Columbia University’s Knox Hall is quiet. Breaking the Fear Barrier!, an art exhibit of political cartoons, news photos, documentary footage and children’s drawings to raise awareness about the revolts in Syria, opened its doors two hours ago and scarcely anyone has shown up. The eerie stillness is a harsh reminder of the world’s approach to the situation in Syria: silence and inaction.
Syria, a country with a population of 20 million people, has been in the midst of revolutionary turmoil for more than eight months. Without any oil to speak of or other strategic importance to the West, interest for the most bloody revolt in the Arab Spring has been virtually nonexistent.
Nadine Moubayed, a 30-year-old graduate student of architecture at CUNY, organized the event. Born in Aleppo, Nadine moved to the United States when she was 6 years old. Watching the people in her home country rise up against their oppressors has made her determined to get the word out on Syria’s predicament.
Members of the National Alliance for Syria (NAFS), Nadine and some of her friends wanted to do something more, and different, than organizing another conference on Syria. They aimed to create something that would catch the public’s eye, hold their attention a little longer. Three months ago, they came up with the idea of an art exhibit. Art has traditionally been the only space in Syria where political tensions and opinions could be expressed — and as such is feared and repressed by the government.
Art and culture is also appropriated by the regime and dance in particular is used by the Syrian government as a tool to affirm its legitimacy. By staging traditional folk dances the regime constantly reaffirms its connection to the roots and traditions of the Syrian people. Maria Kastrinou Theodoropoulou is a social anthropologist at Durham University in the United Kingdom, and has studied the place of the art, and particularly the body and dance, in the daily lives of Syrians. Despite the government efforts, she argues, dance is almost impossible to regulate and contain.
“The dance begins and there is always something that escapes and disregards official definitions and projections,” she wrote in a 2009 article.
When Kastrinou Theodoropoulou was doing fieldwork in Damascus, “many would tell me ‘let us talk of art not politics’ and then they’d speak in the most subversive ways about politics!” Art, in all its forms, is the space that the Syrian people use to test their creativity and political imagination at the same time.
“Art is transformative,” she says, and “by imagining, dancing, singing and drawing alternative visions and bodies and songs, art may contribute to different realities, to building different places and ways.”
It is exactly what Nadine and her friends hope to do, or at least contribute to, in a small way. They created an exhibit combining all the art they could get their hands on, creating a simple but compelling collection. The political cartoons portray the horrors the Syrian people face because of its regime, but mostly, they mock President Bashar al-Assad and depict the ways in which the people plan to overthrow him. One room is set aside from the others, a notice on the door says “graphic photos.” Even when one heeds the warning and avoids the photos of torture victims and mutilated bodies, the message is loud and clear.
In compiling the artworks, the organizers were assisted by a team of artists and activists in Syria and neighboring countries who gathered art and recruited artists — a team that has actively supported and contributed to the revolts.
“The dark period of al-Assad’s ruling replaced all meaningful beneficial art with low-grade corrupted art,” the Syrian Revolution Media Team wrote to me in an e-mail. “We have seen painters who were killed, poets in exile and writers who were imprisoned.”
One of them was Ibrahim Qashoush, creator of the revolution’s anthem, an old folk melody revitalized with entrancing beats and revolutionary lyrics (part of the song was also sung with a distinct lisp, mocking the president’s way of talking). Qashoush was detained during a performance at one of the protests in early July. Several days later, his body was found in the Assi river, his vocal chords removed as a warning to the Syrian people. Today, the protesters continue to use his song, blasting his recorded voice through speakers as they march.
The multimedia team was created in the early days of the revolution, aiming to back up the protests through any media available. The imposed media blackout made that considerably hard from within Syria itself, which led Syrian activists to jump in and offer their help. The team created and designed a Facebook page, and has since made promos, music videos and poems, when not working on designs for the protesters to use in the demonstrations. Their efforts include contributions to events like the one Nadine created, around the world.
“Before the revolution, fear prevented anyone from speaking up freely, and therefore we would only see artwork of one kind. Today, a lot of artists have chosen to join the revolution and therefore they now have the absolute freedom to express whatever they want,” the team writes. The fear of an ongoing Assad reign is stronger than that of individual repercussions.
The collected images that adorn the walls of several classrooms in Knox Hall are all simple, created with the help of a computer or a pen. In the midst of protests that are violently put down and unannounced government raids that could target anyone, art has to make do with lesser means.
They are all digital prints — scanning the images was the only way to get any form of art out of the country. Syria has been hermetically sealed off from the outside world, and every form of communication is being monitored. It is also the reason that none of the artwork is credited. Despite their bravery, the makers did not want to tempt fate, and even for the organizers of the exhibit their involvement is dangerous. One of the art exhibit’s political cartoons depicts Assad trying to run from those he has tried to kill.
“Right now, there are rumors that there are even people over here from the regime, spying on Syrians and giving names to the embassy,” Nadine says. She suspects that her name is on a black list somewhere by now. “I can never go back to Syria. Not until all of this ends.”
“Either you stay quiet and go, or you open your mouth and stay here,” her friend and co-volunteer Nisreen Aljbaili adds.
* * *
Syria has been in an official state of emergency since 1963, which is the longest out of all states in the region. Under the reign of Hafez al-Assad since 1971, the Syrian population has had to deal with an increasingly repressive regime. In 1982, it culminated in an uprising in Hama of the only opposition allowed in the country, the Muslim Brotherhood, that was brutally put down. The government repression at the time caught the world by surprised when the Syrian authorities demolished a whole swathe of the old city wiping out its inhabitants. Now under his son Bashar’s rule since 2000, Syrians were briefly optimistic, which was fueled by hope that the younger Assad’s Western education might lead to liberalization and progress. It did not take long to see that, in fact, nothing would change.
The start of today’s uprisings in Syria were finally triggered by a series of relatively minor events: a phone conversation between two women just after the fall of Mubarak in Egypt was tapped, and one of them wished for a downfall of the Syrian regime as well. The women were detained and tortured, sparking unrest and heated debates in the homes of their families and neighbors. A group of children, barely teenagers, reacted to the stories by writing ‘down with the regime’ on a school wall, and they were detained almost immediately.
Their parents went looking for answers, answers that the government under its emergency law has every right to decline to give. They were told to forget about their kids, one of the Syrian-American student volunteers involved in setting up the New York exhibit tells me, his name is Maher. It was the final straw, he says, for a population that is far more oppressed and closed off than any other in the region.
“A Mubarak-like regime would be a step up at this point,” Maher, 29, says with hint of exasperation in his voice.
Protests erupted soon after the children’s predicament became known. The death of one of the children, a 13-year-old boy by the name of Hamza al-Khateeb, made the protests swell and demands changed. “At some point, the protesters stopped asking for reforms, and now they want the fall of the regime,” Nadine says.
Art became an important outlet for protesters. Apart from Qashoush’s anthem, Syrians find ways to visualize their anger. A while ago, activists and artists together put red dye into as many fountains as they could access in Syria, symbolizing the blood that the Assad government has spilled. Over 5,000 people have died and thousands more have been detained since the unrest began. This, however, is only the official number the United Nations have been able to confirm. Only a few days ago on December 6, more than 50 people were reportedly killed in one day — making it the bloodiest day of the revolution so far.
Journalists are systematically denied entry to the country, which means that the facts on the ground can only be made public by Syrians who risk their lives videotaping or otherwise recording the revolts. Using dial-up connections and intricate measures to avoid detection, young citizens find ways to communicate with the outside world.
“The regime just doesn’t discriminate. Literally, kids, elderly, women, men, they take or kill everyone,” Nadine says.
To raise money, one of the volunteers at the exhibit is selling small bottles of water and first aid kits. Upon closer inspection, the water bottles are labeled with photos of two young men, and a short text explaining that they were killed while handing out water to the protesters. Another young man adorns the first aid kit — he was a Red Cross worker, shot while trying to help injured activists. The stories are, again, painful reminders of the complete lack of regard the Assad regime has for its citizens.
A volunteer sold water bottles with the photo and story of a martyr to raise money for the Syrian people.
* * *
Noor, a young Syrian mother who has been living in the Gulf region for the last ten years, can only helplessly watch the developments from afar. Her children’s artwork is part of the exhibit, she writes to me via e-mail. One of her daughters, overhearing her parents’ discussions and sensing the constant worries of her family, reacted to the situation with conviction.
“She decided to write a letter to the president, saying that he was selfish for keeping all the wealth to himself and killing all the poor,” she said.
Not every Syrian is pleased with the revolts: many are scared, afraid of what will happen if the regime falls, but mostly they fear what will happen if the revolts turn into a civil war. Syrians outside of the country fear for their families’ lives. Most, however, feel that there is no point of return.
“Now the situation is critical and risky,” Noor writes, “but the choice of freedom has been taken. So be it.”
Over the last couple of weeks, the Syrian people have finally, it seems, gotten the attention they deserve. The Arab League warned its government to abide by the roadmap to transition it had created, but was ignored and then dismissed – the violence continued unabatedly while the League’s deadline approached. Both the Syrian people and most international actors knew there was no way the Assad regime would allow peaceful demonstrations and the entry of foreign observers, both of which the roadmap demanded. The Syrian government fears the power of popular uprisings and letting in foreign observers would reveal more than what Syria wants to share with the world.
For over eight months, Assad’s government maintained that the uprisings were created by foreign-backed gangs, but now that its spin on reality is starting to resemble fact, the regime doesn’t know how to handle itself.
A policy briefing of the International Crisis Group states that since the beginning of the uprisings “the regime was so obsessed with the desire to contain, defame and quash peaceful demonstrations that it let just about everything else go to waste.” There seems to have been no plan to handle a prolonged struggle, let alone one that prepared for the now instituted sanctions on oil and gas.
With the support of the Arab League gone, and international sanctions piling up, the Syrian regime is getting more isolated by the day. The oppositional Syrian National Council is gaining international recognition, and the Free Syrian Army is growing. In the last few months, soldiers have started to turn their backs on the army – military defectors are not as uncommon anymore as they were before, as Syrian soldiers apparently have come to fear the regime more than possible retribution from the army. Its growth inspires hope, but also fear for a civil war. The Assad regime is not about to let go easily and it will do everything it can to stay in power, and the consequences are bound to be bloody.
* * *
By the end of the afternoon, more people started to arrive at the exhibit. Many of them had attended another event for the Arab Spring: a rally against military trials for civilians in Egypt, at the United Nations. The visitors, however, were mostly people already well aware of Syria’s horrible predicament. In the end, it is international governmental actors who need to act. By continuing to put the word out — they are currently working on putting on the exhibit at Yale and Georgetown Universities — Nadine and her friends are hoping to have an effect.
Amnesty International is demanding recognition for the uprisings in Syria, and the crimes against humanity that are committed by the Syrian government through attacks on peaceful protesters. It calls on the UN for a referral of the matter to the International Criminal Court, an arms embargo and an asset freeze for the Assad regime.
“No matter how much sanctions we put on them, and no matter how much we boycott this government, the problem is, they have the support from Iran, and can easily get it from Iraq and Russia,” Maher says.
Maher is afraid for his country. “The only way to solve this is through foreign intervention,” he says. “Because our people, those in the streets fighting for our rights, they only have their voices as weapons. And that’s not enough.”
But until that happens, it is up to those concerned about Syria’s future to get the word out. And where voices have failed, perhaps the art will work — if not through arguing the necessity of foreign intervention, then certainly in continuing to provide a space for expressing frustration, fear, anger and a reason for holding on.
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