Friday, 19 October 2018
'The panel ‘Women, Art and Revolution’ hosted at HOME as part of the arts and cultural festival ‘Celebrating Syria’ turned elitism on its head, recognising the revolutionary power of art, even when – or especially when – your voice is failing to be heard.
For the women on the panel, art in the context of the Syrian revolution was a way for Syrians to speak up, especially women, against an oppressive regime. Graphic designer and curator, Sana Yazigi, of creativememory.org, a website which collates into one place the rich art scene that emerged during the Syrian revolution, spoke on the panel. Yazigi explained that “when the revolution started, I was amazed, just like all other Syrians”.
“Men and women began to express themselves: as a citizen, as a militant, an artist. Being represented like this was hugely important. It provokes the anger of the regime”.
“Around 40 women artists emerged during the revolution”. Yazigi showed the room a collection of images of these artists’ work, including that of the cartoonist and caricature artist Sahar Burhan. If you venture onto creativememory.org you can find no less than thirty three pieces by the artist, each satirical, and undeniably chilling. ‘Ceasefire’ (2016) depicts a bomb in a glass of water. Though the weapon is lit, underneath we can see roots growing from it.
The second panellist was Muzna Al-Naib, a children’s author and self-described “aspiring film-maker”. Upon watching her film during the panel, which focused on deaf Syrian story-telling, it was clear that Al-Naib was established in her own right. Al-Naib explained that anything from the red water representing blood in the fountain in Damascus to the viral image of an old woman holding up a sign stating she still hoped for the life of her son was art.
“Art is the language of our struggle,” she stated. “Art is not elitist anymore. It carries the force and the heartbeat of a nation”. Al-Naib described the added layer of complexity that stems from her gender: being a woman demonstrating in Syria may have meant that she “has to do her own mini revolution at home before she goes to the street”. This is why the writer believes more female artists emerged within the revolution, “it was a liberation journey for freedom from the regime, as well as from being a woman”.
It was clear, listening to the voices in the room who introduced themselves and stated where they were from, that the talk had attracted many Syrian women. Both old and young, university students and mothers, they were all here in Manchester, and eager to share their own personal revolutions. One woman stood up and said she always wondered what art was for. “Art never represented me,” she stated. “I always thought in art class, how does drawing fruit in a bowl help with anything? It never meant anything to me. But when I saw the old woman with the sign, I thought, there is hope”.
The panel sort to prove that art has the power to say: I will still hope for better, even when right now may feel so hopeless. Art has the power to make a fountain bleed in the middle of the street. Art liberates and revolts, and doesn’t back down.'
Monday, 15 October 2018
'Brothers Abu Eliyas and Abu Yousef have fought at opposite ends of the insurgency against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Yet despite their ideological differences, they live under the same roof in rebel-held Idlib province and have fought on the same side against pro-Assad forces and Islamic State.
“The important thing is we fight the same enemy,” said Abu Eliyas, 40, a member of the Turkey-backed Faylaq al-Sham group. “At home, we exchange military skills and information, and discuss the Syrian scene.”
Abu Yousef, 27, belongs to the jihadist Tahrir al-Sham, formerly known as the Nusra Front. He believes the brothers’ “points of agreement are greater than the points of division.”
“We are members of one religion, one country and one goal”, he said.
Their parallel journeys through the civil war that began in Syria in 2011 illustrate the complexities of sorting insurgents deemed “radical” from more moderate rebels.
In its first comment on the deal, Tahrir al-Sham said on Sunday it welcomed efforts to protect “the liberated area” from attack - an apparent nod of approval for Turkey’s efforts.
But it also warned against Russian “trickery”, said it would not give up “jihad and fighting” to topple Assad and singled out foreign jihadists for praise, saying “we will not forget” them.
The experiences of Abu Yousef and Abu Eliyas show that the line between the “radical” and “moderate” rebels is not always easily drawn.
Abu Eliyas is a trained lawyer with seven children who was working as a government employee when the conflict began. He took part in the first protests against Assad in the brothers’ home town of Deir al-Zor in eastern Syria.
“They were unforgettable days. The feeling was very strange for us – that we are in Syria and going out in protest against the regime and the Assad family,” he said.
Abu Eliyas took up arms with a Free Syrian Army group early in the war.
After seizing the area, Islamic State militants destroyed his house in Deir al-Zor by rigging it with explosives and then blowing it up in what he described as an act of revenge.
Abu Yousef, who is not married, was a student when the conflict began. He joined Nusra Front when it first emerged in Deir al-Zor, drawn by what he saw as the piety of its members, including foreigners.
Both fought Islamic State when it attacked eastern Syria in 2014 and went north with their family when IS conquered the area. Once there, Abu Eliyas joined Faylaq al-Sham, and cited its standing in Turkey as one of the attractions.
Faylaq al-Sham has ties to the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which mounted an uprising in the 1980s and is deemed a terrorist group by the government.
Close to Turkey, Faylaq al-Sham was also one of the recipients of aid channeled through a U.S. Central Intelligence Agency program that was shut down by President Donald Trump.
Tahrir al-Sham has clashed several times with other rebels in the northwest, and crushed a number of foreign-backed factions.
The brothers have always stayed out of these troubles, though enmity runs deep between the jihadists and some Idlib rebels.
Tensions in Idlib have eased of late. Rebels formed a joint “operations room” in anticipation of an offensive by Syrian government forces that had been expected until Turkey and Russia struck their agreement last month.
Tahrir al-Sham, with which Abu Yousef fights, has widened contacts with other groups and been visiting their rivals, an official in a rival faction said.
If it holds, the agreement between Turkey and Russia could stabilize the map of the Syrian conflict for some time to come. Though Assad is still vowing to take back the area, an Idlib campaign without Russian support is seen as out of the question.
Writing in the Wall Street Journal last month, Erdogan said “moderate rebels” should be part of an “international counterterrorism operation” that would target “terrorist and extremist elements” and “bring to justice foreign fighters”.
Abu Yousef sees a conspiracy to weaken the rebellion by dividing opposition forces.
“The Russian-Turkish agreement is a tactic to finish off what remains of the areas held by the revolution,” he said. “We must depend on ourselves, and nobody else.”
Despite his faith in Turkey, Abu Eliyas is also worried.
“Faylaq al-Sham’s relationship with Turkey secured many benefits for the region ... but we fear the Turks will fall into the Russian trap that aims to disarm Tahrir al-Sham,” he said.'