Singing in the kingdom of silence

The Syrian revolution released a flood of artistic and intellectual creativity. Four years later, it has not subsided.

Syrian political art by the collective Al-Shaab al-Souri Aref Tarikh (The Syrian people know their way). by Al-Shaab al-Souri Aref Tarikh

In June 2011, a singer called Ibrahim Qualoush performed a song at an anti-regime demonstration in Hama. The song was built around a simple lyric that the vast crowd chanted back at Ibrahim: ‘Come on Bashar [Assad], leave!’ A few days later, Ibrahim’s body was pulled out of the Orontes River. His vocal chords had been cut out.

By killing those who gave voice to the revolution, the Assad regime was trying to re-establish a silence that it had imposed on the country when it took power more than 40 years earlier. But Ibrahim Qualoush was not the only one singing.

All over Syria, the uprising went hand in hand with an outpouring of artistic expression. Political posters, cartoons, graffiti, film, photography, poetry, music – it was as if a deep reservoir of creativity had built up behind the dam of fear, and now, as it crumbled, Syria’s talent and imagination was pouring forth.

Painting, song and satire were more than just statements of protest. As the country slid into war, art became a way of keeping alive the nonviolent spirit that had marked the first months of the revolution. No matter how horrific the violence became, Syria’s humanity, wit and defiance continued to find a voice.

Syria’s long silence was broken not only by the flood of visual art but also by the emergence of a remarkable citizen journalism movement. The outside world would have known little about the revolt, the crackdown and the growth of an armed resistance were it not for the Syrians who recorded these events on their mobile phones and uploaded the footage to YouTube.

Since those first videos were made, Syria’s citizen journalists have become far more professional – there are now underground newspapers and radio stations operating all over the country. Among the most dedicated media activists are the self-taught photographers who have organized themselves into the Young Lens collectives, using Facebook to share images of the conflict with a global audience. (See image above)

With more than four million Syrians now living as refugees, it is inevitable that many of those who spoke out in 2011 and 2012 are now in exile. But it would be a mistake to think that Syria’s explosion of creativity has been extinguished by four and half years of war.

Kartoneh, an artists’ collective from Deir al-Zour, on the Euphrates River in eastern Syria, began to publish striking posters drawn in coloured chalk on Facebook in the early days of the uprising. The posters were one arm of a wider nonviolent struggle to resist the hijacking of the revolution by sectarian groups. The city is now under control of ISIS, and the collective continues to publish on Facebook.

In the Damascus suburb of Daraya, young people have built a library from more than 11,000 books salvaged from the ruins of bombed-out buildings.

And in the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk, a man called Ayham Ahmed has played a beaten-up piano through three years of siege and starvation. The piano was set alight by Islamist militants in April of this year, but Ayham, undeterred, has found a keyboard so he can keep singing with the camp’s children (see ‘Bravery’s Edge’, page 21).

Syria’s young artists have not just kept going – in some cases, they have become even more ambitious. This summer, a film producer called Qusai Hayani shot an entire television series – part drama, part parody, part political satire – in the ruins of rebel-held Aleppo. The show, called ‘Banned in Syria’, laughs at the Assad regime but also pokes fun at the rebels of the Free Syria Army. In June, one of Hayani’s location scouts was shot dead by a regime sniper. But filming carried on, and whenever the team stopped for a break, one of the actors – a young man called Jihad Saka Abu Joud – sang revolutionary songs in Aleppo’s ruined streets.

Al-Shaab al-Souri

Aref Tarikh (‘The Syrian people know their way’) is a collective of Syrian artists producing political posters. This image is a comment on breaking the fear instilled by the regime’s security apparatus. It reads: ‘This is civil disobedience. There is no need to stay quiet any more.’

Sulafa Hijazi

‘Masturbation’: Sulafa Hijazi is a digital artist whose prints reflect the sadism of a masculine, military culture and the nightmarish claustrophobia of its prisons.

Khalil Younes

‘Our Saigon Execution’: Khalil Younes looks at the mutilation of the human body and the psychology of violence.

Lens Young Homsi group

‘Waiting’: Young Lens collectives have documented every stage of the conflict. The best of these images by citizen photographers have a still, matter-of-fact, eyewitness clarity – tank tracks on asphalt, a man cleaning a gun with a toothbrush, a living room with a mortar hole in the roof and rubble strewn across the carpet.

Syrian Revolution

‘Syrian Freedom Revolution’, Hussein Khzam

Step here

Alaa Ghazal crafted this stencil of Assad, with the words ‘Step here’, and uploaded it to Facebook. The man who has stared out intimidatingly from Syria’s walls for so long can now be sprayed onto country’s pavements, an object of casual disdain.

Allure of Freedom

Hani Abbas is recognized as one of Syria’s great cartoonists. Here, Hani depicts regime soldiers not as the brute enforcers of tyranny but as ordinary people struggling to resist the allure of freedom.

Ali Ferzat

Ali Ferzat has relied on the ambiguity of satire to slip his subversive drawings past the dim-witted censors of the state since the 1970s. Since the revolution began, the legendary cartoonist began to mock the regime more directly. In the spring of 2011, for example, he drew Assad trying to hitch a ride in the getaway car of a desperate Muammar Qadafi. In August, masked men from the regime’s security services attacked Ferzat and broke his hands. He now lives in exile in Kuwait.

Many of the ideas and illustrations in this feature were taken from Syria Speaks (Saqi Books, 2014), edited by Malu Halasa, Zaher Omareen and Nawara Mahfoud.