Drawing freedom on Syria`s walls- a tribute to “spray man” Nour Hatem Zahra

Yesterday it was the last time  “spray man” Nour Hatem Zahra could draw freedom on Syria`s wall.

picture from Facebook group Freedom Graffiti Week

The graffiti artist, a member of the peaceful resistance movement in Damascus, was killed. He was buried today in Kafer Sousah, in Damascus. Syrian activist Hamaecho took these pictures at his funeral.

Graffiti and wall paintings have played an important role in communicating peaceful opposition to the Syrian regime.

Back in March 2012, Adnan Zaray –a musalsalat (TV series) writer who first dealt with the “spray men” (Rajul al bakhakh) movement in well-known 2001 musalsal “Buqa`t daw” (Spotlight)— was  arrested in Rukn ad-din, a suburb of Damascus.

For the first time on Syrian TV, the episode written by Zaray featured the so-called “rajul al bakhakh“, the “spray men” who use the city`s walls to spread political messages.

10 years later, TV fiction has turned into reality. The Syrian revolution-related messages  spread by “spray men” like Nour Hatem Zahra on Syria`s walls were probably less acceptable than those appearing in the safe, controlled media space of TV series.

Graffiti have been largely used in Syria as a tool of civil disobedience and peaceful resistance. Last week a peaceful anti-regime graffiti campaign appeared on Syrian cities` walls and on the virtual alleys of Facebook.

Today the same Facebook page is populated with graffiti that have been drawn on Damascus` walls as a tribute to  Nour Hatem Zahra .

Juan Zero, a popular Syrian cartoonist, has dedicated his last work to this courageous “spray man” who died for imagining freedom. A bullet hits him while he is painting the word “hurryia”, freedom, on his country`s walls.

Music and Art from Syria revolution

Syrian bear– Yumal

Syrian bear– Simo

Khalil Younes – Qashoush

Al Fann wal Hurrya 

Spray men– Graffiti

Al Qazan as-sury

Khaled Abdelwahed– Bullet: a Syrian short story

Juan Zero – Syrian cartoonist

Jaber al Azmeh– photography

Hamid Suleiman– Ghiath Matar

Blogs

Rajul al-bakhakh (Spray men)

Articles

Bruce WallaceMy people love me

Ziad Majed and Nadia Aissaoui – Quand la peur change de camp 

Yves Gonzales-QuijanoThe Pixelised revolution: art et revolution 

Donatella Della RattaCreative resistance challenges Syria`s regime

Donatella Della RattaIrony, satire, and humor in the battle for Syria

Amelie RivesArt and revolution: The Syrian case 

Civil disobedience takes over Syria`s capital

Last week, an amazing example of the ongoing civil disobedience  took place in Damascus while the media spotlight was elsewhere.

In this video, you can spot activist Rima al Dali standing in the middle of the Damascus traffic, very close to Hamra street (a busy shopping point in the capital) and to the Syrian Parliament. She holds a read sign which urges to stop the killing. Some people are passing by with indifference but others are clapping and expressing solidarity.

Together with other brave Syrian youth, Rima was also part of another peaceful action which took place at Sham city center, a crowded and “posh” mall in the Syrian capital. Last week this group of people, young men and women, staged a “flash mob” in the mall. After eating their meal, they stoop up and hold a red and white sign saying: Stop killing, we want to build a nation for all Syrians!

Some of them lied on the floor and pretended to be dead, as in the many pro- Syrian revolution flash mobs that have been taking place in the US or Canada for more than a year. Some people clapped but security agents came and arrested the activists. They have been released.

Civil disobedience seems to be ongoing in the capital and, from the number of actions being staged these days, it looks like it is growing.

On images, war and propaganda

Thanks to this interesting article published by Owni (in French), I`ve just discovered the amazing work done by Foundland, an artists` collective based in Amsterdam. One of the founder, Ghalia Elsrakbi, is a Syrian from Damascus and she works in graphic design and visual arts. She has curated a very interesting artistic project on the Syrian revolution called  Watching revolution through a hole in the wall, where she reflects about the reality and fabrication of the events in her home country. She “personally experienced her Facebook account transform into a battleground of political opinion and a vehicle for propaganda, both pro and against the Assad regime”, and that`s when the project started to come into a shape. Ghalia has re-built a narrative of the Syrian revolution using an archive of images and footage personally selected from her Facebook account.

Another very interesting work focused on Syria is the most recent video installation and  book publication:  Simba, the last prince of Ba`ath country, which is described as an “ongoing investigation into pro-regime propaganda images, which are created by the Syrian Electronic army and distributed on Facebook and social media”.

The collective`s members say: “We are interested in tracing the digital content and context of the original stock images transformed by the Syrian Electronic Army, in order to better understand the way propaganda rhetoric is created and understood. We consider our investigation as artists and researchers a contribution to the fantastic work and endless energy which is being invested by activists around the world in the struggle against the Syrian regime”.

The images that have been collected and discussed by Foundland in the publication are just amazing. Here is one example:

picture by Foundland

Media war, propaganda and manipulation of news are a widely discussed topic especially in the Syrian case. Few days ago, Jess Hill published an interesting recap of the info war over Syria, while Margaret Weiss provides us with the latest news concerning the mysterious Syrian Electronic Army.

Artists also are increasingly reflecting on the Syria propaganda war issue and the coverage of the events through social networks. Lebanese Rabih Mroue` is exploring the topic in his controversial brand new lecture-performance ” The pixelated revolution” .

“To take what’s happening in Syria and place it alongside a cinematic manifesto was for some people unethical,” he says (in al Akhbar piece), “because people are still dying and suffering and I’m doing this cold reflection. But when I’m making art, I’m not an activist, and I refuse to be an activist in art. I try not to take a political position in my work, but if I do – and in this case, it’s very clear that I’m with the protesters – then I try to deconstruct and reflect on my position and provoke myself. Of course, all of these questions came to my mind. Am I allowed to talk about the protesters when they are still being killed? Am I allowed to take them out of these events? Is it okay? Is it possible for an artist to make a work about something that is still going on? When I ask myself such questions, I tend to think I’ve pinpointed something I should pursue.”

 

Syria: The virtue of civil disobedience

I`d like to re-publish here the article on civil disobedience in Syria which I posted some days ago on Al Jazeera English`s opinions page.

Thanks to those who have commented, criticized, shared, discussed this piece.

I owe also a big thank you to the Free Syrian Translators who have translated it into Arabic.

SYRIA: THE VIRTUE OF CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE 

Something is happening in Syria, away from the media spotlight. Last March 27, when Damascus woke up, the independence flag – symbol of the Syrian revolution –  was raised in different districts, from Berzeh to Mezzeh, from school walls to bridges. Civil disobedience groups had successfully managed to coordinate the biggest anti-regime protests conducted simultaneously in different parts of the Syrian capital.

When you make Mutasem Abou AlShamat notice that raising the independence flag is nothing more than just a symbolic action – although beautiful – this Damascene in his 20s, smiles and calmly explains: “You have to look at what lies behind the action, not at its immediate content. Doing this simultaneously means that different non-violent groups are finally getting together and organising common actions. Achieving this degree of coordination should not be taken for granted in Damascus, where security control is tight, communications are either tracked or lacking and moving from one area to another is extremely difficult.”

“This is a step further to coordinate a much bigger operation that is in the pipeline,” he says, mysteriously.

Mutasem is a member of the Syrian non-violent movement. Together with many other groups, mostly based in Damascus and Aleppo, he has joined “Ayyam al hurryia” (Freedom days), a consortium of individuals and loose organisations which share a common goal: “To topple the regime through peaceful resistance and civil disobedience”.

Signalling rebellion

Back in December 2011, they organised the general strike “Idrab al karama”. When asked about the results of the initiative, Mutasem admits that “mistakes have been made and we have brainstormed a lot in order to not make them happen next time. But there is indeed a great achievement in having shown the people that a third way is possible: something that each of us can do, rather than join the demonstrations or just stay home [due to] fear.”

Placing radio speakers in Damascus’ central squares and playing revolutionary songs; painting the city’s fountain water red to remind the martyrs’ blood; distributing anti-regime leaflets that looked like Syrian currency notes – “everybody would stop to collect 1,000 Syrian Pounds on the floor!” – are some of the nuanced acts taken in defiance of regime.

Mutasem is an enthusiastic supporter of civil disobedience tactics. According to him, this is the only way to mobilise people in big cities like Damascus and Aleppo that are deemed to be regime’s strongholds.

“We have to hurt the regime at its very heart, if we want to topple it. Civil disobedience sends a message to the people of Damascus and Aleppo who watch the violence on YouTube and are told by the official propaganda that there is nothing going on in the country,” the young activist says. “Our message is: The revolution is here, we are here, come and join us in any possible way you can.”

According to him, many people – who at the beginning would stay at home – are now helping the non-violent activists, providing logistical support, coordination, even actively joining the civil disobedience. Incidents of burning tyres blocking traffic in the middle of roads have been mushrooming in the past months, especially in Damascus.

“You know that something is successful when people adopt and repeat it. Most of the road blockings happening now are not organised by us, they are initiated by people we don’t even know,” he emphasises.

Mutasem thinks civil disobedience is the only way to mobilise people in the Syrian capital. He is convinced that an armed response from the revolutionaries will not succeed, as the regime is much stronger on the military front. He also thinks that the latter’s violence has increased since the formation of the Free Syrian Army.

Because of this, he embraces the model of civil resistance provided by Daraya, the cradle of Syrian peaceful resistance in Damascus where activists like Ghiyath Matar and Yahya Shurbaji were trying to win the soldiers’ hearts and minds through non-violent and symbolic actions like talking to them during the demonstrations and distributing flowers and water. Recalling these scenes sounds like “longing for the bygone days”, as Matar was brutally killed and Shurbaji is believed to be still in jail.

Videos on non-violent struggle

But, while YouTube clips – allegedly recorded a week ago in Aleppo – are running on the screen, the young Syrian activist makes me notice that these protesters are still chanting “You are our brothers!” to the army, despite the fact that all media attention is catalysed either by the armed clashes between Assad’s soldiers and the defected Free Syrian Army, or by the sectarian conflict allegedly going on between Syria’s Alawi minority and Sunni majority.

Nevertheless, each week Ayyam al hurryia produces and posts videos, explaining the meaning of the non-violent struggle, its tactics and the patience to achieve results through peaceful resistance. Some videos address the pro-regime supporters too – the “mnhibbakjia” (“we love you”) crowd – dealing with the national unity issue and the necessity of reconciliation among Syrian people.

These videos are all made by Syrians inside and outside Syria, working as volunteers with Ayyam al hurryia. “It’s not a crowd of well-known artists and media makers. It’s Syria’s new generation willing to build a civil state,” Mutasem says. A savvy youth made up of professionals who were never given a chance to emerge in their diversity, as Syria’s cultural production – even in its most advanced forms of criticism and dissent – was managed by an elite group of producers closely supervised by the regime.

The workforce behind Ayyam al hurryia’s initiatives – whether those organising civil disobedience actions on the ground or those filming and editing the coloured educational videos on its YouTube channel – is nurtured by a Syrian grassroots movement and comes from within the country.

Mutasem smiles when I quote Gene Sharp and his 1993 handbook From Dictatorship to Democracy as an inspiration for their non-violent struggle. According to some conspiracy theories, the American scholar would have worked closely with US intelligence to help toppling regimes worldwide and would have supported anti-regime movements like Serbia’s Otpor in their political fight.

These theories enjoy a certain credit, especially when it comes to Syria, where everything happening on the ground would have to be engineered by foreigners, including civil resistance. Mutasem’s smile now turns into laughter.

Syrians’ non-violent struggle is indeed inspired by a Syrian scholar, Jawdat Said, who has been incarcerated many times for his writings on resisting oppression through non-violence. In 2001, he wrote: “We live in a world in which four fifths of its population live in frustration while the other fifth lives in fear.”

Jawadat Said, born in 1931, lives in the Syrian Golan Heights and works as a farmer. I wonder what he thinks of these youth, engaged in their civilised struggle against Goliath, far away from media spotlight, maybe closer to their people.

Satirical web series lampoons Hafez and Bashar al Assad

The first episode of 3anzehWalo6aret  عنزة ولو طارت (something that we can loosely translate “It`s a goat even if flies”) appeared last August 2011. Till now, this episode has been viewed by more than 330.000 people on YouTube.

The show consists in a news-bulletin kind of set, with a masked anchorwoman who deals with the events happening in Syria in an extremely sarcastic way. It`s the dark humor Syrians have been labelled with, especially since a certain amount of parodies, sketches and web series blossomed on the Internet after the beginning of Syrian uprising.

3anzehWalo6aret is dark comedy at its best, although you could tell that the dark component has been increasing in the sketches with the time, maybe as a result of the increased violence happening on the ground.

The last episode, released on YouTube few days ago, is dedicated to “Hafez the beast”, as they call him. The masked women ironizes on the fact that living under the Assads is like living in pre-Islamic times. Their pictures, their statues are everywhere, “he is with you in every place” and everything is named under Assad, from the library  to the stadium to the streets. “After the regime is toppled, I want to save this tradition, just with a little difference: we will give the name of Assad to a cabaret or to a public bath”, the masked anchorwoman says.

Then she reminds the viewer that, since the Assads seized power, 18.000 have been imprisoned for issues related to their freedom and right to express themselves.

Then she starts joking again: “Let`s talk about Hazef al Assad from the humanitarian point of view”. And she reminds about the former president`s nice present to 700 prisoners in Tadmour (Palmira), killed all together in cold blood as a revenge for an attempt to overthrown the regime.

“But we have not to forget Hazef al Assad`s best achievements in the art field, like the renewal of Hama`s decor..At the time, there was a foreign conspiracy like there is now, so the president thought to put the city under siege, the result being the death of 40.000 people, and the destruction of 84 mosques and 4 churches.. “During the French occupation in Syria none of them dared to destroy mosques”, she adds.

Hafez al Assad`s brother Rafat (now in exile in London) commented: “one day the historians will say: once upon a time, there was a city called Hama”.

“Soon history will say: once upon a time, there was a regime in Syria called Assad “, the masked woman replies.

“Let`s talk about the anti-corruption campaigns which Hafez al Assad backed. The “mn7hibbaje” (pro-regime supporters) always say that we cannot blame on him for corruption in the country and  how could he control everybody in his regime..” . “But how did he not know that his family, Jamil and Rafat al Assad were corrupted?” .

“Bashar is different, the pro-regime say. If so, how is it possible not to be aware of the fact that Rami Makhlouf, his cousin, owns 60% of Syrian economy?”.

A very funny scene is added at this point, showing the birth of “Leo”(Kimba), the son of the Lion King, a character in Japanese mangas. The father gives power to the son, who takes it, despite a constitutional change has to be made for he is too young to become president.

The masked woman now pokes fun at Bashar and when the key question comes — who do we have better than him to rule our country?– she calls Zonga on the phone, “our expert in Homs”. Zonga –who comes from the hilarious Homs-based Facebook page “at-thawra as-siniya” (the Chinese revolution) answers:

” there are 23 millions Syrians, do you think we can`t find another one?!”.

“After all this, do you still want us to call our country Syria al Assad”, the masked woman says. “We don`t want any Syria al Assad, we want a free Syria and that`s all!”.