A Summer with Syrian Artists

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The Palestinian-Syrian poet stood before the Berlin coffee shop table checking his watch and stroking his long, disheveled hair.

As we bolted through the doors and placed the recorder and cameras on the table, he turned to ask what I planned to discuss and who my friend was.

“He’s from Syria and I thought it’d be nice to bring him along,” I replied. I tried to tell him I was there to talk about his art. To my chagrin, political discussions ensued.

When my friend announced that he did not support the Al-Qaeda linked Jabat al Nusra (now Jabhat Fateh al-Sham) nor the Free Syrian Army in Idlib because they do not let children attend school, the poet’s face reddened.

“Maybe because your family is not under Assad bombing like me; Maybe because your uncle was not killed by Assad; Maybe because you have not seen 300 people you know die because of Assad,” his once lyrical words turned to incongruous spits and shouts.

I tried to tell him that I was approaching this project from an objective lens, but he did not want to continue the discussion with us anymore.

In a final attempt to salvage the interview, I blurted out that Assad was a monster. His tone changed, and he calmed down. For the next hour, I proceeded to interview the poet, discussing topics like the themes of his work, the process of translation, life as a Palestinian refugee in Syria, and the impact of the country’s six-year-old war on his verse.

My meeting with the poet was my 25th interview, and as I write this in front of my grandmother’s cozy fireplace in Brussels (the weather is miserable here), it is difficult to organize the whirlwind of narratives I have collected from Syrian artists spread throughout five European cities these past three months.

How do I balance writing about sensitive issues while not slipping into the refugee fashion statement narrative that leads the reader or viewer to sympathize and overlook artistic merit? How do I stay loyal to the artists who have given me access to their lives while not getting caught up in various polemics that traverse the small art scene?

I spent time in their homes, sharing meals and laughs, talking to their families, neighbors and friends. Yet I’m also aware of my outsider status and the inordinate privilege I hold just by carrying a blue passport and being able to move freely.

Even though I now know some idiosyncrasies of Syrian life, I will never know what it is like to be Syrian and to live in a state where your dignity is at constant risk. At best, I can only try to understand.

In hindsight, perhaps my biggest realization is that I cannot conduct a case study analysis on Syrian artist identity in exile. The only link between each artist and their counterparts is that they once considered Syria their home and now they do not.

In reducing identity to just ethnicity and religion, I have met Syrian Kurds, Armenians, Palestinians, Aramaic’s, Druze, Sunni, Shia, Alawi and Christian. Now I realize how identity is used by Western academia and media as a symposium word that signals inferiority and supremacy. When

AJ Naddaff with a Syrian refugee artist

AJ Naddaff with a Syrian refugee artist

you are identified, you are judged, and you cannot escape that judgment. Yet even in the Arab World, the word for identity, hoowiya, is associated with identification cards and long interrogations by thuggish security forces working inside corrupt police-states like Syria.

I think the concept of identity is a Cartesian tool whose perverted use leads to box, limit and even suffocate. The polysemic reality of the matter is that identity, like writing, is in constant revision.

Syrian artists, such as the Syrian-Palestinian poet, have experienced unimaginable suffering through the deaths of close ones. Some could not return to attend funerals of their aged mothers or militant brothers, while others spent time in prisons, humiliated beyond belief. Others escaped with their family and friends before the conflict escalated to their region. Some, notably in the capital, are able to live relatively normal lives even as their country has been turned upside down.

These are the artists who fled their country after the 2011 peaceful revolution turned to war. Let us not forget those who left Syria before (for a variety of other reasons) and watched the inferno from afar.

Since the 1960s, politically critical art has been well-documented by scholars in the field and several books on dissident art have been produced that refer to ‘art as weapons’ in the wake of the revolution[1]. The aim of my project is to give a voice to as many Syrians in exile as possible who are expressing themselves through artistic means and are reacting, whether directly or not, to the war.

In this sense, my project eradicates the label of “Syrian artist identity” by showing the diversity that I have witnessed and providing agency to the producer’s who have been kind enough to lend me a window into their lives. It will be necessary to strictly delineate between the amalgamation of “Syrian artists,” for which my project will not hold relevance, and individual artists in exile who come from Syria.

The longterm scope of the research is overwhelming at times, but I need only think of the hospitable encounters and extraordinary support I have been met with this summer to stay on task and add originality to existing scholarship. 

[1] See Syria Speaks, Art and Culture from the Frontline by Malu Halasa, Zaher Omareen and Nawara Mahfoud as well as Dancing in Damascus, Creativity, Resilience and the Syrian Revolution by miriam cooke.

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