Syria Speaks – Art and Culture from The Frontline (multiple contributors)

Syria SpeaksI dusted this magnificent book about two years ago. It’s impression remains very profound & I am writing this review after re-consulting all notes & rereading multiple marked sections that were designated during the first engagement. Published by one of the absolute greats in independent Middle-Eastern publishing – Al Saqi Books, these writings & their visual companions confront the Syrian tragedy head-on through an incredible inventory of artistic mediums comprising over fifty Syrian contributors, with examples of the artistic resistance as well as interviews, vignettes, analysis & testimony from their creators. This encompasses poetry, photography, illustration, film & digital artwork, stencils, comics, cartoons, puppetry, & text/slogans, all obviously of an ardently political nature. Many full colour examples are displayed within the book with incentives, accounts & explanation from the activists & intellectuals responsible. Do acknowledge that many of these vehement practitioners are not removed bodies pasteling platitudes in mega-studios from the other-side of the world (at least during the time of writing), but fully-immersed individuals taking serious risks at the heart of the turmoil. As a compendium of cutting edge “revolutionary art”, Syria Speaks is a staggering paragon that may well be without peer. If art & revolution still sound like a romantic stereotype , it’s worth investigating the conflict further as death, incarceration & torture or extreme summary violence from the regimes various official & unofficial attack bodies was an incontestable & even frequent reality for those expressing opposition or open disproval. Throwing up an anti-Assad stencil on a wall or even posting digital art online that was critical of the governments marauding tyranny could have immensely grave consequences & required genuine courage. We are told in fact, that one of the ignitions of the revolt in 2011 came whenr a crew of school children were arrested & tortured after writing “the people want the fall of the regime” on the wall of a provincial town. Like the self-immolation of Tarek Bouazizi in Tunisia, these flashpoints catalysed into major confrontations that have reshaped the countries involved.

One of the most heinous & awful realities of the Syrian tragedy & what makes Assad such an unmitigated bastard well beyond the confines of mere language is that the initial “revolt” was totally non-violent & that the “demands” were so reasonable & just. You will hear this reiterated, or perhaps lamented is a better expression, in book after book, account after account & article after article. With some of the most minor compromise, the government could have averted the ensuing conflict, genocide & disintegration & it’s insistence on obstinate retardation, ignorant stubbornness & ultra-parsimony to refuse these basic requests & implorations along with the total exacerbation by the chosen “strong-man” crack-down reaction that lead to such internecine destruction & misery can never be forgiven. This is raised on multiple occasions throughout Syria Speaks, but is encapsulated best in a remarkable interview with Assad al-Achi who was part of Syria’s network of Local Coordinating Committees (fomenting non-violent civil disobedience & civilian journalism). He recounts the demands during this early optimistic phase – “freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and a repeal of the Emergency Law. Back then nobody was talking about toppling the regime. That initial stage only lasted for about two months, because of the military crackdown”. The Emergency Law had been presiding ever since the military coup in 1963, granting the government a de-facto martial law provision whenever it suited it’s agenda in any way.

There is a lot of amazing writing & dialogue here. But another extraordinary highlight for me is an interview with dissident intellectual Yassin al-Haj Saleh. His analysis of a “constant siege and appropriation” of culture “for two full generations” by the regime results in what he describes as – “Syrian intellectuals were isolated and lived in something of an archipelago that was cut off from the mainland of society. Instead, their intellectual, academic and artistic works should have played an important role in developing this societies consciousness and representing it’s circumstances and members.”

Sounds similar to the vacuum & trauma China suffered from the curse of the Cultural Revolution, but evidently many’ many Syrians were not docile or deactivated enough to acquiesce to such abuse. How morbidly dejecting that such courage & valour has ended-up in such a hellish scenario today.

Separate from the Syrian experience, this book is an exceptional examination of revolution & resistance itself. I have yet to read something that has it’s breadth, versatility, detail & depth on this phenomenal occurrence as so many sources have been probed & composited in this epic book. Although colossally tragic, these accounts & the tenets they are propelled by remain momentously inspiring. An indispensable book & revolutionary-reference of critical importance.

Author – over fifty contributors, edited by Malu Halasa, Nawara Mahfoud & Zaher Omareen.

Publisher: Al Saqi Books