Contributing to Syria Speaks, a book that brings together texts and visual arts from the Syrian uprising, offered me an opportunity to ponder – yet again – the perennial question: what must art and literature actually do in times of war and catastrophe? Do they have an active role to play?
This question instantly brings to mind works of art and literature that are linked to unfortunate circumstances in the country that produced them, and makes one mentally revisit that art’s outstanding features and consider what one wants to read, and what one doesn’t. A story like Boule de Suif by Guy de Maupassant, which shows the misery of war without entering the battlefield, always stood out to me as an example of a literary work that sensitively documents war’s impact on the self, without lecturing or being reduced to a blunt factual illustration or direct message.
When I was asked to contribute to Syria Speaks, the old question presented itself to me, but the other way around. Before I knew anything much about the book or who else was taking part, I was asking myself: what do people out there, abroad, want to know about us? And what’s the relevance or importance of a piece of writing by me that looks at the Syrian revolution from a slight remove? Some people seem to think that absolutely all the young people here are activists, spending their time meeting in secret basements and planning the overthrow of the Assad regime; others think that we are all tripping over corpses in the street on our way to work (which of course is not an exaggeration, in some areas of Syria).
Maybe the best thing, then, would have been for me to simply set down what actually happened to me personally – given that the newspapers are already full of political commentary representing all possible extremes and points of view, for anyone who wants to look at them. In the end I dug out an old text written in the first month of the uprising, just before I left my job working for Syrian state television. At that point there was more hope than there is now; but at the same time the torture videos shot on mobile phones by Assad’s shabiha – and leaked by them or their FSA captors – were still a new phenomenon, and therefore the shock of being exposed to their horror was greater than it is now.
After submitting that text to the editors, I had the chance to look more closely at other parts of the book, as I translated some of the English material for the Arabic edition. Then, and even more so when it was published and I saw the whole thing, I was glad to see this rich collection present the cultural aspect of the revolution in a fitting and honest way. Each writer and artist had expressed what was on their mind, from their own particular corner and in their own way – ranging from academic articles that analyse the art of the revolution, to actual examples of the works under discussion, and interviews with active figures who have played an influential role in the movement.
These contributions will be useful for anyone confused by the Syrian revolution and hoping to catch a glimpse of it from a different vantage point. Rather than highlighting where the revolution intersects with the reader’s idea of terrorism, Syria Speaks presents a young and admirable movement that, despite the catastrophic scale of the horror, is intent on fighting one of the most vicious regimes currently to be found on the face of the earth.
This leads us once again to the question of art and its role: as an enthusiast of ‘art for art’s sake’, I don’t actually want to see literature playing a press or documentary role. What could be worse than the site of such desolation turning into a mere prop for everyone to explore their artistic expression around? Nobody is at all shy anymore, it seems, to make use of the misfortunes of their fellow human beings as material for a creative writing drill. I hope that the opposite will transpire, that this ongoing political and social storm will rage through the predictable, tired fixtures of literary expression and sweep them aside, healing one of the worst things that the long years of subjugation have resulted in for Syrians: the loss of individuality. Individual artistic inclination was treated with such contempt, and was so successfully abased, that many of us were too intimidated to engage with ideas that really touched us personally or strayed from the prescribed set of major stock themes. Our individuality was melted down into a unified mass and then recast in a compulsory conformist mould.
New artistic approaches and works that have emerged so far with the revolution – some examples of which are to be found in Syria Speaks – are merely the initial point of departure for the revolution aspired to in literature: a revolution that will turn all that has prevailed until now upside-down and carve out new paths for itself in the worlds of narrative writing and visual arts, not only in terms of content but also form. And then everything that we have kept silent about will be addressed, at last. Perhaps it is difficult for this to unfold right now, and perhaps the wave that has swept over thousands of Syrians still needs some time before it can have such an obvious (and hoped for) impact on the stagnation which has pervaded Syrian creativity for such a long time.