Book reviews - Conflict Resolution: Wider Middle East.

Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Frontline
(London: Saqi Books, 2014, 312pp.)

“Syrians Speak” would be a more accurate title for this valuable collection of essays, poems, drawings, posters, and photos by intellectuals and artists. Although some, especially at the start of the uprising in 2011 called for 'One Syria for all! A united Syria where the only sect is freedom', today, the sectarian, ethnic and regional divides make it difficult for anyone to speak in the name of Syria.

As the director of the Syrian League for Civilization Hassan Abbas writes in his essay 'Between the Cultures of Sectarianism and Citizenship' “Since its establishment as an independent, sovereign state, Syria has been marked by structural ethnic and sectarian tensions that cannot be ignored. The country's myriad pre-existing cultural groups laid the goundwork for these divisions - but not because diversity condemns societies to division and dismemberment. Rather, the successive governments that ruled the Syrian state failed to manage this diversity adequately, particularly those that came to power after the democratic era (1954-1958) which ended with the establishment of the United Arab Republic (1958-1961).”

He goes on to add “Today, Syria is undergoing a transformation from diverse forms of cultural belonging to a culture of belonging, a transformation from the cultures of sects to a culture of sectarianism”. Yet he hopes that a culture of citizenship can be acquired through upbringing, education and practical life experience. “A state founded on citizenship is the only sure defence against sectarianism and extremism. Today, in Syria, more than ever, we are witnessing the necessity of holding onto citizenship culture and its values - not only to rid ourselves of tyranny, but to build a new Syria that will survive us.”

Most of these essays and artwork were written before the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) gained the territory it now has and before the Kurdish forces started to play the extended military role they have taken on - a role which will no doubt play a role in the future status of the Kurdish-majority areas. Thus, most of the anthology's fiction, essays and cartoons concern opposition to the government of Bashar al-Assad seen against the background of growing sectarianism.

Violence - past and present - has cast a long shadow over the country. The protests began in March 2011 as peaceful demands for a more inclusive regime. As Robin Yassim-Kassab points out in the essay 'Literature of the Syrian Uprising' during the first non-violent phase “this current uprising is a popular revolution of enormous reach. In the early months at least, the slogans on the streets focused exclusively on freedom, dignity and national unity.” However, the uprising became fully militarized. As the well-known critic Yassin al-Haj Saleh notes in his interview 'On the Intellectual and the Revolution' “War ignites people's anger. This acts against culture, which is the work of the mind and the imagination. It appears that the influence of culture has declined rather than increased as the revolution has transformed into an open war. Culture had a stronger impact at the beginning of the revolution, when it was still led by peaceful demonstrations. But this culture was, at the same time, its own worst enemy, and most of its representatives have chosen to turn a blind eye to the dangers of the conflict and its complexities. Instead, they cling to simplistic clichés or make unnecessary demands that only reflect their inability to keep up with the march of change, transformation and creation in Syria.”

Yet as the editors point out “If there is a single message in Syria Speaks it is that meeting violence with violence is never successful. The artistic response to the Syrian uprising is far more than a litany of turmoil; it illustrates the accelerated experiences of a people, many of whom have been fighting for their survival. It shows their innate ability to overcome, and their dreams for the future of their country. For Syrians and non-Syrians alike, there are many reasons to wake up every morning and reach for the pen, the easel, the camcorder or the laptop - instead of a gun.”

Rene Wadlow