Khaled Barakeh is a Syrian artist and cultural activist living in Berlin. In addition to his artistic practice, he founded the nonprofit organization coculture, which manages initiatives such as the Syrian Cultural Index, a project focused on digitally connecting Syrian creators in the diaspora. This interview is part of a series on Syrian writers living in Berlin:
By Mari Odoy
Why is a project like the Syrian Cultural Index important?
Khaled Barakeh: I first had the idea for the Index in 2015. I was still living in Frankfurt, and many Syrians had started coming to Germany at the beginning of the so-called “Refugee Crisis” — honestly, I prefer to call it the “European Crisis.” But, at that point, I had been in Germany for quite a long time, and I had established myself with exhibitioners who were asking for Syrian artists, because I know the community there, and I know the community here. So I kept nominating people for exhibitions whose work I knew — and this started to feel unfair, because I was sure there were a lot of people doing great work that I just didn’t know about.
So at first, I wanted to make a Google doc and send it to my friends who were artists and Syrian, asking basic questions like: what’s your name, where do you live, what’s your email, and then all sorts of data about the artistic work they were doing. I wanted to use this as a way to democratize the opportunity of getting engaged with the art spheres I was involved with back then. But then one thing led to another. At the beginning, I was thinking of doing this for the visual artists in Berlin, but then I thought, “Why just visual artists?” and, “Why just Berlin?” I thought: Let’s make it all of Germany, and then, “Why just Germany and not the world?” since we live in such a digital world.
And then I started thinking closely about the situation that Syrians are facing at this moment specifically: because of the war we live everywhere, and we are losing the opportunity to build our own future culture and heritage. In 40 years, nothing will be called “Syrian” — I mean, there will be something connected to Syria, and there are people that stayed in Syria, of course, but at the same time, if you think of the refugee communities, they’ve lost their connection to Syria, there is nothing “Syrian” in their production anymore. And we have so many different communities; you have refugees living in Germany with different needs and a different situation from the refugees living in Turkey or Georgia, so imagining a single culture in 40 years feels unrealistic in some ways. I thought of this project as a way to preserve Syrian cultural production, at the same time as connecting Syrian communities and the cultural fabric of the country again, and democratizing artistic opportunities around the world for Syrians.
So the way the format works is that we are designing a newsletter that targets you, the Syrian creator, based on your age, your gender, your background. And we will constantly upload content and different opportunities. The newsletter that reaches you is different from someone else; it’s exactly targeting you with opportunities related to your work. This will also connect people outside of Syria with people inside of Syria — I would like to keep this connection to Syria because the moment you tell someone you are Syrian, they assume that you’re a refugee, and they forget about the 18 million people still in Syria. I’m very social, but there are still so many Syrian artists who I don’t know and have never heard of — and if I traveled to Paris or wherever, there would be a way to find other Syrian artists and know what they are doing there, or to know what Syrian cultural events and exhibitions are occurring in different cities.
The way it works is that we aren’t creating the content, we are allowing the content to be created by creating the platform — it’s the same as Airbnb as a platform in some ways; they don’t do the data themselves, but they create a structure that allows different listings to be created. That’s more or less how things started and where we are going at the moment.
It’s very important to me to think of a new meaning of ownership throughout this — I don’t want to own what I’m doing, I want us, the whole community, to own it. You can’t create communities and own the community, you have to give that authorship back. I’m thinking of the members of the platform as owners — the moment you have a profile, you have a share of the ownership.
Of course, I will still need to have a bit of ownership, but I want to step out of it at some point. I’m an artist, I exist in this life to be an artist. I don’t want to be an institution, I want to have my own way of living and being. For now, I am thinking of this whole institution and the index as a form of art practice.
The constant topic that has come up across this interview series has been the concept of national art/literature, and how you create art when you aren’t in a physical place, but are still tethered to a physical place. It’s so interesting that you are able to use the digital world to bridge that gap.
KB: Exactly. We do a lot of thinking about how to bring people together again. The project has many different reasons for existence now. We need to reorganize ourselves as a community, because right now we can’t do this geographically. But hopefully, with this platform, people will start being able to organize themselves, and use the platform to communicate and develop with each other.
In terms of physical community, what is your sense of the community in Berlin for Syrian artists, writers, and any sort of cultural producers?
KB: I moved to Berlin in 2015, when a lot of Syrians had just arrived, so at that moment I think there was a desire, or even a need, to create communities. Lots of people arrived in the same situation, facing the same difficulties and obstacles. People start gathering and deciding to talk about these struggles, and this was the beginning. And then, of course, with time people find more stability, and they start to find their real communities of people with the same interests rather than simply the same background. People who create art find each other. I think what’s happening today in Berlin in terms of art or music or literature is possibly more important than what’s happening in Syria.
I also found this nice opportunity here to know a lot of other Arab nationalities, like Palestinians or Jordanians or Moroccans — we finally managed to meet outside of the Arab world, in a place where we could feel free to talk and discuss and build community in a different way.
In your opinion, what is the draw of European audiences to Syrian content?
KB: I mean, there was this whole explosion of the refugee issue — constant refugee stories to a maximum extent, in a way where it becomes fetishized. There are so many stories I could tell about this. One time, I met these guys who joined my roommate and I for dinner, and they asked where I was from, and I said Syria. And they immediately had on this kind of pitying face, and then they asked, “What’s your story,” because of course they expect everyone to have the same story, because the media always brings up the most dramatic sad stories, and they expect everyone to have crossed the Mediterranean. So I connected all the sad stories I had ever heard and mixed them — there were many holes in the story, and they were smart guys, but they actually almost started crying. This was really funny. And then I told them, sorry to disappoint you, but I just came by plane. Very boring. I just bought a ticket online, and the plane landed in Berlin.
It was dramatic, but that’s what I mean. It’s not only related to 2015 and the influx of refugees but also before then. I think the West in general is still under the colonial-era impression of the Arab world. They see us through a very specific lens that they don’t want to change. So if you write about something really random, like a love story that has nothing to do with politics, would this story find a way to be translated in Europe? I don’t know. Of course there might be some exceptions, but I think most of the Syrian writers or artists that I know deal with this topic [of politics] at bigger exhibitions. So I think it still has this possibly Orientalist lens. I just read something by Aboud Saeed, the “Smartest Guy on Facebook,” and he was playing billiards in Berlin against someone, and he won because he was good. Some German at the bar asked him where did you learn to play, and he said, “in Syria,” and they were all shocked.
How are you positioned differently as a creator in Berlin, and in Europe, versus in Syria?
KB: I can very much feel this geographic and cultural difference in my practice. There have been several shifts in my life, from geographical shifts to shifts in the role that I’m playing, from being an artist to a cultural activist, to a curator, to a teacher, to whatever. There’s also an identity shift as well. I am Syrian, I have a Syrian nationality, but I left Syria a decade ago with the desire to be a multilocal immigrant and travel. I wasn’t even planning to stay in Germany. And then there was this huge shift in 2015, when I became a “refugee” because of my nationality. “Refugee” is not a national identity, but it very much becomes an identity, it becomes a stamp on your face.
This identity that I didn’t choose has rooted itself in my practice, without me even noticing. I’ve shifted from painting to more socio-political projects, and started building different projects and institutions as a part of my practice. I’ve started calling my practice a “practice of necessity” because these shifts that were forced on me, forced on my identity, apply a shift to my practice and I have to adapt. I’m always responding to the urgent matters around me. If I was still in Syria, to go back to your question, I’m not sure if I’d be even working on these types of projects full-time.
Mari Odoy is a PhD student at the University of Minnesota’s Asian and Middle Eastern Studies department researching modern diasporic Syrian literature in translation.