The cultural heart of Syria: deeply fractured but resilient

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A painting by Syrian artist Mohannad Orabi. Profile Portrait, 2012, Mixed Media on Canvas, 150 x 150 cm.

By: Khalil Sweileh

Published Saturday, March 15, 2014

It has been three years since March 15, 2011. The Syrian uprising has turned into rivers of blood, sweeping along with them thousands of casualties. Not even Scheherazade would be able to recount every tale from the Syrian inferno. But how has this affected the intellectual exchange in Syria? Have the ideas born out of the crisis been able to capture the magnitude of the catastrophe unfolding in the country?

Damascus – Never before has the Syrian intellectual community been so torn as it is today. Shortly before the uprising in Syria, no one would have imagined that Walid Ikhlasi would desert the streets of Aleppo to settle in Somalia, contemplating the pirate boats there instead of the magnificent stones in Aleppo’s citadel, or that Firas al-Sawah would seek asylum in China, to finish his translation of Tao Te Ching by Laozi.

No one could have predicted either that Nazih Abu Afash would abandon his Damascene isolation for Beirut, or for Saleh Almani and Assem al-Basha to cross the Mediterranean to Andalusia.

The list of such brilliant and celebrated émigrés is almost endless. Perhaps we need to consult cartographers to get an idea of the places that dozens of Syrian artists, writers, and intellectuals have now journeyed to around the world.

But are they exiles, immigrants, or refugees fleeing hell? No decisive answers can be expected from a country now plagued by trenches, barricades, and bullets. It is difficult to come to terms with the shifts in Syria, with secularists now defending sectarian lines, pan-Arabists defending tribes and clans, and post-modern thinkers polemicizing on the specificities of their religious denominations.

All this has happened over the past one thousand days. Not even the mythical Scheherazade would be able to account for all the stories of the ongoing bloodshed. Meanwhile, many of Syria’s intellectuals, as they sail for a fictitious Ithaca in a punctured boat with their Shakespearean delusions, have failed to answer one fundamental question: How can you make a revolution there, having fled its flames here?

The question, for the time being, will remain hanging in the air, amid mutual accusations and sharp polarization. To be sure, mutual mistrust is almost the only currency in circulation in the country’s cultural scene today.

With this in mind, we may need to scour the Internet to learn the extent of the bone-breaking battles taking place among the virtual belligerents, while the body count only grows.

Yet one should not take too seriously the queues of unemployed and unimaginative pundits who operate through small-time outfits like the mushrooming websites, provincial newspapers, and fictitious human rights organizations, or the hastily made films, nebulous think tanks, and new titles displayed before their names on television screens. How many novelists have now become military experts, how many little-known poets have become thinkers, and how many army deserters have now become judges of morality and good conduct?

The issue is complicated, much more than some believe it to be, in a country that has lost its prestige and many of the hallmarks of its ancient civilization. Syria now stands exposed to barbarism, picked off by hyenas and foxes on both sides of the divide, and by their caustic and vitriolic discourse.

Syria is now a naked country, covered by nothing other than a mantle of hatred, revenge, and personal vendetta, with many of its children engaged in a dramatic process of realigning themselves in accordance with pure whim, opportunism, or expediency. The secularist intellectual now vacillates from support for religious rule to support for military rule as personal interest dictates, without regard for the damage and death around them and because of them.

This is how newcomer intellectuals came to the forefront, having been tempted by both the revolution and their ego. Often they have nothing to show for other than their Facebook glories, which attract hundred of “likes” in mere minutes for criticizing tyranny – remotely. No known intellectuals can measure up to such “success.”

Some Syrian intellectuals, in three years of conflict, proceeded to craft a sharp ax to uproot yesterday’s culture with all its symbols and icons in mere minutes, in response to the new “scorched-earth” zeitgeist. One such intellectual even wrote a candid airing of regret, for having visited the grave of Saadallah Wannous years ago. One who once boasted of having his picture taken with the poet Adonis at a poetry festival, is now dedicated to criticizing him on the grounds that he is a defender of the regime, all while such people fight their wars far from home, probably in their sleeping clothes.

Syria’s intellectual wars have not been confined to the back alleys either, but have also reached major arenas. Consider for example the secular thinker Sadeq Jalal al-Azm, who has been invoking the “oppression of the Sunnis” from his exile in what is a clear dig at Adonis and his attitudes. Meanwhile, some have denounced granting Nazih Abu Afash the Owais Cultural Award, though until recently, it was for these same people a “suspicious oil-tainted award.”

Despite these destructive wars that use the keyboard as a kind of a melee weapon, Damascus is trying to tend to its wounds, scars, and long ordeal, with what is left of its intellectuals, away from the official, chronically anemic culture.

A number of independent literary, theatrical, and musical forums have been popping up in many neighborhoods in the Syrian capital. They want to restore hope to the city that has been torn by intermittent shelling and the proliferation of checkpoints that have carved out Damascus, while others are working hard on examining the country’s geography with a view to dust off Sykes-Picot and redraw its borders.

Before Lawrence of Arabia blew up the Damascus-Haifa-Hejaz railway, Ibn Jubair had once described the city as the “Paradise of the Orient.” But is it so, or is it a paradise for barbarians? Do we have to revere a poorly written text just because it endorses revolution? Do we have to renounce the pristine cultural edifices of the country, for the same reason, in the absence of solid foundations for these post-revolutionary works? Or should we wait a while, for what the war will ultimately produce, beyond the absurdity of the present?

Perhaps what Syrian culture needs, at the present time, is to shake off the intruders from the scene, here and there, and at home and abroad, and prune its fields from harmful weeds that grew in the wasted time. Perhaps it should focus on the voice of reason alone, with creative awareness that can restore Maari’s severed head, and Abu Tammam’s statue, to their rightful place in the collective memory. And perhaps it should reverse the tide of mistrust, taboos, and mutual verbal abuse, so that Syria can breathe a different air, uncontaminated by ready-made judgments, shaken identities, and inflated egos.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


The Siege

My tears turned blue
for staring at the sky so long
My eyes turned yellow
for dreaming of the golden wheat, so long
Let the generals go to wars
the lovers to the woods
the scientists to labs
But I...
shall search for a rosary
and a dusty chair
to resolve my old job:
a door-keeper at the gate of sorrow
as long as all books, constitutions
and religions confirm,
I shall die either
from hunger or in jail.

Translated by: Noel Abdulahad
Mohamed Al-Maghout

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