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The Artist in Syria. A Review of Miriam Cooke’s “Dissident Syria” by Etel Adnan

Elie Chalala

dissident-syria-collageI just read Miriam Cooke’s “Dissident Syria” and feel that this work has to be brought to the attention of specialists of Arab and Middle Eastern studies, students of literature and the general public.

We all have known for about 40 years that the Syrian regime is an authoritarian one, to say the least, and that in addition to the armed opponents that would be prosecuted in any country, Syria systematically tortures and imprisons intellectuals for long periods of time for no other reason than their having criticized the regime. Arab intellectuals in general, as well as those from the other countries of the world, pay little attention to the plight of Syrian intellectuals either out of fear, discouragement or indifference.

Miriam Cooke, professor of Arab cultures and literatures at Duke University, has had the courage to tackle this problem, and she did it tactfully, thoroughly and with generosity of heart. The result is a thorough – and heartbreaking – account of creative life in Syria, and an implicit homage to the indomitable human spirit, in this case Arab men who can be counted among the great dissidents of our times.

She spent six months interviewing and befriending people who had been – and could be again at any time – imprisoned for their views. She shows clearly that elsewhere these individuals would merely be considered writers, playwrights and filmmakers doing their duty as artists by illuminating the flaws of their governments and societies. And that is the irony: these are not opponents who preach violence. Rather they are ordinary, albeit talented, citizens who desire the common good. They are courageous witnesses of a country whose paranoid government has created a nightmarish system of punitive repression that never seems to correct itself.

Cooke’s initial interest lay in the intricate relations between government and creativity. In a country with strict censorship, all intellectual and artistic production is subjected to a multitude of controls and must receive permission to be distributed. Culture then takes on the quality of being official, of being at a propaganda machine’s service. It is not always that clear. But it is certain that this intense scrutiny by government services creates a climate of submission, fear, self-censorship or even silence.

The merit of this book lies in the proximity that Miriam Cooke has established between herself and some of the best playwrights, writers and artists. She has seen the most important ones regularly and, above all, she has listened. So their memories of suffering, their ongoing problems, and their very souls have been made bare to this woman who came from afar to listen, almost to share their misery. Thus the book becomes literature in its own right. It goes beyond research and becomes a human document worthy of the great books known as “literature of prisons,” a genre so well illustrated by Dostoyevsky in the 19th century. The list of these books is long, unfortunately, and “Dissident Syria” deserves to have a place among them.

In her book, Cooke accounts for and studies the most important intellectuals, both living and deceased, in contemporary Syria. From Ulfat Idilby to Colette Khoury, she includes such artists as Huda Naamani, Nadia Khust, Saadallah Wannus, Ghassan al Jaba’i, Faraj Bayrakdar, Mohammad Malas and Mamdouh Adwan – to name only a few. She lets them speak by quoting passages from their works, passages so well chosen that they give insight to those who are unfamiliar with their works. She makes their world visible. Although the literature of other Arab countries is fairly well represented, particularly in the West, Syrian literature and art is seldom translated or exhibited. Consequently, Syrian writers’ and artists’ imprisonment is often spiritual as well as physical, as they also suffer the isolation that accompanies obscurity and lack of acknowledgement.

While exposing their artistic greatness, she also emphasizes their incredible strength. One comes out of this reading feeling on the one hand ashamed of one’s own silence, and on the other, comforted… yes, it is those suffering from horrible physical and spiritual oppression that bring courage to those “undead” living outside in numbness.

I would have to say that seldom does academic research – no matter the level of sincerity – transcend its original purpose. But in this case, the professor became a writer, producing a peerless document on contemporary Syrian intellectual life. Nor have I seen an equivalent effort from writers regarding more or less similar problems in other countries, including those in the United States. Yet some two decades ago, Cooke had already written a remarkable study on Lebanese women writers whose works dealt with war. It was sympathetic and thorough, remaining a unique reference for that period in Lebanon, as well as for its women writers.

But this work on Syria, partly because of its subject matter, goes much further: a documentation that has grown to be an essay; a creative work and an implicit homage to the human spirit; a profoundly felt denunciation of tyranny, regardless of where it happens. Cooke is not attacking, not entering politics as such, but does infinitely more. She is bringing recognition and love to particular human beings (writers, filmmakers and visual artists) who have been and continue to be persecuted – people that we chose to ignore or forget, but who, in the end, we need more than they need us.

She has also brought attention directly and indirectly to the creativity that is taking place in Syria despite the economic and political restrictions. Cinema requires considerable budgets, but  in spite of this, there are some excellent Syrian filmmakers, such as Muhammad Malas and Omar Amiralay, who have managed to make remarkable films and documentaries.

Syrian television gives many filmmakers a chance to create indigenous programs. These directors draw heavily on historical subjects – contrary, for example, to Lebanese television, which seems to explicitly avoid such themes, reducing history to some general myths.

Cooke speaks largely on Syrian theater because it happens that all the great playwrights of that country – and they happen to be among the best in the Arab world – have been censored, mistreated or imprisoned, and sometimes all three. Saadallah Wannus and others have had their plays produced outside Syria as well.

In general, we can affirm that Syria has favored traditional arts, not in spectacular or extremely thorough ways, but Syrians have recognized and protected them to some degree. A music academy in Damascus dedicates itself to keeping age-old music alive. The few composers of contemporary music, such as Succhari, live abroad. The Syrian public is particularly fond of Lebanese popular singers such as Sabah Fairuz.

Syria’s state universities consciously defend the Arabic language. All their departments teach in Arabic, including the schools of medicine and science, whereas in Lebanon most subjects are taught in French or in English. The universities of the Maghreb also overwhelmingly use French, and although one would strive to know many languages besides one’s own, it is dangerous to see a foreign language take the place of one’s native tongue. When that happens, we witness not only a weakening of the “mother tongue,” but the loss of one’s original culture and even ensuing political problems. This problem also affects the Gulf states, where English is becoming evermore prevalent, often spoken instead of Arabic. However, it is interesting to note that in Germany, for example, where almost everybody knows a second language, be it English, Russian or French, people tend to stick to their native tongue when they are among themselves. This is an issue that deserves serious debate.

Despite the challenges of the political conditions, Syria has produced many significant poets. The most famous poet of our generation has been Nizar Kabbani, whose language was particularly beautiful. Of course there is Adonis, who was born in a village in the Alawite Mountains and is considered not only a great Arab poet but also enjoys an international reputation. Adonis has lived in Paris for the last 15 or 20 years, but he also resided and taught in Lebanon for many years. There are many younger poets; some remained in Syria, like Nazih Afash. Others, like Nazih al-Azmeh, returned to Syria after being away. Still others settled abroad, such as Nuri Jarrah, who currently lives and works in the Gulf. These are just a few names among many. If one wants a thorough list of contemporary Syrian poets, the London-based literary journal Banipal devoted an entire issue last year to Syrian literature. Besides famous women writers such as UIfat Idilbi, Colette Khoury and Ghada Samman, there are numerous Syrian novelists and short story writers, both male and female, who are worthy of our attention.

Contemporary Syria is home to a very lively artistic scene. Everybody knew the painters Fateh al-Mudarres and Luay Kayali, now both deceased. But from the 1960’s on, a new generation of painters capitalized on international trends to express specific visions. Some went to Paris – Sakhr Farzat and Yussef Abdelke were the best among them. Yussef Abdelke spent a few years in prison for his political views, though nowadays he enjoys a great artistic reputation in the Arab world. Syrian painters have exhibited regularly in Beirut and, with the Gulf States opening up to art, their exhibitions can be seen in fairs and galleries in various parts of the Middle East, often with rather high asking prices. Like Miriam Cooke noted, the government pays little attention to visual arts because they do not attract the majority of the population. Moreover, the censors are probably too ignorant to know that visual arts are a language that can carry a political message. In fact, some of the best Syrian painters denounce political oppression in the grand tradition of political art. There are also a few sculptors that exhibit both in and outside Damascus, and are much appreciated.

Miriam Cooke’s book on dissidents in Syria exceeds its original purpose by opening the door to Syrian intellectuals, writers and filmmakers. It points to a crucial problem – the abuse of power that has turned that nation into a police state – and opines that Syria, with all its richness and diversity, deserves better. Given real peace, both inside and outside its borders, Syria could again become a center of creativity, culture and civilization.

Etel Adnan

Dissident Syria
By miriam cooke
Duke University Press, 2007

This review appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 15, no. 60 (2009)

Copyright (c) 2009, 2017 by Al Jadid