Essays

Russia and Syria Use Palmyra as a Stage for Political Theater

Palmyra-photocrop1
The Symphony Orchestra of St Petersburg at Palmyra on May 5 (screenshot via YouTube by the author for Hyperallergic)

Since its capture by ISIS in May of 2015, Palmyra has become a kind of archaeological fetish for the West. Artists and scholars who made no remark on endless images of Syrian corpses were moved by the sight of pulverized Roman columns to produce numerous artistic rescue fantasies, including a 3D-printed replica and a traveling robot-built reproduction of Palmyra’s Arch of Triumph. For many, the spectacle of its destruction could have emerged from the imaginary of the War on Terror and its mythic clash of civilizations.

Since Russian and Syrian forces recaptured Palmyra on March 27, Putin has moved to upcycle the remains of the ancient city into a stage for his own political theater. Diplomatically, Russia wants Western sanction of its hardened military presence in Syria. (The move is reminiscent of Soviet efforts in the ’80s to rehabilitate the Syrian regime after its army razed the city of Hama and continued to occupy Lebanon illegally.) So rather than wait for UNESCO to accept the Hermitage’s offer of aid in restoration, on May 5, the Symphony Orchestra of St Petersburg serenaded the West from its newly demined Roman theater with a “peace concert” that cast Russia as the savior of Western culture. Conducted by Valery Gergiev and streamed on RT as a classical music video, “Prayer for Palmyra: Music Revives Ancient Walls” was a tightly produced piece of political courtship that draped hard military power in soft Greco-Roman folds and rebranded the anniversary of Soviet victory over the Nazis as a consecration of the War on Terror and the miraculous supremacy of the culture it claims to defend.

The Russian posture was not without its ironies. Putin, beaming on a massive TV, solemnly recited his neoliberal talking points with his extra-straight, ex-KGB demeanor, expressing sympathy for “everyone’s personal pain,” thanking the UNESCO envoys present for “this incredible humanitarian event” and expressing “our hope … for our entire civilization to rid itself from this terrible evil, international terrorism.” The unbroken volley of “we” and “our” drove home the totalitarian tone of the Russian president’s claim to “our common victory” at Palmyra.

Save for the segregation of Syrian from Russian soldiers, the camerawork dutifully bore out this unity by cutting between slow-motion drone footage of ancient stonework, honeyed in late afternoon light, and shots of the audience squinting somberly through works by Bach, Prokofiev, and Rodion Shchedrin. The cameras lingered on the young girls in tacky pseudo-historical costumes (except the one in a military uniform, almost entirely kept from the frame), female soldiers holding roses, and the few women wearing hijab. And while the on-scene reporter described the sound of violins as completely replacing gunfire, a burst of shooting was audible just after this assertion.

“Gate of the Sun,” the Syrian concert celebrating the recapture of Palmyra, was held in the dark in the same theater the following evening. Featuring the Syrian National Symphony, the National Ensemble for Arabic Music, the Mari Orchestra, and al-Farah Choir, it commemorated the 100th anniversary of the Ottoman execution of Syrian nationalists in Damascus and Beirut. But while the Russian event received blanket live coverage across Russia, the Syrian one was shown live on only one second-tier channel, Al-Ikhbaria. In this coverage, the crowded darkness and streaming flags pierced by floodlights somewhat obscured the irony of a celebration of nationalist sacrifice slotted in as the B-side of a foreign PR extravaganza.

And where the audience of “Prayer for Palmyra” embodied a neoliberal version of “high” (Western) cultural consumption and subjectivity — one in which “personal pain” is universalized into a transcendent, apolitical package brokered by soft power — the Syrian concert showcased nothing so much as the way in which under the Assad regime official forms of “culture” have petrified into occasions for applause. Whatever the art form — music, theater, poetry — it becomes merely a placeholder for waves of clapping and cheering, endless crescendos to which the audience is hostage.

Not that Palmyra’s remaining residents weren’t sincerely chanting “God save the Army!” at the close of the tinny martyrs dirge, the concert’s opening number performed by the police and army band. If the army is saved, it may save the residents too. In line with the event’s theme — Syria as the venerable cradle of ancient civilizations — the all-female Mari choir represented secular femininity with uncovered hair, long white gowns, and Fairouz songs, which for many Syrians nostalgically recall the Syrian army’s occupation and looting of Lebanon. For the May 6 celebration of martyrs, the Mari Choir appropriated her song “Daddy went with the army,” changing the line “he fought and won in A’anjar [a Lebanese border town long-occupied by the Syrian army]” to “he fought and won in Tadmor,” the Syrian name for Palmyra.

If plunder often serves as a kind of wedding gift in the ritual marriage of hard and soft power, perhaps this lyrical form of vandalism is a fitting tr­ibute to the survival of Palmyra’s theater. Like other Roman theaters, it includes columnar scaenae frons, which scholars believe “house[d] statuary looted from Greece and Asi­­­­­a Minor by Roman generals and exhibited at triumphal games.” Likewise, according to the Panama Papers, for his close association with Putin’s business ventures, Sergei Roldugin, the Russian cellist who performed in Palmyra, has received hundreds of millions of dollars.

In contrast, Syrian musicians can expect not wealth, but a bare minimum of safety — if they’re lucky. Nezar Omran, first trumpet in the Syrian concert, recalled how in his student days in the mid-‘90s, his neighbors in Damascus once reported him to the police for practicing until 3am. Omran, who now plays with Fairouz and Ziad Rahbani, called Solhi al-Wadi, the late director of the Higher Institute of Music and a friend of Hafez al-Assad. Through his intervention, Omran was not detained nor his instrument confiscated. Instead, he was granted an official writ of protection guaranteeing that he could practice his trumpet unharmed.

The same shrunken prospects hold for the heraldry of “Gate of the Sun.” Billed as a celebration of Palmyra, “ris[ing] again from the ashes” along with Syria’s immortal “sun” (“Syria” comes from the Sanskrit word for sun), it also evoked the national rebirth promised by the Ba’ath — “renaissance” — Party since it seized power in 1963. But rather than delivering renewal, its brassy anthems rang hollow, exposing the deadlock of players just going through the motions.

comments (0)