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Syria: Art, creative resistance and active citizenship

7 November 2012

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The links between creative resistance and active citizenship, art and civic conscience have been a strong component of the Syrian uprising. Finally, citizens have turned into peer-creators and users, who have now the tools to express their creativity.  

 

BY DONATELLA DELLA RATTA • OCTOBER 2012[A4 PDF]

 

During the early days of a freezing winter 2011, some colored posters featuring a brand-new advertising campaign from a world-famous telephone brand mushroomed in Damascus. The posters introduced the newest 3G enabled smartphone, displaying a Twitter timeline where “tweeps” (avatars of people) were engaged in light conversations about food, clothes, and lifestyles. These “tweets” chatted about stuff like:

“It’s Friday – any recommendation on a good film?”

“Need food? Anyone going for lunch in NH?”; and were written in English.

Yet, the slogan that matched the twitter conversation was in Arabic. In English, it sounded like “quintessentially social”; something that carried with the brand new phone and an always-on mobile Internet connection the promise of new friendships, exciting love affairs, maybe future business deals to be.

The smartphone campaign connected the latest, fashionable tech-gadget to an idea of sociality strictly related to the newest social network, Twitter, still quite unknown in Syria. Technology consumption was associated with an alleged quintessential idea of sociality: going out with friends, talking about food, buying new fashionable clothes, twitting.

 

 

The “quintessentially social” campaign spoke to a safe middle-upper class target, urban elites who were familiar with the English language; they probably knew of Twitter and would have been able to purchase the latest tech-chic gadget to stay always connected. It was probably the same crowd that had populated the new stylish cafés that popped up all across Damascus (and in Aleppo and Lattakia) drinking latte, smoking apple-flavored hubble-bubbles and checking emails using the widely available free wi-fi connections.

A 2007 ban blocking YouTube and Facebook had been lifted in February 2011, opening up the “quintessentially social” world of new technology to public consumption and promising new freedoms to those who were able to purchase it.

 

 

Just few weeks after the telephone campaign’s billboards had appeared, the first Twestival (a physical meet-up of Twitter users, happening simultaneously all across the world) was organized in Damascus for the first time. The festival logo featured the famous bird symbolizing Twitter while flying up free towards the sky and carrying bright ideas. Scheduled for 24 March 2011, the Damascus Twestival never took place; Syrian security apparatus had probably deemed inappropriate and dangerous to allow such a tech gathering to be held just after the first protest erupted in the Syrian capital on 15 March 2011.

 


Some more weeks passed: the killing of protesters intensified, the protests themselves intensified, and the smartphone posters quickly disappeared to make space to a new advertising campaign. Billboards featured a colored raised hand declaring:

“Whether progressive or conservative, I am with the law,”

“Whether girl or boy, I am with the law,”

“Whether rational or emotional, I am with the law” and similar other slogans, all matched with multi-colored, raised hands. At some point, with all these colored hands raised everywhere in public spaces, cities had a sort of Orwellian atmosphere; as if a sort of “Big Brother” was watching citizens and reminding them to comply with the law. It was a clear message sent to prevent people from hitting the streets and protesting again.

Yet, soon thereafter, other colored raised hands mushroomed over the Internet.

“I am free,” said one raised hand on a Facebook group.

“I lost my shoes”, echoed another – suggesting that the shoes had been thrown at the dictator, a way to express scorn and dissent in the Arab world.

“I am not Indian,” joked another poster, using a popular expression meaning “I am not stupid”, “you cannot fool me”.

These “dissident” raised hands were multiple answers to the “I am with the law” statement; they re-affirmed people’s dissent and expressed defiance vis-à-vis an idea of “law” and “lawlessness” which was unilaterally imposed on citizens by the regime.

 

At some point, probably realizing the ambiguity of the word “law” in a country like Syria where rule of law hardly exists, the campaign was re-designed in order to take a more neutral, sober form. This time the raised hand simply said: “I am with Syria.”

The colours used were those of the Syrian national flag — red, white, black, and green — and the slogan declared: “My demand is your demand.”

It was probably safer to try to win citizens’ hearts and minds by appealing to a middle-way, a generic form of “nationalism”, as if all the demands of Syrian people would have to be exactly the same.

Yet the new, more accommodating campaign registered another novel wave of user-generated responses over the Internet, and this time not only in virtual spaces. Armed with a marker and probably at nighttime, some citizens took the courage to descend from the virtual alleys of Facebook to the real streets of Syria. They deleted the second half of the slogan – “My demand is your demand” – and changed it into: “My demand is freedom.”

 

 

Since those early months of 2011, the raised-hands’ meme has been reproduced, re-manipulated, shared, remixed for more than one year and half. By looking at the campaign’s remixes generated by unknown users one could easily guess the “temperature” of the Syrian street on a given topic, at a given moment.

Some of the remixed posters say “I want to be martyred”, expressing the position of those who are willing to die for Syria. Other user-generated posters feature two hands that are about to shake each: “Whether anti or pro-regime, you are still my brother and we care for the country”, the slogan says, evoking a middle ground solution to the crisis. Even pro-regime positions are featured in the user-generated “raised hands” campaign; such as a poster with Bashar al Asad’s picture stating “Whether you like it or not, I love him”.

 

 

The latest remixes of the campaign, spotted on Facebook few weeks ago, show tens of colored hands, raised all together declaring “I want to help”; or encouraging other people to join the humanitarian efforts by saying “volunteer!”. In many areas that have been hit by the regime’s crackdown on protests and devastated by the clashes between the regular army and the Free Syrian army, these loosely organized volunteer efforts re-grouping all those who are willing to help keeping the country together, whatever their political positions are, signal that Syrian civil society is active on the ground and engaged in joint humanitarian efforts which very rarely are reported by the media.

 

The “raised hands” campaign is one of the brightest examples of how creative forms generated by anonymous users – whether cartoons, mesh-ups, political posters or remixed memes – express the Syrians’ renewed willingness to manifest their opinions throughout peer-creation. More than that, it signals the existence of a citizens’ forum, a space where all sorts of opinions and political positions are represented and debated.

“Quintessentially social” tech tools like mobiles are not used to exchange information about food, clothes and hangouts as foreseen in the 2011 smartphone’s ads campaign targeted on the upper-middle class; unexpectedly, they have become tools in the hands of the broader Syrian population, including the have-nots, to document and share the events unfolding in the country. Internet, and particularly social networks have turned into the places where both manifestations of Syria’s creative dissent and expressions of an existing active citizenry are proliferating.

Anonymous communities of Syrians using irony and dark comedy to express their defiance in a creative way have been mushrooming over the Internet for the past year and half.

In early 2011, the Chinese Revolution Facebook page was one of the first and most followed groups in the Syrian uprising to use satire to convey ideas of political dissent. The virtual community used to narrate the first demonstrations – and the first killings of protesters – as if the events were unfolding in China, using caricatures of Bashar al Asad and his cousin Rami Makhlouf dressed in traditional Chinese clothes and mocking the regime who pretended the legitimate requests of freedom and dignity to be a foreign conspiracy. Through their irony and dark humor, the “Chinese” revolutionaries were not only expressing dissent in a creative way, by producing cartoons, caricatures, jokes, etc.; they were also signaling their civic awareness, re-affirming their rights as citizens to manifest their own views and take part to the country’s political process.

Other groups, like Ayyam al hurriyya (Freedom days) combined a fine mastering of video animation techniques with civic messages and calls to civil disobedience. Their YouTube channel, where videos are uploaded weekly, contains clips that document tactics of civil disobedience in Syria (such as drawing defiant anti-regime graffiti; distributing forbidden leaflets; building road blocks, etc); but also creative animations explaining the importance of forgiving in order to re-build the nation and preserve the unity of the country.

 

 

Communities of defiant artists have also organized creative virtual campaigns on the Internet that then turned into real actions on the ground. Such as the Freedom Graffiti Week; a campaign with Syrian illustrators, mostly resident outside the country, designing all sort of defiant graffiti, later reproduced by “spray-men” on the ground. One of this graffiti, featuring a television screen displaying the slogan “Syrian media are liars” (a tribute to one of the most popular chants of the Syrian uprising), has been painted everywhere, from Syrian city walls to posters shown during street demonstrations. The latest campaign launched by the Facebook group features the faces of prominent Syrian historical personalities, like Sultan al Atrash and Shukri al-Quwatli, and carries the sign “where are you?”, clearly lamenting the absence of a strong but fair leadership in the revolution.

Some Syrian spray-men have paid with their own lives for these apparently insignificant acts of creative dissidence, as it happened to Nour Hatem Zahra, a young Damascene graffiti maker who was assassinated in April 2012 while painting the city’s walls with his drawings. Juan Zero, another Syrian artist, has given a bitter representation of Nour’s destiny, picturing him being hit by a bullet while spraying the word “freedom”.

 

 

Despite the violence – which has been dramatically rising in this second half of 2012 – and the bombings, killings, displacement of civilians that take place on a daily basis in Syria, defiant citizens still manage to find their ways to express dissent in amazingly creative ways. In a quasi-media blackout, Syrian creative resistance is blossoming on the Internet.

 

Creative resistance

Already existing communities of artists are continuously alimenting their creative productions; like the Arts and Freedom collective, which, among many others, hosts the work of photographer Jaber al Azmeh; the cartoonists and illustrators’ group Comic 4 Syria; the masked video-artist Anzeh Walo Tarat who has been producing a satirical news bulletin mocking the Syrian regime since August 2011; or the successful puppet show Top goon: diaries of a little dictator, by Masasit Mati, which has reached its second season on YouTube.

Besides this, many new formed Syrian creative groups are sprouting out on the Internet, carrying a unique message which combines irony and satire with non-violent resistance and civil disobedience. Although, as Top goon’s director Jameel recently clarified in a public event held at the Hermitage museum in Amsterdam, “non-violence does not mean that the Syrian people should not have the right to legitimate defense when they are brutally attacked. Pacifism should stay as the ultimate goal and should always inspire and guide the Syrian uprising”.

Many artists are trying to use creativity and art as an antidote to a much feared disintegration of the Syrian society, exposed to daily violence and threatened by sectarian hate. The Facebook group Syrian Animation’s latest cartoon, called ‘My home is my brother’s home’, suggests helping those who lost their homes and who are in need of humanitarian aid. Many humanitarian campaigns that use creativity and art to engage Syrians in nation building and cross-sectarian solidarity are populating Facebook, calling for mutual help. Yet, this humanitarian and creative side of the Syrian uprising is almost unknown to the majority of Arab and international media, too concentrated on images of civil war and sectarian strife to be able to scout these little gems of innovative creative resistance.

Probably acknowledging the mainstream media’s poor estimation of this creative phenomenon, and realizing the challenges that Facebook’s chaotic flow of information poses to archiving material and giving the overflowing Syria’s content its right context, a group of Syrian activists has launched Mashrou’ Dawlaty, the most comprehensive database of the country’s creative resistance so far.

The most important Syrian artists who emerged from the uprising are listed there, their works classified and displayed: from videos to graffiti, from posters to comics, including audio clips of different music genres. Any user involved in content production can contribute to enriching the database by sending his/her works online.

Dawlaty is not only the biggest archive of user-generated creativity from the Syrian uprising, a repository where the enormous amount of writings, drawings, filming produced so far can finally be displayed, helping people realizing the relevance and the extent of this creative resistance’s phenomenon. The project also gives visibility to the non-violent movement and to its wide posters and video content production. It declares to be aiming at working to build a civil state based on human rights, the rule of law and citizenship’s awareness.

So far, the link between creative resistance and active citizenship, art and civic conscience has been a strong component of the Syrian uprising. Finally, citizens have turned into peer-creators and users, who have now the tools to express their creativity.

 

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Donatella Della Ratta is a Ph.D. fellow at Copenhagen University in Denmark and at the Danish Institute in Damascus, Syria. Her Ph.D. work revolves around the production and distribution of Syrian tv drama.

After falling in love with the Arab world and its cultures more than 15 years ago, Donatella has specialised in Arab media issues. She has published several chapters in collective books on Arab tv industries and two monographs on Pan Arab satellite channels.

Donatella is also an affiliate at Harvard University, Berkman Center for Internet and Society. She blogs on Arab media at mediaoriente.com and tweets avidly on the Arab world, tech and society at twitter.com with the username: @donatelladr

Since 2008 Donatella has been (happily and proudly) managing the Arabic speaking community at Creative Commons and she has actively contributed to many technology-focused events held in the Arab world.

 

 

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Photos:

The Nokia picture: photo by Donatella Della Ratta, licensed under creativecommons.org
The Twestival logo: unknown artist
The first raised hand (blue), ‘I am with the law’: photo by  Donatella Della Ratta,
creativecommons.org
The second raised hand (green), ‘My request is freedom’, unknown artist
The four hands, ‘Whether opposition or pro-regime, you’re still my brother’: unknown artist
The graffiti, ‘Syrian media are liars’: unknown artist
The Freedom cartoon, tribute to martyr Nour Hatem Zahra: by Juan Zero

 

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