, Houses Without Doors seems to suggest that fiction can tell the unthinkable and unimaginable more powerfully than any first-person account filmed onsite. Kaprealian employs both the cinematic and historical archive not as mere source material, but as living connections that help us to make sense of the present. His shaky camera suggests that it’s no longer possible to bear witness, even if physically present in such a familiar place as his own neighborhood. Intentionally, he films with a broken lens, which results in a permanent loss of focus to suggest a weakness of vision, a permanent lack of clarity and understanding of all things filmed.


Paradoxically, it is precisely with this fading of vision that a new chapter of Syrian cinema begins — a chapter which starts where the compulsive sharing of real-time events via social media ends: with a gaze that registers the failure of being there. This failure, however, becomes an entry point to making sense of what is happening. It is precisely from this desire of going beyond the image as evidence that a new wave of Syrian cinema is rising. Fattahi, Kaprealian, and al-Beik’s films are animated by a rage and an affection that will take them somewhere unpredictable, but definitively worth watching.



L’ideologia ai tempi del califfato

L’ultima dal “califfato” l’abbiamo sentita qualche giorno fa: distruggere le antenne satellitari che sarebbero colpevoli di portare la propaganda nemica sul territorio controllato dal cosidetto “Stato Islamico” (ISIS, Daesh).

Da Raqqa e da altre “wilayat” (le province del califfato) sono arrivati video come questo, che ricordano un pò i vecchi atti luddisti, la rage against the machine. Molto anni ’80 come estetica, e spiazzante rispetto a tutta la produzione “cutting edge” e glamour di Daesh, i corti ben inquadrati e montati con sapienza hollywoodiana, i documentari come “La dolce vita”, i video selfie come i Mujatweet.


Ma intanto l’ultima “moda” in casa Daesh é usare i bambini…ne parlo qui sotto ma per scelta ho deciso di non linkare i video…




Vi arrogate il diritto di massacrarci nel nome dei vostri beni materiali, delle vostre vite…nel nome delle vostre cosiddette preziose libertà”: canta il ritornello ossessivo, martellante, in francese, mentre lo schermo snocciola immagini di edifici sventrati, corpi massacrati, distruzione ovunque. Uno scenario che ricorda la Siria di oggi, dove ha il coraggio di aggirarsi solitario soltanto un bambino minuto, vestito in abiti militari. Cammina a testa alta fra le macerie e urla con rabbia il suo canto: “le vostre leggi permettono i danni collaterali..i vostri soldati ammazzano i nostri bambini e voi li chiamate eroi… State attenti, siamo pronti a tagliarvi la gola…i nostri guerrieri sono ovunque, pronti a sacrificarsi”.

E’ l’ultimo video messaggio di terrore che arriva da al Hayat media, il braccio audiovisivo dell’Isis, che stavolta parla per bocca dei bambini. Un intero esercito che si allena, in tenuta militare, armato di fucili, mentre canta la sua rabbia: in francese. Non è insolito, ultimamente, ascoltare questa lingua urlata a squarciagola, inneggiante parole di odio e terrore, nei video di propaganda del califfato; e anche i protagonisti francofoni, combattenti provenienti da Francia o Belgio, sembrano essersi moltiplicati -elemento forse direttamente collegato agli ultimi attentati di Parigi e Bruxelles-. Ma quello che più rapisce e terrorizza lo sguardo di chi osserva queste immagini traboccanti odio e furia battagliera è piuttosto l’ondata di piccoli combattenti apparsi negli ultimi video del califfato.

Qualche settimana fa, un altro video virale dal titolo emblematico di “La generazione delle battaglie epiche”, mostrava un esercito di piccoli asiatici che si sottopongono al training militare e giurano vendetta contro Indonesia, Malesia, Thailandia, Singapore. Tutti poco meno che adolescenti, tutti con lo sguardo dritto verso un futuro di sangue e terrore. Almeno dal nostro punto di vista. Perché quello che emerge da questi video, e da tanta altra produzione di propaganda firmata Isis, è anche qualcos’altro, qualcosa che i nostri occhi -raccapricciati e ossessionati dai pixel delle decapitazioni-

non hanno finora percepito.

Ci sono cameratismo, pacche sulle spalle, risate attorno al fuoco, mangiare insieme e cantare; e poi sì, anche fare alla guerra, ammazzare, terrorizzare. In nome di un sogno: il loro sogno. Il cosidetto “Stato Islamico” sta appunto costruendo uno stato. Uno stato che si appoggia su una visione del futuro. Uno dei libri guida dell’Isis -tradotto anche in inglese, oltre dieci anni fa, e passato poi clamorosamente inosservato dalle nostre intelligence e dai nostri analisti- la chiama “la gestione della barbarie”: uno stato di caos e terrore attraverso il quale è obbligatorio passare per arrivare all’instaurazione del califfato globale. Una condizione che deve essere esportata ovunque, soprattutto in quell’Occidente che finora ha vissuto nell’illusione della pace e della stabilità, del confort materiale e del progresso, ma che oggi è piombato nelle ristrettezze dell’austerity, della crisi economica, del rischio ambientale, della minaccia terroristica. Quello a cui si rivolge l’Isis è un Occidente che ha perso il suo welfare, il suo capitale economico e sociale, sotto le cui macerie seppellisce a poco a poco anche i suoi valori democratici. Un Occidente che ha perso fiducia nelle sue magnifiche sorti e progressive.

A queste democrazie occidentali in crisi, che in campagna elettorale promettono protezione dai rischi che il futuro di instabilità globale prospetta ai suoi cittadini, il califfato contrappone un welfare aggiornato ai tempi dell’austerity. Del tradizionale stato sociale che l’Europa ha abbandonato in nome di un feroce neoliberismo e di una cieca, quasi magica, fiducia nel mercato, l’Isis mantiene la sanità, l’educazione, la protezione dei più deboli. I media del califfato hanno inondato Internet di documentari in cui si vedono ospedali puliti ed efficienti, zero code, reparti nuovi di zecca, medici che parlano con accenti australiani, canadesi; scuole dove allievi sorridenti imparano informatica e guerra; mercati a prezzi calmierati, con merci tonde e colorate, cibi sottoposti a controllo qualità accessibili alle masse. Anche il biologico ormai non è più roba da elites urbane, colte e radical chic, ma a portata delle masse: la video propaganda Isis è green e suggerisce che la vita a contatto con la natura nel califfato è di per sé garanzia di cibo sano e nutriente, a chilometro zero.

Gli occhi occidentali, i pochi che si fermano a guardare questi video, li bollano come propaganda photoshoppata, abbagli digitali: ma ti pare che a Raqqa pensino al welfare mentre ci sono aerei russi pronti a sganciare bombe?! Sarà anche l’ennesima trovata di propaganda, ma in questa video produzione c’è qualcosa di molto serio che il nostro cinismo occidentale rifiuta di ammettere: il sogno. Il sogno che quest’organizzazione di terrore vende ai suoi potenziali futuri cittadini: una forma partecipata di costruzione di uno stato, una forma aperta, orizzontale, virale. Uno stato 2.0, che non a caso si serve dei meccanismi partecipativi del web per realizzarsi. Tutti possono contribuire all’immaginario in divenire dello “stato islamico”: uno stato per sua natura orizzontale, transnazionale, che fa appello alla ummah, alla comunità dei fedeli musulmani. Uno stato a cui idealmente partecipano cittadini di altri paesi, francesi, belgi, tedeschi, norvegesi, frustrati ed emarginati dai loro stati-nazione, alla ricerca dell’abbraccio globale della ummah islamica.

L’intellettuale francese Alain Bertho, esperto di banlieues e di movimenti radicali, individua in questa capacità di rispondere alla “crisi del noi” provocata dalla globalizzazione la grande forza di Isis: esaltare le singolarità, anche attraverso il web partecipato e virale, e poi rimetterle insieme in una collettività. Che ci piaccia o no, il califfato offre solidarietà, cameratismo; e una prospettiva di futuro che è fondata sì sul rischio, ma inteso come opportunità di costruire un avvenire diverso, non come paura dell’ignoto. Scott Atran, provocatoriamente, la chiama “rivoluzione”, mentre Isis sarebbe un vero e proprio “movimento controculturale”, capace di affascinare i giovani offrendo loro una prospettiva di gloria e di riconoscimento da parte dei loro pari. L’Isis capitalizzerebbe sulla ribellione giovanile, sulla voglia di sognare, sulla propensione a rischiare, a sacrificarsi per degli ideali.

Prima di sminuire questi giovani che cantano a squarciagola la loro rabbia, che si danno pacche sulle spalle, che si accucciano ridendo davanti ai fuochi notturni e un momento dopo partono feroci ad uccidere ed uccidersi, pensiamo alle parole di George Orwell a proposito del Mein Kampf di Hitler: “quasi tutto il pensiero occidentale (…) ha presupposto tacitamente che gli esseri umani non desiderino nient’altro che vada al di là dell’agiatezza, la sicurezza e l’evitare il dolore….Hitler (…) sa che gli esseri umani non vogliono solo i conforti, la sicurezza, una giornata lavorativa breve, igiene, controllo delle nascite e, più in generale, buon senso; vogliono anche, almeno a intermittenza, lottare e abnegarsi”.

Quella che ci sembra una follia, se diventa collettiva, si chiama piuttosto ideologia.

Loose thoughts on social media theory, Syria, and digital naked lunches

I recently had the great chance of reading Geert Lovink’s latest book “Social Media Abyss” (just out for Polity Press) and his essay “On the social media ideology” which is part of an ongoing research.

Both are pushing me to think more about what we are really talking about when we talk about social media..what we do with them…why we are so compulsively attracted by them, meanwhile constantly trying to get rid of them, to escape from digital activities -and from digital activism, too-.

Social media, as Geert says, has become the new normal, the new air, the new electricity…invisible but -well, precisely because of that- here to stay.

Social media is the new black.

And you can perceive that also with the waves of Syrian refugees…they do not ask for food, they ask for wifi



(this is a picture I recently took in Lesbos, Greece, at the Moria camp)

A wonderful documentary made by a Syrian friend -which is unfortunately not out yet- features a Syrian activist who, when feeling that his death is approaching, does not ask for a last drink, a last  read, a last cigarette, or even a last fuck..he asks for a last video. So he tells his filmmaker friend: “My friend, I feel I ‘m gonna die, please make a film of me”. And his friend cynically answers (yet another low-paid worker endlessly freelancing in the digital realm): “Well, die first..and then be sure I’m gonna make a film of you!”.

Friendship becomes the last commodity to sell in the precarity of war and digital labor

We interact, we talk to each other through digital images. We love and hate each other through digital images. The opposition between Silicon Valley utopia and our European techno-pessimism cannot account for this drive, for this addiction and distraction which we pursue every time that we open our news feeds, and digital walls, and the camera-eye of our phone-arm.

Utopia and distopia cannot account for this endless desire of being there yet at the same time to disappear. For the excitement and boredom of being slaves of our digital selves.

Why there was hardly any media in Syria prior to the 2011 uprising while now everything is social-media mediated?

Why armed groups started to film, upload and upgrade every single step of themselves while forming a battalion, reading communiques, shooting, sentencing prisoners to death, if before March 2011 they hardly knew what a camera-phone was?

And why doctors did the same, filming themselves while performing surgery on mutilated bodies in field hospitals?

And why are we now so surprised of Isis activists becoming image-makers and tube-uploaders ? Aren’t we all caught in the same digital mode of being? Aren’t we all attracted by the camaraderie, by the possibility of solidarity, by a certain intimacy and the excitement of a possible serendipity that we feel through social media?

….and aren’t we all, at the same time, repelled and attracted by the savagerie, by the spectacle of horror performed on a daily basis from Syria and in Syria?

David Cronenberg calls it “consumed” in his last novel: the cultural attitude by which we eat and are eaten by our digital selves..and here eaten literally means eaten, small body pieces, little fragments of selves such as our tweets, little digital cries, useless likes and shares that gets swallowed by the networks. We eat ourselves, we consume ourselves to the point that we get consumed..yet these small pieces of us, once being cut away and eaten, start to grow again..all wounds are healed, so we can eat again..something which is apparently brand new, digitally re-born. Digital naked lunches.

Why this frantic updating has become such a powerful cultural pattern? what’s behind that? Which kind of desire, of anxiety? Is it about the urge not to disappear? Or about the urge of leaving a last trace before disappearing? Or is about self cannibalism, the cannibalism of our digital selves, like in Cronenberg’s novel?

I remember the very first smartphone advertisement poster I saw in Damascus, slightly before the protests started in 2011. It featured a Nokia handset, showing a Twitter feed on its screen. The feed, in English, showed a discussion about where to go to dine out in Damascus. Something that sounded like: sushi or steak frites? And the slogan on the top of the poster said, in Arabic: quintessentially social. Five years and millions of video uploads into the Syrian civil war, I wonder whether the “quintessentially social” of social media lies, rather than in food culture and lifestyles, in death and destruction. This is what has become quintessentially social in Syrian social media, quintessentially shareable: endless images of death, made both by those who perpetrate the violence and by those who, using that very same device, believe that they can oppose that very same violence by producing a sociable-sharable-deliverable image of it.

We’re no longer playing, like in the sweet old days of anonymous Internet chatrooms and cybersex. Social media has become too intimate, too familiar, too much close to air and electricity, and so we do not enjoy anymore. Where has the jouissance gone? Where is the staging, the performance, the excitement, and the risk when something is too familiar?

Where has the promise of breaking out of the ordinary ,that social media initially seemed to offer and now does not fulfill, gone?

Is it ultimately consumed, like our digital little selves?

Syria Off Frame opens in NYC

“Syria Off Frame”, the exhibition I curated last year within the Imago Mundi Project that features 141 Syrian artists, just opened last monday at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NYC.



Meanwhile, we launched the catalogue of the exhibition in three languages (Italian-English-Arabic). For those who are interested, you can find it here.

These are some of the amazing review articles that we’ve got so far (we hope to have more, and more than everything we hope that other countries will host “Syria Off Frame” and feature the beauty and the power of contemporary Syrian art):

La Siria oltre la guerra in centoquaranta opere d’arte

“Syria Off Frame”, 140 artisti interpretano il dramma del Paese

“Syria Off Frame”, la Siria degli artisti che non si lascia incorniciare 

La fuga, il dolore e la resistenza. Geografia dell’arte siriana di oggi 

“Syria off frame”. La Siria che resta: artisti tra testimonianza, resistenza e speranza

“Syria Off Frame”

“Syria Off Frame”, contemporary artists beyond the cliches

Syrian vision, Venetian view

Syria in sight 





Varoufakis’ DiEM25 and the politics of the self(ie)

Last week I entered the Acquario Romano, a historic gorgeous building in the surroundings of the main train station in Rome, eager to breath some fresh air in the lately very depressing hallways of politics.

Yannis Varoufakis was there to launch his newborn movement, DiEM25: an ambitious name that stands for “Democracy in Europe Movement” while the 25 sets in the year 2025  the deadline for the dream to come true. Young activists in their thirties had gathered there from all across Italy to meet the former Greek minister of Finance and volunteer to make the movement come to life. I heard a group of Danish young professionals telling their Italian peers how they would book a cheap airline flight and AirB&B a few nights in Rome just to be there and help out. I saw the familiar faces of long time activists and political theorists Toni Negri and Franco Berardi BIFO standing  next to an energetic and casually dressed Varoufakis, ready to speak to the crowds about this Europe of us, that “will either be democratized or it will disintegrate”, as the movement motto states.

The gorgeous hall of the building was full of energy and great expectations when, to my greatest disappointment, Varoufakis – who professes to be a marxist – clarifies that DiEM25 is not a left-wing movement, but a movement that aims at reaching out to the entire political spectrum, including liberals, right-wing: literally anyone. Being a long time leftist activist I have to confess that I shivered once heard the sentence. Dear Varoufakis, you such a brilliant, cultivated man, the former hope of European left-wing movements who celebrated you when you walked out the bankers’ meeting on your motorbike: now that you can choose your own path, start your own movement, you, despite professing to be a marxist, decide that anyone should be included in it?

Feeling very uncomfortable I ask myself:  does democratizing ultimately mean including everyone into something? Does the erasing of legitimate political differences and identities naturally imply to be democratic? I am horrified by this idea of one-size-fits-all democracy which, in my view, turns into a populistic version of a “DemoCrazy” instead.


Yet, being a very curious – and, generally, optimistic – person and a patient ethnographer, I decide to stay, regardless of my poor little leftist self being very frustrated by the idea of the one-size-fits-all DemoCrazy circulating around the gorgeous building. So, when the plenary assembly with Varoufakis is over and it’s time for splitting into smaller groups to discuss crucial issues for the future of Europe with fellow activists peers, I sit with the “democracy” group. The group has a 30 something people, sitting in a circle, and is moderated by a young blu-eyed guy who speaks in English, being the crowd a truly European crowd. Somebody sitting in the middle of the circle holds a huge piece of white paper and, with a red marker, writes some key words on it.

“How will democracy look like in 2025”, that’s the main question that the group needs to answer to: a creative, imaginative effort whose results will be translated into key words to be written on the poster, which will be later hung on the walls for public contemplation.

“Imagine yourself in ten years from now” is a familiar question to anyone who has sat, at least once in a lifetime, in a job interview with an American employer. After working for five years for a Silicon-Valley based organization the white piece of paper , with colored sticky notes progressively mushrooming on it as everybody at the table engaged in the imaginative effort, was also a familiar scenario. I might sound quite an old-fashioned leftist activist, but I don’t see anything particularly European or particularly democratic in the sticky notes; and not even in the one-minute imaginative effort of seeing yourself – together with democracy–  projected in a ten years time. I understand that this might be an ice-breaker for a crowd who has just met; I understand that there is a time issue when five or more round table discussions have to wrap up and present their “results” in a plenary.

Yet I question the form as it hints to a very specific substance: the mere idea that democracy should be debated in a sort of “unconference” format which would give it enough coolness, openness, and horizontality not to be considered a topic heavy to digest. Is the precarious flexibility of the sticky notes; the time-sensitive creativity of key words; the coolness of geek formats à la Silicon-Valley a good answer to our thirst for democracy?

Cause there is, indeed, a craving for a more fair, democratic politics: and that’s why Varoufakis’ meeting was crowded and filled with hopes. But also with disappointment, as I heard a young man with a southern Italian accent saying in the plenary: “this seems like a business meeting rather than a gathering to start a new political movement”. Which completely resonates with my own frustration, after having heard words such as: self-empowerment, initiative, enterprise, sustainability, pitching. Can we get rid of neoliberalism at least in the words we use to imagine politics? Or is it so dramatically enmeshed into our daily jargon that we don’t even notice that discussing politics has become like talking about the stock market, or trying to impress your future boss in the most awesome job interview?

The answer to my unspoken question comes from a woman, a young volunteer who reacts to the remark made by the southern Italian man. “What do you mean? There is no such a thing as a political movement here. We gave you input: now you have to build the movement by yourself. Nothing is ready-made here”. She has been honest, at least: input was the right word, a perfect word for a neoliberal vocabulary. Input gives the right measure of time, when there is no time for discussion.

“We are here to launch the movement”, people say; which is totally coherent with the Twitter mantra: write first, verify later. Launch first, discuss later, as there is no time to discuss something that will be anyway measured later by the likes and shares of the social media universe.

Varoufakis’ performance will be also assessed not as a political performance but rather as an aesthetic one. No need to bother Rancière to grasp the political implications of those aesthetic experiences named “selfies” that I see blossoming on my Facebook wall portraying Varoufakis and Anna, Varoufakis and Emma, Varoufakis and Francesca.

The experience of arousal is aestheticized through those young female faces smiling with their object of desire. Varoufakis has been fetishized by this politics of the selfie, and he seems to have learned the lesson so well.

No collective identities are moved by the politics of the self(ie); just individual bodies in desperate need of personal experiences of temporary arousal.

If we want to counteract neoliberal politics, rising racism, xenophobia, extremism, austerity, sadness, financial and human depression, we badly need a politics of the orgy, a collective arousal of bodies and souls. And orgy has always been a much more satisfying way to reach pleasure than a lonely masturbatory selfi(e)sh act.

Bassel Khartabil (aka Safadi) gets a research position at MIT Media Lab

This is the news of the day: our friend Bassel Khartabil, jailed by the Syrian regime since March 2012 (and recently moved to an unknown location) has just been offered a research position with the Center for Civic Media at the MIT Media Lab.

Bassel’s latest project, which is about reconstructing the ancient city of Palmyra in 3D, was launched few days ago by a group of friends under the name of “#new Palmyra”. Wired has recently reported about the project and the huge campaign which is growing around the world to protest the arbitrary arrest of Bassel and his condition of being incommunicado since last October 3rd.

Bassel’s family, friends, colleagues, and people around the world who do not know him in person but know him through his work as an advocate for a free and open Internet have been mobilizing since. Love and support for Bassel’s cause are growing faster and faster everywhere in the world and on the web.

And now it’s truly amazing to see how the MIT Media Lab, whose director Joi Ito is a dear friend and former colleague at Creative Commons, are celebrating Bassel’s efforts in advocating for free culture, and in protecting and preserving Syria’s cultural heritage.

We will never forget Bassel and what he did for the Internets, for Syria, and for all of us.

We’re looking forward to seeing you back home, ya Bassel, ya dude.


(by Muid Latif)

Petition Online:

Freebassel Campaign:
Twitter: @freebassel
Hashtags: #newpalmyra #freebassel #missingbassel

#newpalmyra on Al Arabiyya news today

Violence and Visibility in Contemporary Syria: An Ethnography of the “Expanded Places”

My latest essay on Syria is out on CyberOrient Vol. 9, Iss. 1, 2015


This article reflects on the relationship between visibility and violence as redefined by the combined action of warfare and networked communication technologies. Drawing on the author’s own ethnography conducted in Syria in 2010, and on anonymous YouTube videos, it introduces the concept of “expanded places” to look at sites that have been physically annihilated; yet, at the same time, they have been re-animated through multiple mediated versions circulating and re-circulating on the networks. Building on Rancière’s work on the distribution of the sensible, the article argues that, at the intersection of those simultaneous actions of annihilation and regeneration, a new geography of visibility and violence is being shaped which rearranges the existing into a completely new political form and aesthetic format. Thriving on the techno-human infrastructure of the networks, and relying on the endless proliferation of images resulting from the loss of control of image-makers over their own production, expanded places are aggregators of new communities that add novel layers of signification to the empirical world, and create their own multiple realities and histories.
Bab al hara

This short film (you can view it here) results from the combination of the author’s own video ethnography conducted in 2010 at the Damascene Village within the framework of her Ph.D fieldwork on Syrian TV drama; and of several videos produced by anonymous users and Arab TV channels that were widely shared on the networks between 2012 and 2014.

“ls not every ethnographer something of a surrealist,

a reinventor and reshuffler of realities?”

(Clifford, 1988:147)


This article reflects on the relationship between visibility and violence as reconfigured and redefined by the combined action of contemporary warfare and networked communication technologies.1 It focuses on the interweaving of the destruction of places as a result of war, and the ever-circulating images of those very places, which are endlessly reproduced and recreated through and on the networks. I argue that a new understanding of places is being shaped and brought to light at the intersection of these simultaneous actions of annihilation and regeneration.

This novel geography of visibility and violence is defined around sites that have been physically annihilated; yet, at the same time, they are being re-animated through multiple mediated versions circulating and re-circulating on the networks. I introduce the concept of “expanded places” to define these sites that are enjoying a form of mediated after-life despite the fact that their physical selves have been destroyed. Here “expanding” does not refer to the repetition, recreation, reproduction, and re-circulation of images; nor to the proliferation of the latter if understood as a mere growth in quantitative presence across contexts.

In order to reflect on the characteristics and implications of the process of “expansion” being generated on and through networked communication technologies I build on the conceptual framework developed by Jacques Rancière (2013) on the “distribution of the sensible,” which emphasizes the political dimension of aesthetics, and reads the aesthetic dimension as inherently political. I draw on his reflections on the “aesthetic regime” to look at my own ethnography conducted in 2010 at the Damascene Village (al qariyya al shamiyya), a theme park located in al Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus. From 2006 to 2010, the site served as a location for the TV series Bab al hara (The Gate of the Neighborhood), with its romanticized storyline of the Syrian resistance against French colonial rule in the 1920s; which did in fact start in the al Ghouta district. In 2012, as the Syrian uprising turned into a fully-fledged civil war, the Damascene Village was occupied several times by opposing factions, each of them shooting video accounts narrating the seizure of the theme park using themes, symbols and characters borrowed from the TV series. Eventually the Damascene Village was destroyed; yet, the self-shot videos, once uploaded onto YouTube, continued to fuel the spread of clashing narratives and contradictory understandings of national resistance, which turned a physical site hosting a staged representation of a conflict into a conflict zone itself, endlessly reproduced through social networking sites.

Before being expanded by the combined action of warfare and the networks, the Damascene Village was already a politically charged, symbolic site; as different layers of times and places – the historical al Ghouta of the 1920s anti-colonial struggle – were mass mediated through a fictional representation – the Bab al hara TV series – where the actual, physical space had become entangled with its imaginative representations. However, there is something fundamentally new occurring when networked communication technologies become involved in the process of mediating a space that has been physically destroyed. The aim of this article is precisely to look at the intersection between violence and technology, between annihilation and regeneration, where expanded places are generated; and to explore the new “fictionality” being shaped here, understood as a way of assigning novel meanings to the empirical world, a philosophical device to rearrange the existing into a completely new (political) form and (aesthetic) format (Rancière 2013:33).

My argument is that in order to think of this new form and format of violence and visibility, we have to focus on the techno-social platform triggering the process of expansion of places, that is networked communication technologies, understood both as the multi-layered technical infrastructure of social networking sites mediating signs, spaces, meanings and people; and as the subject of that very mediation, made up of anonymous and unidentified individuals. Using ethnographies of the Damascene Village, studied both as a physical site and as its expanded versions, I will underline how key features of the networks – circulation, reflexivity, anonymity, and decentralized authorship – forge a new relationship between visibility and violence, which, by expanding the former through a never-ending layering and cross-referencing of times and spaces, ceaselessly replicates the latter.

Because of the incessant speed and dissemination made possible by the networks, images of expanded places prove to be extraordinarily resilient. At the same time, they are both the place and the methodological device for violence, if the latter is executed through images. Violence is also inflicted on the image itself, as the dramatic ending of the Damascene Village will reveal.

Prologue: from al Ghouta to Bab al hara, turning physical and mediated spaces into expanded places

Al Ghouta (oasis) is an area surrounding Damascus, and was formerly known as the green belt of the Syrian capital. In Syria’s collective memory, al Ghouta is the place where the anti-colonial struggle against French occupation took shape and was organized in the 1920s. The connection between the physical space and its symbolic value in shaping shared ideas of nation, unity, and resistance has been widely celebrated in Syria’s cultural production.2 In the country’s collective imagery al Ghouta has become a “place” in Yi Fu Tuan’s understanding of the term: something that “feels thoroughly familiar” (Tuan 1977:73).

During the post-independence years, al Ghouta was the favorite venue for picnics and family outings, the ideal place for Damascene families to seek relief from the heat and the hustle and bustle of Syria’s capital. However, as a result of the liberalization policies that in the late 1980s considerably expanded commercial ventures in several sectors of the economy previously controlled by the state, al Ghouta was affected by a wave of property development and exposed to a process of uncontrolled urbanization.3 As part of the transformation of al Ghouta into an urban suburb, a theme park was built to attract further investment to the area, together with a culture of leisure and consumption. Named “the Damascene Village” and located in the Eastern part of al Ghouta, strategically close to the international airport, the entertainment facilities reproduced the stunning beauty of the Old City of Damascus and was home to a number of elegant restaurants, a museum of Damascene folklore, and a zoo.

For five consecutive seasons (2006-2010) the Damascene Village served as the location for Bab al hara, a Syrian TV series that quickly became one of the highest rated in the history of Arab satellite television.4 Bab al hara idealized the daily life and social customs of a Damascene neighborhood at the time of the French mandate, celebrating the people’s struggle against colonial rule; which, as said earlier, was organized precisely in al Ghouta, the area where the TV series had been filmed. Therefore, the Damascene Village became a physical replica of the historic 1920s rebel stronghold conceived as a TV set for a reenactment drama of that very struggle; which, historically speaking, took place exactly in the location where the fictional copy had been rebuilt for the sake of media consumption.

In May 2010, in the context of the fieldwork I was conducting for my PhD research on Syrian TV drama, I spent a month in the Damascene Village, embedded with the Bab al hara crew. At that time, the physical site of the Damascene Village had been metaphorically turned into Bab al hara. Inside the Damascene Village everything, from the architecture of the buildings to the design of the shops and the goods being sold, was the spatial manifestation of a corporate-driven entertainment culture inspired by the Pan-Arab TV series property of a top entertainment group, the Gulf-based, Saudi-owned MBC. The Syrian suburb was occupied, both physically and metaphorically, by pan-Arab capital, which reshaped the symbolic geography of the place, turning it into a mass-mediated reproduction of itself as reenacted in Bab al hara.

In November 2010, I took a group of university students and professors on a day trip to the Damascene Village. Everything that happened during the outing was Bab al hara-related.  We dressed up as its characters; we talked to each other employing its language, making references to its symbolic universe; we even performed sequences from the TV series using them as an access point for discussing contemporary Syria. Our experience was a full embodiment of Jeremy Rifkin’s reflection that “theme parks symbolize the primacy ofconsumption as formula for organizing social relationships” (Anton-Clavé 2007:156);5 and of Guy Debord’s understanding of “spectacle” as “a social relationship between people that is mediated by images” (Debord 1999:2).6

Both domestically and at a pan-Arab level, Bab al hara was the perfect media representation of an inclusive national, multicultural project. In fact, the hara (neighborhood) portrayed in the series included Muslims and Christians, men and women, all of them united by the common fight against foreign occupation, and struggling to preserve their national unity and a shared identity of al watan (the homeland). This message of inclusiveness was in tune with the seemingly reform-minded project backed by president Bashar al Asad and his inner circle of advisors, widely supported by the cultural elites of the country, including the Syrian TV drama makers.7

As noted by Lisa Wedeen (2013), TV entertainment, together with other market-oriented languages, had contributed to spreading the fantasy of a multicultural Syria under al Asad’s leadership, where consumption, linked to stability and order, could make the “good life” accessible to everybody. The Syria of the 2000s was a fully-fledged “neoliberal autocracy” where aspirations for a good life had become melded to “fantasies of multicultural accommodation, domestic security, and a sovereign national identity” (Wedeen 2013:842-843). Bab al hara had rendered this vision into the shiny, corporate-driven language of a blockbuster TV series. Everyone could become part of the Syrian dream, just as everyone potentially belonged to al watan.

However, in March 2011 the Syrian uprising broke out, making al watan a very contentious, politically charged issue, and bringing to the surface the contradictions and clashing ideas hidden behind a seemingly inclusive vision of national unity and belonging. One year later, in August 2012, I saw the Damascene Village again, on my computer screen; yet, this time it was not serving as a film location for Bab al hara.8 The place had been occupied by a group of anti-al Asad armed rebels; soon after, it was re-conquered by the Syrian army, then again retaken by opposition forces, who remained there under siege until nothing was left of the former Damascene Village. Video accounts were shot and uploaded to YouTube from both sides, narrating the seizure of the Damascene Village by using themes, symbols and characters borrowed from Bab al hara. In some cases, they re-enacted entire sequences from the TV series; a realistic mise-en-scene which turned a fictional, romanticized story of unity and resistance against the French occupation into a real-time (and armed) clash between different factions at a time when the uprising was turning into a full-blown civil war.

Syrian and pan-Arab news stations reporting about the events in the Damascene Village edited the YouTube videos taken by the army and the rebels together with archive footage taken from the TV series, using its soundtrack to package their news features. Once again, everything was Bab al hara-related. Paradoxically, all the media discourses generated around the clashes in the Damascene Village of the 2010s – including those produced by non-fiction media – borrowed from the nostalgic, fictitious reproduction of historical events in the Syria of the 1920s. Once circulated online, these media discourses were once again re-manipulated and remixed by anonymous users cross-referencing between the fictional historical Damascus of the 1920s, the real Damascene Village of the 2010s, and the news accounts of the destruction of the latter that eventually became entangled with the narrative universe of Bab al hara. This layering of media might be interpreted as a process of “remediation” in Bolter and Grusin’s understanding (2000), that is a way of referencing older media and repackaging them in order for new media to achieve its cultural significance.

Yet, there is something fundamentally different in the process of hyperlinking, cross-referencing and generating endless layers of times, spaces and meanings initiated and boosted by any networked content – whether a self-produced video item, or a piece of mainstream television – if uploaded to YouTube and shared across the networks. Jodi Dean (2010) has rightly described the feedback loops and the circuits of drive as the main feature of networked communication technologies. Here the latter is understood as a techno-social infrastructure defined by characteristics of reflexivity and the endless circulation of messages that are shared, manipulated, and repeated over and over again in a loop where any possible meaning is lost. Messages become mere contributions to the ever-circulating flow of data upon which networked communications technologies thrive. The implications of this process in terms of production of meaning are dramatic. According to Dean (2009), the uncontrollable speed and spread of contributions over the networks help prevent the formation of any sort of signification. “Networked communications – particularly in their continued entanglements with the mainstream media – format the terrain of battle between competing conceptions of the Real;” here the latter do not generate a plurality of visions, but a set of “disintegrated spectacles” which undermine any possible condition of belief and generate a feeling of “constituent anxiety” (Dean 2009:173).

This process – which is inherent to the networks – is amplified within highly contentious contexts, such as contemporary Syria, experiencing a violent and bloody armed clash of visions over the country’s future. If Bab al hara used to symbolize, at a mass media level, Syrian national unity and a shared idea of al watan, the uprising escalated into civil war has turned the TV series into a heavily contentious site. This is apparent from the YouTube videos shot by the Syrian army and the armed rebels.

The Syrian army’s video features an unveiled young woman in military fatigues, a TV reporter embedded with the troops whose role is to witness and support the military fight to reconquer the Damascene Village by providing a live account for the wider Syrian audience. This recalls the character of Umm Joseph in Bab al hara, an old Christian lady who fights for the independence of her country alongside her male (and Muslim) colleagues, symbolizing the multicultural inclusiveness of the hara as a metaphor for the entire country. On the contrary, the rebels’ videos feature only men who are mostly bearded; a trait that clearly suggests their religious affiliation. In a fascinating (and surreal) mixture of the real and fictitious, the rebels call themselves rijal al Ghouta al sharqiyya (the men of Eastern al Ghouta), borrowing the expression from the TV series; and, at the same time, referring to the real al Ghouta, which stands both as the filming location of Bab al hara, and as the area they are conquering while shooting the video. Visually and textually playing with the intertwinement and cross-referencing of places and times, the rebels’ videos denounce the siege being imposed by the Syrian army on the al Ghouta of the 2010s, connecting it to the historical siege of that very area carried out by the French troops in 1920s as dramatized and narrated in Bab al hara.

These video accounts being circulated on the networks clearly show that the fantasy of inclusiveness behind the hara – and behind Bashar al Asad’s political project – has now been fragmented into clashing narratives packaged by opposing armed factions that have occupied both the physical space of the Damascene Village, and the symbolic, mediated space of Bab al hara. Thus, the Damascene Village has been transformed from a set staging an historical fight fictionalized for the sake of TV drama to a set enabling real armed fighting, used by opposing parties to re-enact Bab al hara’s re-enactment of the people’s anti-colonial struggle, and to give it novel meanings in the context of the Syrian civil war.

Bab al hara was already a contentious space long before the Syrian conflict broke out. From the time of its first broadcast, back in 2006, the TV series generated several heated debates, mostly on Syrian media. For example, critics had pointed to the inaccurate representation of the women of the hara, who were portrayed as passive mothers and wives, subject to their husbands’ and fathers’ will. Others accused the TV series of ignoring the vibrant cultural life and the high educational level of Damascenes at the time, focusing exclusively on the lower, uneducated class.9 However, these controversies mostly took place within the space of traditional mainstream media, such as the written press or TV talk shows. Now, the combined action of violence performed in the context of an ongoing civil war and of networked communication technologies has broken up the narrative of a shared nationhood into a variety of competing versions of reality; none of them able to restore the conditions necessary for a belief in a shared national project. A novel space has been created by the entanglement of warfare and technology, where lines are blurred between the physical, lived experiences of war and their media representations, which have gained a new existence by virtue of the endless circulation of the layering of times, spaces, and people enabled by the networks.

This new environment, defined around what I call “expanded places,” re-establishes the relationship between violence and visibility, and broadens the very idea of conflict. Here, mediated and symbolic languages are employed to perform and legitimize the violence perpetrated in physical spaces. At the same time, the large scale production and reproduction of this very violence through networked forms and formats serves to actualize and rationalize it, its viral circulation being endlessly nurtured and boosted by the techno-human structure of the networks.

Expanding warfare through the networks: an ethnography of expanded places

Drawing from the ethnographies of the Damascene Village, I want to reflect on the relationship between visibility and violence in the performance of contemporary warfare as defined by and through the networks, and on the implications of being exposed to violent events in the context of a networked environment. Philosopher Micheal Shapiro (2011) calls this situation of continuous exposure to violence the presence of war. It is by virtue of the “technologies of perception” shaping our communication habitat. He argues that an overlap between the materiality of violence being performed remotely and the comfort of the places where we consume it is produced (Shapiro 2013:137). This reflection is key to approaching expanded places as novel environments generated by the combined action of warfare and networked communication technologies.

Long before new media, scholarship had raised the question of the juxtaposition of conflict zones as places for the production of violence, and comfort zones as environments for the consumption of the latter, emphasizing the role of visual media in bringing together these apparently opposing contexts. Several works have focused on the relationship between violence and visual media, stressing the capacity of the latter to shape a sort of dramaturgy (and ideology) of warfare. Susan Sontag (1977) was the first to underline that the over-saturation of images of violence and violent images had resulted in hindering their potential capacity to generate any sort of ethical responsiveness. Finally, their very existence could not help but bear witness to “the vulnerability of lives heading toward their own destruction” (Sontag 1977:70).

Judith Butler (2009) pushed this reflection farther by arguing that the role of images was not only to document violence, but to actively perform it. This capacity to contribute to the performance of violence is, in her view, closely connected to their rapid spread and dissemination through a diverse set of media. Butler has stressed the importance of media circulation in shaping the relationship between violence and visibility, and has directly linked media representations to modes of military conduct. In her words: “there is no way to separate, under present historical conditions, the material reality of war from those representational regimes through which it operates and which rationalize its own operation” (Butler 2009:29).

Yet the role played by networked communication technologies in generating expanded places exceeds that of facilitating the mere circulation and proliferation of visual media, and of producing and reproducing media representations. Here the networks have to be conceived not only as a techno-infrastructure boosting the endless reproduction of images and texts, but also as the human fabric beneath the mechanism of that very reproduction. The web 2.0 (O’Reilly 2004), also defined as participatory web or “social” web, is in fact at the same time the technological infrastructure and the human network connecting people and information in a system of cross-referencing and hyperlinking. Reflexivity and circulation are key features describing this environment of networked data and people, together with anonymity and decentralized authorship.

The combination of the technological and human element defining networked communication technologies generates a fundamental difference with non-networked media, such as photography or television, which were the focus of Sontag and Butler’s reflections. By virtue of the networks’ techno-human infrastructure, visuals and data are not just copied or disseminated, but hyperlinked and cross-referenced with other visuals and data, and connected to an ever expanding web of people, places, and times. Within this architecture, everybody is a maker of messages and a connector between one message and another; between one node of the web and another. The hyperlinking of people, places, and times is central to the process of expanding places that have been annihilated by violence and warfare, while at the same time being multiplied in endless mediated versions where new spatio-temporal and symbolic connections are established.

The fate of the Damascene Village makes this apparent. Here, different layers of time have overlapped: the historical 1920s; the 1920s as re-imagined by a media product made in the 2000s; the 1920s celebrated in a fictional version of the 2000s and re-employed in the 2010s by opposing factions to fight a real war and endorse their own version of armed resistance. Places have also merged: the historical site of al Ghouta with its physical replica, the Damascene Village; and the fictional representation of al Ghouta offered by Bab al hara with the militarized and physically besieged Damascene Village. New meanings have been generated through this melting of times and places, as shown by the self -recorded video accounts produced by the rebels and the Syrian army. Both sides have linked a fantasy of the historical al Ghouta as re-elaborated by Bab al hara to their own fantasy of conquering Syria’s collective imagination through the physical occupation of the TV series location, which is also the material site where the local anti-colonial struggle originated. By re-articulating the links between historical resistance struggles, the fantasy of this very resistance filtered through TV fiction, and their ongoing armed resistance, both the rebels and the loyalist army have been playing with images and signs, cross-cutting times and spaces.

The multi-layered cross-referencing of a plurality of times and spaces is a result of the process of expansion which occurs by virtue of the techno-human infrastructure of networked communication technologies. This spatio-temporal overlap and the blurring of the boundaries between a fictional replica of a physical, historical place, and the latter’s material existence, coincide to shape a continuous real-time and live-presence which characterize time and space in expanded places. The YouTube videos that have been uploaded by the armed rebels and the Syrian army, shared by thousands of unknown users worldwide, remixed by Arab TV news stations, re-manipulated by other unknown users who edit them once again and, finally, re-injected into the ever-circulating data stream generated by the networks, have all contributed to the expansion of the place formerly known as theDamascene Village. Expanding a place, in fact, does not only mean multiplying its spatio-temporal existence, but also interconnecting it with other places, times, languages, material existences and individualities.

The endless making and remaking of the connections between images and spaces and the continuous attribution of novel meanings to the empirical and symbolic world generate  alternative ways of framing the “existing sense of reality,” redefining the “trajectories between what can be seen, what can be said, and what can be done” (Rancière 2009:49). Along these lines a new fictionality emerges; which, as conceptualized by philosopher Jacques Rancière (2013), does not refer to the making up of a fictitious universe, nor does it evoke a relationship of truth and falsehood. As shown by the story of the Damascene Village, the same symbolic and visual reference (Bab al hara) can be employed simultaneously by opposing factions (the Syrian army and the armed rebels) to produce contrasting narratives of resistance, and clashing ideas of nationhood. It can both serve to evoke a seemingly inclusive multiculturalism promoted under al Asad’s leadership; and, at the same time, to remind us that an entire nation is being besieged, not by occupying foreign forces but by the Syrian regime.

Fictionality has to be understood as the philosophical device rearranging the existing into a completely new (political) form, and (aesthetic) format. I argue that the relationship between the political and the aesthetic being established in expanded places has to be defined along the lines of Rancière’s reflection (2013) on the “aesthetic regime,” that is a framework organizing the visible, the thinkable and the sayable independently from the logic of causality or representativity characterizing previous forms of “distribution of the sensible.”Within the “ethical regime” and the “representative regime” the question of the image was raised in reference to an external principle (Rancière 2013:16-17); whether ethical (that is “truth content” of the image, its “end or purpose”) or representative (i.e., its ability to imitate in a “good or bad, adequate or inadequate” way). Images have been assessed and judged within the ethical and the representative regimes around a principle of truthfulness, or of representation. In the former, images have to aim at something, have to move and mobilize: in the latter, they have to describe “proper ways of doing and making” according to a criterion of representation or mimesis (Rancière 2013:17).

However, the logic of expanded places does not respond to any of these criteria. The fictionality specific to the aesthetic regime is, in fact, a framework marked by a “proliferation of modes of speech and levels of meaning” (Rancière 2013:33) where temporality is defined around a “co-presence of heterogeneous temporalities” (Rancière 2013:21) – as we have witnessed with the continuous layering of times and places in the Damascene Village. In the context of Rancière’s aesthetic regime the logic of facts and the logic of fiction are blurred, as much as in expanded places like the Damascene Village.

This seems to bear a resemblance to Jean Baudrillard’s hyperreal (1994) defined as a space “whose curvature is no longer that of the real, nor of the truth” (Poster 2001:170). The proliferation of mediated languages which shaped Baudrillard’s understanding of “simulation” (1994) as the main process describing the hyperreal could evoke the layering of forms and formats that have entangled the real Damascene Village with its representations through Bab al hara, re-connecting it again to the historical al Ghouta. However, while Baudrillard’s simulation is a mediated process which “bears no relation to any reality,” expanded places are shaped around the networked re-elaboration, re-imagination, and re-manipulation of materialities, physical places, and historical events (Poster 2001:173). Both the Damascene Village and Bab al hara are mediated embodiments of the fantasy of national unity and resistance historically and symbolically represented by al Ghouta. The expanded versions of the Damascene Village generated through networked communication technologies also bear reference to the events happening on the ground in contemporary Syria (the siege of al Ghouta carried out by the Syrian army), re-connecting them to an historical event that occurred in another time (the siege of al Ghouta carried out during the French colonial mandate) which occupies a strong symbolic place in the country’s collective imagination.

All the expanded versions of the Damascene Village bear a connection to other times and spaces, a connection which is used by each faction to support its own version of reality. Yet, what we should focus on is not this relation to a supposed ontological reality lying beneath expanded places; but rather the process by which the networks add new layers to the existing sense of reality, and how this results in creating new “communities of sense” (Rancière 2009). The story of the Damascene Village proves that it does not really matter whether the fantasy of al Ghouta elaborated by Bab al hara corresponds to an historical reality; what it is important to reflect upon is that this very fantasy has been used to generate and reproduce violence from opposite armed factions, both of which have employed mediated and networked languages to claim legitimacy over their own idea of homeland and national resistance.

In this context “the Aristotelian dividing line between two ‘stories’ or ‘histories’ – poets’ stories and the history of historians – is thereby revoked, the dividing line that not only separated reality and fiction but also empirical succession and constructed necessity (…) Testimony and fiction come under the same regime of meaning” (Rancière 2013:33-34). Therefore, instead of looking at the questions generated by expanded spaces in relation to an adherence to reality and truth, or in connection with an idea of representation, I suggest focusing on the way new meanings, novel political forms, and aesthetic formats emerge within these environment by virtue of the process of cross-referencing and hyperlinking boosted by the networks. This constitutes a major shift from Sontag and Butler’s reflections on violence and visibility elaborated in the context of non-networked media. Both scholars had evoked either an ethical or a representative function of the images which, within the networked environment connecting people and data defining expanded places, is replaced by a logic where “descriptive and narrative arrangements in fiction becomes fundamentally indistinct from the arrangements used in the description and interpretation of the phenomena of the social and historical world” (Rancière 2013:33).

Defining new forms and formats in expanded places

Novel political forms and aesthetic formats appear in the context of networked communication technologies that define expanded places around a new idea of realism. I argue that these forms and formats are fundamentally different from those shaped by non-networked media. Departing from critical theories of realism developed in cinema studies – such as Andre Bazin’s idea that the real should be “aimed at” (Deleuze 1989:1) – and from the “ideology of realism” put forward by television – directly linked “to the possibility of ‘live'” broadcast (Zimmer 2015:84) – I propose looking at these new forms and formats in light of the characteristics of circularity, reflexivity, anonymity and decentralized authorship which, as previously underlined, describe the networks as a techno-human infrastructure.

Reflecting on the distribution of the sensible and on the different organizational forms it generates, Rancière has emphasized the role that “mechanical arts” played in shaping a new aesthetic, and therefore political, format (Rancière 2013:27). Here technology is not understood as a mere technique of reproduction and transmission; rather, it is the platform that allows a fundamental shift introduced within the aesthetic regime (i.e., “the honor acquired by the commonplace”) to emerge and be visualized (Rancière 2013:29). In Rancière’s view, the aesthetic revolution – another way of saying modernity – has broken with a certain relation to the image established within the ethical and representative regimes; revoking, on the one hand, “the representative tradition’s scales of grandeur,” and, on the other hand, “the oratorical model of speech in favor of the interpretation of signs” (Rancière 2013:30).

The combination of an aesthetic shift with the technological possibility of focusing on “the anonymous” and on the “minute details of ordinary life” has given rise a new understanding of history as a continuous process of assigning meanings to material realities, of connecting signs and symbols in unprecedented ways. In this sense we can define history as a “new form of fiction,”10 and look at reality as capable of “bearing greater fictional invention” by virtue of the never-ending connections between times, places, and people, being continuously made and remade, done and undone (Rancière 2013:34). According to Rancière, documentary films, because of their inner aspiration to capture reality, have a greater chance of rendering the blurring of lines between different material realities and their representations which defines the aesthetic regime.

The French philosopher does not explicitly mention networked communication technologies. However, his emphasis on the anonymous subject as an active producer of history understood in terms of fictionality bears more than a resemblance to the “prosumer” of the networked age.11 In places that have been expanded by the combined action of warfare and technology everyone can participate in the task of producing and reproducing history, as we have seen in the Damascene Village, where the rebels, the Syrian army, pan-Arab news channels, and thousands of unknown users have all contributed to remaking the connection between the historical al Ghouta and the actual besieged al Ghouta, between Bab al hara and their own fantasy of national resistance.

The peculiarity of such new formats as the YouTube videos disseminated virally over the web 2.0 is that they combine a visual culture of “compulsive documentation films” packaged to signify the quintessential form of “experience;” with “the diffuse dispersal of information” of the networked experience (Zimmer 2015:97). As argued by Catherine Zimmer (2015:97), “self experience should be exchanged and circulated in order to become relevant. In other words, subjectivity and mediated representation are one and the same,” as they are both determined by the techno-human infrastructure of the networks where these formats are produced and circulated. Once again, a technological possibility helps render a fundamental aesthetic – and political – shift, that is the rise of the anonymous subject and decentralized authorship nurtured by virtue of the circularity and reflexivity of the networks. At the same time, serving as a distribution platform, networked communication technologies boost the production of content, which is then re-injected into the networks in an endless cycle of circulation.

Therefore, the new formats of realism shaped on the networks result from “ever-accumulating layers of technological mediation;” they are defined, as Zimmer (2015:112-113) underlines, by “a reflexive structure that makes explicit reference to the manner in which any event or understanding of an event is multiply mediated.” The story of the Damascene Village clearly evokes this process of connecting layers of networked times, places, and people; and creating a new understanding of reality which contains all those apparently contradictory strata in a sort of continuous real-time presence. While producing the personal and the individual, at the same time the video accounts shot by the Syrian army and the armed rebels are networked multilayered formations that become “increasingly indistinguishable in aesthetic and function from the social spectacle, the virtual assemblage, and the hypermediation of networked communication” (Zimmer 2015:112).

By virtue of their networked genealogy the formats generated within expanded places shape a fluctuating understanding of reality and history, as they continuously rearrange links between signs and images; being influenced by the circularity, reflexivity, anonymity, and decentralized authorship of the networks as they do so. Throughout this process they “reconfigure the map of the sensible;” through the modeling of new perceptions, trajectories and meanings they come to produce new political forms (Rancière 2013:35). A new aesthetic order à la Rancière generates “uncertain communities” politically questioning “the distribution of roles, territories, and languages” (Rancière 2013:36). Yet, in expanded places that have been destroyed by violence and warfare, then have been re-born through a networked after-life, this process goes much further. Here, challenging the distribution of the sensible is not only a matter of contentious politics, but of generating and regenerating violence and destruction through the endless circulation of formats of violence boosted by the inner techno-human structure of the networks.

Epilogue: resilience of the image in expanded places

A paradox within expanded places is that, after having been physically annihilated, they are regenerated through their own images which, once injected onto the networks and hyperlinked to other images, times, and spaces, grant to their destroyed selves an endless, networked after-life. In fact, images lie at the core of the process of life-extension. Expanded places are image-fed, growing around the proliferation of the networked forms and formats previously described.

The networks, conceived as the techno-human infrastructure enabling expansion by virtue of its circularity, reflexivity, anonymity, and decentralized authorship, bear another structural characteristic that contributes to strengthening the proliferation of images in expanded places, which is the diffused ownership of the information circulating through networked communication technologies. Having inserted images in the data stream image-makers lose control – and ownership – of their own visual production. This is apparent in the case of the Damascene Village; even in the presence of a mainstream corporate product such asBab al hara, whose ownership is protected by copyrights, its circulation on the networks produces a de facto loss of control over it, resulting in indiscriminate viral sharing and manipulation by anonymous users, other satellite networks, and armed groups like the Syrian army and the rebels.

The loss of ownership over content, which has been widely celebrated by the cultures of sharing and remixing, was already observed in the 1970s by Jean Luc Godard.12 “Poor revolutionary fools, millionaires of images of revolution,” remarked the French filmmaker in his documentary film on the (failed) Palestinian uprising, Ici et ailleurs (“Here and elsewhere,” 1976). Those Palestinians who had generated thousands of images that were supposed to celebrate the victory of their revolution had actually lost control of those very images; which then could serve to tell multiple, contradictory stories. The condition of being image-makers who are no longer image-keepers is the link connecting a documentary film from the 1970s and the over-mediated and networked environment where expanded places proliferate.

However, it is precisely because of the content producers’ failure to preserve their own production that places such as the Damascene Village are granted a further life and can endlessly proliferate and hyperlink with other images within the techno-human infrastructure of the networks. The process of expansion of places relies precisely on this split between image-makers and image-keepers. Images should be left free to circulate in order to nurture the endless data flow upon which networked communications technologies prosper; they should escape from their makers for the sake of being injected into the ever-circulating stream of networked forms and formats. Because of this, a superabundance of images populates expanded places, images that are extremely resilient, and become even more so by virtue of the speed and the dissemination of other data hyperlinked to them in a non-stop flow. Here, images have a dual nature; they are, on the one hand, the methodological device for the performance of violence and, on the other hand, the object of this very violence.

The scholarship has widely reflected on visual media as a tool and technique for executing violence. Analyzing visuals from Abu Ghraib, Catherine Zimmer (2015:44) concluded that torture was not only documented but “performed through the act of photography.” Summing up a decade and more “politically and culturally saturated by the ‘war on terror’,” she remarked that this “state of exception” had served as a perfect ideological context for torture-based media production (Zimmer 2015:53-55). However, violence can be performed on violent images themselves, as the ending of the Damascene Village suggests.

In August 2013, a chemical attack was launched on the area of al Ghouta. It resulted in further deaths, destruction and starvation within the district. Because of the dramatic shortage of food, a fatwa was issued allowing people to eat animals not usually consumed. There was a lion in the zoo at the Damascene Village. The Arabic word for lion is asad; therefore, in a highly symbolic act, the anti- al Asad rebels under siege killed the lion and ate its meat. A video was shot documenting the entire process, with the purpose of sharing it online. However, shortly after being uploaded, the footage was removed by YouTube, which claimed that it violated the company’s community guidelines.

Only a snapshot from the rebels’ video has been saved, and it is still circulating (at the time of writing) on the networks. Other images from the video have been sentenced to death by the networks, and condemned to eternal oblivion. Another type of violence has been inflicted on violent images by the networks acting upon a double-edged logic. On the one hand, the technological infrastructure beneath networked communication technologies, functioning around reflexivity and circulation, boosts the expansion of places that have been physically destroyed, regenerating them, and granting them a form of survival after annihilation. On the other hand, that very infrastructure that nurtures “communicative capitalism” (Dean 2009) condemns all things produced to comply with disciplinary frameworks that have been elaborated by private companies and corporate capital.

Hence, those producing violence are also submitted to violence; this operation is much more nuanced and almost imperceptible, as it is perpetrated by the networks adhering to a corporate principle that establishes what should be remembered and what should be forgotten. Contemporary image-keepers are no longer that generation of filmmakers who used to reflect critically on the question of image. The networks have become today’s image-keepers; they store and preserve, or delete and destroy images following a logic that still is to be fully explored, understood, and critiqued.


This article has reflected on the increasing role played by networked communication technologies in shaping and re-designing the spatiality and perception of contemporary warfare, and the latter’s relationship to visibility and the production of visual economies. Drawing on ethnographies from the Syrian Damascene Village, it has argued that the combined action of violence and visibility, warfare and networked communication technologies produces what I have described as expanded places. Expanded places are endless networked versions of physical sites that have been destroyed, and then regenerated through the multiplication of mediated forms and formats enabled by networked communications technologies. They thrive on the latter’s techno-human infrastructure, and rely on the endless proliferation of images occurring as a result of the loss of control of image-makers over their own production. Expanded places are aggregators of new communities of meaning; they are able to catalyze the formation of new meanings and identities, and add novel layers of signification to an existing reality, creating their own multiple realities and histories.

The ethnography that I have conducted on the Damascene Village, with the help of several videos produced and uploaded by multiple subjects (some of them identifiable, others anonymous), constitutes a first case study aiming at discussing the characteristics of expanded places, and at opening up a reflection on multiple spaces generated by the intertwinement of warfare and technology. The article has looked at the prominent role that images play in shaping the expanded places; how they inhabit them; and how they help create new connections between signs and spaces, granting new life to these expanded spaces and catalyzing new communities of sense around them.

The sad ending of the Damascene Village has added another layer for further reflection, which relates to the ownership and control over the images within the networks. The latter not only generate new layers of signification and meanings to an existing reality; they also establish rules, codes of conduct, and a politics to govern and manage expanded places. The disappeared footage of the lion killed in the Damascene Village should stand as a reminder that the process of expansion and multiplication of mediated languages around a place could be blocked at any moment; and that there is a politics – and a political economy – behind even such seemingly ethereal places, which calls for further investigation.


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Baudrillard, Jean 1994. Simulacra and Simulation. The University of Michigan Press.

Bolter, David J., and Richard A. Grusin 2000. Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

Butler, Judith 2009. Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? London: Verso.

Clifford, James 1988. The Predicament of Culture. Twentieth-century Ethnography, Literature, and Art. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

Dean, Jodi 2010. Blog Theory. Feedback and Capture in the Circuits of Drive. Cambridge: Polity Press.

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Deleuze, Gilles 1989. The Time-Image. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Poster, Mark 2001. Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Rancière, Jacques 2013. The Politics of Aesthetics. London: Bloomsbury, paperback edition.

Rancière, Jacques 2009. Contemporary Art and the Politics of Aesthetics. In Communities of Sense: Rethinking Aesthetics and Politics.  Beth Hinderliter, William Kaizen, Vered Maimon, Jaleh Mansoor and Seth McCormick, eds. Durham: Duke University Press. Pp. 31-50.

Shapiro, Micheal 2013. Studies in Trans-Disciplinary Method: After the Aesthetic Turn. Abingdon: Routledge.

Sontag, Susan 1977. On Photography. London: Penguin.

Tuan, Yi-Fu 1977. Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

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Zimmer, Catherine 2015. Surveillance Cinema. New York: New York University Press.


I would like to thank the anonymous reviewers for their helpful and constructive comments that greatly contributed to improving the final version of this article; and the editors for their support during the review process. A big thank you to Kay Wallace who did the final proofread; to the Bab al hara producers for giving me access to the filming in 2010; to Khalil Younes, Hillary Mushkin, Omar Ghazzi, Mohammed Abdallah, Salim Salama, for inspiring me to pursue my work on the “expanded” al Ghouta; to the people of al Ghouta, still living under siege. I would also like to extend my deepest gratitude to the Arab Image Foundation (FAI) in Beirut for giving me access to rare and precious visual material on Syria at the time ofthe French occupation. Finally, I would like to acknowledge the Danish Institute in Damascus for supporting my research work on al Ghouta and expanded places with a research grant.

Such as the literary production by Badawi al Jabal (a pen name of Mohammed Sulayman al Ahmed), a Syrian poet and anti-colonial political activist.

For further reading on neoliberal reforms in Syria, see Haddad, Bassam (2012) Business networks in Syria. The Political Economy of Authoritarian Resilience.  Stanford: Stanford University Press

For further reading on Bab al hara and entertainment television in the Arab world, see Khalil, Joe F., and Marwan M. Kraidy (2009). Arab Television Industries. London: Palgrave MacMillan.

Emphasis added.

Emphasis added.

For further reading on Bab al hara, and on the political economy of  Syrian TV drama industry, see Della Ratta (2013) Dramas of the Authoritarian State. The Politics of Syrian TV Drama in the Pan Arab Market. Ph.D dissertation, Department of Cross Cultural Studies, University of Copenhagen.

The fifth season of Bab al hara was aired in Ramadan 2010. The TV series restarted several years later; a sixth and seventh seasons were broadcast in Ramadan 2014 and 2015.

For further reading see Della Ratta (2013) Dramas of the Authoritarian State. The Politics of Syrian TV Drama in the Pan Arab Market. Ph.D dissertation, Department of Cross Cultural Studies, University of Copenhagen.

10 The provocatory title of Rancière’s essay (2013) is: “Is History a Form of Fiction?”

11 This definition was coined by Alvin Toffler in 1980 when he predicted that, with advanced technologies, the role of producers and consumers would merge.

12 For further reading on the cultures of sharing, see Lessig, Lawrence (2008) Remix. Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy. London: The Penguin Press.



Bassel Khartabil aka Safadi, my dear friend from the old days in Damascus and lead of the Creative Commons community in Syria, has been living in a Syrian jail for almost 4 years now. He was arrested in March 2012 without a formal accusation or the right to see a lawyer.

Today we hear from his wife and dear friend Noura Ghazi that Bassel has been moved to an unknown location, probably to be judged by a military court. We do not have any more detail but we really fear for his life.

The more attention we can get on his case on the web, on mainstream media, the better to protect him from any abuse from the regime and secret services side.

Please help us spread awareness, please help us #freebassel

You can find more info here:

Syria’s Romeo & Juliet at Zaatari Camp

For the World Theatre Day, 27 March, Syrian actor and director Nawwar Bulbul will premiere “Romeo & Juliet” at the Zaatar refugee camp in Jordan.

The theatre play will be entirely performed by Syrian refugee children living in Zaatari; they will be joined on Skype by other Syrian kids, still living inside the country.

Nawwar has directed other theatre plays performed by Syrians living inside the camps. Recently, his “King Lear” adapted from a Shakespeare’s play has gained international attention.

Watch out for this new “Romeo & Juliet” production in Zaatari which hopefully will travel around the world (although never easy to get visas for Syrians, these days; not even for those involved in arts and culture).

Bassel Safadi’s third year in a Syrian jail

Yesterday marked the 4th anniversary of the beginning of Syria’s uprising.

It also, very sadly, marked the detention of our beloved friend, open-source advocate Bassel Khartabil aka Safadi.

Several initiatives have been launched on the web, particularly this one which aims at building an #offlinelibrary for our friend. You can contribute your gift here.

I’d like to republish what Bassel’s wife, Noura Ghazi, has written on the eve of the 3rd anniversary of his detention.

Bassel won’t be forgotten, as much as the other political prisoners still waiting for justice, dignity, and freedom, locked up in Syrian jails.
This day is very hard on me, i am trying not to remember the details of our lats evening together , 3 years ago.

i am trying to keep myself busy with anything, with anyone , but every minute i remember a day that seems too far away now. what we spoke about that night , what did we eat ?

what were you wearing, why did we argue that evening, and when i started crying and telling you i have a very weird feeling inside of me and am afraid we won’t be getting married , you started cooling me down , dry my tears and promising me that we will still go on and have our wedding day on the day we agreed and we will celebrate and everything will happen according to plan. i did not know then , that only few hours were away from your arrest, and i did not know then that i will start counting days months and years of you being absent

…. that day we spent together is a very hard day to forget… and after they took you it has become even more hard to forget… it is impossible to forget the day with its details , impossible to forget you uttering the word i am afraid while asleep , the word: afraid … still rings in my head and in my heart for 3 years .

3 years and i have been living a fear i have never lived in my life, and i am fighting , because i love you , because i love you i am fighting. i am fighting everything but your love that is taking over my soul … do you remember how many times i told you i love you that day? and after 3 years , and after 20 years i will always love you , i will always wait for you every single dirty month of march until i die… Noura Ghazi Safadi