x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Syria's activists resist violence with cartoons, graffiti and art

The revolutionary art produced by Syrians today is dazzling and defiant. Faced with brutality from the regime, they are responding with cartoons, posters and films.

Pep Montserrat for The National
Pep Montserrat for The National

As soon as the uprising in Syria was called a "civil war", the non-violent origins of that country's Arab Spring were effectively obscured.

The description, picked up and repeated by international news agencies, made it seem as though the propaganda of the Syrian regime had won: that the sectarian and communal strife in the country had been ignited by terrorists and outsiders and that there was a war brewing between two supposedly equal sides.

In fact, at least during the early months of 2011, the Syrian struggle, like those in Tunisia and Egypt, was a mass movement fuelled by the popular will of the people.

After the regime instigated higher and higher levels of violence, however, the Free Syrian Army emerged and arms began flowing into the country. As a result, the voices of the thousands of people who had peacefully protested for change across the country, from cities like Homs to small hamlets like Kafr Nabl, were drowned out by war and massacres. Instead of ordinary people talking for themselves and seizing the initiative, they were spoken for by media pundits and academics.

Yet the brutality, setbacks and international indifference did not stop the flowering of creative expression that has come to characterise the Syrian revolution. And recently, comic strips have introduced a whole new platform of dissent.

Watch the news briefings and you will miss the real intent of the uprising, as a people's ever-changing though resolutely non-violent conflict against tyranny. Interestingly the pulse of the revolution can be found in cartoons, graffiti, new posters, mobile phone cinema and art, which have been flooding out of the revolt, made and posted invariably by anonymous Syrians, fearful for their own lives and those of their families.

Syria's "Art of Resistance" was the subject of the illustrated lecture I gave yesterday during the Nour Festival of Arts, in London. Seated amid the Orientalist opulence of Leighton House, an audience made up of Middle East obsessives, the odd Foreign Office policy officer, student activists, and the merely curious had come to gauge the mood of the Syrian streets. Much of the material I showed, which consisted of still and moving images, is widely available across the internet and added to daily. Yet for the official media - inside and outside of the region - these materials might as well be invisible.

One of the few holes in this wall of silence has been the massive success of Top Goon: Diaries of a Little Dictator, by Masasit Mati, an anonymous Syrian artists' group named after the straw through which rural farmers in Syria drink maté tea.

The collective make short films with a small cast of engaging finger puppets. Their minuscule size makes them easier to smuggle through checkpoints. The first series, launched in November 2011, was watched more than 200,000 times on YouTube. After a few episodes, they supplanted the idea of a mighty and invincible Bashar Al Assad with a bumbling, vain, mentally defective, stiff wooden-faced, pencil-thin-necked puppet named Beeshu with a prominent nose, who speaks with a lisp - not unlike the real Baathist leader.

But it is their crisp, smart scripts that reveal the philosophical arguments raging at the heart of what has evolved into a violent revolution. In The Monster, series two, episode five, a blindfolded prisoner is whipped and electrocuted by Beeshu who keeps telling him he'll feel better if he releases his anger. Once unshackled, the prisoner almost strangles Beeshu, only to pull back before the episode fades into what is either true to life footage of mayhem and torture or something eerily staged. Real people are seen to be whipped and bleeding. Men with guns inhabit the shadows.

At the end is a quote from the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche: "Be careful when you fight the monsters, lest you become one" - a caveat to all who wallow in violence no matter what side they're on.

Interestingly, the most potent exposition of the demands of the Syrian people remains what is written on walls. It's easy to forget that the street art form of graffiti kick-started the uprising.

A group of juveniles, some as young as 10, spray-painted the slogan from the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, Alshaab yurid isqat Al-nasim ("The people want the overthrow of the regime"), and were promptly arrested and tortured before being returned to their families.

The mass outcry in Deraa acted like ripples in a lake that spread to nearby cities and towns. To purchase spray paint in Syria today you need to show identification, and if you are caught spraying late at night on the streets or on walls, the price is high, as seen by the murder of the locally renowned Spray Man of Damascus, Nour Hatem Zahra.

Beyond Deraa, one of the first acts by demonstrators was to destroy official portraits and posters of Bashar Al Assad, his family and other Baath party icons. This purging of public space allowed for the creation of new political posters and one of the main instigators was another anonymous collective, Alshaab alsori aref tarekh (The Syrian people know their way).

Their 15-strong group, including an artist, philosopher and businessman, writes and designs the work. Alshaab provides print-on-demand posters from the Flickr photo-sharing website for activists and has even simplified their colour schemes so that people won't have to spend unnecessarily on printing. The words "freedom" and "peace" appear on many of their posters. The Syrian president is also there, in one instance with a buzzard sitting on top of his head, with the entreaty written below: "The regime is a rotting corpse/Bury it with its diseases."

Since the summer the latest anonymous collective of like-minded writers, artists, illustrators and graphic designers to enter the fray is Comic4Syria. Young Syrians, it seems, have been more influenced by Japanese manga that they compulsively read in English translation online than Syria's leading cartoonist Ali Ferzat.

Found on Facebook, much of Comic4Syria's wittily illustrated and droll writing captures real life events: Cold is about a protester who is jailed in a morgue refrigerator. Sniper begins with scenes of a table and tea on a rooftop and an ordinary man, who has a gun, ends up shooting himself in the crowd.

This may seem like a surreal subversion of normal life, to shock the reader, yet actually it reflects reality in today's Syria. "Unlike the tanks or the bombings that are impersonal, the sniper picks out his targets," explains LF, spokesman for Comic4Syria, who has been arrested and witnessed torture and humiliation in the jails, and feels only "pity" for perpetrators of the violence.

During this weekend's protest in Aleppo, activists will be handing out leaflets that Comic4Syria has purposely designed for the FSA.

One of them shows a masked Free Syrian fighter, standing tall, holding an automatic rifle, with a flag billowing behind him and the dove of peace on a shoulder. It includes verse eight from the Surat Al-Insan (The Man) chapter in the Quran: "And they feed, for love of Allah, the indigent, the orphan and the captive" - alongside international laws about the rights of prisoners.

To find out the thoughts of ordinary Syrians, and their plans for reconciliation in the future, look at the revolutionary art they produce under great hardship and danger today.


Malu Halasa co-curated the exhibition Culture in Defiance: Continuing Traditions of Satire, Art and the Struggle for Freedom in Syria for the Prince Claus Fund gallery in Amsterdam. She is Editor at Large for Portal 9, a new journal on urbanism from Beirut