‘Syria Speaks’: Changing the Debate, Addressing the Silence

Starting tomorrow in London, Syrian artists, musicians, and writers will come together for six days of events across England. The events will interrogate, celebrate, and provide a space for cultural expression, and they will also launch the book Syria Speaksa wide-ranging collection of visual and literary art:

BnbVUfqIcAAEFBjMalu Halasa, one of the collection’s three co-editors, reminds us that the book’s subtitle is “Art and Culture from the Frontline.” Thus, the editors wanted “to document the incredible creativity that was going on across all levels of society — also across all creative media — that happened after the uprising started.”

The collection, which brings together work by more than 50 Syrian contributors, got its start two years ago. That’s when Halasa and her co-editors, Zaher Omareen, and Nawara Mahfoud, were working together on a Prince Claus-funded art exhibition, “Culture in Defiance: Continuing Traditions of Satire, Art and the Struggle for Freedom in Syria.” After the exhibition showed in the Netherlands, Copenhagen, and at London’s Shubbak festival, the three decided to turn the energy into a book project, which the Claus Fund also supported.

Many people, Halasa said in a Skype interview, “think that culture has no place in conflict. And yet culture and art is the very place where people find solace. But also they dream about society, and dream about what they want to do. Dreaming is subversive in a situation like Syria at the moment.”

The last three years in Syria have been exceptionally difficult for authors and artists, as for all Syrians.

“A lot of our contributors were inside” the country at the time of their submission, Halasa said. “And now some of them are outside. Also, some of them are still inside. But just like the Syrian people today, with internal displacement affecting half of the population, and with over 162,000 dead, the contributors too are caught up in this great flux of movement around and out of their country.”

An ‘outburst’ of creativity

But along with this great flux of movement and violence, Halasa said that there has been an “outburst” of creativity, which she attributed, in part, to previous long years of regime-enforced silences. A number of Syrian authors have addressed this silence, for instance Nihad Sirees in his award-winning The Silence and the Roar.

Forty years of dictatorship, Halasa said, is one of the reasons why English-language readers haven’t experienced Syrian art and literature. Translation paths between Syrian authors and English-language readers also haven’t been as well-worn as between Egyptian authors and English-language readers.

In a previous interview, French translator Richard Jacquemond argued that “Egypt became respectable when it made peace with Israel, whereas Syria remained (as Iraq) a ‘hostile’ place and therefore very few Syrian authors were translated either in French or English. There have been as many translations from Syrian authors into French since the beginning of the 2011 uprising there as during the five of six decades before.”

Malu Halasa while co-curating Culture in Defiance, here hosted at Shubbak.
Malu Halasa while co-curating Culture in Defiance, here hosted at Shubbak.

There have been more translations in the last few years — of work by Khaled Khalifa, Nihad Sirees, Samar Yazbek, this collection, and more. But also, Halasa said, “once the violence started, ordinary people’s voices were covered over and obscured” in mainstream outlets.

Thus, she says, “The Syrians have [experienced] a double whammy of silence.” So “when you encounter their writing, their innermost thoughts, their poetry, their visual work, it comes as a surprise. It’s very modern, it’s to the point, it’s very articulate, it’s also very moving.”

Humor, she says, will be one of the great surprises of the book. “In parts it’s hilarious,” Halasa said. “It packs a punch. Maybe people are expecting the punch, but they won’t be expecting the belly laughs.”

Changing the debate

Halasa said she has great hopes for the collection:

I would like this book this book to somehow add to and change the debate that’s going on about Syria. I’d like this book to be [out there] so that the Syrians themselves can say who they are, and what they’re about. I’d also like this book to remind everybody that essentially what we’re looking at is a nonviolent movement that’s been fractured by violence. And all of us should, I think, have a hand in the solution of that.

Now I don’t know what the solution is and there are many voices, there are many points of view. For a country that for a long time had a singular point of view, which was the Assad family, this area of contestation and debate is important for Syrians. And contestation and debate is important for the international community as well. There seems to be a growing silence on Syria that should be addressed.

Work by Comic4Syria is also incorporated into the collection.
Work by Comic4Syria is also incorporated into the collection.

In the collection, Halasa interviews Assaad al-Achi, a man she calls “the mystery shopper.” Al-Achi argues that the problem with media coverage of Syria “is that Syria is portrayed as too complicated to understand. When really it’s just complex.”

The series of Syria Speaks events — which will take place over the next week in London, Bristol, Oxford, Liverpool, Bradford, and Durham– will bring together Syrian artists and audiences across England. The events will create a space to talk about politics and the different players in Syria. But, Halasa said, that’s not the core of the story:

At an event like ours, the politics of Syria could take over. But the solution is not going to be found in the politics of Syria. The solution will actually be found in the creative work that these people are doing. There, you see their critique of society. You see them dreaming about how to change society. You see them making civil society initiatives and joining artistic and other kinds of collectives to work together, something the Syrians really didn’t do. They’d shied away from that activity, because usually it called the secret police down on them.

At our events, hopefully we’ll be talking about that. Because that’s the story. The story isn’t about two bad guys winning in Syria, the regime or al-Qaeda. The story is about how cultures of democracy and free expression take root in such barren ground.

Another important piece of the Syria Speaks collection is the diversity of voices it showcases, Halasa says. “There are many different kinds of voices that need to be heard voice before this one overriding political solution can be found.”

The book is indeed wide-ranging, and “I feel that the broad view on the Middle East is good,” Halasa says. “It’s better than the singular view on the Middle East. I think there’s too much of that.” So, in the collection, “we’ve opened it up to many narratives so you get a sense of a broader view of what’s happening there. And in that way, you can take in some of the dialogue that’s going on, that never seems to reach to the tables of the politicians or historians.”

The collection’s attempt to bring a wide range of post-2011 Syrian writing and art directly to English-language readers is a new one, Halasa said:

At this time, I don’t think there is a book out doing this. Maybe there are books that are being put together now. There are academics looking at the phenomenon of this art and culture, but they’re not really showing it. What I also like about Syria Speaks is we take away the gatekeepers and mediators, and the Syrians are there. The reader can access them him or herself.

Among the many events, Halasa said she was particularly looking forward to the London evening at Rich Mix, where the Raast Collective is scheduled to play, and she is set to moderate a talk with Syrian novelist Khaled Khalifa. “After that, I’m looking forward to the Liverpool Arab Arts Festival, because that’s usually a very interesting gathering of artists and writers,” Halasa said. “And Alice Guthrie is going to be running a bilingual workshop at the Bristol refugee centre on Thursday morning with Khaled Khalifa. I’m going to that”

A rundown of events

LONDON – Wednesday 11 June | 7pm | £4 (with music from the Raast Collective)

Rich Mix, 35-47 Bethnal Green Road, London E1 6LA

Full details and to book tickets.

BRISTOL – Thursday 12 June | 6pm | £4

Festival of Ideas at Foyles Bookshop, 6 Quakers Friars, Cabot Circus, Bristol BS1 3BU

Full details and to book tickets.

OXFORD – Friday 13 June | 6.30pm | £5/£4

Ashmolean Museum, Beaumont Street, Oxford OX1 2PH

Full details and to book tickets. 

LIVERPOOL – Saturday 14 June | 5pm | Free Event

Liverpool Arab Arts Festival, The Bluecoat,
School Lane, Liverpool L1 3BX

Full details and to book tickets. 

BRADFORD – Sunday 15 June | 4pm | Free Event

FUSE Art Space, 5-7 Rawson Place, Bradford BD1 3QQ

Full details and to book tickets

DURHAM – Monday 16 June | 6pm | Free Event (with Fadia Faqir)

School of Government and International Affairs, Al-Qasimi Building, University of Durham, Elvet Hill Road, Durham DH1 3TU

Full details and to book tickets.