x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Syrian artists channel anger at regime into creative projects

A satirical puppet show parodies Bashar Al Assad. A music video depicting the brutality of his regime is a hit on YouTube. Syria's artists and musicians are confronting their leader in the only way they know.

A frame grab from
A frame grab from "Malek Jandali Freedom Qashoush Symphony" by Malek Jandali.

He had performed his music in the shadow of the White House only days before the army of Assad came for his family.

But it was Malek Jandali's participation in a pro-democracy rally last September when he performed his anti-regime song Watani Ana (I Am My Country) that brought the plain-clothes military men to the door of his parents' home.

Late that night in Homs, the feared shabiha, the ghosts of the regime, broke down the couple's front door and began their assault. They handcuffed Jandali's father and forced him to watch as they attacked his mother.

"This is what happens when your son criticises us," they told his retired parents. "Obviously you don't know how to raise him, so we're going to teach you how to raise him."

Both parents were severely beaten, left with deep scars and bruises across their faces and bodies.

The tactics of the regime of Bashar Al Assad are now well-known. As an uprising against his rule nears its second year, the regime has turned its wrath on anyone who disagrees with it, anyone who criticises it, in whatever form, including Jandali, a world-renowned musician, pianist and composer of Syrian origin.

"When I first saw the photographs of the attack, it was probably one of the saddest days in my life," says Jandali, speaking from Atlanta in the US, where he lives. "To see my mum and dad like that, being beaten. I had mixed emotions. Sadness, combined with outrage, combined with anger."

Yet the attack did not make him want to cease his opposition.

"It was the opposite, believe it or not. And that's why, in Syria, you wonder why the numbers [of protesters] are increasing. They kill his son or his brother, or maybe he loses his hand, and the next day he has even more determination. And I never expected that would happen to me. But I was more determined. I was composing more. I was more productive. I was more focused and even more hopeful."

His parents were behind him. They have since moved to the US.

"I had a fund-raising concert the very next weekend after they attacked my parents. And my mum said to me, 'What they did to me is worth at least one more concert.' That was so noble, so courageous."

This week, Jandali released his new album Emessa, titled after the ancient name for Homs, one of the cities at the centre of the Syrian uprising. The record features songs explicitly about the uprising.

It is the latest in a series of songs, cartoons and online videos that have come out of the protests, part of what is best described as cultural dissent. As largely peaceful protests gathered speed across the country, Syrians have poured their will to protest into creative forms. Songs mocking the regime or praising the uprising are circulated first online and then sung in the squares and streets of Syria. Videos are passed from phone to phone or circulated via social networking sites. The uprising has moved into the cultural sphere.

One of the most creative forms of protest comes from Top Goon: Diaries of a Little Dictator, a puppet show distributed via YouTube and social networking sites. In the show, which ended a 15-episode run last week and will return for a second series, Beeshu, a finger puppet that looks like Bashar Al Assad, is depicted with his right-hand man, his top goon, a brutal military man called Shabih, and a host of other characters. Tens of thousands have viewed the episodes on YouTube, poking fun at the regime.

As the uprising has gripped Syrian artists, the Syrian regime has moved swiftly against any such expression. Even artists who were previously tolerated have found themselves attacked.

Ali Farzat, one of the Arab world's most famous cartoonists, has worked inside Syria for years, openly attacking the regime and other dictatorships - Farzat was the subject of a death threat from Saddam Hussein - but usually tolerated by the government as long as his cartoons were symbolic rather than specific.

That changed last year as his attacks on the president, whom he has known for years and counted as a personal friend, became more pointed. In one cartoon, he drew Mr Al Assad urgently thumbing a lift from a fleeing Muammar Qaddafi.

Soon after, in August, Farzat was kidnapped in Damascus by masked gunmen, beaten and left on the side of the road. The attackers targeted the cartoonist's arms, breaking both of them and telling him the attack was "just a warning".

The first release from Jandali's new album is called Freedom Qashoush Symphony and explicitly ties itself to the uprising and in particular to one of its most gruesome episodes.

When Ibrahim Qashoush, a fireman and father of three, wrote a catchy anti-regime song that was sung first in the squares of his native Hama, the reaction it elicited was swift and brutal. He was kidnapped, his throat slit, his vocal cords cut out and his body thrown in the river. A video of his body being discovered, with his injuries visible, went viral online.

Yet the song he wrote, Yalla Irhal Ya Bashar (Time to Leave, Bashar), is now the most recognisable anthem of the Syrian uprising, sung at every gathering in the country and as far afield as Germany, the US and New Zealand.

"I chose it because it was pivotal in modern Syrian history from an artistic perspective. They sliced his throat on purpose to send a brutal message to all artists and all Syrians," says Jandali. "Qashoush was a threat because he was a true artist, reflecting the true reality on the ground. The regime fears such artistic expression because it's uncontrollable.

"It's a threat when you have a true artist or a beautiful Syrian symphony, that's being truthful, that's playing in harmony - that's a threat to the regime. They want individuals that they can control and say, 'Go and sing for Assad and go and sing for our army'."

It is this attempt to reflect what is really happening inside Syria that galvanised the troupe of 10 actors behind Top Goon.

"Art is a form of protest in general," says Jamil, a nickname for the director, speaking from an undisclosed location in Syria. "In light of the regime's violence it becomes impossible to speak seriously about the bloodshed and the violence that the regime is capable of. But, comedy, especially black sarcastic comedy, is quite potent and efficient in the face of violence.

"We decided to use sarcasm to give people an outlet for their frustrations. We wanted to give people a chance to smile, just as the protesters in the street are doing. They are chanting, dancing and doing the traditional dabke [folk dance]. It is a form of sarcastic protest. How can this cruelty be countered otherwise?"

The online episodes tackle serious themes, such as army defections, cosmetic reform and a passive media, but with humour and sarcasm. The depiction of Bashar Al Assad, in particular, is scathing. He is given the diminutive name Beeshu and depicted as a vacillating, frightened man-boy, prone to nightmares ("The regime has fallen!" he wakes up shouting in one episode), often comforted by Shabih (whose name comes from the singular for shabiha, the plain-clothes thugs of the regime).

The portrayal is deliberate, says Jamil. "We want to break the existing taboos in Syria. Until now, it is prohibited to ridicule a leading regime figure. "

Jamil and his troupe of actors hide their identities in the videos.

"I am a mere civilian," he says. "You only have to point a gun to my face and I'll confess immediately. This is my only weapon. We joined the protests in the streets at the beginning of the uprising, but this is all we know how to do. We know how to make art. This is how we raise our voice against the regime."

He admits to being frightened, given what has happened to other critics of the government.

"Of course I am afraid," he says quietly. "I'm not a hero in the end. I'm an ordinary person. I'm always worried that my identity would be discovered. I'm worried that my parents or my friends would be harmed, especially under this criminal regime. But, at the same time, this is our only option. We will not stop. We will continue to do what we're doing until the regime is down or until we get caught."

Cultural dissent is vital to a revolution, and is greatly feared, as Jandali says, for its subversive power.

The importance of cultural dissent lies in four things primarily. By using peaceful means, artists reinforce the peaceful nature of the protests, even in the face of brutal repression.

Cultural dissent also sways the undecided, allowing them to imagine a world after dictatorship. In his public speeches since the uprising began, President Al Assad has often talked about the future, about what his government will do months and years down the line. The importance of this is not lost on his listeners: it is verbal reinforcement of the permanence of the regime. The regime, in this telling, is not going anywhere, so any opposition will eventually be punished: weeks or months or years later, the regime will still find its opponents.

Cultural dissent attacks this narrative, showing that the regime is far from permanent. By legitimising dissent, the undecided middle see that a world after Mr Al Assad is possible and it pushes them to join the protests, to move from the middle ground towards the protest camp.

That one thread can be traced through all the artistic products discussed. Yalla Irhal Ya Bashar includes the line: "Your legitimacy has ended Bashar, it's time to leave". In Jandali's music video for Freedom Qashoush Symphony, after he is dragged away by armed police and his house and piano are burnt, a young girl is shown picking up the charred remains of the music score and then she begins playing.

The third element of cultural dissent, perhaps its most important attribute, is legitimising dissent, encouraging resistance by minimising the cult of fear that surrounds the leadership. Top Goon does this particularly well, but many cartoons and songs do the same, pricking the bubble of fear that surrounds dissent in police states.

In the last episode of Top Goon, the actor playing Beeshu rises into the frame to confront the president, in itself a revolutionary image. "Listen to me," he says, his face covered with a scarf. "In the name of all the people you have hurt, in the name of tomorrow and in the name of the future, I say to you: Leave. Go now." The puppet Beeshu is then knocked over and the actor tells his viewers: "Believe me, this is the easiest part."

In the end, though, cultural dissent can only be part of an uprising. Uprisings without weapons can always be crushed. But that highlights the fourth part of cultural dissent, the ability to appeal to greater morality, over the heads of the regime to the people of the world. Particularly in an age of interconnectivity, music and theatre and art can be distributed swiftly, and can reach audiences far outside the country. When people abroad gather to hear Jandali's concerts or chant the songs of the revolution, they become part of the uprising, participants in the collective yearning for freedom.

In one song for the uprising, a singer changes the words of The Beatles' Let It Be: "Boys are playing peacefully, writing words of freedom, let it be". Such artistic offerings - and the countless videos made by people abroad in support of the Syrian people - show that the world is listening, if not yet acting.

In the last episode of Top Goon, the Assad puppet tells the Syrian people that they are alone, that there is no one coming to help them.

Jamil explains why: "I know that we're not alone. We can feel it in the responses we've been getting from around the world. People are supporting us. We are aware of that and the regime is aware of it too. For this reason, we had Beeshu say to the people that they are alone. But it was more of a sarcastic comment. In the end, we are not alone, and our people rose up to seek their freedom and they will not stop until they get it."

For more about Malek Jandali, visit his website at http://www.malekjandali.com/. To keep up with Top Goon, follow the creators on Twitter @MasasitMati

falyafai@thenational.ae