Revamping Syria’s creative resistance

These days, we don’t hear that much concerning Syrian civil society and its resilience. Yet, this is something we should care about and we should try to listen to Syrian voices from civil society that have been silenced by the polarization Syrian regime vs ISIS (Da’ash).
I’m proud to be part of a team of committed scholars, journalists and activists who are doing their best to deliver those silenced voices to the general public. Our common project, the web portal on Syrian civil society and emerging creativity  SyriaUntold,  has just been revamped. It has a new look, and contains new features and also a new section which highlights our recent partnership with Open Democracy  “Looking inside the uprising” .
This new section features articles on “collective memory”, “creative resistance”, “emerging media”, and “sectarianism”, a topic highly debated these days in the context of the Syrian uprising
The last article penned by our Mohamed Dibo , “Assad’s secular sectarianism”,  has been widely discussed, bringing a new perspective to a debate which is too often framed by Western media in a very polarized way, i.e. “Assad’s secularism” vs “sunni jihadism”.
We hope that, even such a small contribution as SyriaUntold is, can at least help shed light on issues and perspectives quite often forgotten in the international debate, or lost in the “black and white” frame applied to Syria these days.
We do our best to highlight the efforts and the incredible resilience of Syrian civil society, featuring its defiance and creative resistance.
Please visit the new website , follow SyriaUntold on Twitter and Facebook 
and subscribe to the weekly newsletter. 
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Towards active citizenship in Syria

“Towards active citizenship in Syria” is my contribution to the collective publication ” Culture in Defiance: Continuing Traditions of Satire, Art and the Struggle for Freedom in Syria“, in the occasion of the art exhibition hosted by Prince Claus Foundation Gallery in Amsterdam, 4 June-23 Nov 2012.

I`ve analysed the “raised hands” campaign, a government backed outdoor campaign that was released in Syria last year, just few weeks after the beginning of the uprising. After more than one year people have been sharing and remixing this campaign changing its original message in unexpected ways that signal a new approach to idea of citizenship and people`s participation to public life.

The article is licensed under a CC BY NC license so you`re free to download, share and remix it at the conditions listed here.

A publication about Syrian creativity and creative resistance

Today the art exhibition “Culture in defiance: continuing traditions of satire, art and the struggle for freedom in Syria” opens at Prince Claus Foundation in Amsterdam. It will stay open until Nov 2012 and we`ll host a number of events (lectures, film screenings, etc) there over the next months.

This is the cool publication that Malu Halasa has put together for the exhibition. It really looks great and includes lots of essays that explore different forms of creativity and art coming out from the Syrian revolution.

My contribution, “Towards active citizenship in Syria”, looks at user-generated-content in the context of the uprising and, particularly, to the “raised hands” campaign. 

Satirical web series lampoons Hafez and Bashar al Assad

The first episode of 3anzehWalo6aret  عنزة ولو طارت (something that we can loosely translate “It`s a goat even if flies”) appeared last August 2011. Till now, this episode has been viewed by more than 330.000 people on YouTube.

The show consists in a news-bulletin kind of set, with a masked anchorwoman who deals with the events happening in Syria in an extremely sarcastic way. It`s the dark humor Syrians have been labelled with, especially since a certain amount of parodies, sketches and web series blossomed on the Internet after the beginning of Syrian uprising.

3anzehWalo6aret is dark comedy at its best, although you could tell that the dark component has been increasing in the sketches with the time, maybe as a result of the increased violence happening on the ground.

The last episode, released on YouTube few days ago, is dedicated to “Hafez the beast”, as they call him. The masked women ironizes on the fact that living under the Assads is like living in pre-Islamic times. Their pictures, their statues are everywhere, “he is with you in every place” and everything is named under Assad, from the library  to the stadium to the streets. “After the regime is toppled, I want to save this tradition, just with a little difference: we will give the name of Assad to a cabaret or to a public bath”, the masked anchorwoman says.

Then she reminds the viewer that, since the Assads seized power, 18.000 have been imprisoned for issues related to their freedom and right to express themselves.

Then she starts joking again: “Let`s talk about Hazef al Assad from the humanitarian point of view”. And she reminds about the former president`s nice present to 700 prisoners in Tadmour (Palmira), killed all together in cold blood as a revenge for an attempt to overthrown the regime.

“But we have not to forget Hazef al Assad`s best achievements in the art field, like the renewal of Hama`s decor..At the time, there was a foreign conspiracy like there is now, so the president thought to put the city under siege, the result being the death of 40.000 people, and the destruction of 84 mosques and 4 churches.. “During the French occupation in Syria none of them dared to destroy mosques”, she adds.

Hafez al Assad`s brother Rafat (now in exile in London) commented: “one day the historians will say: once upon a time, there was a city called Hama”.

“Soon history will say: once upon a time, there was a regime in Syria called Assad “, the masked woman replies.

“Let`s talk about the anti-corruption campaigns which Hafez al Assad backed. The “mn7hibbaje” (pro-regime supporters) always say that we cannot blame on him for corruption in the country and  how could he control everybody in his regime..” . “But how did he not know that his family, Jamil and Rafat al Assad were corrupted?” .

“Bashar is different, the pro-regime say. If so, how is it possible not to be aware of the fact that Rami Makhlouf, his cousin, owns 60% of Syrian economy?”.

A very funny scene is added at this point, showing the birth of “Leo”(Kimba), the son of the Lion King, a character in Japanese mangas. The father gives power to the son, who takes it, despite a constitutional change has to be made for he is too young to become president.

The masked woman now pokes fun at Bashar and when the key question comes — who do we have better than him to rule our country?– she calls Zonga on the phone, “our expert in Homs”. Zonga –who comes from the hilarious Homs-based Facebook page “at-thawra as-siniya” (the Chinese revolution) answers:

” there are 23 millions Syrians, do you think we can`t find another one?!”.

“After all this, do you still want us to call our country Syria al Assad”, the masked woman says. “We don`t want any Syria al Assad, we want a free Syria and that`s all!”.

 

 

 

Culture under fire/creative resistance in Syria

After our meeting in London at Reel:Syria festival I really feel that a focus on peaceful and creative forms of resistance is needed in the Syrian case. Last months have witnessed an escalation of violence and talks plenty of words as civil war, sectarianism. Talking about the creativity and the imagination of Syrians in such an hard situation is now,more than ever, needed. Here is a report about our talks in London published by SyriafromLondon. Brian Whitaker from the Guardian has also published his thoughts about the discussion on his blog.

Creative resistance is flourishing in Syria alongside the uprising. Decades of censorship have not silenced dissenting voices, but the atmosphere of pushing boundaries since the uprising began has allowed a blossoming artistic movement to develop.

I'm with the law

Arab media specialist Donatella della Ratta first witnessed this in the first days of the demonstrations on the walls of the old city in Damascus. Offering a rare insight into the Syrian capital in March 2011, the Copenhagen University fellow told of how the state covered the streets with posters encouraging civil obedience, which read, in various colours“I’m with the law” (where the hand forms part of the word ‘I’), and came addressed to “old or young” (as here), “left or right”, “optimistic or pessimistic” and so on.

me, you, brothers

Soon enough, doctored versions began to appear, first onFacebook. Beginning with “I’m not Indian” (referring to propaganda techniques used), and “I’m with Syria”, and then changing the hand for a foot accompanied by the words “I lost my shoes” (referring to the offensiveness of showing the soles of your shoes) and a version calling for unity (right) that says “Me, you, brothers”. Graffiti started to appear on the posters in the streets as the demonstrations gained momentum and the online community exchanging creatively doctored images grew and grew.

Speaking at the REEL:Syria event Culture Under Fire, the Italian academic who moved to Damascus four years ago, said, “After so many years where there so much control, seeing even the smallest act of writing on a poster is a huge step.”

Donatella della Ratta joined Syrian cartoonist Ali Ferzat, Syrian novellist Manhal Al-Saraj, British Syrian authorRobin Yassin-Kassab, and cultural resistance specialist Steve Chandra Savale. Another Syrian novellist, Mamdouh Azzam, was not able to attend.

One Syria’s most famous cartoonists, Ali Farzat spoke of the attack last year that left him with head injuries and broken fingers. Through a translator, he said, “After the attack someone asked me, ‘Aren’t you afraid to carry on?’ I replied, ‘I’m more ashamed now. Blood is being spilled – what am I in comparison to the martyrs? I’m ashamed to be called an artist when I saw people who might not even be able to write sacrificing themselves for my freedom.’”

The novellist Manhal Al-Saraj, whose first book was not published in Syria as it deals with the 1982 massacre of Hama, said she was very excited when she heard the first calls to demonstrate in Damascus. “But when I saw children in Deraa come home with their faces and fingers bloodied,” she said, “I couldn’t be optimistic.”

But Ali Ferzat does not share her sentiments. “I think the revolution is victorious,” he said. “The revolution was concluded and was victorious when we broke the fear.”

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.

Creative resistance in Syria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Challenging the party line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Art and irony

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow her on Twitter: @donatelladr

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