2011: Year of the Protester

Since this is the last post of 2011, I`d like to take few minutes to say goodbye to an year that has been truly amazing (sometimes in a scary way, too).

Most of the things I thought would be very unlike actually happened in 2011, the good and the bad things. When I first got an sms by a Tunisian friend last 14 January 2011 I could not believe what I saw on the mobile screen: we, the Tunisian people, are going to celebrate tonight for the dictator is gone.

credit: Time.com

I screamed and cried when I saw my computer screen streaming pure live joy from Tahrir square in Egypt, on February 11th cause another dictator was gone.

I walked the streets of my dear Damascus last February, curious to see what would happen in the Syrian days of rage and saw nothing. Yet, only few days later, and few meters away from my house, I saw a spontaneous explosion of anger, a protest for dignity called by real streets and not by Facebook. Then, again, as unexpected as that one, another unexpected thing happened, again near my house, again in Old Damascus. It was the 15th of March, and people said Syrian revolution was beginning.

I dont believe in slogans and in Internet calls for revolutions, but what I saw was the street revolting, real people being hurt, not avatars.

Since then, Syria has never been the same. People are still fighting for their freedom and dignity, in many ways, the most unexpected, the most creative, the bravest.

illustration by Khalid Albaih licensed under Creative Commons

illustration by Khalid Albaih licensed under Creative Commons

And then Libyans won their fight against Gheddafi and started to rebuild their country. The brave people of Yemen have been hitting the streets since January and are still there. A tough crackdown on Bahrain and the silence of international community have not stopped the people from asking their rights to freedom and equality. Women have been driving change in Saudi Arabia, and Kuwaitis have occupied their Parliament to demand reforms and an end to corruption.

And then Jordan, Morocco, Algeria. And Palestine, of course, always in our hearts.

The most amazing thing is that Europe for the first time took the energy out of the Arabs and shouted. Spain has been leading with the indignados. In my home country the situation is different, and I wish I could tell you we the people ousted Berlusconi -and not the international finance-. But we occupied public spaces and gave them back to the citizens. And we still have our jewel up working, Teatro Valle Occupato in Rome, where a new form of collaborative art and culture has born, and more to come.

There is something I will always remember of this almost gone 2011. When I was in DC, a month ago, at the #occupyDC camp, a blond haired guy told me, proud of himself: “I do not fear teargas: I am Egyptian”. So I answered in Arabic and I was surprised to hear that he didnt speak any. Then I discovered he was not even of Arab origin. He was just pretending to be an Egyptian, this guy, a W.a.s.p. American!

This solidarity, this empathy, this brotherhood I saw throughout the world, from the Arab Springs to the #occupy movement to the indignados, is the hope I want to take with me in 2012, despite all the bad things still happening and yet to happen.

 Kull 3amm w entu be kheir.

illustration by Khalid Albaih licensed under Creative Commons

Creative resistance in Syria

Last 23 December two twin bombings hit the hearth of Damascus killing at least 44 people, according state agency Sana.

These bombings hitting the hearth of Damascus hit my hearth, too, as that city is as dear to me as my own city. I mourned the human losses and cried for my blessed city.

Yet, I refuse to buy the theories that put  al Qaeda, Syrian opposition (which one?), Burhan Ghalioun, armed terrorist groups and protesters all together as in a Russian salad with mayonnaise. The legitimate demands of freedom are something very different from an international terror group that has never been operational in Syria.

I cry for the human losses and for my blessed city, yet I believe that what happened cannot be mixed with the demands of people who have been  hitting the streets at the risk of their life for more than 10 months.

I believe in the civil resistance of Syrian people, in their non-violent struggle and in the creativity that they are putting in it. Few days ago I`ve published a feature on Al Jazeera English to pay tribute to this creative resistance. It would be worthy to remind this to all the people only talking about sectarian strife, civil war, religious conflicts, etc. Never in their history had Syrian people created songs, literature, videos, cartoons, and any other kind of art as in this tough moment for their lives and for the life of their nation.

Creative resistance challenges Syria’s regime
Donatella Della Ratta Last Modified: 25 Dec 2011 13:06
A satirical puppet show is one of many projects designed to lampoon Syria’s regime [Credit: Top Goon’s Team]

It may seem like a strange time to talk about music and films in Syria, but artists, armed with a renewed creative mindset, are taking an active role in the struggle against the Syrian regime and the violent crackdown it has launched.

Ana wa bess (Only me) is the latest online release from Abou Naddara, a collective of filmmakers that has been operating from Syria since November 2010.

“We don’t film the revolution, but it’s countershot. This is an artistic decision taken not to put at risk our colleagues who are filming under dangerous conditions. Some of our films even use footage that we shot before the revolution,” says Charif Kiwan, the group’s spokesperson who also distributes the films abroad.

There are no chaotic images in the films and nothing similar to what the public expects or sees on YouTube and other social media. Using evocative images and songs with conflicting titles like The Infiltrators and Corrective Movement that remind of the official regime discourse, Abou Naddara gives shape to films that are sophisticated but never pretentious. A strong supporter of the power of “smaller screens” like computers or mobiles to distribute its work, every Friday the collective  releases a new short film on its Vimeo channel, as a tribute and a contribution to the street protests.

Challenging the party line

User-generated creativity has been a distinctive mark of the Syrian revolution. Syrian Artists have dared to challenge the official media discourse with innovative formats that blossomed on the internet, as much as the people have braved the streets despite daily violence.

Top Goon: Diaries of a Little Dictator, a series of 15 episodes which premieres every week on YouTube with English subtitles, combines the Syrians’ inclination to comedy and professional acting with a dark humour that is truly taboo-breaking.

Since its launch, the series has received lavish praise and occasional furious outbursts from audiences who are stunned by its unprecedented lampooning of the president.

The series stars a finger puppet named Beeshou, who clearly resembles President Bashar al-Assad, even in his famous lisp when pronouncing the “s”.

In the first episode, Beeshou is haunted by nightmares, he fears that his people won’t love him anymore, only to be reassured by his aide Shabih (meaning thug) that the majority of the population still love him.

In the another episode, Beeshou is the only contestant in the game show “Who wants to kill a million”, a parody of a famous TV format whose Arabic version is hosted by George Kurdahi, a Lebanese sympathiser of al-Assad’s regime.

It is precisely for its ability to remix real events and characters with parody and dark humour that Top Goon is so provocative and innovative. “Irony will topple the dictator,” says Jamil, a nickname for the director of the online series.  “Syrians are stronger than the violence the regime is using against us. As artists, we  respond with irony as much as the people in the streets are responding by dancing and chanting, despite the killings”.

“Civil disobedience can be very creative and thus destabilising for authoritative powers”, says a member of NoPhotoZone, a creative collective of artists and activists operating from Syria. The group  will soon launch a website and a Facebook page to feature all its activities including human rights documentation, medical and legal assistance, the production of creative videos and songs and paper magazine.

“Paper is as important as the online media, we have to reach out to people who are in the streets and do not have access to the internet,” says a member of the group who`s also finalising an online aggregator for Syrian creative contents.

Art and irony

Traditional forms of art and culture have been revamped, too, by the ongoing creative revolution  in Syria. A few years ago, 28-year-old twins and nephews of prominent Syrian filmmaker Mohamed Malas – Ahmad and Mohamed Malas – created the “the theatre in a room” plays.

In Syria you can’t do anything without a wasta (recommendation). We didn’t have access to official theatres, so we decided to make our little room a theatre stage,” said one of the twins. They live in Cairo now, where they moved a few months ago after being arrested in the artists’ demonstration that hit Damascus last July.

“During the revolution we did many shows in Syria. We invited people and staged our plays at home. We even went to Russia and France to stage our play – The Revolution of Today is Postponed Till Tomorrow – until it became too dangerous to work from inside the country.”

“But we are committed – even from abroad – to make our contribution to the struggle for freedom, using the most powerful weapons ever: art, creativity and irony,” the Malas brothers said.

Like the brothers in Cairo other Syrian artists, including  Dani Abo Louh and Mohamed Omran in France, have been contributing to the Syrian creative resistance.

“When we saw what was happening in our country, we decided to stage a performance in the centre of Lyon to reach out to the French people,” says Dani, who studied theatre in Moscow.

“That worked out very well, so we thought of making a movie, Conte de Printemps. It took us three months of work, using cheap technologies like Photoshop and Final Cut. We didn’t have funds, but that was the least we could do for our people and their bravery.”

Dani and Mohamed, who are of Christian and Alawi origins – two religious minorities that are believed to be staunch supporters of al-Assad’s regime – are preparing a new film, about torture and political prisoners in Syria.

“We needed freedom to push our creativity out. These new forms of art blossoming out of the revolution are just the beginning. A lot of work is needed, but at least now, minds are free to think about other forms, other messages.”

Donatella Della Ratta is a PhD fellow at University of Copenhagen focusing her research on the Syrian TV industry.

Follow her on Twitter: @donatelladr

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

My friend Dahnon, the “salafi” of free thinking

In the old days in Damascus, Dahnon (as all his friends used to call him: too many Mohameds around!) and I used to sit and engage for hours and hours in discussions about poetry, literature, philosophy. He didnt` have an easy life: he comes from a huge family from Idlib and studied at the Faculty of engineer, despite having a great inclination for literature and poetry. He used to write poems and novels. Despite his passion for literature, he tried to find his own way to make a living by doing different jobs. Life is hard for the “shabab” (youth) in Syria, especially for those like Dahnon, gifted, talented, but without any “wasta” (recommendation).

Yesterday night I got the terrible news that Dahnon was arrested, while he was at a demonstration in Midan, central Damascus. He was a contributor to Lebanese publication as-Safir  where he used to write in the section  dedicated to youth culture.

Dahnon is not a salafi, he is not a terrorist or an agitator. He owns few weapons, though: his words and his thoughts. The Syrian secret service, or whoever arrested him, wants to take these “weapons” away from him, as from the other Syrian people who are only asking to think freely and express themselves.

A massacre was committed yesterday in Idlib, Dahnon`s hometown, while he was arrested. We dont know the exact number, but it`s something outrageous, around 200. Nobody can verify, cause independent reporters are barred from Syria. Those who are inside, like Dahnon, fighting with their words for their freedom, are arrested and prevented from speaking. Who`s gonna tell us the truth if people like Dahnon are taken?

Who`s gonna defend Syria if Syria does not defend people like Dahnon, literature-lovers, free thinkers and not salafis?

How are we expected to believe  the official “salafi conspiracy and armed groups” theory, when each day we see people armed like Dahnon, with thoughts and words, being arrested and silenced?

* A note on the margin: as-Safir, the Lebanese newspaper Dahnon is a contributor to, is traditionally a pro-Syrian regime publication. The last capital injection also confirmed this position. Few days ago, his main investor, Talal Salman wrote an interesting article where he asked the bloodshed and the arbitrary arrests to stop in Syria.  He asks if Bashar al -Assad would be able to put the interests of his country (al watan) above his regime`s (al nizam) interests. I think the answer to this question is pretty clear now that so many old friends are “un-friending” Syria. See also what Saudi backed London based Al Hayat newspaper says today about Hamas and the rumors that his leader Meshaal will be leaving Syria soon (his deputy, Moussa Abu Marzuk, is reported to have left already  for Jordan where he is getting hospitality in exchange of media silence).

Syrian revolution and Creativity

I`d like to republish this article by Basma Atassi out today on Al Jazeera English because it exactly describes the creative spirit of the Syrian revolution and the genuine push for change and innovation that the Syrian youth has been bravely putting out in more than 9 months putting their own life at risk.


A colourful uprising in Damascus
Activists in Syria’s capital are using covert methods to show their opposition to Bashar al-Assad’s continuing rule.
Basma Atassi Last Modified: 13 Dec 2011 07:55
New methods of creative civil disobedience are flourishing in Syria’s capital [Calendar of Freedom]

These days, it is not extraordinary in Damascus for flyers calling for freedom to be blown on the breeze, or for garbage bins to bear banners calling for the collapse of the ruling administration.

This is the work of youths in the city in the belief that, with creativity, they could cause the government of President Bashar al-Assad to falter – along with its security apparatus. Apparently inspired by MK Gandhi, scholar Gene Sharpand other progenitors of non-violent civil disobedience, they formed a movement named “The Calendar of Freedom” and planned and executed pioneering forms of civil disobedience.

“We do the regime a big favour when we move in a direction they expect, when we protest in a typical way and we show up from a predictable location”

– Mouhannad, Calendar of Freedom Movement

These Damascus dissidents began their work as mass protests broke out in March, but only recently has the movement become more organised, with membership swelling from the tens to the hundreds.

“The media always asks: ‘Where is Damascus in the uprising?'” Mouhannad, a member of the movement, told Al Jazeera. “This is an unfair question. Just because there are no large-scale street protests in Damascus, that does not mean that the city is dead. Our methods are different from the rest of the cities because this is the capital. It’s tightly controlled by security forces and shabiha [pro-government militia].”

Small protests have taken place in the heart of Damascus, but have failed to take hold – as they have in the suburbs and in other restive cities. Hundreds of plainclothes police roam the capital’s districts, ready to disperse and arrest gathering crowds. Meanwhile, the army has effectively locked down the peripheries to prevent the daily anti-government protests in the suburbs spilling into the centre of town.

Anti-government youth have had to find other ways to express their dissent. To avoid the crackdown, they have attempted to be one step ahead of government’s forces – and to constantly surprise them.

“We do the regime a big favour when we move in a direction they expect, when we protest in a typical way and we show up from a predictable location,” said 26-year-old Mouhannad. “The security forces will be able to catch us easily and still boast [of their] strength, intelligence and brutality. Therefore, the surprise factor is important for us.”

Fountains of ‘blood’

One of the movement’s first schemes was adding red dye to the waters of the city’s seven major fountains, making them flow scarlet, symbolising the blood of the estimated 5,000 people killed by security forces across the country.

One fountain sat directly in front of one of the headquarters of one of the most feared intelligence services.

“Imagine that: With all their perceived might, all their heavy weapons they use to kill protesters, the government forces stood helpless and confused in front of merely coloured water,” said Salma, a 24-year-old activist.

Activists dyed seven fountains red [Calendar of Freedom]

“The main aim of this action was to raise the morale of the freedom seekers, to crush the morale of the government forces and distort the prestige of the security apparatus.”

Another time, activists aimed a strong laser light, bought from a party supplies store, at the presidential palace. They posted a video showing what appears to be a laser lightbeaming from one hill to another, where the palace is located. Activists claimed that armed guards frantically fired into the air, confused about the source or the nature of the laser.

“The message we wanted to deliver here is that neither Bashar nor his forces scare us. We wanted to show him that the Syrian people do not respect him,” Salma said.

The youth of the movement surprised Damascus residents once again when they stuffed cassette players and speakers in black garbage bags and threw them into trash bins in crowded streets and universities. Minutes later, a well-known anti-Assad song would blare from the bin. Its singer, Ibrahim al-Qashoush, was killed and his throat cut – allegedly by security forces – after he chanted the song in a protest in the central city of Hama.

Syrian state television broadcast pictures of the speakers – alongside grenades and ammunition – claiming the materials were seized from “terrorists”.

“This shows you that our simple, peaceful methods are as dangerous for this insecure regime as weapons. This gives us more motivation to carry on,” Mouhannad said.

Small acts of sabotage

Activists have also gone street to street, changing signs by affixing stickers bearing the names of people killed by security forces in the city. They have covered neighbourhoods including Barzeh, Mashrou’ Dummar, al-Midan, Rukn el-Deen, al-Salhiyeh, Daraya, al-Qadam, al-Qaboun and Zamalka.

The sign on a street in Barzeh area, for example, was changed to: “Eid Abdel Kayem Allou Street. Died at the age of 40. Married with four children, the youngest of whom was born 40 days after his death.”

“Creative ideas could only be fought back with ideas, something that this decaying unimaginative regime lack”

– Salma, Calendar of Freedom Movement

The Damascus dissidents’ campaign has extended to other ideas and small acts of sabotage, including glueing the door locks at a government building, releasing “freedom balloons” into the sky, spraying walls with anti-government graffiti, and calling on residents to collectivelyswitch off their lights at a certain hour.

Salma said that the movement’s power lies in its simplicity, encouraging those who are still hesitant to join the ranks of the Syrian uprising.

“Our campaign was particularly effective in universities,” Salma said. “We had called on students to wear blackclothing on certain days as a gesture of support for the Syrian revolution against Assad. The response was amazing. Students loved the fact that they could express dissent for this ruthless regime with the least risk of getting arrested.”

The youths also focused on awareness campaigns. Using home printers, they printed and distributed newslettersdiscussing the uprising. They created educational videos on non-violence and interviewed Erica Chenoweth, a professor and a co-author of a book on non-violent civil disobedience.

To avoid being arrested, the youth group said that they carefully study the security risks of each activity before embarking on it. Many of the members do not even know each other. They communicate and make logistical arrangements anonymously through Facebook.

Salma said the movement was planning more projects that aim at “driving the government crazy”.

“Creative ideas could only be fought back with ideas, something that this decaying unimaginative regime lack,” she concluded. “This is why we know that we will eventually win this battle.”

Follow Basma Atassi on Twitter: @Basma_