An Eye on the Cultural Landscape of Syria
The artist Hiba Al-Ansari lives in Germany but in the spring of 2014, she visited Kafr Nabl, a town in northwestern Syria that was then in the hands of anti-government rebels. In a home there that had been destroyed by a Syrian army rocket, she found a math textbook. The young student it belonged to, Noura Bazkadi, was dead. Al-Ansari’s installation and performance work Math Book, which has been shown in Beirut and elsewhere, is inspired by this experience. The artist creates the stylized effects of an explosion, as well as strange mathematical “equations” using household objects.
Orwa Al Mokdad’s award-winning documentary film 300 Miles explores, through interviews with relatives and friends, the shift of the Syrian uprising from peaceful protest into armed conflict.
Odai Alzoubi is a Syrian writer and translator. He is the author of several short-story collections, some of which address the conflict but most of which, intentionally, do not. “My main idea is to keep on being able to see the world without the war,” he said in a short online interview about his writing.
All of these artists have received support from Ettijahat (“Directions”), a Beirut-based association that aims to foster young independent cultural actors, within and without Syria. Since 2012 the organization, which is supported by a variety of donors,has also been supporting research projects focused on cultural production.
For example, Alzoubi, the writer and translator, is also conducting research on the “Frameworks for the Sustainable Support of Syrian Art,” in partnership with Mona Merhi, mapping the organizations that offer support to Syrian artists—their objectives, results, challenges and limitations.
This is part of Ettijahat’s stated mission to “observe and examine the Syrian cultural landscape and how it was affected by the crisis over the last five years.”
“Drastic changes are taking place—not just political but social and cultural changes,” Ettijahat’s executive director, Abdullah Al Kafri, told me in a phone call from Beirut. “We need to raise questions. We need to try to understand our society and the challenge that is going on.”
The organization’s goal is also to offer “a different narrative about Syria—because all the narrative is focused on the conflict,” said program officer Joya Sfeir.
Ettijahat gives grants to artists working in animation, theater, dance and performing arts, creative writing, visual arts and music. It supports community arts initiatives, workshops for artists, and exhibitions. It uses rotating selection committees, with committee members not affiliated to the artists being evaluated, to ensure independence and impartiality in selecting the artists it supports.
Rouba Mhaissen, director of Sawa for Development and Aid, a civil society organization that grew out of the response to the arrival of the first displaced Syrian families in northern Lebanon, says that Ettijahat is one of the more active Syria-focused organizations in Beirut. Ettijahat balances out the many organizations focused on humanitarian work, she said, and helps Syrians to process their trauma and preserve their identity. Cultural heritage and creativity, she says, are “the backbone of Syrian identity.”
Ettijahat has grantees in Lebanon, Syria and the diaspora. Some travel back and forth between different countries. The organization prioritizes supporting artists and researchers in Syria, but work conditions—for those who can safely be there at all—are not easy.
“In Syria, the general environment for supporting research is weak and challenging,” said Al Kafri. “It is difficult to get access to information; universities have lost their role as centers of research and critical thinking; there are no alternative or independent institutions that support research.”
Many libraries are closed, and it is difficult to conduct field work and surveys. “People are not really ready to talk about some issues because of oppression and fear,” said Sfeir.
The 10 to 15 researchers a year that Ettijahat supports are generally young and unaffiliated (the organization figures those enrolled in Ph.D. programs are less in need). They are assigned experienced mentors to help guide them through the process, and given the financial means to focus on their projects for about nine months.
In the beginning, much of the research focused on new forms of artistic expression in fields such as theater and the fine arts that exploded alongside the Syrian uprising in 2011.
Al Kafri says Ettijahat pushed researchers working on this “revolutionary art” to look back at Syria’s cultural history and contextualize the phenomena they were observing.
Researchers have worked on the evolution of graffiti, poetry, children’s theater and TV dramas; on the representation of particular Syrian communities such as Kurds and Turkmen; and on the use of political stereotypes, sarcasm or selfie videos.
In recent years, Al Kafri said, researchers have shown a growing interest in “heritage generally speaking, including intangible heritage” such as crafts, cuisine, games or songs. “There is a loss of identity due to conflict that is being felt,” he said.
But the point of the project is not publication as much as supporting and training a young generation of researchers. In their work, researchers and artists grapple with a few fundamental and terribly difficult questions, says Al Kafri: “How do I position myself in terms of the conflict? What is the impact of my role? What can I do to lessen this tragedy?”
Ettijahat can’t provide the answers, but it can at least give Syrian cultural actors the time and space to keep on asking the questions.