New Concepts for a New Set of Actions by Serhan Ada

Aug 2018

Serhan Ada

Professor at the Art & Cultural Management department of Bilgi University in Istanbul and UNESCO expert

As part of Ettijahat - Independent Culture's Programme, the Cultural Priorities in Syria, we are currently compiling a series of articles addressing the challenges facing Syrian cultural work. these articles have been written by Syrian and non-Syrian experts alike, aswell as various cultural actors. 

It has only been 10 years. As the Arab Capital of Culture, Damascus shone brightly in a highly visible part of the European world of art and cultural scene. Not only the ostentatious cultural “institutions” of Ba’ath, but the work of civilian institutions, too, had begun to receive offers of collaboration. (After all, didn’t I, too, first encounter Syria, which I knew through books and archive documents because of my PhD thesis with the theme “How the Sandjak of Alexandretta became Hatay, 1936-39”, at a meeting organized at a courtyard in Al-Hamidiyah Souq in Damascus organized by the Danish Cultural Centre?) It was during that same period that European patrons of culture (following US foundations) shifted their attention and funds from the Balkans, and to some extent, the Caucasus, towards the Middle East.

And then, it has only been slightly longer than a century. Following the implementation of the well-known plans of Sykes-Picot, until it became an independent state about 30 years later, didn’t Syria, as it underwent many changes under the ‘holy mandate’ of France – at different times, a federation, a Republic, divided into smaller states (Alawite, Jabal Druze etc.), but always under the surveillance of the High Commissioner - live through many resistances and uprisings? And this was all after Lebanon had been torn off from Syria as a new country. Today, Lebanon is perhaps the most important shelter for Syrian artists and cultural workers.

Even a brief glance at the closer past of 10 years ago, and the more distant past of a century ago makes one think that the spiral of pain is rooted in, and extends into infinity.

If the worse (that which could not even be imagined) has taken place, and even more devastatingly, is no longer even surprising, how is it possible to imagine a form of liberation (tahrir) or resurrection (in the sense of qiyamah)? What is more, how can someone who is not a direct party to the tragedy untie the knot of tragedy?

It is tough to come up with separate answers, or a common answer to these questions. It is nevertheless possible to begin with some precedents. With the hope to perhaps provide a spark for debate.

Most of those who, until a decade ago, lived within the borders of Syria, have mainly, and against their will, been dispersed in their millions across three neighbouring countries. Is that not precisely what diaspora (Greek, diaspeiro: I scatter) is? Diaspora means that the origins are left somewhere, while the body is somewhere else. Do the Syrians who today live in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey one-day hope to return to their origins? If, and only if, they were able to return, will what they find upon arrival be the same as what they left? Today Syria is an imaginary realm, with neither administrative unity nor territorial integrity. It is merely a conceptual category, and each commentator only understands part of that category.

This is precisely the point where nostalgia (nostos: homecoming; algos: pain) enters the frame. In the same way that the pain of origins cannot be soothed when one is stuck between the desire to return, and failing to do so.

The reason I seek to remind the reader of these two concepts by referring to the languages of Arabic and Greek should be clear: To not allow it to be forgotten that the names for what we are living through today were given ages ago. Each age suffered its own pains, and the suffering continues. So what is different now? We are at an interlude when the more one mentions human rights, freedoms and democracy, the more, and faster, they desert our world.

A closer look at the Syrian diaspora reveals a dual condition. On the one hand, there are millions of people who have desperately sought refuge in neighbouring countries, and on the other hand (a small number of) scientists, artists and cultural activists who continue to produce in countries that have firmly sealed their gates to helpless masses. First of all, it cannot be easily said that there is communication regarding Syrian refugees between the three large neighbouring countries of refuge. One of those three countries, and despite the fact that it has accepted close to 4 million people as “guests”, many of them still sheltered in camps, Turkey is, in a sense, a closed box, and let alone artistic and cultural production, it is clear that there are severe problems regarding living conditions and schooling here. One must also take into account that the communication of the diaspora with those who remain in Syria – half of which are constantly on the move because they are forced to relocate every time clashes flare up - is close to impossible.     

As for the situation in Turkey, there are, especially in Istanbul, NGOs, bookshops, etc. which bring together cultural actors and artists. From time to time, individual Syrian or refugee artists do appear at exhibitions, festivals or concerts. However, it is difficult to say that their problems, needs and difficulties they face in sustaining their efforts to survive and create is approached from an elaborate and organized perspective.

At least in the near future, it does not seem possible that the lock will be opened, and channels of communication will begin to function.

Nevertheless, there are many NGOs organized and active outside Syria. Some operate in collaboration, and continue their activities at times by receiving the support of international organizations. However, it is not possible to say that they have “institutionalized”. Each one of them approaches the problem from one end in order to contribute to a solution as much as they can. This is particularly the case in the field of culture and art. Even in the West, where institutionalization has been comprehensively coded and classified, the crisis atmosphere where even those institutions known as “sustainable” are experiencing a deep trauma, does not look like dispersing anytime soon. This institutional crisis means ongoing precarity for artists and the cultural scene, leaving us to consider individuals. Individuals, within singular and likely-weak institutions and initiatives. As long as they sustain their determination to produce art, thought and solutions, they must be taken into account regarding the New.

So far, we have only spoken about Syria. That is because it is the real subject of this piece. But you could easily replace Syria with Iraq, Iran, Yemen, Palestine, Egypt or Libya. We can only wish that others do not extend this list. Although in a completely different framework, we could also include Turkey, Greece, Italy and Spain in this picture. This leaves us facing the Mediterranean, itself not a huge region, but a cosmos. While, on the one hand, the efforts of determined individuals persist, on the other hand, we can, despite and along with all its problems, imagine the Mediterranean as a creative zone of solidarity. In the present international conjuncture where the swords have been drawn around topics such as cultural diversity, fair circulation of cultural products and services, and access to culture, there is increasing differentiation between the North and the South in terms of needs and problems. Despite all the problems and impoverishment it faces, the dialogue of the South with the South becomes more vital than usual.

And finally, concepts again. Concepts of particularly European origin like networking, advocacy, capacity building, visibility etc. were imported into our countries in the context of cultural policy-making and practice, and they have been used extensively. We cannot imagine a solution to the burning and devastating problems with these well-known concepts which were once applicable in different settings. We are now at a time when new concepts, and a new lexicon will pave the path of new actions.


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