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Baathist ‘Culture Shock’: Pre-2011 Syrian Regime Policy in Culture and the Arts

Elie Chalala

Culture Shock Collage JPG.jpgIn the 1970s, a conversation in a governmental council took place about recruiting a Soviet classical music orchestra to play in Syria. Gathering the most important actors in regulating the country’s cultural institutions, the Syrian council spent a high, nearly prohibitive amount of money hosting them. After listening to a short performance, the head of the council offered his opinion, categorizing it as mere noise, a noise he could reproduce by banging his hand on the table in front of him. Since the decision-maker expressed his artistic taste so starkly that it verged on obscenity, the council dropped the subject.

A few years later, a powerful man from a certain Syrian metropolis endeavored to demolish the city’s “filthy and crumbling” ancient souqs. When a group of intellectuals concerned with preserving the city’s architecture opposed him, he hurled accusations of treason and of conspiring with foreign entities at them.

When given the opportunity to run a small foreign cultural institution, I organized intellectual, cultural and academic activities while trying to avoid any direct involvement in prohibited subjects, though unsuccessfully. For one event, I invited a French professor of fine arts to speak about the Moroccan period of the French painter Henri Matisse (1869-1954). The professor gave his presentation using slides that focused on Matisse’s still life works during this period. Later, the agent tasked with writing a report asked me about the content of the slides, so I jokingly responded that the slides showed plates full of food and glasses full of wine, therefore making the subject of the lecture cuisine, and those present in the audience, intellectuals interested in cooking.

Thinking the matter had been laid to rest with this bit of humor, I instead found myself forced to meet his boss at a special security station the following day. The man accused me of mocking his agent’s intelligence, adding, “Sir, our agents are not as cultured as you or I, so be indulgent with your answers next time. ”Shocked by his speech, I asked the man the reason for their concern about such lectures on art. Later in the interview, the answer came to me after I assured the man that the guest lecturers all had rented rooms at a certain hotel. Showing off his brilliant cultural knowledge, the man replied, “But we looked everywhere in the hotel and did not find Henri Matisse.”

At another event, I screened a well-known documentary film, from the early 2000s, on resettling bears in the French Pyrenees. Far from offering any political message, other than the importance of conserving of our diverse environments, the film followed two bears as they explored their new habitat, and abounded with enchanting shots of nature and animals. Just as with the Matisse lecture, I did not expect this documentary to cause a stir, especially since the necessary “security” license had been procured for its screening.

At the beginning of the film, however, one of “them” sat next to me, and asked for a brief summary of the subject. When I answered that he should simply follow the events of the film, and form his own opinions, he responded that he did not speak French well. I explained that film remained nearly silent, except for nature sounds and the rumbles of the bears. “What of the dialogue?” he asked, and then continued with a malicious, yellow smile, “Don’t tell me about the screenplay. I know the difference between the two…but I want to know about the dialogue, to see if it carries any political message.” I could not help but answer him sharply, “Our conversation is for the deaf. As for the film, it contains the dialogue of bears.”

Such stories could fill volumes on the Syrian regime’s view of and approach to cultural institutions. Cultural centers have changed in recent years, becoming stages from which to sing to the beloved leader. Or they treat inconsequential subjects with no cultural or philosophical significance, thereby contributing – certainly with their own knowledge – to intellectual obscurantism. Speaking about art has become taboo, carefully directed and censored when even allowed, or directly prohibited in many cases. Those able to navigate the winding paths that envelop any kind of creativity in Syria possess courage, patience, and perseverance. At the same time, techniques of symbolism continue to spread as more artists rely on them to speak furtively of (or in) their work.

In the book “On Cultural Activities in Syria During the Years of Embers,” the publisher, Ettijahat, makes a bold attempt to explore the state of cultural life in the catastrophic conditions of Syria and the region. It offers an introduction to the most effective paths out of such conditions, and a blueprint of the foundations for a cultural production that has to contend with factors like fear, polarization, and silencing. During periods of revolution, catastrophe or war, researchers often avoid talking about the role and influence of the arts, preferring instead to focus on the political, social, and economic conditions for various national, ethnic, or religious groups. In addition, despite great research on the educational and social dimensions of the conflict, the arts remain the only space for collective identity and harmony that does not receive its fair share of coverage and analysis.

Ettijahat’s courageous initiative to embark upon this journey highlights the often ignored importance of this topic. It reignites a discussion on how to analyze, and research cultural production, opening the door for a future, Arab-led initiative. The book presents the current state of cultural production in Syria, as well as the events leading up to it, with a methodical and well-cited approach. Comprised of three studies rich in content and sophisticated analysis, it answers many of the posed questions, both in the Syrian and Arab context, about the arts and their dominant effect.

Through her discussion concerning the role of the arts in achieving civil peace and well-being, Rama Najma strikes upon a new, positive dimension of the arts – their use in the settlement of civil disputes. She presents several in-depth experiments that show the effectiveness of the arts in renewing the social fabric of war-torn countries.

Referencing the best research in the field, Najma includes a discussion concerning the key components of successful arts initiatives. She follows up with a discussion specifically analyzing the possibilities of implementing such initiatives in Syria, taking into account the composition of Syrian society, and its collective culture.

Similarly, Mary Ilias discusses cultural production during times of crisis in Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon, accounting for each country’s distinct current cultural reality. Nevertheless, while the crises in each country have developed in a singular fashion, the effects on cultural production and creativity have proven similar across the countries. Dr. Ilias relies on thorough research from all three states, a capable research team, and unified methodology.

After two sections treating the current condition of the arts, as well as analyzing the effects of the Syrian crisis on creative production, the final section presents research conducted by a group from The Syrian Center for Political Research. Their study examines the condition of the arts pre-2011 period, through all of its changes and fluctuations. Through their research on the development of cultural frameworks in Syria, the group aims to recognize the determinants of the regime’s cultural policy. By focusing on preserving institutions, the study proposes ways to rectify their functions or restructure them.

A conversation about cultural policy requires what must be an incredibly difficult discussion between those who support preserving the role of public institutions in cultural production, and those who call for a complete liberation from the chains of these institutions, which they claim fundamentally, restrict creativity. An extreme liberalism, which cites America’s cultural model as an exemplar, considers any role the state may play in cultural works restrictive. Thus, they do not depend on the state to build a favorable climate for creativity and expression. Some, in the name of liberating the arts, even call for the elimination of the Ministry of Culture. In this study, however, a voice well-informed about the current cultural situation prevails.

While it does not necessarily favor an ideological approach, it does embrace the role of the legitimate state in helping to craft cultural policy, or at least in providing aid to those seeking to meet the demands of such an undertaking. It also takes a rational look at the cultural role of the state in providing leadership for culturally productive countries on a worldwide scale. France, for example, promotes a clear cultural agenda, viewing its role as a positive, educating one. One should note that works of cultural significance often need support from public sources, considering that such works may not be “marketable” to large audiences. Innovation and thought in the arts do not necessarily sustain the artist.

An examination of the state’s role in cultural production necessitates an even more complicated and stormy discussion about the role of foreign funding. Foreign support – often from Western countries – has its critics, whose rhetoric of mistrust most often originates in civilian circles and even the artists themselves, but rarely derives from official state policy. Once again, the book offers a comprehensive, unbiased presentation of examples demonstrating how artists generally manage to convey the validity of their artistic goals and methodologies to patrons while still maintaining autonomy over their work.

The various studies show the role of the private sector as far more limited, with the expectation that it will remain limited as long as the concept of social responsibility suffers from structural weakness in the majority of Arab countries. Once social responsibility begins to take root, we can expect a gradual increase in contributions to the arts from the private sector. From a profitability standpoint, investors generally find artistic production unattractive in even the most developed countries, so we should not expect injections of capital from big money interests unless specific artistic endeavors prove profitable.

Published in a time when much theoretical work has been done on the rebuilding of institutions and economies in Syria, this book contains exhaustive and valuable studies, making it a must-read addition to that body of work. As I mentioned at the outset, most research in this field has ignored the role of the arts in the reconstruction, resulting in their omission from the top priorities of the prospective post-conflict period. While reading these pages, it becomes clear that neglecting the contributions and supports created by the arts – in any society – leaves that society’s framework uncompleted. This proves especially true for societies, whose diversity has been ruefully mismanaged, resulting in fragmentation and rivalry between groups.

“Freedom,” both of physical spaces and morale functions as the beacon of every artistic and cultural product, and the rule upon which creative production must lean in the rebuilding period. Our forefathers did not overlook the value and effect of freedom. As Abd al-Rahman al-Kawakibi once said near the end of the 19th century, “The free nations have provided freedom of speech, press and expression, with only the exception of libel, seeing that the harm of chaos worked better than any measure of restriction. Otherwise, rulers would answer to no one if they turned a hair-thin line of restriction into a thick chain of iron, thus choking their natural enemy, freedom.

Salam Kawakibi

Translated from the Arabic by Joseph Sills

The text was adapted from the introduction to “On Cultural Activities in Syria During the Ember Years,” published by Ettijihat, Belgium, 2016.

This article appeared in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 21, No. 72, 2017.

Artwork Al Jadid – On the left, “Back to School” (2012) by Tammam Azzam; on the right, “Maniquenne” (2012) by Imran Faour.

© Copyright 2017 AL JADID MAGAZINE