Languages

Syria as a Global Metaphor

Ali Ferzat made this drawing after his broken fingers healed, 2011. Photograph: Ali Ferzat/Mosaic Syria Ali Ferzat.

The Syrian population has long suffered from under-representation. Three instances of under-representation can be pinpointed: it occurs with regards to their labour, their political participation, and the conceptual and aesthetic representation of their reality.

These are interrelated. Devaluing labour was associated with crippling the political power of the labour community. By labour community I mean the majority of Syrians living off their work in contrast to rentiers, power holders and their kins, and administrators of corruption mechanisms. The process of devaluing labour was also associated with reducing the political agency of the public, while empowering the familial and oligarchic authority. This authority depends on sectarianism as a tool of governance and as a source of easy political revenue. These processes were accompanied by the censorship of the ways Syrians express themselves, and the conceptual and artistic representation of the reality/ unreality compound (the possible, the hoped-for, the dreamed-of, the ideal) which they live in. This has involved incapacitating artists, writers and cultural workers, and subordinating them to the dominant network of the wealthiest and the politically powerful.

For decades, the independent means and venues of expression were banned, and the public means of expression were "nationalised", imposing what Kelly Grotke named a "depopulated discourse"1 which stripped speakers of their personal tone, and ostracised those who maintained theirs. The most prominent Syrian writers have published their works outside the country, or have lived abroad. The writer who resisted and crossed the assumed red lines underwent varied levels of threats and deprivation, ranging from threatening security calls to passport denials and travel bans, all of which I and many Syrian writers and artists have experienced directly. In some cases, ostracisation reached imprisonment for years.

The Syrian revolution that erupted in 2011 showed the concealed connection between these three levels of under-representation and challenged them. Syrians protested against tyranny, and expressed themselves as people who want to overthrow a regime that deprived them of politics. They attacked the "thieves" who robbed them, especially Rami Makhlouf the owner of Syriatel, a mobile network provider and numerous other "modern" projects. As a cousin of Bashar al-Assad, he represents the bond between "obscene wealth" and kinship to the ruler. The protestors2 represented themselves: they used Makhlouf's mobile phone cameras to share photographs and videos on social media networks, and send them to satellite television channels; they bore banners with their demands and chanted in peaceful demonstrations that lasted for 15 months (from March 2011 until July 2012); they produced articles, posters, graffiti, films, songs, paintings and cartoons.

The regime responded brutally. The internationally-known Syrian cartoonist Ali Ferzat was kidnapped early on in the revolution, severely beaten up, his fingers broken, and abandoned in a remote place3. A large number of the young members of the Coordinating Committees, who coordinated protest activities and organised the media coverage of the demonstrations and the regime's violent reactions, were arrested and tortured, and many of those who survived had to flee the country. The artist Asim Basha could hardly reach his hometown of Yabroud to store his sculptures in a safe place. The actor Fares al-Helou witnessed the art workshop he had been working on for years being shattered. Since his life was at risk in Damascus, he was forced to seek refuge in France. The novelist Samar Yazbek had to flee to France where she published her book A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution4. Samih Choukeir was told by regime agents that he cannot return to the country unless he disowns his song Ya Heif (loosely translated: O Shame). Now he lives in France.

Samih Choukeir's song Ya Heif

The actress Mai Skaf was advised to leave the country. She was told that the advice came from Bashar al-Assad himself. The actor Zaki Kordillo and his son Mehyar were detained two and a half years ago. Their conditions and whereabouts remain unknown. There is still no information about the poet Nasser Bondok, who was arrested over a year ago.

A large number of citizen journalists were killed. In some cases, the last thing they filmed was their own murder by a sniper's bullet. The fate of Mohamed Nour Matar is still unknown. His camera was found charred after a car was exploded by Da'esh (ISIS) in Raqqa targeting the Free Syrian Army in August 2013.

The Syrian diaspora was the precondition for the emergence of what can be called tele-cinema. The director Ossama Mohammed, who has been living in France since May 2011, made his film Silvered Water. Syrian Self Portrait (2014)5 based on "a thousand pictures and a picture" uploaded to YouTube by Syrian activists, many of whom were anonymous, as well as on videos captured by Wiam Simav Bedirxan, who lived in besieged Homs until she was forced to leave the country in 2014.

Silvered Water. Syria Self-Portrait, a film by Ossama Mohammed and Wiam Simav Bedirxan (Syria and France, 2014).

Muhammad Ali Atassi did the same in his documentary film Our Terrible Country (2014)6 where Ziad Homsi took the responsibility of filming in Douma, Eastern Ghouta and Raqqa, before he moved to live in exile, as well.

Our Terrible Country, a film by Muhammad Ali Attessi and Ziad Homsi (Syria, 2014).

On the other side, there is a professional machine toiling to produce the representations that the regime wants the world to see. A pro-regime Syrian filmmaker, Joud Said, used a regime tank in Homs to make a film criminalising the revolution. Writers, poets and artists appear on the official media platforms where they cannot say a single word about the chemical massacre, the explosive barrels and torture in the security branches. The pro-regime British journalist, Robert Fisk7, was able to ride in an armoured car embedded within the regime's army as it stormed the town of Daraya and committed a massacre killing more than five hundred locals in late summer 2012. At the same time, Fisk was granted "unprecedented access" to a high-security Syrian prison and was allowed, by the intelligence services, to interview prisoners who told the narrative that pleases the Syrian regime.

The abduction of human rights activists and the most credible "documenters" of the crimes committed mainly by the regime, Razan Zeitouneh, Samira al-Khalil, Wael Hamadeh and Nazim Hammadi, by Islamist Salafists aimed to impose a particular political and informational representation of Eastern Ghouta, an Islamist one8. The traders linked to the same group accused of kidnapping the four activists have the monopoly on food supplies. This connection is not surprising.

The cultural field of representation is inseparable from the fields of economic and political representation, and one can't be studied in isolation from the others.

I am trying to point out a reality that has now lasted for two generations, undermining the political, material and cultural "security" of the life of Syrians. Da'esh (ISIS) builds on this long-standing confiscation of all forms of representation: the political representation of the public, the just representation of human labour, artistic and intellectual representation. Likewise, Da'esh annihilates women's images and voices, preventing them not only from representing themselves, but also from being themselves.

Da'esh is not an alien phenomenon, coming from another planet. On top of being the byproduct of a prolonged deprivation of representation in the region (Iraq, Syria, Gulf States...), it is also the outcome of the under-representation of the region at international level. As well as that of many unsolved problems of a monotheistic religion, Islam. Da'esh, and the Islamist ghost as a whole, is a power in this world and from this world.

The attacks on the field of representation are one aspect of a global crisis of political, economic and cultural representation. The crisis in democracy manifests itself in different ways: in the existence of large misrepresented, or completely unrepresented, areas and populations in the world, such as the Middle East and the territories of the Russian "Empire". This crisis also appears in the deeply undemocratic nature of the international system, exemplified by the Security Council and the Group of Eight (G8). Furthermore, this crisis emerges in the oldest centres of democracy. In the centralised republican French and the multiculturalist Anglo-Saxon model, development of the security apparatus takes precedence over creating new genuine forms of political representation and participation in a time of growing global hybridisation. In addition, there is a crisis in representing human labour embodied in the neo-liberal policies and the dismantling of syndicates and workers' unions; as well as a crisis in culture expressed by postmodernism and the rise of nihilism.

In this sense, Syria is a metaphor for a global crisis of representation. This global crisis needs a global solution: a global reconstruction of the field of representation which is exposed to attacks from within; it is not a matter of defending it against alien barbarians. Modernist forms of representation need to be replaced, and the first step towards reconstructing an alternative field of representation is recognising that the responsibility is global; the enemies are from this world; they came from within, not from without. So it is not us versus them. It is us versus us. Secondly there could hardly be a better beginning than justice in the Middle East, especially for Syrians, Palestinians, Iraqis and Kurds. If you want to do something useful but do not know where to start, recognise and be in solidarity with their struggle for representation.

Translated from Arabic into English by Murhaf Fares

1 — Kelly Grotke is a writer and intellectual historian, and 2015-16 Fellow at the Cornell Society for the Humanities. In 2010, while working at the Erik Castrén Institute of International Law and Human Rights in Helsinki, she visited Syria, and looks forward to returning someday. Grotke K. 2014, "What gets lost: Impetus", Humanity, blog, 10 June, viewed 7 April 2015.

4 — Samar Yazbek, A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution, trans. M. Weiss, London: Haus Publishing, 2012.

7 — For a critical evaluation of some of Fisk's articles: Allaf R. and Saleh Y.H. 2012, "Syria dispatches: Robert Fisk's independence", openDemocracy, 14 September, viewed 7 April 2015.

8 — For more knowledge about the human rights activists abducted in Douma, see many articles, statements in many languages, photos, graffiti, on this dedicated blog, viewed 7 April 2015.

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