The Cultural View from Within and Without

In analyzing all of the discourse about the Arab Spring and the Syrian revolution, the claim that seems to be most central is the breaking-down of the wall of fear. The evidence supporting this claim is overwhelming: the death of 80,000 Syrians, the disappearance and imprisonment of tens of thousands, the targeting of civilians by military aircraft, Scud missiles, cluster, phosphoric, and barrel bombs, to the displacement of close to four million people inside and outside of Syria.

Dima Wannous, a Syrian journalist and daughter of the late noted playwright Saddallah Wannous, has been providing exceptional coverage of the Arab art and cultural scene for the newly established Lebanese electronic newspaper, Al Mudon.

It was mere coincidence that I watched an interview with the late Syrian President Amin al-Hafiz (1921-2009), conducted by Ahmad Mansour as a part of his re-run series of Shahed Ala Al-Asr on Al Jazeera network. At the same time, the news of Bashar al-Assad's interview with the Lebanese-British journalist Hala Jabber in the Sunday Times had drawn a lot of attention. What caught my attention was the unashamedly low level of political knowledge and experience that was an overt presence in the statements of both men.

Sawsan Hakki, an architectural engineer, was killed in her car when Aleppo University was bombed from the air. (Yes, a university campus bombed!)  Many students of history might confuse what the Assad air force has done with attacks by an external enemy opposing a war of liberation.  But this thought lasted briefly! The target was Syria's second largest city, occupied (partially now) by Assad's loyalists, Shabiha and non-Shabiha.  Sawsan Hakki was the sister of Syrian director Haitham Hakki, and the sister-in-law of poet Hala Mohammad, Haitham's wife.

Between 2011 and 2013, Syria has experienced waves of migration unprecedented in the annals of its history. Some departed carrying their children and whatever belongings they could salvage. Others left carrying their fears and pain, and many, many more left carrying their nation's dream. In the diaspora, some died of the cold, hunger and pain. Others died out of humiliation, displacement, and separation. But many refused to die; they were kept alive by nostalgia and sorrow,  becoming specters, their frail bodies ever prey to the merciless winds of a most bitter exile.

 

We began to notice that the Syrians were being required to document and prove the identity of their killers, even while being driven to their own slaughter. How are we supposed to determine that the man who is tortured, insulted, and threatened with the rape of his wife, until he died from the horror of pain, was a victim of the regime's brutality? We wish he had found the time to record his testimony and send it to us via "YouTube" just before he died, so we could then verify it and examine the possibility of taking his side.

On November 17, 2012,  Al-Hayat featured an a peculiarly illuminating article written by Mohammad al-Sawi, about the Egyptian composer Riyad al-Sunbati (1906-1981), which should be of considerable interest to lovers of classical Arab music. Under the title "Riyad al-Sunbati: Philosopher of Arab Music," al-Sawi credits the musical compositions of al-Sunbati with a seminal classicism in both traditional and modern currents of the history of Arab music in the 20th century.

Much has been written about life under Arab dictatorship. Irrespective of what has been said about the pseudonym “Samir al-Khalil,” Kanan Makiyya’s book “The Republic of Fear” remains one of the most authoritative texts on Arab dictatorial regimes. Recently, I read Al Hayat newspaper editor-in-chief Ghassan Sharbel’s article, “The Confessions of a Dog,” from which the title of this piece is borrowed, and I was reminded once again of what life under the sword in Arab countries is like.

--"What has happened in Syria was ultimately expected in one form or another—the dormant and the hypnotized had to awake some day, the people had to demand freedom, human dignity, the end of repression, the just distribution of wealth, a cessation of arrests based on the free expression of opinions…etc. The numerical minority is irrelevant, because the numbers here are symbolic. The numerical minority here constitutes a majority in terms of symbolism. Yes, it was expected, by myself at least.

I have always been baffled by the reasoning that guides the official Syrian media in its coverage of the popular and peaceful uprising throughout Syria.

In an August 14 article published in Al Hayat, Hazem al-Amin, one of Lebanon’s most intelligent observers of Arab and Lebanese politics, criticizes the official claim that the revolution has “infiltrated” Syrian cities (“From Where the Revolution ‘Infiltrates’ into Syrian Cities”).  According to both the Syrian regime and those parroting its propaga

Hamad is an elderly Syrian man and a devout Muslim, who has lived in the city of Hama since he was born.  Each day, he wakes up early, heads toward the Orontes River (Al Assi River), washes up and performs dawn prayers in a mosque on his way to work.  On Sunday, July 3, as usual, Hamad headed toward the Orontes. As soon as he finished washing, though, he saw a body floating on the water. Upon closer inspection, he realized that the body belonged to a young man whom he recognized as Ibrahim Kashoush.

Unquestionably, the state-run Syrian media, print, and TV has become the laughing stock of most observers, including the pro and anti-Assad forces. But perhaps most perplexing in the midst of the Arab Spring have been the positions taken by sections of the Lebanese media, mainly those allied with the Assad regime.

It has been a mystery to many as to why the Lebanese, who successfully fought Syrian domination of their country by fomenting what is known as the Cedar Revolution, have stood relatively silent on the current popular uprising in neighboring Syria. Having suffered under the Assads for 30 years, the Lebanese were expected to be at the forefront of the international movement of solidarity with the Syrian people.  Astonishingly, though, they merely looked on while many groups in scores of world capitals vigorously protested the atrocities in Syria.

For many people in the Middle East, the supplementary material of this year’s selection of Ramadan television drama may be totally novel.  For instance, the trial of Hosni Mubarak (in the countries where it will be allowed to air) could prove a spectacular introduction to reality TV, which continues to hypnotize so many Westerners.  Also scheduled to air is a new biopic about the iconic Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish.  Fi Hadrat al Ghiyab (“In the Presence of the Absent”), respectively written and directed by the well-known Hassan Yousif

Before the Arab Spring, the national question of identity in the Arab world had always been treated with suspicion if it did not conform to pan-Arabism. It is not difficult to see how this was possible since identifying the individual with the politically correct identity was an established  intellectual expectation. And the national identity which was politically correct was Arab nationalism. There was a time growing up in Lebanon, if when asked I used to shy away from saying “Lebanese,” and used  “Arab” instead.

The Syrian regime has visited the cruelest punishment on both ordinary people and intellectuals. Faraj Bayrakdar, a Syrian poet who spent more than13 years in jail for his beliefs, offers a rare picture of a father's pain in his essay in Al Jadid magazine, "A Father to the Point of Tears." Omar Amirlay, who passed away from a heart attack several  months ago, was one of the best Syrian documentary filmmakers, directing more than 20 documentaries, with hardly one or two of them allowed to be shown in Syria.

The ripples of the “Arab Spring” are being felt well beyond theborders of the Middle East.  This last 4th of July, Boris Johnson, mayor of London, followed a precedent already established in other English cities by hosting London’s very first festival of contemporary Arab culture, Shubbak (or window in English).

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