We don’t really know the Syrians. For forty years Syrian people were hidden behind the monolithic al-Assad family dictatorship. A peaceful uprising that began in March 2011 threatened to topple the edifice; but when the revolt became militarised after ten months, the voices and concerns of ordinary people were obscured, again by violence. Our book Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Frontline – featuring over 50 Syrian contributors – sets out to open a line of communication between the nonviolent activists, artists and writers active in Syria or in exile, and the rest of the world. This is not being overambitious. In their fiction, memoir, reportage, poetry, art and photography, the Syrians are critical, compassionate, hilarious and articulate; they speak clearly and loudly for themselves.

For me, the original impetus for the book lies at the heart of two images. One is a Ferzat cartoon of a prison guard sobbing and watching a soap opera on a portable TV in a cell, while all around him hang the body parts of the man he has finished torturing. The second is Top Goon: Diaries of a Little Dictator by the anonymous Syrian theatre and film collective, Masasit Mati. These hysterically funny short cyber films, such as ‘Who Wants to Kill a Million?’, document the permutations and aspirations of a revolution in flux – its follies and tragedies – with finger puppets. Both Ferzat and Top Goon are examples of Syria’s blackest humour forged in the fires of adversity. Politically and aesthetically engaged, they dare to dream about changing their society.

After Ferzat’s 2012 London exhibition, the first discussion about a possible book took place in a taxi racing to catch a lecture by the Italian visual critic and Syria-watcher Donatella Della Ratta, at SOAS. She showed new moving images from the Syrian uprising with films such as Conte de Printemps by Dani Abo Louh and Mohamad Omran. The book idea was placed on hold while an exhibition on uprising art, film and photography toured Amsterdam, Copenhagen and London. Last June, the book began to take shape. This June, Syria Speaks is ready for the world.

Syria Speaks is a celebration of a people determined to reclaim their dignity, freedom and self-expression. It showcases the work of over fifty artists and writers who are challenging the culture of violence in Syria. Their literature, poems and songs, cartoons, political posters and photographs document and interpret the momentous changes that have shifted the frame of reality so drastically in Syria.

The Syria Speaks book tour begins its 7 city tour next week.

    • Discussion on free expression in Syria at the Hay Festival on 26 May at 1pm
    • An evening of readings, music and film at Rich Mix, London, on 11 June at 7pm
    • Readings and discussion as part of the Festival of Ideas, Foyles Bookshop, Bristol, on 12 June at 6pm
    • Public lecture at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford on 13 June at 6.30pm
    • An evening of readings, screenings and discussion at The Bluecoat, as part of the Liverpool Arab Arts Festival, Liverpool on 14 June at 5pm
    • Readings and presentation at the FUSE Gallery, Bradford on 15 June at 4pm
    • Public event at Durham University, School of Government and International Affairs on 16 June

To find out more and book tickets please see our events page.

Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Frontline, is edited by Malu Halasa, Zaher Omareen and Nawara Mahfoud (Saqi Books, 2014)