Stories from Syria

A Jewish proverb asks ‘What is truer than truth?’ To which it answers, ‘A story’. The inherent need for human beings to tell stories finds expression in multiple cultures across the globe, and is a need that can be understandably heightened in times of war. After the crisis in Syria and the outbreak of revolution in 2011, many Syrians began working as journalists even if they were not journalists before, in order to tell their stories to the world.

Networks of experts have supported some of these individuals in numerous ways in order to get their stories to the media. An example of this is Good Morning Syria, a bilingual website focusing on the daily lives of Syrians all over the country who find ways of surviving in a land dominated by war..

Since 2015, Good Morning Syria has offered in-depth reports and interviews delivered by a network of Syrian reporters, photographers and video/audio-makers. The project aims to bridge the gap between Western media and Syrian journalists, seeking to clarify the stories that come out of Syria in a conflict too often simplified in the Western media.

The website currently features stories by 11 male and 3 female reporters, including Mohammad Amen Qurabi, or ‘Ghazal’, a photographer. I find grounds for familiarity with him as he was, like me, born in 1991. Another reporter, Yaman ‘Antabli is the same age as my younger brother.

The website endeavours to be apolitical, providing a platform for the voices of ordinary citizens without taking a political stance. The action of providing this platform is, of course, nonetheless inherently political. These stories are presented with the intent of giving outsiders the ‘inside view’ of an enduring war, with the hope of promoting empathy, understanding, and as a consequence, perhaps fostering political action.

Reading one account of al-Wa’r by Jood Mahban  I learn that buildings in this neighbourhood have been arbitrarily shelled with missiles since early 2013. Citizens still grieve over the remains of the old city, but this story tells of how a group of young amateurs have attempted to make their own mark on the devastated landscape in spite of the siege and destruction—a story of nonviolent acts of resistance to war.

Radwan al-Khaled, Flowery Barricades

A youth group have turned the mounds of rubble into comical drawings, many of which mock those responsible for the devastation. The same group have also organised a Documentary Film Festival to showcase emerging artists who have documented the realities of al-Wa’r during the war.

Another story tells of an individual who attempts to enrich the culture of locals via literature.Fayez Yaser reports on an intellectual named Shaykh al-Warraqin—‘the Papermaker’—who printed a number of books in 2012 to give to residents of Eastern Ghuta.

He personally undertook all printing costs and distributed the books for free, later establishing ‘The Revolutionary Cultural Centre of Eastern Ghuta’. He continues to supply the centre with a breadth of books, including banned books, and thereby contributes to the protection of culture in this neighbourhood.

Morees Bitar, another writer for Good Morning Syria, describes culture as having been ‘temporarily dragged into a state of hibernation’ since the outbreak of war. Cultural activities were suspended for over two years from 2011 and, as the previous story illustrates, it is left down to individuals to subvert these rules. Since 2011, a Cultural Centre in al-‘Asi Square in Hama has also re-introduced poetry readings and symposiums with the hope of ‘bringing culture back to life’.

The readings, however, take place in a room that resembles a dark cinema hall, decorated with flags of Syria’s ruling Ba’ath Party. Since power cuts are practically constant in the city, the poets often have to recite their work in the dark. Samer, a member of the Arab Writers Union in Hama, says:

“Poetry readings are held in accordance with a political decision aimed at reanimating culture and unveiling young talents that manifest their love for the homeland and its leader by writing patriotic poems. Large amounts of money are spent to cover these seminars in the media, to emphasize the stable security situation of the city.”  

Some see these readings as a desire to break from wartime routine, whilst others criticise them—potentially because they are aligned with a particular political stance: one that is patriotic and aims at emphasising a fabricated security.

James Thompson, Professor of Applied and Social Theatre at the University of Manchester, and director of the In Place of War project, points out that artistic responses to war are not always about artists doing good work or storytellers telling tales of survival. He says:

[T]he majority of cultural projects that exist in war zones help to maintain war, increase divisions, stoke revenge, build nationalism or promote racism. There is no automatic propensity for an arts initiative to be pro-peace. (Thompson)

In addition to this, the belief that telling a story validates one’s experience or makes one more able to cope with war is one that often stems from a human rights perspective, or a therapeutic tradition where an expressed story is said to heal the teller. Many of these tropes originate from particular North American and European traditions, and consequently may be appropriate for some communities, but not others. In many contexts, telling a story has no simple relationship to a process of overcoming suffering, and it is important therefore to not overlook other cultural forms of dealing with suffering. (Thompson)

Outsiders, too, have reported on the situation in Syria in diverse and creative ways. One example of this is online documentary Refugee Republic[1].

Refugee Republic. Image Credit: Jan Rothuizen: 

‘A group of women sit on the ground in front of a row of white tents, waiting for help. A child covered in dust stands behind barbed wire gazing wide-eyed into the lens. These are the images that reach us from refugee camps. And yet a whole world lies behind these images, one that few people witness with their own eyes.’

For the first time since the Second World War there are more than 50 million refugees worldwide. The hundreds of refugee camps across the world are rapidly growing into mini-societies, with refugees as citizens and relief organizations as governments. Refugee Republic is an interactive documentary that takes the user of the website into the world behind the relief organization posters.

The makers—artist Jan Rothuizen, multimedia journalist Martijn van Tol, photographer Dirk Jan Visser and web developer Aart Jan van der Linden—went to Camp Domiz in northern Iraq, where around 64 thousand predominantly Kurdish Syrian refugees have sought shelter. Their aim is to enrich the existing image of refugee camps by bringing to life its inhabitants and places in a multidimensional mix of sound, drawings, photo and film. They say:

“We understand the camps to be temporary measures, but worldwide refugees remain in some form of relief care for an average of 17 years. Like any others, the refugee citizens make home improvements, go to the baker, look for work or start up a business, seek entertainment, fall in love, argue with the neighbours, get married and have children.”

The voices of refugees filter through their hand drawn map of Camp Domiz. One says: “They’re watching a live football match in Germany. I thought the Europeans would be out on the streets for us!”[2] Camp facts move across the bottom of the screen like news headlines. You can pick which route to take through the camp, and scroll through sketches as though walking through a 2-Dimensional black-and-white landscape, being intermittently stopped by a song or a story.

Image Credit: Jan Rothuizen 

I find out that there are 7 schools in the camp. I see and hear the children as footage of a school appears on screen. Text appears above the photo or film and tells me that teachers earn 600 dollars a month: 400 from the Iraqi government and 200 from the UNHCR, but that they haven’t been paid for 4 months.

The ‘Mosquecam’ allows me to see a group of children preparing for prayer amidst the bustle of daily life. The traffic beside the prayer mat is incessant: motorbikes, trucks and people pass by as they bow their heads. As a viewer, these little insights into life in the camp are rewarding, but the ‘interactive’ aspects of the documentary are nonetheless largely confined to swiping your finger left or right on a track pad. Not a critique, but I remain a safe and passive spectator; at one remove from the camp and the day-to-day reality of its residents.

The team of the artist, journalist, photographer and web developer have artfully constructed Refugee Republic, and it is visually slick and well assembled. The first-hand perspectives on the experiences of conflict are perhaps missing—something Good Morning Syria is abundant with—and we digest only snippets of stories that perhaps gloss over the daily reality.

Good Morning Syria’s first-hand written testimonials are an interesting counterpoint to the heavily funded interactive web documentary. The support of the latter project, however, means its reach may be much wider, enabling it to extend to audiences that a platform such as Good Morning Syria perhaps cannot. Overall, both platforms provide us with a perspective on the Syrian conflict that differs from journalistic coverage we see regularly in the news.

For an interview with 2 individuals who also frequently tell migrant stories, click here to listen: 

Melissa Brakel

[1] Refugee Republic is a Submarine Channel production in coproduction with De Volkskrant. This project was made with the support of Creative Industries Fund NL, Dutch Cultural Media Fund, Netherlands Film Fund, Amsterdam Municipality, Free Press Unlimited and OneWorld.

[2] Refugee Republic

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