The Mighty Pen: Creative Dissent in Syria
“Smash our pens!”¯ the Syrian poet Khalil Mutran wrote in the early 20th century against the oppressive Ottoman government. “Will smashing them prevent our hands from carving on the stones?”
A hundred years later, with the explosion of the Syrian revolution, Mutran’s words sum up the spirit of Syrian artists, writers and musicians pushing through the barriers of fear and defying government censorship.Political dissent is nothing new to our world and it has certainly hit the headlinessince rebel groups grabbed guns and grenades all over the Middle East in Spring 2011. But we don’t hear as much about the genre of creative dissent –the satire, memoir, fiction and paintings — that explodes right alongside revolutions.
Samar Yazbek proved that she was determined to carve her stories into stone when she wrote and published “A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution,” despite daily government death threats. It’s a hurried yet thoughtful journal that seems smuggled out of the country’s chaos. Current and pressing, her book has all the characteristics of a good news story, and yet it’s more of a personal testimony, a work of art. The narrative follows Yazbek stumbling in and out of prison. It portrays her holding a frightened boy in Al-Merjeh Square after watching police brutally beat his parents. As readers, we are with Yazbek as she wakes up screaming in the middle of the night. We understand her fears of opening her front door.
The book emerged from her experiences last year protesting the Assad regime and collecting ordinary Syrians’s thoughts and memories. She interviewed neighbors, doctors, soldiers and fellow protestors about their brushes with death, and often discovered that “after they talked to her, they disappeared.” Assad’s security forces detained her five times, and proscribed her on a special hit list. Yazbek persisted — protesting and writing — and only decided to pack up and leave Syria when the government turned on her teenage daughter with death threats. Now Yazbek leads a life on the run, continuing to document stories about the revolution, intent on dispelling government rumors and spreading awareness that the civil war, as she says, “is a problem of conscience. It’s not a problem of Sunni, Shiite or anything else.”
“Cut off our hands! Will cutting them off prevent our eyes from flashing out in anger?” the poet Mutran asks.
Ali Farzat, the famous Syrian political cartoonist, knows his answer. Last year, Assad’s militia stormed into his car, threw him on the ground and beat his hands brutally as a warning¯ against drawing inflammatory cartoons. His fingers still hurt when he sketches, but he is determined not to withdraw into fearful silence. Instead, he strives to make his message “a million times stronger.”¯ But by “stronger,” Fazart doesn’t mean more blatant. He realizes that “drawing the President is like suicide,“ so he has embraced the art of subtle symbols that can manipulate government censors — one of his cartoons shows metal springs jutting from the cushion of a royal chair.
The Syrian artist, Bassim al-Rayes, hopes to commemorate every lost life in the revolution, through an ambitious art project. He is painting an image for every Syrian who has died in the uprising. Obviously, he faces practical challenges as the war’s death toll nears 20,000, but he can achieve the essence: to create a beautiful, colorful mass grave to “memorialize the dreams of a democratic Syria,”¯ and to counter the darkness that engulfs the country. He paints the eyes of freemen wide open in order to convey a sense of alertness, of waiting, and tries to exclude the color red from his art — a color too familiar to the country. Rayes first exhibited his work on the Art & Freedom page on Facebook, posting a new piece every day, and now spreads his art all over the Internet to rouse international empathy and support for the Syrian people in their quest for freedom.
Art like Yazbek’s prose, Farzat’s cartoons and Rayes’ paintings provide an entirely new perspective on political conflict, a view that transcends the numbing death tolls, the graphic news stories, and bloody photographs. Art reveals the inner lives and minds of the Syrian people. It spreads a larger truth about courage and freedom.
Mutran concludes his poetic address to the Ottoman government: “And that’s the limit of your power. It puts us far beyond your reach.” Assad’s tanks are powerless next to the pens and paintbrushes of the Syrian people. Art is a stronger, bolder and more permanent weapon that will — eventually –prevail against the regime.