When a country has been at war for over five years, it might seem natural to assume that all cultural life is suspended. In the case of Syria, this is far from true. But just as with the war itself, there are many levels and layers to be unravelled, and the definitions of “culture” vary according to who, and where, you are.
In the areas firmly under the control of the Syrian government, the Assad regime has, from the start, kept to a “business as usual” narrative. In September 2016 Damascus boasted several “cultural” events on its SANA (Syrian state media) website under the title of “Arts and Culture”, including the“St Ephrem the Syrian Patriarchal Choir”, staging a performance at Al-Thawra Sports stadium (al-thawra means “revolution” in Arabic – not the current revolution of course but the Ba’athist revolution of 1963 which ultimately brought Hafez al-Assad to power). Christian events like this are always high on the agenda since the Syrian government is keen to project itself as the “protector of the minorities”, who then give their loyalty in return. There was also the twenty-eighth Book Fair at Al-Assad National Library – “beyond disappointing” was the comment of one hopeful Syrian who visited but who wishes to remain anonymous, “we cannot fool ourselves”.
Dar al-Assad (the Damascus opera house) still holds concerts, music festivals, cinema screenings and poetry readings in its three halls, the largest of which seats 1,200 people. In April 2014 it was struck by a mortar and closed briefly. Fewer than half of its employees and musicians remain, the other half having either fled or been conscripted. Prices have been slashed to increase audience size. Many Syrians might question whether “culture” is the right word for such contrived and unreal occasions, when “propaganda” might be closer to the truth, but many would also acknowledge the strong public desire to keep the wheel of life turning.
Beyond Damascus, other festivals have also been held across the summer in the government-held areas on the Mediterranean coast, such as Tartous and Safita, while at the village of Ma’aloula in the Qalamoun Mountains, north of the capital, a widely publicized song festival was held in Aramaic to preserve the language of Christ – another example of the government showcasing support for minorities.
Even in Aleppo, divided between the regime-held west and rebel-held east, the population remains highly receptive to cultural events. In fact the need for them is arguably greater than in Damascus as people seek respite from the horrors of daily life. Abdul Halim Hariri, a sixty-year-old violinist, feels it is more important than ever to run theatre performances and festivals for filmmakers in defiance of the political situation. “We have turned our anger and sorrow into a source of music”, he says, echoing the widely held sentiment that war can drive creativity, as people struggle to prove they are still human despite the inhumanity that surrounds them. Abdul Halim holds his concerts “for young people who are lost. I also wanted to show through art that Aleppo is still united and that its thought is still progressive and civilised . . . as soon as the war is over, Aleppo will be reunited. Aleppo citizens don’t hate each other. Their life is love and intertwined”. Audiences for his concerts, a mix of classical and traditional pieces, have been huge, with hundreds gathering inside the theatre and hundreds outside, even as mortars fall, and despite the fact that many musicians, including Abdul Halim’s own son, have now left.
During the holy month of Ramadan, soap operas, musalsalat, grip audiences in all Arab countries, and Syrian soaps are generally the most popular – one of the country’s most prized exports, especially to the Gulf. In 2010 no fewer than forty soaps were made by Syrian television production companies, but the number has now dropped to less than half that because so many actors and producers have left the country. One of the most popular, Bab al-Hara, depicts life in a Damascus quarter of the Old City under the French Mandate of the 1920s and 1930s. Rife with political digs and overtones, it has just completed its eighth season, but Syrians outside the country, such as the actress Sawsan Arsheed, the actor and theatrical director Maher Sleibi, and the director Abdulrahman Dandashi, say the regime is increasingly using such soaps to promote its own version of the crisis, to distort the image of the moderate opposition, portraying them all as armed terrorists and radical Islamists.
In rebel-held parts of the country, the lack of infrastructure makes life very difficult, with limited electricity, water, cooking gas or fuel. Yet even there, in areas like the Idlib countryside, culture is flourishing. Though they do not have the financial means needed to produce competing TV dramas, local people have started their own radio channels such as Radio Fresh (recently closed down by extremists for employing a woman), and internet channels such as SouriaLi (a clever play on words meaning both “Syria is mine” and “surreally”).
In the Damascus suburb of Darayya, subjected to a “starve or surrender” siege for over four years and now forcibly evacuated since its fall in August, the local residents established a secret library deep underground with over 14,000 books, including poetry, plays and novels in Arabic, French and English. It was hugely popular with children out of school reading to their mothers, doctors and dentists looking for academic or technical handbooks, and even Free Syrian Army soldiers taking a supply to the frontline with them. Particular favourites were books about earlier rebellions, such as those by the Syrian author Al-Tantawi. “We read about how in the past everyone turned their backs on a particular nation, yet they still made it”, says Omar Abu Anas, a former engineering student. “So we can be like that too. Books motivate us to keep us going. They help us plan for life once Assad is gone. We want to be a free nation. And hopefully, by reading, we can achieve that.”
Many of the library users were students whose studies had been interrupted. “In a sense,” says Adbulbaset al-Ahmar, a former student in his mid-twenties who discovered Shakespeare and especially Hamletthanks to the books in it, “the library gave me back my life. It’s helped me to meet others more mature than me, people who I can discuss issues with and learn things from. I would say that just like the body needs food, the soul needs books. I believe the brain is like a muscle. And reading has definitely made mine stronger. My enlightened brain has now fed my soul too.”
The fate of this secret library is currently unknown.