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

Abstract

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)

Introduction

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.

Conclusions

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.

References

Anton-Clavé, Salvador 2007. The Global Theme Park Industry. Wallingford: CABI.

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.

Debord, Guy 1999. The Society of the Spectacle. New York: Zone Books.

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.

Wedeen, Lisa 2013. Ideology and Humor in Dark Times: Notes from Syria. Critical Inquiry 39:841-873.

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

Notes


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.

Qatar`s “new” phase

A follow up to my last post, where I had briefly discussed the move of Sheikh Hamad, former Emir of Qatar, of stepping down in favour of his son, Sheikh Tamim. 

QatarnewoldEmir

Few days ago, the big question was: is Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani (HBJ), former PM and Minister of Foreign Affairs (the brain, together with the former Emir, behind Qatar`s foreign policy and the country`s prominent role in supporting the uprisings in the Arab world, particularly in Libya and Syria) going to maintain his position in the next government?

Now we know the answer: HBJ has been replaced by Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser bin Khalifa Al Thani, another member of the royal family seen as very close to the new Emir, who has long served in the interior ministry. Sheikh Abdullah is not only taking over HBJ in his former position as PM, but also as Minister of Foreign Affairs.

So, the HBJ era is over. It is unclear whether the former PM would retain his position as vice chairman of the Qatar Investment Authority (QIA), “a sovereign wealth fund with assets believed to be $100-200 billion, although Qatar watchers expect him to keep that job”, according to Reuters` analysis. This is a very strategic position not only for the sake of this tiny state which is one of the wealthiest in the world; but also on a private level, and in fact HBJ`s personal fortune is estimated to be in the billions. 

Going back to Qatar`s foreign policy and its involvement in the geopolitics of the region, analysts like French scholar Nabil Ennasri and Foreign Affairs` David Roberts, have estimated that, despite the fact that HBJ is gone, continuity in the country`s strategy should be expected. Maybe with a different style, marked by less unilateralism and more cooperation with other regional powers, notably Saudi Arabia, especially on the Syria file.

Other relevant changes after the government`s reshuffle include the appointment of Al Jazeera network`s director general Sheikh Ahmed Bin Jassim Al Thani as the new Minister of Economy and Trade. His career within the media network has been indeed quite short; he had took over Wadah Khanfar who resigned in September 2011, with the aim of  restructuring Al Jazeera`s assets in a corporate direction.

The new Emir has also appointed a woman, Dr Hessa al Jabar, former head of  ICT Qatar (the government body which oversees the ICT policy in the country, and which introduced many innovations in the country and founded Creative Commons Qatar) as new Minister of Communication and Information Technology. It has to be noticed, though, that the former Emir had abolished this ministry in 1996, one year after seizing power, with a decree which aimed at “freeing Qatar’s media from any dependence to a ministry constraining it through numerous legislations and laws from going forward to wider horizons, especially at a time witnessing a noticeable spread of satellite channels” (source: Qatar`s Ministry of Arts, Culture and Heritage).

It is not by chance that, at the time, a reference was made to the “noticeable spread of satellite channels”: 1996 is, in fact, the year when Al Jazeera, Sheikh Hamad`s media masterpiece, was launched with the aim of being the first independent news outlet in the Arab world.

Now the fact that the Minister of Communication has been restored leaves lots of room for speculation about Qatar`s future plans in terms of media policy and, more generally, about the way of managing the country. In the past couple of years after the Arab uprisings broke out, Al Jazeera`s “independence” from Qatar`s foreign policy has already been heavily questioned, and maybe more to come in the next future…

Al Jazeera discusses Islamism and the Arab revolutions

The Al Jazeera Center for Studies is hosting a two day conference (Sept 11-12) aimed at reflecting on the relation between Islamism and the Arab revolutions.

Leader of Tunisia`s Islamist party Al Nahda, Rachid Ghannouchi opened the conference yesterday, in a curious tandem with Syrian secular scholar Burhan Ghalioun, who has been heading the Syrian National Council (SNC) for almost one year before leaving office.

A focus on the relation between revolutions in Libya, Yemen, and Syria has been hosted in yesterday`s sessions. Today`s discussion is aimed at discussing Islamists` views on economy (neo-liberalism or protectionism), foreign relations, human rights and civil liberties.

 

A program for the conference can be found here.

Besides this initiative in Doha, Al Jazeera English` s The Stream has hosted a debate on the same topic featuring controversial scholar Tareq Ramadan, who is professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies at Oxford University. He recently wrote a book called “Islam and the Arab Awakening”, exploring the relation between Islamist movements and political awakening in 2011`s Arab revolutions.

During the unfolding of the Arab revolutions — and particularly in the Libyan case and in Tunisian elections- Al Jazeera has been accused to be bluntly supporting Islamist movements against more the liberal and secular opposition.

Al Jazeera center for studies` focus on this very topic is definitively something to follow closely in order to get  a better understanding of the network`s view over one of the most relevant issues in the Arab region these days.

On Manaf Tlass, Syrian regime and the opposition..

Manaf Tlass` defection has resulted in a big buzz. But it is only few weeks after leaving Syria that the former commander of elite unites in the Republican Guard has finally spoken. “Spoken” with words, as in this interview aired by Al Arabiya, where Manaf states his support for the revolution which will give Syria back to its citizens.

He has also spoken with “images”, as soon as this picture here below went viral over the Internet yesterday. It portrays Manaf`s trip to Mecca for `umra (lesser pilgrimage), something that gives him enough “grades” to be accepted by the Kingdom as the right successor to Assad.

 

On the Manaf Tlass` case I think everybody should read this article by American Syrian scholar Bassam Haddad, an expert of Syria`s “neo-liberal” economy and editor of the precious Jadaliyya review.

My 50 Minutes with Manaf

by Bassam Haddad | published July 25, 2012 – 12:54pm

Tala was a friend of a friend. I met her in the early 2000s. Shortly afterward, she disappeared from the office. It turns out she got married.

Some years later, during one of my regular visits to Syria, I was with a group of friends at one of the bustling new restaurant-bars that dotted Damascus’ old city, around Bab Touma. Some places were more popular than others, frequented by internationals and a particular stratum of Damascene society that included some people who were pro-regime and others who were opposed. By the mid-2000s, one’s opinion of the regime did not matter much, in and of itself. What brought these Damascenes together was their common benefit from President Bashar al-Asad’s “economic reform” policies and the social stratification they had produced. In these circles, criticism of the regime was no longer taboo — so long as it was presented in a pleasant and “reasonable” manner. No names, no mention of sect, nothing “subversive.” Anyway, why would these people want to subvert the status quo?

That night, I was introduced to Tala’s husband, Manaf Tlass, as a “Syria researcher” working on the “Syrian economy.” At the time, Manaf was one of the regime’s top strongmen, working side by side with Mahir al-Asad (the president’s younger brother) as a commander of elite units in the Republican Guard. It was too dark to make out his features. Most of what I saw was the big round flame at the tip of the cigar that seemed surgically attached to his fingers, if not his lips. He asked a few questions. I answered politely. I knew who he was, and thought it was odd that he mingled so freely.

That was it.

On a subsequent trip, at a birthday party in another of those restaurants, I met Manaf again. This time, he asked someone to ask me to come to his table. Usually, that is not a good thing. I obliged, and he took me aside, asking more questions about regional politics and, then, Syria. I found myself discussing post-colonial development with Manaf and his cigar as Stardust’s remix of “Music Sounds Better with You” played in the background. We talked for a few minutes before I excused myself. Later, as he said his goodbyes to his fellow diners, Manaf approached me and asked me to come to his home office in Mazzeh. I was not asked for my cell phone number but was given an office number to confirm the visit.

I was in a tricky position. My research on Syrian political economy examined state-business networks and traced the deepening relationships between state officials and businessmen.

Manaf Tlass was no businessman, having gone the route of his father, Mustafa, the former defense minister who was a close confidante of Hafiz al-Asad for decades. But his brother, Firas, was. Many offspring of the Syrian leadership had gone the entrepreneurial route, and by the late 1980s they had become big businessmen, often with the aid of connections to consummate insiders like Manaf. Firas Tlass is said not to have exploited his connections as much as others, but the fact is that policymakers and policy takers in Syria were increasingly bound together. And there was another model that proved even more efficient at generating profits: The state official himself was a businessman in his capacity as a private citizen, creating what I called “fusion” between the public and private sectors.

For about ten years, I had been trying to study the development of capitalism in Syria, how it sustained authoritarianism and the attendant social machinations. I was not interested in exposing this or that character, as the “fusion” formula is not unique to Syria, and the Syrian regime was in no need of further unmasking. I purposely avoided talking to government and regime figures because the returns from such interviews are usually meager, and there is always the risk of raising suspicions about one’s research. The last systematic fieldwork by a Western scholar on Syria’s political economy had been carried out by Volker Perthes a half-decade earlier, producing the staple bookThe Political Economy of Syria Under Asad (1995). It was not a walk in the park for Volker, and nor was it for me. Though Firas Tlass, the fast-growing tycoon, was quite accessible, I elected not to speak with him, relying instead on an interview Joseph Samaha, one of the best journalists of our time, had conducted for al-Hayat in 1999. But now Firas’ brother, on the other side of the state-business equation, wanted to speak with me. It was not easy to say yes or no.

Manaf was quite candid and seemed more interested in conversation than surveillance. Still, I hesitated for some time before friends advised me not to skip out on the meeting.

At the time, Manaf was a rising star, quite close to the Asad family. Regime strongmen had regained their swagger after several years of “consolidation” that took place after the succession of Bashar to the presidency. It was a day to begin making Syria anew, with a younger and more contemplative, though less seasoned, leadership. The theme was less “reform” than “modernization,” less “change” than “continuity.” There was an atmosphere of cautious openness.

I walked into Manaf’s office and was politely asked to sit. I politely turned down the offer of a cigar. After some back-and-forth about my heritage (my mother is Syrian), Manaf asked me to share with him my frank thoughts about the Syrian regime, without stammering or self-censorship. It was surreal.

I was not unafraid. But I spoke forthrightly because it was the only thing I could do, and, honestly, because Manaf’s bearing was anything but intimidating or reminiscent of the stereotypical interrogator.

Taking care to be respectful, I shared my views on the limits of authoritarianism in time and space, and the limits of Syria’s regional role in the absence of more inclusive power-sharing formulas inside the country. When Manaf asked about corruption, I made sure to repeat, almost verbatim, the words of ‘Arif Dalila, an independent Marxist economics professor at the University of Damascus who was incarcerated in 2001 for his anti-regime views, during the post-“Damascus spring” round of arrests. ‘Arif was one of the most courageous people around — a mentor and, later, a friend. In 1998-1999, under Asad senior, mind you, when mosquitoes shuddered at the thought of landing on a regime member’s nose, he would walk down the aisle of the packed auditorium at the Tuesday Economic Forum. He would take the stage and dismantle the state’s rhetoric regarding the causes of Syria’s economic decline after the mid-1990s. He would say to rooms crawling with informants (and worse), and I quote from my notes:

Corruption is not a moral or ethical problem at heart, and it does not start at the moment when a policeman or border officer asks for a bribe. It is a systemic practice with a social, economic and political material base intended to sustain the entire political formula in this country…. We should not blame the poor officer who cannot make ends meet on his salary, but instead we should demand accountability at the highest level possible in this regime.

Talk about goose bumps. It was scary just to witness those words uttered. The room would fall silent, as though everyone had literally died, but everyone was actually feeling hyper-alive as ‘Arif would yifish al-ghill (redeem) the listeners in the most visceral way. Almost immediately after he spoke, over half of the audience would leave. It was one of the reasons why the Forum’s general secretary, Farouq al-Tammam, would beg ‘Arif to postpone his intervention until the end, knowing that everyone would stay to hear him. ‘Arif was not just a political economist or regime critic. He was a visionary, versed in the intricacies of global politics, and someone who would tear up when discussing the loss of Palestine by Arab regimes, including Syria’s.

Manaf listened without interrupting, and without letting go of his cigar. He then responded for 20 minutes, challenging me mildly on the feasibility of genuine reform in Syria and giving his views on democracy, the United States and regional politics. He was also forthright. His ideas, however, were underdeveloped or, more precisely, developed in a mind accustomed to wielding excessive power.

On reform, he asserted the importance of gradualism, a Hafiz al-Asad mantra, one that suits the reformers’ timetable, not that of the purported beneficiaries. But he was also unabashed in asserting the need for top-down control, which to him transcended questions of right and wrong, or democracy and authoritarianism. The regime had to guide the reform process based on a holistic view, one that takes into account local and regional variables. I interjected that this approach is the norm for regimes like Syria’s because reform is not the goal. He did not correct me, and reasserted the need for control.

Earlier, I had said to him that, even by the Syrian regime’s logic, it was always possible to open up the system more, to take more calculated risks in order to reduce the constant pressure, to utilize better Syria’s resources, human and material, instead of having fewer and fewer Syrians set an entire people’s destiny. He seemed to think I was being idealistic, that “political rule” requires other considerations, then dove into stock ruminations about whether or not Syria was ready for democracy. I was taken aback to hear some of the culturalist arguments that many of us educators have spent years trying to debunk in American (or other) classrooms.

Manaf seemed to be thinking big. He spoke of the United States as an equal, and was interested to identify balances of power of which Syria could take advantage. He oscillated between great wariness of the West and openness to new forms of engagement. After a while, it seemed I had caught him (and his cohort?) at a time when he was simply brainstorming. Certainly, the regime had abandoned any meaningful notion of socialism or even social justice. Manaf was not overly sensitive about such matters. His friends and relatives, the Asads, the Makhloufs and others of his generation were divorced from the struggles that their fathers had gone through in the 1960s. The generational divide was wide, separating two entirely different worldviews, one held by men who saw themselves as underdogs championing the cause of the have-nots against great odds, and one born into a world of plenty, privilege and power.

It is not that Manaf’s bunch was not “nationalistic” or critical of Israel. It is that their views had come at little cost, and so were often more malleable. Yet it seemed that Manaf was embarking on a voyage of self-discovery, as though beginning to feel he was bigger than the regime. His style of jumping from one point to another did not in fact yield a holistic analysis; it was difficult to locate the center of gravity. He spoke as if luxury and plenty had turned policy imperatives into modular choices that could be exchanged in an exegetical manner. It was as if he was talking about a household, not a country.

The privatization of the Syrian state is a reality in the making and remaking. Something had to give as the regime widened the gaps between itself and the majority, between the haves and the have-nots, between the city and the countryside, between manufacturing and trade. When most Syrians are disenfranchised as a few gobble up the available capital, it signals the beginning of the end.

Syrians were ready for democracy when I spoke to Manaf, and long before then. It might have been the kind of democracy that involves no external pressure. Alas, it was not outside intervention that Syrian regime strongmen were most concerned about. They sought merely to forestall a marginal loss of authority and opulence. The luxury of plenty intoxicated them, even blinded them to their long-term self-interest.

Just a few years later, the unsavory actors of the world are amassed around Syria, calling for a “democracy” that will be obedient and not resistant on the regional stage, one that acquiesces in using the victimization of Syrians to perpetuate the victimization of others across the region. It did not have to be this way. And the only party that could have brought about a different kind of change is the party that had near total power. But that party failed to avert Syria’s present catastrophe, and brought so much more than itself crashing down — all because it would not risk one iota of privilege. By sharing just a little power, the regime might have avoided issuing an invitation to those who were waiting to destroy what Syria might have stood for in the region, as they did with Iraq. Now the true friends of Syria are in an impossible position: If we identify with the plight of Syrians under dictatorship, we are branded as imperialists. If we caution against uncritical support of the uprising for the reasons above, we are called regime apologists. We are all wrong, no matter what we say.

Manaf thanked me for the visit, and I left about 50 minutes after entering his office.

On July 24, after leaving Syria some 12 days prior, Manaf Tlass for the first time announced his opposition to the regime that he embodied, as though its transgressions had begun in March 2011. And the external “opposition” benevolently embraced him, as did the Saudis, who admitted Manaf to their kingdom for the ‘umra (lesser pilgrimage). As Louis Armstrong sang, “What a Wonderful World!”

 

Syria: some little things out of macro-analysis

When opening my Twitter timeline earlier today I ran into a tweet by Ahmad Fawzi, a spokesman for the joint Arab League-United Nations special envoy, Kofi Annan. Fawzi tweeted the following

#Syria’s Propaganda Cloud: How the West Is Falling for Misinformation http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/06/22/syria-s-propaganda-cloud-how-the-west-is-falling-for-misinformation.html via @thedailybeast

Usually when people retweet something is because they have found it interesting or worth discussing. In Fawzi`s case, it was unclear why he did that, since he didnt add any personal comment when retweeting the article nor did he engage with the discussion he had generated online when folks where asking: why the hell did he retweet that article?

Usually when famous people or public personalities  retweet stuff on Twitter they do carry an alert under their Twitter name: “RT does not mean endorsement”.

Well, Mr Fawzi does not have this, so the issue stays ambiguous and we`ll never be sure of the reasons behind his retweet.

Anyway, let`s assume Mr Fawzi had found the article`s perspective on Syria somehow interesting and decided to share it with the broader online community.

This is where I have a problem.

First of all, I personally dont trust articles that begin with  the phrase: “Having just returned from Syria a few days ago..”.

This kind of articles contains the unverified and usually very pretentious “truth” that having been recently in a place means knowing that place better. This is even more “true” in the Syrian case, where the government has carefully turned an entry visa in a precious exchange commodity that can be shown when truth is needed.

I don`t know the author of the article and I don`t want to criticize him for the sake of being critical, but I`d love to understand what was in his mind when he wrote “ the government remains in control over most of the country—including the economy—despite the best efforts of propagandists to say otherwise”.

What I can see is exactly the contrary, and not only on a macro-level. There are small indicators in the daily lives of people that signal that the regime is everything but in control of the internal situation, let alone at a business level. The most relevant of these indicators is that businessmen operating in different fields that were very close to the regime are now being touched by an intensive arrest and interrogation campaign.

When members of a prominent family like Joud -loyal to the Syrian regime since the time of Hama in 1982- are being held and interrogated by security services this means that the regime is freaking out. This is just one case among many others reported these days in business circles in Damascus. Nobody seems to be untouchable anymore, not even the old allies, not even those who once secured financial stability to the country and helped it to prevent  from descending into chaos. Arresting and interrogating members of prominent business families seems to signal that Syrian regime is not really in tight control of the situation: or, maybe better, that one part of the regime -the security minded side- is leading the game, regardless of what the (once) reform-minded side wants or aims at.

A security project is driving everything in Syria these days, despite  reformists` claims to be still in control of the game.

Not only the treatment of once untouchable businessmen signals this. Also, the way security forces are dealing with the middle class is not promising and it is scaring out people more and more.

I have a friend who used to live in the Inshaat neighborhood in Homs. This is a middle class area: engineers, doctors, professionals do live there. But Inshaat is close to Baba Amro, a slum made up of informal settlements that became a stronghold of rebels and was brought back to “normalcy” after days and days of military siege by the Syrian army. Inshaat has nothing to do with Baba Amro, at least socio-demographically speaking. And we could think of it as an area where lots of Assad`s supporters could eventually live, i.e. people who have a good life and in search of stability. But these people were becoming maybe too sympathetic with their poor neighbors; or maybe the military required a strategic position from where to launch the attack to Baba Amro; or maybe it suddenly just became too attractive to enter these middle class` houses and occupy them. Whatever the reason was, the result is that, little by little, the Inshaat people were pushed to leave  their houses for lack of security. They left without anything and their houses were taken, together with all their belongings. In my friend`s house they even took the bidet. It is told there are informal souks (markets) where these belongings taken from Inshaat and from other area in Homs are sold.

Video from Inshaat, Homs, posted by @javierespinosa2 on Twitter

This is how the Syrian economy is solid at the moment.

If , just for a while, you think at that middle class once leaving in places like Inshaat, which is now displaced elsewhere in Syria or abroad, yes indeed they have the financial means to do that, but how will they react to what happened to their properties?

The Syrian regime justification is, of course, that displacing people in Homs is nothing when it`s Syria`s fate at stake. But the middle class gets angry when stability lacks and when those who are supposed to provide it fail to meet their promises. And there is not just the Homs middle class. Middle class is everywhere, and we should watch out to what is happening to the Damascus` middle class and where this is heading.Also, there is not only one slum in Syria, but many others rather that Baba Amro, including in the Syrian capital. Theoretically speaking, this means that the same strategy used with Inshaat and Baba Amro can be adopted for other places in the country.

At the end of the day, there are so many stories to be told concerning the Syria situation, but so few get international media`s attention. And these are always macro-analysis, think-thank style overviews that get noticed by international observers, policy makers, international journalists. Whereas the micro-analysis gets buried into Facebook, the goldmine of Syrian daily lives and chats. Yet, too difficult to penetrate for those in search of  relevance, I`m afraid.

Keep an eye on Algeria: tomorrow it might be the day

Many have wondered why Algeria has not moved yet or has failed to move.

I`m not an expert in this country and I`ll promise to post more stuff from researchers and people who know the topic much better than me.

But I just want to draw your attention on the #Wakeupcall #Algeria the day of mobilization which activists have organized for today, February 21st.

The main points of the mobilization –named “Mission n1”, so maybe there will be more to follow —  are summed up by activists :

1
send a message to the President starting from 10 am to launch the campaign

2
message should be the same and should be sent by email or fax : “We, the Algerian youth, ask the President of the Republic to make people under 35 years old part of the political process and to make this official before the end of 2012”

More info here on Facebook and on the Wakeupcall website, which is actually a global website (in English) including similar mobilizations scheduled in countries like India or Iraq.

Whether just an Internet call, we should keep an eye on Algeria and see if/how these mobilization campaigns eventually turns into something else.

 

Damascus` Mezzeh funeral “stages” biggest anti-regime protest

Today, it was the first time we could actually see the “huge numbers” –those that, according international, being s missing in Damascus make the revolution`s fate very uncertain- finally hitting the capital`s streets.

But, just to be clear: it was not for anti-regime protest. A huge crowd -thousands and thousands- gathered in Mezzeh Sharqyyia -an area of town were Damascus university is situated, alongside with the Iranian Embassy, Saudi Consulate, many companies` offices, upper-scale restaurants etc-  to mourn three people that were killed yesterday.

http://www.ustream.tv/embed/recorded/20523808

This video which was broadcast live through a mobile shows how the mourners gather very close to the Iranian embassy (one of the first building we can see in the footage, just opposite the telephone company MTN building) and then start marching alongside the Otostrad al Mezzeh (Mezzeh Highway), a wide highway. The crowd should be huge if we are not able to see the highway where they are marching  (later on in the video, they will abandon the main route and go inside the tiny alleys of the Mezzeh area).

Still, this is a funeral. People are only chanting religious slogans to mourn the dead, the only reference to the revolution is when they (rarely) chant “Syrian people are one” (a popular revolutionary slogan since the beginning of the uprising). For more than an hour, the only thing we can see is an amazing crowd that marches in huge numbers few kilometers away from the Presidential Palace, while snow starts to come down. It is truly an breathtaking scene.

It is not to diminish its importance that I feel I need to underline that this is mostly a funeral.

It turns openly into an anti-regime protest only towards the end of the video (around 1 hour and 14 minutes) when a smaller group of people starts to shout “May God protect the Free Syrian army!”, a clear signal that it`s an anti-regime crowd. A minute later, another revolutionary slogan follows that chants “the Syrian raises his hand”, then many people start shouting against Abu Hafez (this is how they call Bashar al Assad, in reference to his first son, Hafez).

But it is only when the crowd makes a clear reference to the shabbiha (a pro-regime militia) that the fire is opened (around 1 hour 1minutes) and the crowd is dispersed. Then, they start cursing Abu Hafez and, few minutes afterwards, the broadcast is interrupted.

Reuters reports that 3 people at least were shot dead today after the fire was opened.

Over the Internet and all across social media, this funeral march resonated as the biggest anti-regime protests happening in the capital so far. It was mostly a funeral, true. And, because of it being a funeral, the slogans we could hear were religious more than political, although a part have changed towards the end.

Although we cannot classify it as truly an anti-regime protest (we have seen funerals all across Syria being much more explicit in their political nature) it marks a very important phase in this 11 months-old revolution. People have  rehearsed, probably, for a much bigger thing. Cleverly enough, they have not chanted anti-regime slogans in the beginning of the march in order not to be dispersed immediately or killed. But they have proved that they can take, little by little, the streets of the capital. Knowing Damascus, this is a slow process which cannot happen all of a sudden.

But the crowd`s power and energy was palpable today, even under cold snow.

For more live broadcast, this is a good Ustream channel from Damascus here and here an amazing compilation of live stream feeds from all across Syria.

There is also a Storyful of the day here.

 

SNC and FSA are media proxies: Syria revolution is elsewhere…

As Syrian revolution almost growing one year old, we hear more and more media talking about the alleged role that armed opposition -namely the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – would play -or not play- in fueling the revolt. Other media like to speculate whether the Syrian National Council (SNC)`s political role would be decreasing as a consequence of the rise of an armed opposition.

The emphasis on both the FSA and SNC -whether over or under estimating their role on the ground- is simply misleading.

And I`m glad I`ve found two good articles that explain why, and they come from two good sources. One was posted on Syria Comment Joshua Landis` blog and forum specialized on Syrian issues- last 12 February. It`s published under the nickname of Idaf who allegedly left Syria recently after working with activists on the ground. Judging from his/her writing, I do believe he/she is a reliable source as he/she describes in a pretty accurate way the situation on the ground, putting an emphasis on the fact that there is real, ongoing revolution storming Syrian society and it`s happening elsewhere rather than in SNC and FSA. Certainly not in Paris, where the SNC has its head; nor in Turkey, where the FSA`s headquarters are based. But on the ground, in Damascus, Idlib, Daraa, Homs, Kafer Nbel, etc etc.

Reading this article together with the recently published Al Jazeera English`s interview with Nir Rosen -a journalist who has been covering crisis and conflicts in places like Iraq, and had the privilege to have access to Syria for a couple of months- will be a very useful exercise. Rosen sheds light on the fact that there is no such a thing as the FSA on the ground: rather, there are hundreds of small resistance cells, each of them fighting the regime with their own means and ideology, but loosely interconnected and without a central leadership. A decentralized network of people sometimes connected one to each other, but in a loose way –certainly not through a central command or authority which gives them the legitimacy to operate- .

This description given by Rosen really resembles the way the activists are acting on the ground: small, decentralized groups loosely interconnected. Most of the time, they dont need to be connected or to be aware of what the other group is doing. They prefer to operate in secrecy, in small numbers, without sharing the information with too many others or revealing their activities in public in order not to be prosecuted -but especially to  be able to continue doing their daily work-.

This daily work has been ongoing for months. It is silent and doesnt get reported on media cause there is “nothing” to report, at least in the fast-food of information that media have become nowadays. There are no killings, there is no “action” in media terms, and these people prefer to work instead of releasing TV interviews, press statements, or twitting about what they do. Indeed, there are bravely doing their work on a daily basis, risking their life trying to build a better Syria.

Let the SNC, FSA (and Internet activists) do the media work. But, at the end of the day, it`s on these smaller, locally-grounded leaderless groups that the Syria revolution is grounded, both militarily and activism-wise.    

Irony, Satire and Humor in the Battle for Syria

This was out today on Muftah.org 

“I am with the law” government billboard campaign in Damascus (Photo credit: Donatella Della Ratta. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike license (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/us/))

On February 3, 1982, the regime of Syrian President Hafez al-Assad massacred thousands in the city of Hama, quashing the city’s Muslim Brotherhood-led uprising. Thirty years later, during the current Syrian uprising, the government has again subjected Hama to substantial military action. In the midst of this on-going violence, Syrian activists have marked the thirtieth anniversary of the 1982 Hama massacre with Internet-based user-generated videos, representing the first time people have spoken in a public and even creative way about “the events,” as they are referred to in the country. The finger puppet web series “Top Goon: Diaries of a Little Dictator,” a thirteen-part comic production created by a collective of Syrian artists, recently featured an episode called “Beshuu`s birthday,” in which Hafez al-Assad returns from hell to remind his son and current Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of the success of the 1982 Hama crackdown. During the episode, a fearful Bashar musters the courage to remind his father that during the Hama massacre he killed everybody but Ibrahim al Qashush, a Syrian singer whose popular song “Yalla Irhal ya Bashar” or “Come on, Leave Bashar” has become an anthem of the 2011 Syrian uprising. In this song, al Qashush mocks Bashar and his well-known inability to pronounce the letter “s”: “Go, Bashar…May you and the Baath party be destroyed…Go and fix your pronunciation of the letters!” (In July 2011, al Qashush’s body was found in a local river, his throat cut and larynx removed along with signs of brutal torture).

The dark humor found in Top Goon and the songs of al Qashush might seem misplaced in light of the thousands of deaths across Syria (more than 7000, according to the opposition group Local Coordination Committee) and bombings taking place in major Syrian cities (such as the February 10, 2012 bombing in Aleppo, which left 28 dead according to Syrian authorities). In fact, however, these creative forms of political activism are one of the few mechanisms left for nurturing civil disobedience in a conflict that has been increasingly depicted as a civil war. As a Syrian communication expert who wishes to remain anonymous points out: “The more we see an armed conflict, the more it means that the regime has succeed in its campaign. They know how to play when arms are involved, but do not know how to react to mash-ups, parodies and irony.”

“One of the goals of artistic production is to bring a sort of relief to people who are suffering on the ground,” say Mohamed and Ahmad Malas, Syrian twins, playwrights, and actors who were imprisoned by the government for a few days after joining the artists` demonstration in Damascus in July 2011. The Malas twins now live in Cairo and travel around the world raising awareness about the suffering of the Syrian people through their theatrical plays. Recently, the Malas twins have been

“We Are All Germs” (Photo credit: “We Are All Germs Facebook” page)

performing their plays in Paris where they also began filming a new project, which registered more than 5,000 views two days after it was posted on YouTube. In the video, the playwrights stage a vox-populi on the Champs Elysee, blaming Bashar al-Assad, the Baath party and Syria’s corrupt regime: “You see this, how beautiful Paris is? Here people go to the theater and appreciate culture, not like in our country, where you’ve pursued a mafia politics, and theater is just another place for corruption.”

In speaking of the President and the regime, the video is filled with curse words. In the past, such insults would never have been used against the President or the Baath party, but with the old fear gone these once untouchable symbols of state power are now regularly ridiculed and derided. Using extreme, unpleasant expressions that were never before heard in Syria is a form of liberation, represents a symbolic break with the past and serves as notice that many Syrians will never again blatantly pretend to believe the magnificent rhetoric of the Baath party and the President.

Hussein Jabri, aka Abu Zoheir, exemplifies both the trend towards “cursing,” and its political significance. Jabri has reached near hero status on YouTube with his videotaped phone calls to Syrian officials from the presidential palace, the government and different secret services branches. He begins the conversation by greeting the official with a polite, warm welcome. Things, however, quickly turn surreal as Jabri offers to sell new devices for bombing protesters to the secret police, and then levels extreme curses against the regime. Even people who object to his vulgar style have reacted positively to a phone call in which Jabri forced a secret service official to confess that the government, and not the “armed gangs” referred to in the official narrative, tortured and killed Syrian activist Ghrias Matar.

“I am with Syria” (viral campaign on the Internet)

During the Syrian revolution, perhaps the most striking examples of irony and dark humor have emerged from Homs, a city that has seen the worst violence so far. In the past days, Homs experienced heavy bombings and shelling in what is believed to be an attempted crack down against a vibrant center of street protests and rebellion. The virtual alleys of the Internet reflect Homsi creativity, documenting the protesters` chants and the dances performed during demonstrations across the city’s streets. A satirical Facebook page pretends to offer washing and lubrication services to the tanks used to crack down against protesters in the city. The most popular joke on the page mocks the regime’s claim that, because the protests begin with the word “Takbir” (an incitement to praise God’s greatness), the demonstrations are being led by Islamists, and, in its place, creates a new slogan “Tahwiil” (the word used for bank transfers), a clear reference to the regime’s greed and corruption. Another very popular Facebook page “the Chinese revolution against the Chinese dictator” reports on events in Syria as if they were taking place in China, and pokes fun at regime officials as if they were Chinese communist party members.

Also from Homs is the Facebook page, “Kulluna Jaratheem” (We Are All Germs), which mocks the official narrative describing protests/protesters as “germs”. Bashar al-Assad is represented as Doctor Dettol – a disinfectant widely used in Syria – while Syria’s citizens are depicted as germs, “whether bacterial or viral.” Interestingly, the slogan “We Are All Germs” as well as the page’s avatar are parodies of a government-backed public relations campaign that

“I am not Indian” (viral campaign on the Internet)

featured on billboards in Syria during the early stages of the uprising. These billboards included a raised hand declaring, “Whether progressive or conservative, I am with the law”.” Whether girl or boy, I am with the law.” Soon thereafter, parodies of these government posters circulated around cyberspace. Depicting the very same raised hand, each poster carried a different slogan. “I am free,” said one raised hand. “ I lost my shoes,” echoed another – suggesting that the shoes had been thrown at the dictator, a customary symbol of protest in Arab culture. “I am with Syria” featured on other cyber-posters. “I am not Indian,” joked another poster, revealing Syrian wittiness as well as awareness that the regime has exclusive control over the formal meaning of “law” and “lawlessness.” “I am not Indian” is the ironic answer to a regime that asks its citizens to abide by the law as if they are foreigners who do not know the rules of the game in the country.

“I am free” (Photo credit: Free Syrians)

“I am not Indian” and cyber-posters featuring multiple-colored hands, which mirror the hands raised in the Syrian street, are perhaps the best examples of citizenship regaining its legitimate place over and above concepts such as “law,” “nation,” and “unity,” which the regime has historically monopolized and manipulated. They are also prime examples of an emerging remix-culture, first theorized by Harvard Professor Lawrence Lessigthat exists in the form of an inner creativity producing and re-manipulating symbols and narrations, which is finally blossoming in Syria despite the horrible circumstances.

*Donatella Della Ratta is a PhD fellow at the University of Copenhagen, and the Danish Institute in Damascus, focusing her research on the Syrian television industry. You can follow her writing and work at www.mediaoriente.com and on twitter @donatelladr.

Dramas of the Authoritarian State

This article is an excerpt from my thesis (and from a chapter I`m gonna publish soon in a forthcoming book on Syria). It was published yesterday on MERIP website. 

I want to dedicate this to all Syrian people who are suffering and waiting for justice cause they`ve never been treated as citizens.

Dramas of the Authoritarian State

by Donatella Della Ratta | published February 2012

During August of 2011, which corresponded with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, viewers of the state-run satellite channel Syrian TV might have stumbled upon quite a strange scene: A man watches as a crowd chants “Hurriyya, hurriyya!” This slogan — “Freedom, freedom!” — is a familiar rallying cry of the various Arab uprisings. It was heard in Syrian cities, including Damascus, when protesters first hit the streets there on March 15, 2011. But it was odd, to say the least, to hear the phrase in a Syrian government-sponsored broadcast. Until that moment, state TV had not screened any such evidence of peaceful demonstrations in Syria.

The scene goes on to show the same bystander ordering policemen to shoot at the protesters. Immediately afterwards, he seems to regret his order, muttering: “Maybe I should have….” At this point it becomes clear that this scene is no news bulletin or user-generated YouTube clip documenting an actual protest. Rather, it comes from amusalsal (pl. musalsalat), as the 30-episode miniseries that accompany Ramadan in Syria, Egypt and elsewhere are known. The grand finale of this musalsalFawq al-Saqf (Above the Ceiling), features the two main characters overlooking a desolate landscape. “What happened to this country?” asks one. “I am responsible for this. I knew it was going to happen…but, in the end, precaution cannot stave off destiny.” The other character replies by repeating the phrase: “Thank God, around us and not on top of us.”

Without a Trace

The credits attribute the paternity of Fawq al-Saqf to the Radio and TV Production Organization, a unit inside Syrian TV launched in 2010 with a mission to employ a “private-company mindset” in churning out dramas, according to Diana Jabbour, the former director. Over the past decade, demand for Syrian musalsalat has increased across the Arab world, with Syrian producers now clocking in right after the historically dominant Egyptians in the quantity of hours provided to the Gulf-owned networks that sit atop the pan-Arab market. The bulk of the Syrian supply comes from private producers, and the Organization, which enjoys financial autonomy and the authority to form public-private partnerships, was intended to represent the new face of government involvement in Syrian TV drama.

Fawq al-Saqf was one of the first productions commissioned by the agency. Its episodes were authored by screenwriters who had worked on Buq‘at Daw’ (Spotlight), a comedic musalsal that was considered among the most daring in Syrian history, airing in 2001 at the tail end of the “Damascus spring,” the short-lived political opening after the accession of Bashar al-Asad to the presidency. The director of Fawq al-Saqf, Samir Barqawi, is a promising young talent who is not openly aligned with the regime. The serial thus had all the components of what many Syrians would call tanfis (blowing off steam), or what Lisa Wedeen has described well as a means of allowing people “to vent frustrations and displace or relieve tensions that otherwise might find expression in political action.” [1] Fawq al-Saqfcould also have been an example of “commissioned criticism,” “an official and paradoxical project to create a democratic façade” in a period of unrest by featuring a level of dissent in official media. [2]

Neither of these classifications is persuasive, however. Had the musalsal been tanfis or “commissioned criticism,” the official media would have advertised it heavily, to say the least. But no promo spots for Fawq al-Saqf aired on the state-run channels. The daily program “Drama 2011,” which helps viewers navigate the crowded Ramadan schedule, did not even mention it. And though it is customary for Ramadan serials to be rebroadcast in later months, Fawq al-Saqf was never put back on the schedule. Even prominent dramatists who were asked about it seemed unaware of its existence. The only outside station to mention the musalsal was the Saudi-owned pan-Arab channel al-‘Arabiyya, which featured it once on the daily “Drama Ramadan” program. Then the musalsal was stopped at its fifteenth episode, before the end of Ramadan, with no reason given. It simply disappeared from TV screens without a trace.

After Ramadan ended, in September, the topic of Fawq al-Saqf came up at a seminar at the University of Copenhagen. Adib Kheir, owner of the production company Sama Art Production, dismissed it as a “silly project that was done without any planning, testing or pre-testing.” Kheir belongs to a group of Syrian producers who view TV drama as a commodity: His business relies on such products as Turkish serials dubbed into Syrian dialect, which are highly popular in the pan-Arab market. From his strictly commercial perspective, Fawq al-Saqf was simply a failure.

Sotto Voce

Fawq al-Saqf grew out of a proposal offered by Sami Moubayed during a meeting held at the presidential palace in the spring of 2011, according to the head of censorship at the Radio and TV Production Organization, Mahir ‘Azzam. [3]Moubayed teaches political science at the private Kalamoon University in Damascus and is editor-in-chief of Forward, a monthly magazine from the influential Haykal media group, which promotes the idea of a progressive, liberal Syria under the Asad family’s leadership. He is a personal friend of Bouthaina Shaaban, Bashar al-Asad’s media adviser, who delivered the first official response of the state to the Syrian uprising. Moubayed’s articles on the uprising — some of which appear in American outlets like the Huffington Post — give a sense of his skill in eschewing regime rhetoric while remaining committed to the presidential palace`s seemingly reformist project. [4] In a piece called “What Will Post-Arab Spring Intellectuals Write About?” he acknowledges that Syrians like Saadallah Wannous and Muhammad al-Maghout were given leeway to produce meaningful art “under the watchful eye of the government, hoping that their plays or poems would ‘defuse’ public discontent.” But he consigns such arrangements to the past, and does not list Bashar al-Asad’s Syria among the countries that are facing uprisings today. He seems, furthermore, to endorse the regime’s narrative that the enemy in Syria is political Islam: He muses that the politically engaged literary works he cites will seem outdated “to a rising Arab generation that will emerge after the Arab spring, perhaps five to ten years from now. One day, they will definitely see the light, yet again, where need for them rearises, perhaps when the Islamists coming to power today turn into another Husni Mubarak or another Qaddafi.” [5]

According to ‘Azzam, Moubayed’s pitch for Fawq al-Saqf started with a simple question: “How can we resolve what is happening on the streets in an artistic way?” The Forward editor went on to describe his concept for the musalsal as a “third view that does not embrace the regime’s view or the street’s…something that the regime would not feel as a provocation when watching it, but would not anger the street or encourage people to demonstrate after the broadcast.” The presidential palace seemed to like the idea, for the Organization (where ‘Azzam heads the censorship division) was told to take the project under its wing.

Fawq al-Saqf can thus be said to exemplify a mechanism linking cultural producers to different components of the Syrian regime, one that I call the “whisper strategy.” [6] It is an example of Michel Foucault’s strategies without a strategist, a sotto voce conversation whereby priorities are negotiated and commonalities established over the content of cultural production. The metaphor of the whisper suggests a relationship based not on coercion or clashing cultural paradigms but rather on Max Weber’s “elective affinities,” a nexus of shared beliefs, interests and concerns. The ideological common ground occupied by regime and many cultural producers is a belief in the backwardness of Syrian society, which ostensibly can progress only through an enlightening (tanwiri) process led by benevolent minority rulers. When discussing their media projects, cultural producers very often mention the “culpability of society” in its own backwardness and the need to reform it through tanwiri media projects. “Drama has to criticize society,” stressed Syrian screenwriter Najeeb Nseir to a Dunya TV interviewer on October 19, 2010. Thanks to the “whisper strategy,” everyone, from dramatists to state censors, is aware of and agrees upon the specific issues to be tackled in TV drama and media productions in general.

In the case of Fawq al-Saqf, Moubayed seems to have initiated the whispering in the interest of a reformist project: National dialogue is presented as a solution to the Syrian crisis, but the dialogue is to be conducted under the regime’s auspices and its boundaries are to be fixed from the top down, in cooperation with cultural elites.

This thinking informs the title of the musalsalAbove the Ceiling, which seems to promise a national dialogue without “red lines” or upper bounds. The “ceiling” metaphor is often reiterated by Bashar al-Asad — including in the interview he gave to Syrian TV on August 21, 2011 — to suggest that media outlets already enjoy a high degree of freedom in the country, but do not exploit it. The metaphor is ambiguous, as it specifies neither who is entitled to set the standards of freedom nor where their margins lie. Asad implies that the media impose a “ceiling” upon themselves, but does not point to where this ceiling is, meaning that the media do not dare push against it. It is precisely this ambiguity that matches up with the enlightenment project of cultural elites, by definition a small group, who are deemed to have the necessary discernment to keep raising the ceiling in accordance with the times and the political opportunity. The tanwiri project should always look fair, transparent and reform-minded to the audience. As Fawq al-Saqf director Barqawi stressed in an interview: “We nurtured a form of civilized dialogue. We don’t have to present works that please one side at the expense of the other…. My goal is to invite the viewer, whatever his political orientation, to see himself and the other in the series.” [7]

The Regime Wants…

The power centers inside the regime — the presidential palace, the different branches of secret police (mukhabarat), the various ministries — are not entirely homogeneous in outlook. They communicate, of course, but they are also capable of miscommunications, misfires and changes of opinion. It sometimes occurs that one power center pushes forward a political project that contradicts the prerogatives of another, or even that one power center supports multiple, simultaneous, mutually contradictory projects. Despite its exceptional backdrop, the 2011 uprising, Fawq al-Saqf reveals a dynamic that is routine rather than exceptional: namely, the interference of several regime components in the making of TV drama, with each power center pursuing its own agenda, or more than one agenda, at the same time.

It is instructive here to flash back to 2001, the first full year of Bashar al-Asad’s presidency and the inaugural season of Spotlight. Touted by the official press as breaking taboos, Spotlight dealt with such sensitive topics as corruption and the abuses of the mukhabarat. It initially enjoyed the open support of Bashar al-Asad himself, lending credence to the ambient hopes at the time that the new president was indeed reform-minded. “Spotlight was born in the atmosphere of the ‘Damascus spring’ and is the direct expression of Bashar al-Asad’s first phase,” says its director, Laith Hajjo. But the serial nonetheless ran afoul of the Viewing Committee at Syrian TV and its episodes were partly redacted before going on the air. “Eighty percent of Spotlight was shot this way,” said Adib Kheir at the Copenhagen seminar. “Somebody gives his blessing for a project, then it goes into production and the troubles begin.” It was only following the palace’s direct intervention that the musalsal was finally broadcast. Some of its sketches were indeed bold. Former vice president ‘Abd al-Halim Khaddam was reportedly livid after one mocking episode seemed to discourage foreign investment. [8] But Khaddam did not succeed in stopping Spotlight from being aired, as the presidential palace held the balance of power at the time, and placed a priority on presenting a reformist face.

Fawq al-Saqf lacked the protective atmosphere of the “Damascus spring,” however, and its problems with the censor began even earlier than its broadcast, starting with the very title of the production. Originally, the serial was to be called al-Sha‘b Yurid… (The People Want…), part one of the anti-regime couplet then echoing in Arab capital after Arab capital. That was vetoed. The Viewing Committee was reported to have rejected several episodes as well, only to reverse itself when the palace interceded with authorization. While the serial was being broadcast, ‘Azzam recounts, “different parties” lodged complaints and “other official corners,” namely the security services, placed personal phone calls to Syrian TV personnel in order to exert pressure for cancellation. Fawq al-Saqf had become a big headache for the channel, which first dropped the promo spots and then made the decision to halt the broadcasts. Ma‘an Haydar, director-general of Syrian TV, cited non-completion of taping as the reason for stopping the serial, promising to rebroadcast every episode once they were all ready. [9] “The reaction of the palace was silence, which basically meant agreement to interrupt the broadcast,” says ‘Azzam.

At the time that Fawq al-Saqf aired, the balance of power had probably shifted to the intelligence services and the palace’s tanwiri project yielded to the security-first mindset. Or, perhaps better, the palace itself had placed thetanwiri project on hold in order to facilitate the security project in a period of unrest.

The state-run media outlets are stuck in the middle of these intra-regime battles, unwilling or unable to take responsibility for what they are airing, and compelled to abide by different and sometimes contradictory orders. Syrian TV officials initially chose the low-profile approach of declining to promote or advertise the musalsal so as not to be read as supporting one faction of the regime over another. In a situation so slippery, the eventual decision to postpone the musalsal was the only way not to anger anyone, as outright cancellation might conceivably have done. In the end, however, postponement was akin to cancellation.

Personal Interventions

The shift in the balance of power among the power centers of the Syrian regime is apparent as well in the different fates of two TV dramas produced in 2010 and 2011 by the same director, the well-known Najdat Anzour. In 2010, Anzour penned Ma Malakat Aymanukum (Those Whom Your Right Hand Possesses), a musalsal that treats Islam in contemporary Syria. The script condemns religious extremism, as manifested in suicide bombings or violence against women, and exalts the freedom, tolerance and self-determination to be found in piety when properly understood. This approach is in keeping with the regime’s long-time advocacy of secular politics in order to protect Syria’s religious minorities while at the same time proving itself religious enough not to offend the country’s conservative Sunni majority. Here again, cultural production and official discourse converge in a tanwiri project. Ma Malakat Aymanukum’s script passed through the initial stages of state approval.

But then, prior to broadcast, the viewing committee sent it to the Ministry of Information for further examination. One of the points of contention was the serial’s title, taken from a Qur’anic verse that might be read to suggest male ownership of women. The phrase “ma malakat aymanukum” appears in the Qur’an 14 times, and generally refers to slaves. The sura from which the title is taken prohibits sexual intercourse with married women, except “those whom your right hand possesses.” Given the delicacy of the matter, the Ministry of Information, which normally has the final word, decided to ask the advice of the Ministry of Religious Endowments. Behind the scenes, meanwhile, another power broker was reportedly very annoyed by the serial — Muhammad Hamsho, a businessman close to Bashar’s brother Mahir, commander of the Fourth Armored Division that is the core of the security forces. Ma Malakat Aymanukum features a corrupt entrepreneur who bears more than a passing resemblance to Hamsho, down to details like running for election and opening a TV production business. Anzour has never explicitly named Hamsho as an opponent of his series, speaking merely of “people with interests” and “people bothered by the musalsal.” In any case, while the Ministry of Religious Endowments was reviewing the file, a veto of the broadcast of the musalsal from prominent Sunni scholar Muhammad Sa‘id al-Buti forced Syrian TV to pull it off the Ramadan grid, just one day before the scheduled premiere. Disappointed, Anzour says he “made the president aware of the issue.”

The former minister of culture, Riyad Na‘san Agha, affirms that he lobbied for the musalsal, adding that “the president himself intervened in favor of it,” too. Anzour also lays emphasis upon the positive role played by Bashar al-Asad: “When I attended the meeting with artists and producers, he mentioned the musalsal three times and said, ‘Had I not personally intervened, the musalsal would have been gone.’ He used exactly that expression: ‘Had I not personally intervened.’”

Yet the president certainly did not do the same for Anzour’s 2011 TV drama offering, ChiffonChiffon revolves around several portraits of teenage boys and girls wrestling with questions about sex and drugs. It features a scene where a girl protagonist, who dresses in stereotypically masculine ways and lives among men, walks toward the very conservative Sunni mosque of Abu Nour, surrounded by veiled women.

In 2010, al-Buti was forced to accept the broadcast of Ma Malakat Aymanukum, which he had previously rejected as religiously offensive. On April 5, 2011, with the uprising well underway, he renewed his attack on the miniseries in an interview with Syrian TV, attributing the spreading unrest to Anzour’s musalsal. Shortly after this episode, and in response to a call from Syrian actors and directors for humanitarian aid to the besieged city of Dar‘a, known as “the milk statement,” Anzour appeared at the forefront of producers who signed a counter-petition calling for boycotting the protesting artists in TV drama. “There was never any shortage of food or milk,” he said. “It was a political statement. The authorities were dealing with armed terrorist groups.” [10] Anzour’s blatant rush to toe the official line might have been payback for Bashar’s intervention in 2010 or a genuine commitment to the president’s political project. In any case, Chiffon was not broadcast in Ramadan 2011. Anzour has excused the cancellation as a decision taken in the “national interest.” But the incident reveals the continuous shifts of alliances within the regime. Under the palace’s auspices, al-Buti had launched an Islamic religious channel, Nour. In a time of unrest, when the security project had become a top priority, the regime probably needed the Sunni scholar’s support much more than that of secular cultural elites.

No Longer Torn

The relationship binding these cultural producers to the Syrian regime is quite different from what miriam cooke has described regarding a previous generation of Syrian intellectuals, who were torn between the desire to criticize the regime and the obligation to compromise with it. This generation negotiated what later became forms of “commissioned criticism.” The intellectuals cooke deals with — writers like Saadallah Wannous, Muhammad al-Maghout and Mamdouh ‘Adwan — saw themselves as engaged in a continuous struggle to widen the red lines around permissible discourse. The cultural producers involved in whispering with the state, on the other hand, are committed to dialogue with power and tend to deny the existence of censorship. Instead, they rather speak about the necessity of “artistic evaluation” of their scripts.

Unlike cooke’s intellectuals, these TV dramatists do not hide their relations with the regime power centers, but show them off. They back the regime’s cultural project of treating the social pathologies — corruption, gender inequality, religious extremism, illiteracy — that make up its alleged “backwardness.” “Religious and social control are our real problems and at the origin of our backwardness,” says Laith Hajjo. “Drama can help to solve this.” The noble-soundingtanwiri label helps these screenwriters and producers to merge their work with the regime’s own awareness campaigns, by means of the well-placed whisper. “I would say I have a tanwiri mission,” asserts Nseir. “My works don’t aim to put a mirror in front of the society. I want them to discuss issues that are dealt with in my musalsalatand to progress through this discussion. I don’t want to describe; I want to provoke debates and drive social change.” The drama makers are thus not so much complicit as they are comfortable with the powers that be.

Pleasure and comfort — derived from the social status and financial privileges the new generation of Syrian cultural producers are granted — mark the relationship between them and the various power centers inside the regime. These features have in effect replaced the agreement upon “unbelief” that, as described by Lisa Wedeen, bound politics together with cultural reproduction under Hafiz al-Asad. In the Hafiz al-Asad era, cultural producers did not believe the patent propaganda they cranked out; rather, they forged a tacit pact with the regime whereby they acted “as if” they believed it. These “shared conditions of unbelief,” according to Wedeen, “actually reproduce[d] the conditions of obedience under Asad.” [11] In neoliberal Syria, where TV drama makers live in greater material comfort, the regime and its allied cultural producers are closer to stakeholders in a common investment project whereby they both define what is good and advisable for Syrian society. That society, in turn, is never addressed as made up of citizens or consumers, but is rather imagined as a backward majority that should be ruled and disciplined through practices of enlightenment accessible to a select few.

Endnotes

[1] Lisa Wedeen, Ambiguities of Domination: Politics, Rhetoric and Symbols in Contemporary Syria (Chicago: University o Chicago Press, 1999), p. 88.
[2] miriam cooke, Dissident Syria: Making Oppositional Arts Official (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007), p. 72.
[3] ‘Azzam was interviewed by journalist and former censorship committee member Ibrahim al-Jabin, who related ‘Azzam’s remarks at the September 2011 University of Copenhagen seminar. Unless otherwise noted, all other persons quoted in this article were interviewed by the author.
[4] See, for example, Sami Moubayed, “The Road to Syrian Democracy,” Huffington Post, June 23, 2011.
[5] Sami Moubayed, “What Will Post-Arab Spring Intellectuals Write About?” Huffington Post, December 8, 2011.
[6] Donatella Della Ratta, “The ‘Whisper Strategy’: How Syrian Drama Makers Shape Television Fiction in the Context of Authoritarianism and Commodification,” in Leif Stenberg and Christa Salamandra, eds., Syria under Bashar al-Asad: Culture, Religion and Society (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, forthcoming).
[7] ‘Aks al-Sayr, August 26, 2011.
[8] Marlin Dick, “Syria Under the Spotlight,” Arab Media and Society 3 (Fall 2007).
[9] Ibid.
[10] The National (Abu Dhabi), July 23, 2011.
[11] Wedeen, p. 92.