By Patrick Lim
We’ve all seen the pictures of the mass exodus of Syrian refugees fleeing across the Middle East and washing up on the shores in Europe; we’ve all read about their stories, their losses and their struggle to hold onto a modicum of hope; and we’ve watched and listened to videos of refugees stuck in camps, who wonder day after day what tomorrow will bring and if they will ever return to their home country. Yet, these are not the only media through which the world can only begin to try and to understand the plight of Syrian refugees, or even refugees for that matter. Art and culture can be a way of understanding the different nuances to the conflict and to the sentiments of the people. In particular, it may be a way for them not only to survive the situation but also to voice their true opinions that have been stifled by authoritarian regimes for decades and to challenge the current conflict situation.
Specifically in the context of Syrian art, the audience is able to gather an insight into what the population thinks of the regime. According to the book Syria Speaks, at the beginning of the ‘Arab Spring’ in Syria, the people thought that their revolution would be different to other countries’ and embarked on portraying their feelings in songs, posters, performances and videos, which shied away from using words such as “conflict” and “civil war.” The artists believed that art is a tool of resistance, which is vital for social justice, something that they had lived without since before Bashar’s reign. Some recent graffiti depicts Assad’s face with the captions “Step here” or “Down with the dictator.” Syrians have also resorted to expressing their opinions of Assad, his regime and the revolution in the form of tiny puppets in the video series Top Goon: Diaries of a Little Dictator, produced by an anonymous group of Syrian artists known as Masasit Mati. Available on YouTube, the episodes show Assad or “Beesu” to be at the mercy of his shabih or military commander, as he blubbers like a child with multiple swipes being taken at his lisp and the incompetency of his cabinet. Although the series employs dark humor to voice the anger of the people at Assad’s nonchalance about killing people in the episode Who Wants to Kill a Million?, Masasit Mati is able to portray the importance of women and how this revolution is not just about Muslims against Assad but for all sects, religions and genders.
Syria Speaks also talks about the role of children or young people as recurring motifs in revolutionary art, such as those that we see now. Their prominence may demonstrate the extent to which they have been affected by the conflict. However, it may also be a way that this art form remembers and relates to the past. Youth played a role in other uprisings, notably in the first Intifada. A recent Syrian poster shows a double image of a young man throwing a stone with the caption reading: “The Palestinian spirit is in every revolutionary;” thus, linking the displacements of the Syrians and Palestinians. The former group has even been known to have publicly stated that they are now experiencing what their relatives went through several decades ago and, in an act of solidarity, understanding their relatives’ plight. But not all the art relates to past similar experiences. Syrian art also depicts the people’s perpetual frustration under both Assad regimes, going as far back the 1982 Hama uprising with several other pieces showing how the people have grown up in a militarized society. Furthermore, whenever they believe that they have escaped, they find that they are actually still stuck living under a dictator.
Yet, revolutionary art is not only a way for us to understand current attitudes and as a means for the people to remember the past but also to express their future. Groups such as Lens Young Homsi, Lens Young Dimashqi and Lens Young Idlib, are a group of young men and teenagers who have captured life in Syria through photographs taken on mobile phones or cameras. Their pictures show the destruction of cemeteries, homes, and lives and graffiti in Homs that says: “We were forced to leave, but we leave our hearts here…We will return.”
Creativememory.org is a unique database that has collected hundreds of videos, paintings, comics and graffiti created by Syrians during the revolution, and which aims to “preserve the Syrian memory, a duty because of its total consideration of historical accounts of all Syrian people.” In addition, last week, the 2nd Annual Art in Exile Festival at the Goethe-Instiut in Washington DC featured artists, photographers and filmmakers from the Middle East who will narrate the story of generations of refugees in the region. Called “Art in Exile: Voices from the Middle East,” this three-day long event included movies such as We Cannot Go There Now, which focuses on Palestinians who have fled Syria to seek refuge in Lebanon and Our Terrible Country, which tells the story of an academic’s journey through Syria, even into Raqqa, the center of the Islamic State’s operations.
While we read and watch stories of the Syrian refugees in the media, we must remember that these only present a limited picture. We have to look at various forms of art and their rhetoric – from photographs, graffiti, songs and videos – to truly understand how these frustrations are not only because of the revolution but have been building up over decades due to the authoritarian Assad regimes. We are able to further gain an insight into what these refugees are thinking by seeing how they relate the past of their relatives from Palestine to their current experience and how they express their hopes for the future.