Syria: a cinematic revolution

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


A New Wave of Syrian Films Exposes the Failure of Images



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


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

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


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


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

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


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

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

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


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



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

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

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

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

Social media is the new black.

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is it ultimately consumed, like our digital little selves?

ISIL (ISIS/IS/Daesh) and western media: accidental allies?

Here below my latest opinion piece for Al Jazeera English. As for the name issue (well, Al Jazeera has a policy which is to call it ISIL), I’ve drafted my thoughts here on this blog.

ISIL and western media: Accidental allies?

ISIL’s alleged influence on social networking sites might be the result of western hype.

Last updated: 25 Sep 2014 09:02
Hardly a day goes by without reading articles on how smart and tech-savvy – yet barbarian – the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is. Typing the word “ISIL” alongside “social media”, “internet” or “media strategy” into a search engine reveals the gloomy yet fascinating world of those online jihadists who seem to be savvy enough to master, together with Kalashnikovs and knives, the modern language of the participatory Web 2.0.

Countless articles have thoroughly dissected last June’s #AllEyesonISIS Twitter campaign, launched to prove the groups’ alleged grassroots online support. Media professionals have emphasised these jihadists’ sophisticated knowledge of contemporary social networking sites, which became clear when they managed to build an Android app available for public downloading. The same was evident when they quickly migrated from Twitter to Diaspora, an online networking site, once the San Francisco-based organisation decided to shut down several of their accounts.

Western media fills its airtime and webspace with analyses of why the group provokes both repulsion and fascination among a wide audience.

ISIL obsession

The obsession with ISIL and its alleged social media success is more apparent in the West. Listening to Arabic media leads to an unexpected discovery. Quite a different framework, in fact, is employed by Arabic-speaking outlets when dealing with ISIL and its fighters.

While in the Arab media, ISIL is depicted as a western post-colonial creation, in international, English-speaking outlets, the organisation is described as a bunch of tech-savvy barbarians who inspire repulsion but also a sort of fascination for their activities in the cyber world and on the ground.

First of all, parody and irony are common on Facebook and other social networking posts that talk about ISIL. This sort of takfiri dark humour, which points to an extremist doctrine of casting others as apostates, is widely documented in Arab media, while almost ignored by its western counterpart.

A few weeks ago, a well-known satirical Palestinian TV series, “Watan ala watar” (Country on a string), came to the attention of international media forpoking fun at ISIL.

Most likely, this happened because the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), an organisation cofounded by a former Israeli military intelligence officer and based in Washington DC, had translated the clip into English and distributed it on the internet.

The excerpt shows an ISIL checkpoint where two Arab citizens, a Lebanese and a Jordanian, are stopped and executed by the fighters. Soon after, an Israeli passing by is warmly greeted and allowed to go on. This reflects a common feeling among Arab audiences: ISIL targets Arabs much more than it targets Israel or the western world.

Recently, several young Arab voices on social networking sites protested the obsessive attention given by an outraged international community to thebeheading of James Foley and Steven Sotloff after so few paid attention to ISIL’s beheading of two Lebanese soldiers and a Syrian journalist, Bassam Rayes.

Outrage on social media

Secondly, news features and op-eds produced by Arab media often read the rise of ISIL within a post-colonial framework. Several Arab analysts connect the rise of jihadist networks and sectarian groups to the imposition of borders by the Sykes-Picot agreement in 1916, which they argue resulted in entrenching sectarianism and fragmentation in the region.

Despotic regimes supported by colonial powers in order to maintain the status quo further subjugated citizens in the region through authoritarianism, and an education based on fear and the glorification of the leader’s sole authority. Within this context, civil society did not have any vital space to grow and organise itself in the shape of social movements or parties.

The “Arab Spring” was the first opportunity in decades for the people to reclaim their dignity and move Arab societies forward. However, this spontaneous movement was crushed, partly because former colonial powers had no interest in seeing a post Sykes-Picot Arab world shaped by the Arabs themselves. In an op-ed, which was recently translated into English, a prominent Syrian journalist writes: “Our entire region has been violated by those near and far in order to carry out whatever they want under the pretext of combating terrorism.”

So while in the Arab media, ISIL is depicted as a western post-colonial creation, in international, English-speaking outlets, the organisation is described as a bunch of tech-savvy barbarians who inspire repulsion but also a sort of fascination for their activites in the cyber world and on the ground.

Western hype

However, a recent study on ISIL’s activity on Twitter authored by Shiraz Maher and Joseph Carter has shown that only 50 users accounted for 20 percent of their tweets. This suggests that the organisation’s alleged influence on social networking sites might be the result of a western hype generated by the schizophrenia of our own media system, which is concerned by the threat of terrorism but simultaneously fascinated by a mediated violence that can be easily accessed via every portable device and consumed at home on HD TV screens.

A decade ago, our biggest mediated fear was a man named Osama Bin Laden who used to make his media appearances using a long shot, filmed with a fixed camera, in a simple setting with only a Kalashnikov for his background prop.

More than 10 years have now passed. The long shot has been replaced by fancy fade work, contemporary editing techniques and HD cameras. It seems that ISIL does not need TV channels anymore to spread its violent message.

Today, it has on its side the architecture of the participatory web and the viral circulation of content boosted by social media. And a very special – probably unintentional – ally: western media, drawn in by ISIL’s paradoxically hideous allure.

Donatella Della Ratta is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Copenhagen focusing her research on the Syrian TV industry. She has authored two monographs on Arab media, and curated chapters on Syrian media and politics in several collective books.

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




Le nostre ossessioni di schermi, da Bin Laden allo Stato Islamico

Settembre 2001, la più grande paura (e ossessione) mediatica dell’Occidente si chiamava Osama Bin Laden. Appariva minacciosamente con il logo dorato di Al Jazeera alle spalle, l’inquadratura era studiata con semplicità, dietro il mezzobusto di Osama campeggiava un paesaggio roccioso con un solo accessorio di scena: il kalashnikov. L’apparizione parlava piano, con studiata lentezza scandiva parole in arabo classico, la lingua del Corano, ma anche della letteratura, della poesia, e dei notiziari televisivi nel mondo arabo. Bin Laden terrorizzava l’Occidente intero ma lo costringeva a tradurre, ad avvicinarci “noi” a “loro”, per comprenderne la minaccia, il perché di tanto odio, il perché di quel kalashnikov sul fondo dello schermo.

Sono passati oltre dieci anni, e tante guerre: Afghanistan, Irak, per nominare solo quelle direttamente collegate alle apparizioni televisive di Bin Laden. Il disperato nostro tentativo di spegnere quell’immagine minacciosa nel sangue: sparare a caso nei posti del terrore per stanare l’immagine e cancellarla.

Poi, dieci anni dopo, sono arrivate le primavere arabe. L’occasione storica offerta al mondo arabo per riscattarsi dalla sua “barbarie”, per provare che è capace di chiedere dignità e democrazia. L’occasione era talmente ghiotta per noi Occidente che abbiamo trovato una bella espressione pulita, “primavera”, per raccontare una stagione che doveva contenere rinascita, ma non sangue; rivoluzione, ma non violenza. I nostri media si sono uniti nell’abbraccio collettivo alle primavere arabe: rivoluzioni per il consumo digitale, i gelsomini che profumano per tutta la Tunisia, la piazza egiziana di Tahrir che offre la più bella inquadratura televisiva possibile, ventiquattroresuventiquattro accesa su un popolo che fa fuori il suo dittatore in un’atmosfera quasi carnevalesca. Il più grande spettacolo televisivo del secolo. I nostri media impazziti per questi giovani arabi, blogger, attivisti, che impugnano telecamerine e cellulari invece che il kalashnikov del loro antenato delle caverne.

E oggi arriva l’inverno. Siamo delusi, profondamente delusi da un mondo arabo che non ce l’ha fatta. Ha avuto la sua occasione, e l’ha bruciata. Il mondo arabo non è capace di chiedere giustizia, dignità, democrazia. Non è nel suo DNA. C’è qualcosa di marcio ad Oriente.

Così la primavera è finita, i media hanno cambiato i titoli.

I giovani arabi stanchi delle botte prese hanno mollato i cellulari e imbracciato -magari i kalashnikov!- pugnali e spade con cui oggi tagliano gole e teste. E così c’è una nuova minaccia che imperversa sui nostri schermi, tutti i nostri schermi mobili, portatili, piccoli e grandi: si chiama ISIS, ISIL, o semplicemente IS, Stato Islamico.

Non parla più l’idioma incomprensibile e troppo aulico di Bin Laden: si rivolge a noi direttamente nella nostra lingua, l’inglese, addirittura sfumandola nello slang cool delle periferie dove nasce il rap, l’hip hop, la cultura giovanile occidentale “cutting edge”.

Non ha più bisogno di Al Jazeera per far arrivare il suo messaggio. Ha il tesoro prezioso dell’Occidente a sua disposizione, Internet: i centoquaranta caratteri di Twitter, le segnalazioni di stato di Facebook, i “mi piace” di YouTube. Sa costruire apps che butta dentro il calderone di Google Play Store senza che neppure i nerdoni di Silicon Valley se ne accorgano. Monta video del terrore con camere HD, costruisce inquadrature complesse, zoomma e dissolve. Ed è chiaramente a noi che parla: “a message to America”.

Ironia della sorte, i nostri media che all’unisono nel settembre duemilauno chiedevano ad Al Jazeera di spegnere l’immagine di Bin Laden, di sottrarre il microfono a quella voce pacata e minacciosa in nome della sicurezza internazionale, del non istigare ulteriore odio e terrorismo, oggi fanno a gara a parlare dell’ISIS. Non passa un giorno che non si leggano articoli che ossessivamente scandagliano “la strategia mediatica” dello Stato Islamico, la loro scaltrezza techie, la loro familiarità con i “nostri” social media. Fiumi di inchiostro e pagine web e persino reportage video “embedded” con i soldati dell’ISIS – un pò come si faceva in Irak 2003 con le truppe americane -descrivono minuziosamente il loro stile di vita, nei deserti siriani ed iracheni così come online, nei meandri dei social networks dove impazzano di followers.

Tutto si compie nella celebrazione del momento: come sono bravi questi barbari, qui ed ora, a usare questi nostri media qui ed ora. Pochi, troppo pochi si sono chiesti da dove viene lo Stato Islamico, e perché si manifesti e si imponga proprio in questo momento. Le ragioni storiche vengono continuamente sacrificate all’altare dell’instantanea, dell’intervista intelligente in sessantasecondi, dei centoquarantacaratteri, dell’articolo tempo di lettura dueminuti e quarantacinque.

Eppure l’ossessione mediatica per l’ISIS è principalmente ossessione occidentale. Oggi che Al Jazeera esce di scena come megafono necessario di Bin Laden, oggi che il mondo arabo sta veramente cambiando sotto i nostri occhi, anche se non ce ne accorgiamo mentre misuriamo il cambiamento in termini stagionali di primavere ed inverni, oggi anche i media arabi parlano un’altra lingua quando parlano dell’ISIS. Leggere articoli della stampa araba o ascoltare discussioni sui canali panarabi apre lo sguardo su un altro mondo: il binomio ISIS-social media è lontano dalla glorificazione a cui lo sottopone l’Occidente, e lungi dall’essere il solo, ossessivo punto di discussione. L’esistenza dello Stato Islamico ha aperto un dibattito nel mondo arabo (e anche una spaccatura nel mondo sunnita) che si riflette sui media: cosa vuol dire essere musulmano oggi, da dove arriva questa violenza, cosa ne è delle nostre rivoluzioni, come facciamo ad impedire che il terrorismo non sia una nuova scusa fabbricata per sottometterci ancora, un nuovo Sykes-Picot rivisto e aggiornato in versione 2.0.

Ascoltando quello di cui discute il mondo arabo un dubbio emerge: che sia la nostra ossessione a produrre il mostro che ci perseguita. Come se a furia di discutere morbosamente dei talenti multimediali dell’ISIS lo facessimo diventare veramente talentuoso. Legittimamente sale il dubbio se il silenzio stampa che cercavamo di imporre ad Al Jazeera negli anni di Bin Laden non fosse piuttosto la nostra rabbia di non avere noi, sui nostri schermi, il terrorista del momento in diretta esclusiva. Lo Stato Islamico sembra aver colto questa contraddizione in cui ci dibattiamo, e per questo forse non crea problemi se a chiedere di seguire i suoi soldati giorno e notte a Raqqa e dintorni è Vice, la bibbia del glamour lifestyle, che spazia da come si cucina sano e vegano a come si muore barbaramente decapitati per mano di un gruppo sanguinario ma tecnologicamente cool (e nessuno, ahimé, nel nostro civile Occidente si scandalizza se il giornalista decapitato di turno si chiama Bassam Raies, ed è siriano: ma urla vendetta quando lettere a noi familiari riempiono i sottopancia degli schermi di sangue).

E’ come se l’ISIS abbia toccato il punto più debole del nostro Occidente: la morbosità per lo spettacolo violento; ma che sia e rimanga, appunto, spettacolo. Che ci siano migliaia di schermi, piccoli e grandi, camere e YouTube, portatili e HD home video, fra “noi” e “loro”. Il binomio nuova tecnologia e violenza che alle nostre teste occidentali sembra così assurdo, così inaccettabile (“barbari” e “tecnologici” sono due parole che spesso mettiamo insieme nelle nostre analisi); dentro le nostre pance, invece, quelle a cui parlano i media -l’emisfero destro di McLuhan -, fa scattare qualcosa di ancestrale.

Dalla fine della seconda guerra mondiale abbiamo scacciato la guerra e la violenza fuori dalle nostre porte di fortezza occidentale. La morbosità per la violenza si è trasferita sugli schermi, si è mediatizzata, il sangue si è sciolto nei pixel dei nostri HD home video, ma è ancora lì in agguato. E ci piace ancora consumarla, esaltarla nel momento stesso in cui ufficialmente la ripudiamo.


Recupero il bel libro di Don De Lillo, “Mao II”. E’ profetico quando osserva che:

c’è un curioso nodo che lega romanzieri e terroristi”. “In Occidente”, dice Bill il romanziere protagonista del libro, “noi diventiamo effigi famose mentre i nostri libri perdono il potere di formare e di influenzare (…). Anni fa credevo ancora che fosse possibile per un romanziere alterare la vita interiore della cultura. Adesso si sono impadroniti di quel territorio i fabbricanti di bombe e i terroristi”.

Gli scrittori hanno ceduto il passo ai terroristi, che parlano alle coscienze più dei libri che scriviamo, delle nostre pallide riflessioni intellettuali, dei nostri dibattiti timidi. Invece i terroristi parlano la lingua trionfante della contemporaneità, la lingua veloce degli hashtag e dei “mi piace”. E i nostri media gli offrono schermi e pagine su un piatto d’argento.

Perché di fondo esiste una lingua comune, una lingua che accomuna la nostra ossessiva voglia di consumare violenza e coloro che la violenza la producono.

Nel mezzo, c’è un mondo arabo che il mondo ignora perché non riesce ad entrare nei centoquarantacaratteri e non si riassume in hashtag, non si filma e dissolve in HD, e la sua primavera non è passata attraverso il profumo dei gelsomini digitali ma continua a puzzare di corpi martoriati, carne e sangue di gente che ancora muore -mentre sui nostri media si esaltano l’ISIS e i media- per ragioni che forse non abbiamo mai veramente voluto ascoltare.

Against the odds: Syria’s flourishing mediascape

While everybody talks about ISIS or the Syrian regime there is indeed an effort being made by civil society and media activists to build an infrastructure for media pluralism: against all odds. My latest article for Al Jazeera English, authored with Enrico de Angelis and Yazan Badran, takes a look at Syria’s emerging mediascape.


Wael Adel, 30, the manager of Nsaeem Syria radio station, records material in the studio in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo [AFP]
These days the attention of the international public seems to have been captured by the Islamic State’s online propaganda war and its skills in mastering social media campaigns. However, there is another, less trumpeted, media revolution happening  in the Arab region.

Since the Syrian uprising started in March 2011, grassroots media outlets have been flourishing within the country and among the diaspora. In a recent study commissioned by Danish NGO International Media Support, we have counted more than 93 online and broadcast radio stations, printed magazines and online publications, and web-based news agencies. And more are being launched, day by day, inside Syria, and at the initiative of Syrians living in Turkey, Lebanon, France, Germany, Jordan, Egypt, and the Netherlands.

When the uprising broke out  in March 2011, Syria was an information desert.  At the time, Syrian government-owned press and broadcast media held a tight monopoly on the production of information, with only a handful of private actors operating in the media business.

All of these – satellite channel Addounia TV, the al-Watan print newspaper, radio stations such as Madina FM or publishing group Cham Press – were in the hands of entrepreneurs acting as regime proxies, and closely associated to al-Asad’s family by business or kinship.

Names such as Mohammed Hamsho, Rami Makhlouf, Mayzar Nizam Eddine have all been targeted by the uprising as symbols of crony capitalism and corrupted business powers that had left no margins for grassroots media to flourish. Their monopoly has now been broken.

‘Social programming’

Today all sorts of Syrian media outlets target the country offering news, talk shows, music, and a totally new genre which they like to call “social programming”. Mostly popular with radio stations, it deals with everything concerning civil society and daily life in war circumstances or under military rule, whether in regime or opposition-held areas.

Listening Post – The fog of Syria’s media war

The audience calls in and debates issues such as healthcare, children education, and discusses possible solutions to daily life crises, such as power outages, the lack of water and gas, and how to cook food in dire circumstances.

Another type of content focuses on reporting about activists’ daily efforts inside the country to provide humanitarian aid and assistance, rebuild schools, find alternative ways to provide education to the youth. “Balad” (country) and “muwatin” (citizen) are recurrent words within this genre of media content.

Sometimes forums are provided to discuss politics in “street language”, debating concepts such as democracy and the rule of law in Syrian dialect, so as to make it closer to the population. Radio stations seem to be the best tools to convey this content: Interactive and open to the community, alternative FM services are mushrooming inside Syria. Their FM signals cover almost the entire country, including pro-regime strongholds such as Latakia.

In opposition-held areas experiencing a dramatic shortage of electricity, radio services are much more popular than the internet as a way to stay informed. Moreover, their “conversational” nature makes radios the ideal place to try out new formats and involve the audience in the content creation process. Many new outlets, in fact, are currently experimenting with languages and formats that heavily rely on the interaction with the audience.

Also print and online publications are flourishing, both in areas that are under regime control as well as in those managed by all sorts of armed groups. Many of them make use of different languages spoken inside Syria, such as Kurdish, alongside with modern standard Arabic. Several target niche groups such as women, children, religious minorities, the youth. Others focus on providing analyses that rely on the contributions of professional journalists and Syrian intellectuals in order to debate issues such as transitional justice or human rights-related issues.

A wide variety of political views  are represented in these publications, from the staunch anti-Assad’s positions to those who prefer to seek a dialogue with the pro-regimes and focus on building a shared ground for the country’s future.

Challenges ahead    

The dynamic growth of media has its downside. Fragmentation of media outlets, lack of professionalism, unskilled labour, poor transparency over funding and partisanship are the most recurrent problems of Syrian grassroots media.

Some  outlets are loosely associated with opposition political groups, military or religious factions. Many of them, in order to survive, have to rely on funding that comes mostly from abroad, namely the US, France or Germany – countries that have set programmes of non-lethal assistance to the Syrian uprising.

Al Jazeera World – Syria: Wounds of War

Often times this media aid translates into technical assistance and training, delivery of equipment such as FM transmitters for radio stations or printing facilities for news publications. More rarely, the financial support goes into funding specific content or training.

Despite all the challenges that they are facing, these grassroots media have gained much more experience and awareness than they could have hoped for three years ago. In 2011, every Syrian  who had a small camera, a computer and access to the internet would consider himself a “citizen journalist”.

In 2014, almost every Syrian  interviewed for this research study had a critical view of what constitutes “citizen journalism”. Beyond the Western cliche that has romanticised the idea of citizen journalism, Syrian activists now question both words, citizen and journalist. On the one hand, experience has taught them that it was probably too early to talk about citizens’ media in a country where the idea of active citizenship had been used in official rhetoric for decades and yet was never put into practice.

On the other hand, Syrians have been forced by circumstances to learn the basics of newsmaking; yet, now they realise the difference between this “militant” reporting and professional journalism. So they are trying to move to the next step. Pursuing more balanced, less inflammatory content, and focusing on civil society-related issues are part of their attempt to rebuild the country’s social fabric instead of stressing partisanship, whether political or sectarian.

Many of these grassroots media outlets are shaping collective platforms to set common rules and ethical standards, explore alternative business models and find ways to survive financially. Initiatives are starting to emerge among Syrian media outlets to define a shared, non-partisan, non-sectarian language. Activists are asking for more training sessions and workshops to train people as administrative staff, supervisors, and media managers who will be needed to turn these loose media groups into cohesive media organisations.

With increasing awareness of the mistakes that have been made, Syrian activists, once armed with small cameras and producing “militant” content, are now trying to build a more professional environment, and create an infrastructure for independent media to operate in the future.

This process is progressing slowly but surely. It is yet another sign of the existence of a concerned civil society in Syria which is struggling to survive and to maintain a media presence, too. Meanwhile, international media attention  continues to focus on the regime in Damascus or to armed groups, forgetting about a society that is learning day-to-day practices of democracy, against all odds.

Enrico De Angelis is a media researcher at CEDEJ (Egypt-Sudan). He has lived in Cairo since September 2011.

Follow him on Twitter: @anomiamed

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

Follow her on Twitter: @donatelladr

Yazan Badran is a blogger and media researcher. He is based in Brussels, Belgium.

Follow him on Twitter: @yazanbadran


Originally published on Al Jazeera English, 30 August 2014

Social media and other tales of ordinary madness in Syria

So this week Syria Deeply and many other news outlets have reported about Eliot Higgins, a 34 years old from England. A very ordinary life, a daily job from 9 to 5, a wife, a small child. But, wait, this is the man behind the famous  Brown Moses` blogwhich, after the beginning of the Syrian uprising has turned into a source for many journalists and activists around the world.

Higgins does not speak Arabic and has never been in the Arab world or  “anywhere in the Middle East”, he says, “other than the Dubai airport”. Yet, he was able to build up a powerful list of resources, mostly YouTube channels, that document what`s happening in Syria. Starting as a “news junkie”, he has so far collected one of the biggest online libraries about the Syrian revolution and has also helped Human Rights Watch to find evidence of the use of cluster bombs in Syria. All of that, using YouTube and social media only.

Higgins says here:

“Sitting in my living room in England, it’s incredible to think that from anywhere in the world it’s possible to see the day-to-day struggles of the Syrian people and the scale of the violence they witness. What makes Syria so unusual is — despite the two years of conflict in the country, from street protests to civil war — the Internet has rarely been cut off. As a result, there has been a constant flow of information from the country through social media — with hundreds of thousands of Syrian YouTube videos, Tweets, and Facebook posts over the last two years. It’s an overwhelming amount of information, a maelstrom of data”.

This makes me think about Andy Carvin, the NPR new media specialist who has become  well known to the international and Arab crowd for having documented the Arab Spring without moving from Washington DC.

Despite I really admire folks like Andy and Eliot, I find really hard to embrace their theory of documenting something without never having been on the ground, without speaking the language, without understanding the culture. I have myself lived in Syria for years, I speak the language and know many things about the culture, but I find so hard to keep track of everything, verify all the accents in local dialects from different places in Syria, the geography, etc.

If we can document and verify things remotely, only using social media, like Andy and Eliot do, well then why spending so many years and hours and hours of hard study to understand a language, a culture?

I admire them, but remain skeptical.

And, the “sitting on your sofa and watching” thing made me think of this very sad cartoon which Syrians are widely sharing on Facebook these days…






Produrre informazione/Produrre azione

Oggi e domani al Valle Occupato, uno degli spazi di discussione artistica e politica piu interessanti dell`ultimo decennio a Roma, terro` un seminario dal titolo “Produrre informazione/Produrre azione” sull`uso dei social media a scopo informativo ma anche di attivismo. Il seminario e` aperto a tutti e libero.

Ulteriori informazioni sulla pagina del Valle. 

The secret of Al Jazeera`s success: dealing with Arabs as people, not as numbers

picture by Evanchill

Yesterday Wadah Khanfar, general manager of Al Jazeera network, wrote an interesting piece: “At Al Jazeera, we saw the Arab revolutions coming. Why didn`t the West?”.

“Indeed, it should surprise no one that so many Western analysts, researchers, journalists and government experts failed to recognize the obvious signs of Arab youth movements that would soon erupt into revolutions capable of bringing down some of the most pro-Western regimes in the Middle East. That failure has exposed a profound lack of understanding in the West of Arab reality. Quantcast U.S. and European allies, supporters and business partners of the Arab regimes persistently preferred to deal with leaders who were entirely unrepresentative of the new generation. They were detached from the emerging reality and had no way to engage with the social forces that now matter. It is the growing periphery of the Arab world – the masses at its margins, not its feeble and decaying center – that is shaping the future of the region” Khanfar says.

I cannot but agree with him. Few days ago, in my post “Tripoli, una gita di mille anni fa” (in Italian), I was discussing the same issue, the blindness of the West, particularly Europe and my own country, Italy (which enjoyed in the past a great deal of soft power in the Region and a cultural proximity with Arabs that maybe only Spain and Greece have among EU countries). We had a great opportunity which was the Euro-Mediterreanean framework and we wasted it, doing partnerships with the wrong people, “supporters of the Arab regimes” as Wadah cleverly points out. We saw the rising influence of social networks and some of us, mostly academic researchers with no real influence on institutional policies, spent years and years trying to convince EU institutions that those were the right folks to discuss with, the young blood of the new Arab generation. But sine we are ourselves “too young” (at least for EU parameters) nobody paid too much attention to our words, taking us as “kids” playing with the latest technology tool.

The same happened much longer before with TV stations. I remember when I first visited Al Jazeera, back in 2000, and then started to write articles and a book about the channel. It took years and years of work and public talks to have the EU elites starting to take this station “seriously” and not being just scared by it.

Today, 10 years  after 9/11, the situation has completely changed. Al Jazeera has been in touch with “the street” as Wadah points out, and was able to catch up with the changing going on in the Region. Al Jazeera is a young station. Khanfar himself is young and was able to build up a team of youngsters in the New Media Department that is super-professional. People like Mohamed Nanahbay and Mooed Ahmad, with their teams at Al Jazeera Arabic and English, have been working since 2006 to build what Al Jazeera achieves today.

We can criticize the channel`s editorial policy, disagree with some of its programmes, dislike its “incendiary” style, but we cannot deny the professional way the channel has been building relations with the people during the years. That`s it: Al Jazeera has not dealt with Arabs as audiences, but as its “people”. It has empowered them to express their opinions, send their messages, join online forum and chats, post videos, build the new brand identity of the channel all together.

People, mostly in the West, are surprised of the channel popular success during the last Egyptian uprising and now with Libya. There`s nothing to be surprised about pictures like the one Evanchill has published. People feel proximity with Al Jazeera, and new media has played a big role in this. And the way Al Jazeera has been using new media since 2006 is incredibly clever and professional. I wouldt be surprised at all: I would call this “investment”.

Al Jazeera has invested in new media since 2006 and this success is just the result of a professional work done during years and years. As much as 9/11 coverage in Afghanistan was the result of an investment done since the beginning of the channel, in 1996, by building a network of contacts and opening offices in crisis zones.

9/11 coverage didnt come out of the blue. It was just the result of an investment.

The idea of “investing” in something was once very close to Western mentality. It seems that now, mostly in the EU, this is gone. And none of the Arabic language stations that we have in Europe has ever thought of building a relation with its Arab audiences and dealing with them as people, not as numbers.

Al Jazeera did, and that`s the secret of its successful coverage of the Arab uprisings. It did it so well that this was helpful to reach out to Western audiences too.

There was -and there still is- a big campaign in the US, appeared also on Twitter and called #DemandAlJazeera. The channel New media team is organizing meet-ups all over America, and many articles are  being published everywhere in the US to demand the availability of the channel via cable.

And this might be Al Jazeera`s latest success: few days ago it was publicly announced that the channel is in talks with Comcast, the largest US cable distributor.

La rete da sola non fa le rivoluzioni

Pubblico qui sotto il mio pezzo uscito ieri su Alias, supplemento de Il Manifesto, con qualche riflessione sulla “rivoluzione” in rete e in strada in Egitto..

La rete da sola non fa le rivoluzioni

L`intifada egiziana – “rivolta”, cosi come l`ha immediatamente battezzata Al Jazeera– si e` conclusa vittoriosa venerdi scorso con la cacciata del trentennale dittatore Hosni Mubarak. ..E gia` il cinguettio di Twitter si sposta su un altro hashtag # (la “marca” che permette di raggruppare gli argomenti discussi sul social network in un unico flusso), quello dell`Algeria, poi del Bahrain, prossimi obiettivi della nuova “onda” araba di proteste. Come Tunisi ha girato il testimone all`Egitto, adesso questo prova a passare la palla (messi da parte i dissapori calcistici) all`Algeria, in una corsa tumultuosa che ha coinvolto tutto il mondo arabo in questo inizio di nuovo decennio.

Di questa febbre “rivoluzionaria” scoppiata in Medio Oriente -e del ruolo che avrebbero avuto i social network, in particolare Twitter, nel fomentarla- si e` detto ormai tutto.

L`Occidente e` innamorato dell`idea che le sue infrastrutture tecnologiche, ormai diventate infrastrutture della vita grazie alla capacita di regalare comunicazione im-mediata, abbiano acceso la miccia rivoluzionaria nel mondo arabo in tempi lampo. In realta`, ne` la Tunisia ne ` l`Egitto sono state “Twitter revolutions”.

In Tunisia l`accesso ad Internet non e` mai stato cosa facile, e il paese ha sofferto blocchi e censure anche riguardo a basilari servizi di posta elettronica come hotmail. La blogosfera tunisina, come quella nordafricana in generale, e` francofona, percio` spesso poco in contatto con l`Egitto, il Levante e il Golfo dove e` l`arabo – se non l`inglese- a predominare.

In Egitto i movimenti di protesta guidati dai blogger (come quello cosidetto del “6 Aprile”) e le prime manifestazioni organizzate grazie alla capacita` aggregative dei social network -in particolare Facebook- erano attivi e agguerriti gia` dalla prima meta` del nuovo millennio. Sono anni in cui i blogger egiziani entrano ed escono dalle galere e dai tribunali, denunciano torture, mostrano i primi video di violenze della polizia contro gli attivisti, postati su YouTube da Wael Abbas e da Noha Atef sul sito

Le rivolte della fine 2010-inizio 2011 sono percio cosa maturata negli anni: non certo scoppiate grazie a Twitter e non certo in un battibaleno. I social network hanno pero negli anni lavorato indirettamente a far emergere una cultura che il giurista Larry Lessig, fondatore di Creative Commons, definisce “read and write culture” , cioe una cultura attiva, propositiva, che non si basa soltanto sul consumo (read) di contenuti altrove prodotti bensi sulla scrittura (write) e ri-scrittura (re-mix) di nuove storie. Twitter e gli altri social network sono gli “attrezzi” per riprendersi questa creativita ormai sparita negli ultimi decenni del secolo scorso, l`epoca del dominio dei media di massa come la TV e dell`inasprimento delle leggi sulla protezione intellettuale (nemica giurata del remix).

Produrre e non soltanto consumare: che si tratti di un video, di un blog post. Anche solo di un “cinguettio” di 140 caratteri, che intanto e` comunque allenamento costante, un esercizio che indirettamente combatte l`autorita suprema del “read only” (leggere solo) con l`ironia del “ri-scrivere”, “ri-twittare”, _ri-linkare”, “ri-postare”, “ri-mixare”.

Per molti anni osservo in Medio Oriente questi giovani, Alaa Abd el Fattah e Manal Hassan, Wael Abbas, Nora Younis, Noha Atef, Hossam el Hamalawy,Slim Amamou, Sami Ben Gharbia e tanti altri come loro, giovani fra i 20 e 30 anni, di tutto il mondo arabo, incontrarsi periodicamente nei barcamp, nei geekfest, nei pecha kucha, in tutti gli eventi “techie” nati principalmente in USA e diventati parte integrante delle culture autoctone mediorientali. C`e qualcosa, nella “garage culture” made in Silicon Valley-California, che e` passata oltreoceano e ha trovato un nuovo senso in mezzo ai deserti, agli slum, ai grattacieli delle metropoli arabe. Cosa mai avranno in comune, mi chiedo, una cultura per eccellenza votata all`iniziativa privata, al rischio, con questa tradizione mediterranea di accettazione–assorbimento all`interno dei gangli del potere, che si tratti di famiglia, lavoro o societa… Beh, qualcosa, a pensarci bene, ce l`hanno: quell`essere giovani sempre che, se negli USA e` una condizione quasi esistenziale, in Medio oriente e` una inconfutabile verita` anagrafica. Oltre il 65% della popolazione araba ha meno di 25 anni. Non tutti, certo, hanno accesso ad Internet, non tutti parlano inglese, non tutti twittano o hanno un blog. Ma quest`elite a un certo punto ha cominciato a incontrarsi con quella libanese e yemenita, in meeting e workshop tecnologici dove involontariamente si faceva un nuovo panarabismo, giovane, tecnologico e non ideologico.

Ricordo l`ultimo di una lunga serie di questi incontri: l`Arab bloggers meeting, nel dicembre 2009 a Beirut. Sapientemente orchestrato da Sami Ben Gharbia, attivista di Global Voices e cyber dissidente tunisino adottato dall`Olanda, il workshop aveva riunito tutte le facce che abbiamo visto in queste due intifade, dal blogger tunisino ora sottosegretario alla gioventu e allo sport Slim Amamou all`attivista egiziano del movimento open software Alaa Abd el Fattah, a sua moglie Manal Hassan, fondatrice dell`Arab techies women, un gruppo di donne arabe programmatrici di computer e appassionate di tecnologia. In quel dicembre 2009 a Beirut c`erano tutti i volti giovani di queste rivoluzioni, insieme a tanti altri giovani techies e attivisti di tutto il mondo arabo, forse protagonisti delle rivoluzioni che verranno. Ci si parlava, ognuno nel suo dialetto, si condividevano trucchi per bypassare censura e sorveglianza dei regimi, si studiavano progetti comuni.

I social network non fanno le rivoluzioni ma lavorano, lentamente ma inesorabilmente, sul cambiamento sociale. Lo fanno anche sviluppando la “read and write” culture, dando una possibilita vera alla creazione, oltre che al consumo. Poi mettono tutto in circolo in rete, cosi che ognuno guarda l`altro, ognuno e` costantemente in contatto con l`altro, e quando uno di questi nodi della rete viene a mancare e` tutta la rete che insorge e si mobilita (come e` successo a Wael Ghonim di Google, rilasciato dalle autorita egiziane dopo 12 giorni di martellante campagna mediatica seguita alla sua scomparsa) .

Questi nodi collegati fra loro -eppure senza un centro, senza una testa o un leader- sono “i piccoli pezzi liberamente connessi”, la metafora del web coniata anni fa da David Weinberger. Nessuno avrebbe mai immaginato di ritrovarli un giorno, attivi e pronti a far collassare il sistema proprio in Medio Oriente. Ma sul mondo “virtuale” di Twitter e Facebook si e` innestato quello, realissimo, della strada, della fame, della disoccupazione, dei sogni infranti di Sidibouzid.

La rete da sola non fa le rivoluzioni, ma il cambiamento sociale, a poco a poco, quello si. Le capitali arabe gremite di Internet cafe, connesse attraverso cavi di fortuna, piratati e riuniti in network “informali” , i wi-fi dispensati gratuitamente per aumentare il consumo nei ristoranti hanno construito negli anni una mappa geografica del cambiamento.

La tecnologia e` come un giocattolo: il padre che lo regala a suo figlio non sa mai come lo usera`, e sicuramente lo fara` in modo diverso rispetto a quanto lui si sarebbe augurato.

Non dimentichero mai la frase comparsa sui muri di Amman qualche anno fa. Diceva: “Internet e` vita”

(mentre scrivo questo pezzo, su Twitter mi arriva la segnalazione di un utente di San Francisco che ha elaborato una mappa grafica che visualizza il grado di influenza esercitao da alcuni utenti su altri durante la rivolta egiziana Vedo il mio nome comparire fra quei puntini blu e mi chiedo: sara` mai vero che anch`io, con i miei tweet, ho giocato un ruolo in questa cosa? Poi guardo i piccoli pezzi liberamente connessi visualizzati in questa mappa. Solo di pochi e` possibile leggere il nome, e quello che veramente conta e` soltanto la rete di connessioni. Wael Ghoneim, l`unico che abbia una “faccia” -grazie pero` alle TV che ne hanno mandato in onda lunghe interviste dopo il rilascio- fa sapere, nello stesso instante, sempre su Twitter, che fara` un libro dal titolo “rivoluzione 2.0”. Che importa quanto il marketing si sia gia buttato a far fruttare questo glamour tecnologico di ultima generazione, mi dico..Quella e` la vecchia logica del consumo da televisione. L`unica cosa che invece veramente conta qui e` che tutti gli altri del nostro Twitter network, quelli senza “faccia”, abbiano gia` spostato l`attenzione della rete su altro, l`Algeria, il Bahrain.. sul prossimo hashtag.. forse sulla prossima rivoluzione..)



Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, Kuwait..and Citizen Tube

Unrest continues in the Arab world and more countries are joining the “wave” of protests which started last December in Tunisia, then reached Egypt. Now Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Kuwait, Algeria and tomorrow probably Morocco,too, are joining.

It`s very critical to get information from these countries where foreign news  correspondents on the ground are few or none (like Libya), or even Arab news channels as Al Jazeera are banned or do have problems with the local government (like in Bahrain).

But thanks to user-generated media and social networks we are overcoming this problem (at least a bit).

I got this shocking video from Libya first via a Twitter user that I`m following, much before it was published on “official” news outlets.

So watch out for Twitter users from Libya like @ChangeinLibya or @ShababLibya or from Bahrain like famous bloggers @Mahmood and @JustAmira .

Twitter is, I guess, in this moment, the best source on what`s happening if you choose the right network to follow.

There is also an interesting You Tube channel where most of these videos from Libya, Bahrain, Algeria etc are being posted: have a look at Citizen Tube to stay updated.