The Syrian revolution witnessed an unprecedented outpouring of cultural expressions. Since the protests erupted across the country in 2011, citizens from all walks of life employed art, satire and creative writing to stand against the regime. These protests did not initially call for the downfall of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but for greater freedoms and dignity, and remained relatively peaceful until December 2011, when rebel groups began forming under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army in response to violence by the state security forces. As the voices of ordinary Syrians have been lost amid the violent clashes that have dominated the past six years, how will the creative spirit of the revolution be remembered in the coming years?
Syrian graphic designer Sana Yazigi wanted to make sure that these peaceful voices and creative works are not forgotten. After fleeing her hometown of Damascus and settling in Beirut, she created a simple Wordpress site to publish some of them. Her aim was to document how Syrians spoke out and asked for their rights after 50 years of government-imposed silence.
Today, the trilingual website, called “The Creative Memory of the Syrian Revolution,” boasts some 23,000 documents available in Arabic, French and English. This project and a related book, “The Story of a Place, the Story of a People,” are sponsored by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung Foundation, the Swiss and Norwegian embassies, and the CCFD-Terre Solidaire, in a special partnership with TANDEM and Scene Nationale. The projects aim to “shed light on the pacific civil movement and the just cause of the Syrian people, which has always been neglected by the media,” explains the introduction of the book.
Yazigi and her 25-person team of artists, language specialists and geographers collected various forms of Syrian expression on the web and researched their context — graffiti, murals, drawings, sculptures, videos, photos, poems, songs, caricatures, texts — beginning around 2011 and classified them according to their dates and places of creation. The findings also inspired the book “The Story of a Place, The Story of a People,” which started as a sub-project under the website.
They pinpointed 235 different geographical places of origin for the various forms of cultural expression calling for revolution. “We have taken up only 50 of them for the book,” Yazigi said in an interview with Al-Monitor. “The fact that there were so many locations where revolutionary civic activities emerged is an answer to the question why only Daraa and Homs witnessed protests. When you really document the revolution, you see how protests and nonviolent civil activities spread throughout the entire country.”
In order to understand the extent of civil frustration and the subsequent artistic expression that surfaced, each archive includes a text explaining the historical and human contexts of the work. For example, the 2013 chemical weapon attacks on the Ghouta agricultural area around Damascus confirmed by a team of UN inspectors are represented in the form of caricatures, paintings and sculptures and recount another version of history told firsthand by artists and activists. Syrian cartoon artist Diala Brisly, whose illustrations are featured prominently on the website, told Al-Monitor, “It’s fantastic to have a group of people archiving our artwork and putting them in a platform in the middle of the mess, especially since most of the work is linked to very important events.”
Beyond visual art, the revival of folk songs, traditional Arabic melodies and catchy new tunes became central to the revolution. “What better way to fire back at Bashar than to replicate the classic melodies of Umm Kulthum, for example,” Syrian blogger and translator Yaaser Azzayyaat said on the occasion of the book launch that took place at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Beirut last month. On his YouTube channel, which is currently suspended, Azzayyaat began sharing and analyzing the discourse of protest songs and dances before the revolution became fully militarized in the summer of 2012.
While archival work cannot prevent future violence, it can serve as a reminder and warning. The creative culture that expanded across all classes of Syrian society not only belonged to the elites, said Fawaz Traboulsi, a Lebanese university professor, historian and author of "A History of Modern Lebanon."
Traboulsi said at the book launch, “Lebanon went through different wars in the 1950s and 1960s, and we also lived through a civil war. So what should we remember from Syria? We should always remember why the revolution or the war erupted. Yazigi’s project is one of the most powerful examples of how the regime used violence to respond to peaceful people.”
According to Yazigi, the project has been difficult in an environment of governmental repression and Assad’s discourse in his attempts to suppress the popular and peaceful movement. Few foreign journalists have been admitted into the country, making reporting very difficult. Recently, Facebook and YouTube inadvertently deleted thousands of videos from citizen journalists that could have been used to document potential war crimes in Syria, she said.
The most difficult challenge of all, she said, has been the psychological toll her team of researches faced, many of them quitting along the way. “Normal people forget what happened to be able to continue their daily lives. We do the opposite, and on a daily basis. It is an exercise in suffering,” Yazigi said. For example, one of her colleagues discovered in the research process that both the poet Mohammad Bashir al-Aani and his son were kidnapped and executed by the Islamic State.
“Those who die give us their lives, and we have to take those lives and continue with them in order to make their deaths meaningful. My responsibility is to remember this fight is legitimate and stripped ‘forever’ from Assad's tyranny,” she said.