Shout Art Loud

An interactive documentary by Melody Patry on different artistic initiatives that tackle sexual harassment in Egypt. It really sums up some of the most creative art movements since the overthrow of Mubarak.

You can see the full documentary here.

فيلم تسجيلي تفاعلي من إخراج ملودي باتري حول مبادرات فنية مختلفة تعالج موضوع التحرش الجنسي في مصر. يجمع الفيلم بعضاً من أكثر التوجهات الفنية تفرداً منذ الإطاحة بمبارك.

يمكنك هنا مشاهدة الفيلم كاملاً.

 

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The Most Important Thing: Syrian Refugees أهم شيء: اللاجئون السوريون

Another beautiful photography project about the Syrian refugees this time by the UN refugee agency UNHCR. Below is the description of the project as it appeared on the agency´s flicker account. The photos are great, but make sure to read the stories connected to each one. That´s the real thing!

What would you bring with you if you had to flee your home and escape to another country? More than 1 million Syrians have been forced to ponder this question before making the dangerous flight to neighbouring Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq or other countries in the region.

This is the second part of a project that asks refugees from different parts of the world, “What is the most important thing you brought from home?” The first instalment focused on refugees fleeing from Sudan to South Sudan, who openly carried pots, water containers and other objects to sustain them along the road.

By contrast, people seeking sanctuary from the conflict in Syria must typically conceal their intentions by appearing as though they are out for a family stroll or a Sunday drive as they make their way towards a border. Thus they carry little more than keys, pieces of paper, phones and bracelets – things that can be worn or concealed in pockets. Some Syrians bring a symbol of their religious faith, others clutch a reminder of home or of happier times.

مشروع تصوير ضوئي جميل آخر عن اللاجئين السوريين، هذه المرة من قبل المفوضية السامية للأمم المتحدة لشؤون اللاجئين. أدناه وصف المشروع كما ورد على صفحة المفوضية على فليكر. الصور رائعة، لكن تأكد من قراءة القصص المرتبطة بكل صورة فهي أروع ما في المشروع.

   إذا كان عليك مغادرة منزلك فجأة والهرب إلى دولة أخرى، ما هو الشيء الذي ستأخذه معك؟ أكثر من مليون سوري أجبروا على مواجهة هذا السؤال قبل الشروع بالرحلة الخطيرة إلى الأردن، لبنان، تركيا والعراق أو دول أخرى في المنطقة.

هذا هو الجزء الثاني من مشروع نسأل فيه مهاجرين من مختلف أنحاء العالم، “ما هو أهم شيء جلبته معك من منزلك؟” القسم الآول من المشروع كان عن السودانيين اللاجئين إلى جنوب السودان، الذي حملوا بشكل علني أوعية وصهاريج مياه وأشياء أخرى تساعدهم على تحمل عناء الرحلة.

على نقيضهم، عادة ما على الأناس الهاربين من النزاع في سوريا تورية هدفهم والتظاهر بأنهم ذاهبون في رحلة عائلية صغيرة عند توجههم إلى الحدود. لذلك لا يستطيع هؤلاء حمل أكثر من مفاتيح، حزمة أوراق، هواتف وأساورـ أشياء صغيرة يمكنهم ارتداؤها أو أخفاؤها في جيابهم. بعض السوريون يحمل رمزاً دينياً، آخرون يحضرون ذكريات من منزلهم تعود لفترة أجمل من حياتهم. .

The Syrian Museum: a revolutionary show المتحف السوري: عرض ثوري

Tammam Azzam has never been a man of many words. Whenever I called him back in Damascus for an interview, he told me amiably: “an art work should speak for itself and therefore its place isn’t within the pages of a newspaper but in a museum where it can be appreciated as it is.” He also firmly refused any attempt at imposing hidden messages on his work. “I don’t believe in art as a mission, who said art serves people anyway?”

His latest artworks about the Syrian uprising do speak for themselves and they say just that! In his digitally manipulated series of works entitled ‘Syrian Museum’, Tammam superimposed iconic artworks onto images of the violence and destruction in Syria. His images bluntly demonstrate how the destruction in Syria has become a show, the latest fashion that took the world by storm, yet not much is done on the ground to stop it. An impressive body of work!

 لم يكن تمام عزام يوماً رجلاً كثير الكلام. كلما إتصلت به لإجراء لقاء صحفي في دمشق، أجابني بود: “العمل الفني هو من يتحدث عن نفسه. مكان اللوحة ليس بين أوراق الصحف وإنما في المتحف حيث يمكن تقديرها لماهيتها.” كما رفض تمام بشكل قاطع أي محاولة ل”تلبيس” أعماله رسائل خفية. “لا أؤمن بالفن كرسالة، من قال أن الفن يخدم الناس أساساً؟”

 أعمال تمام الأخيرة عن الثورة السورية تتحدث بالفعل بنفسها عن نفسها وهذا ما تقوله تماماً.  في سلسة أعماله المعالجة ديجيتالياً التي تحمل عنوان “متحف سوري”، ركّب تمام صور أعمال فنية أيقونية على صور عن آثار الدمار والعنف الجاري في سوريا. تخبر أعماله بصراحة جارحة عن تحول الدمار في سوريا للعرض الأكثر شعبية في العالم، لكن ما من خطوات فعلية تتخذ من قبل العالم لإيقافه. مجموعة أعمال أكثر من رائعة.

Tammam Azzam Syrian Museum Paul Gauguins Tahitian Women On the Beach   تمام عزام  "متحف سوري – بول غوغين"

Tammam Azzam Syrian Museum Paul Gauguins Tahitian Women On the Beach تمام عزام “متحف سوري – نساء من تاهيتي على الشاطئ، بول غوغين”

Tammam Azzam 'Syrian Museum - Andy Warhol'   تمام عزام  "متحف سوري – أندي وارهول"

Tammam Azzam ‘Syrian Museum – Andy Warhol’ تمام عزام “متحف سوري – أندي وارهول”

Tammam Azzam 'Syrian Museum - Henri Matisse. La danza I' تمام عزام  "متحف سوري – الرقصة 1، هنري ماتيس""

Tammam Azzam ‘Syrian Museum – Henri Matisse. La danza I’ تمام عزام “متحف سوري – الرقصة 1، هنري ماتيس””

Tammam Azzam 'Syrian Museum - Leonardo Da Vinci. Mona Lisa'  تمام عزام  "متحف سوري – الموناليزا، ليوناردو دافينتشي"

Tammam Azzam ‘Syrian Museum – Leonardo Da Vinci. Mona Lisa’ تمام عزام “متحف سوري – الموناليزا، ليوناردو دافينتشي”

Tammam Azzam 'Syrian Museum - the 3rd of May 1808 Goya   تمام عزام  "متحف سوري – الثالث من مايو 1808، غويا"

Tammam Azzam ‘Syrian Museum – the 3rd of May 1808 Goya تمام عزام “متحف سوري – الثالث من مايو 1808، غويا”

To see more of Tammam Azzam’s works about the Syrian uprising, log on to this facebook page. You can also read two articles I wrote about his previous work here and here.

.لمشاهدة المزيد من أعمال تمام عزام عن الثورة السورية، يمكنك زيارة صفحته على الفيسبوك. كما يمكنك قراءة مقالين كتبتهما بالإنكليزية عن أعماله السابقة هنا وهنا.

“A small group of syrians” a beautiful photography project about the Syrian revolution by Syria’s Jaber al-Azmeh “مجموعة صغيرة من السوريين” مشروع تصوير ضوئي جميل للمصور السوري جابر العظمة

I came across this beautiful photography project by Syrian photographer Jaber al-Azmeh. Below is the description of the project as published on Azmeh’s photography page on facebook and a selection of photos.

صادفت هذا المشروع الجميل للمصور السوري جابر العظمة. أدناه وصف المشروع كما وردعلى صفحة جابر على الفيس بوك ومجموعة منتقاة من الصور.

A small group of Free Syrians offer their words…. This project takes on one of the Syrian Government’s most prominent symbols – The Ba’ath Newspaper – as part and parcel of the Baath Security State – and here turns it upside down to be a surface of new thoughts written by the Syrian people thus overturning the daily chronicle of government lies. We emphasize also that the comments are directed not particularly to the Ba’ath but rather to ‘The Regime’ itself. Each participant was invited to use the news paper or write some words to symbolize his or her thoughts within the general idea of the revolution. Those are Syrians; Here are their words. This project began from the earliest months of the revolution. It was a time when the camera was, and continues to be, one of the revolution’s most important weapons. It was also important to work in simple and easily accessible ways while remaining discreet and not attracting too much attention. Participating in this project gave birth to new friendships, as has the revolution itself, in bringing together diverse Syrian individuals and their talks of revolution and freedom with all the complex emotional mix they entail – ecstasy, sadness and determination – they proudly express their allegiance to the one homeland, Syria.

مجموعة صغيرة من السوريين الأحرار يقول كل منهم كلمته. تم استخدام أحد رموز النظام (جريدة البعث) لكونها جزءاً من المنظومة الأمنية – البعثية، كما استُخدمت الجريدة كسرد تاريخي لأيام الثورة لتكتب عليها كلمات الناس فوق كذب النظام. مع التأكيد أن المعني هو ليس البعث بقدر ما هو النظام نفسه. كان لكل شخص من المشاركين أن يكتب على الجريدة أو أن يستخدمها بطريقةٍ رمزيةٍ ما، موصلا بذلك فكرته كجزء من الفكرة الأشمل: هؤلاء سوريون وهذه هي كلماتهم. بدأ العمل بهذا المشروع منذ الأشهر الأولى للثورة، في مرحلةٍ كانت الكاميرا وما زالت من أهم أسلحة الثورة…كان ينبغي أن نعمل بأبسط طريقة تقنية ممكنة و أقلها لفتاً للنظر. ولّد العمل بالمشروع كما ولدت الثورة صداقات… لقاء هؤلاء، وأحاديث الثورة والحرية التي رافقتها والمزيج المعقد من مشاعر الفرح والحزن والإرادة كانت جزءاً مهماً من العمل بالمشروع مع مجموعة من السوريين المتنوعين الذين يفتخرون جميعاً بالاشتراك بالوطن الواحد.

يوسف عبدلكي - فنان تشكيلي Yousef Abdelké - Artist 18/7/2011 Jaber AlAzmeh ©

يوسف عبدلكي – فنان تشكيلي Yousef Abdelké – Artist
18/7/2011
Jaber AlAzmeh ©

 عامر مطر - صحفي Amer Matar - Journalist "the chain will break" 9/8/2012 Jaber AlAzmeh ©


عامر مطر – صحفي Amer Matar – Journalist
“the chain will break”
9/8/2012
Jaber AlAzmeh ©

<br />غاليا سراقبي - مصممة غرافيكية Ghalia Sarakbi - graphic designer<br />" the people "<br />19/8/2011<br />Jaber AlAzmeh ©<br />


غاليا سراقبي – مصممة غرافيكية Ghalia Sarakbi – graphic designer
” the people “
19/8/2011
Jaber AlAzmeh ©

Rami Hammour &amp; Zeina Salem - Architect &amp; Sculptor رامي حمور و زينة سالم - معماري و نحاتة<br />" we want to stop wanting to leave "<br />12/7/2011<br />© Jaber AlAzmeh

Rami Hammour & Zeina Salem – Architect & Sculptor رامي حمور و زينة سالم – معماري و نحاتة
” we want to stop wanting to leave “
12/7/2011
© Jaber AlAzmeh

فارس الحلو - ممثل Fares Helou - Actor 8/6/2012 Jaber AlAzmeh ©

فارس الحلو – ممثل Fares Helou – Actor
8/6/2012
Jaber AlAzmeh ©

 لويز عبد الكريم - ممثلة Louise Abdelkarim - actress "there is no turning back" 9/6/2012 Jaber AlAzmeh ©


لويز عبد الكريم – ممثلة Louise Abdelkarim – actress
“there is no turning back”
9/6/2012
Jaber AlAzmeh ©

 حلا عمران - ممثلة Hala Omran - Actress 16/7/2012 Jaber AlAzmeh ©


حلا عمران – ممثلة Hala Omran – Actress
16/7/2012
Jaber AlAzmeh ©

Ruham Hawash - Higher Education affairs researcher رهام هواش - باحثة في شؤون التعليم العالي "The laughter of freedom has no borders or nationality" 11/2/2011 © Jaber AlAzmeh

Ruham Hawash – Higher Education affairs researcher رهام هواش – باحثة في شؤون التعليم العالي
“The laughter of freedom has no borders or nationality”
11/2/2011
© Jaber AlAzmeh

شادي أبو فخر وعاصم حمشو - Shadi AbuFakhir &amp; Assem Hamso<br />"hand in hand"<br />14/7/2012<br />Jaber AlAzmeh ©

شادي أبو فخر وعاصم حمشو – Shadi AbuFakhir & Assem Hamso
“hand in hand”
14/7/2012
Jaber AlAzmeh ©

"the anonymous activists" 15/7/2012 Jaber AlAzmeh ©

“the anonymous activists”
15/7/2012
Jaber AlAzmeh ©

 ندين بسيمي - أم Nadine Bassimi - Mother "Happiness is coming to our streets and homes" 9/8/2012 Jaber AlAzmeh ©


ندين بسيمي – أم Nadine Bassimi – Mother
“Happiness is coming to our streets and homes”
9/8/2012
Jaber AlAzmeh ©

You can read a review I wrote about Azmeh’s previous photography exhibition metaphors and watch his works here.

يمكنك قراءة مقال كتبته باللغة الإنكليزية عن معرض سابق لجابر العظمة بعنوان “مجازات” هنا.

Review of ’Arous Amman, a novel by Jordanian writer and blogger Fadi Zaghmout

’Arous Amman (Amman’s bride), a controversial book in both its form and content

Book cover of 'Arous Amman

Book cover of ‘Arous Amman

In an interview on Roya Jordanian TV channel with writer and blogger Fadi Zaghmout, the presenter referred to a gay character in Zaghmout’s novel ’Arous Amman as shaz (an offensive term to describe gays, similar to faggot). „Muthley,” Zaghmout corrected her using a politically correct word for “homosexual”. By the end of the interview, the presenter was using „LGBT-friendly language”.

More than a literary work, Zaghomout’s first novel ’Arous Amman is an activism work advocating women rights and sexual liberties in the conservative Jordanian society. The novel is based on  a collection of short stories, film scripts and blog posts that Zaghmout published on his popular blog. The blog had 118,745 subscribers at the time of publishing this review.

What makes Zaghmout’s blog-turned-into-novel stand out is that it not only tackles some of the major taboos in Jordanian society like domestic rape, inter-religious marriages, sex out-of-wedlock which are often covered in contemporary literature, but it also raises other sensitive issues that are less talked about like LGBT rights and the sexual rights of women who were tricked into marrying homosexual men to hide the husband’s sexual orientation. What also makes it unique is that it is one of the few Arab feminist novels written by a man. Perhaps this is also why it is one of the few novels that don’t crucify men and blame them solely for the plight of women in the Arab world. Rather, Zaghmout presents them as loving fathers and supportive husbands and sometimes even victims of the patriarchal society just like women, blaming women rights violations in the Arab world on the patriarchal upbringing, ignorance and social pressure among others. It is also one of the few feminist novels I read that managed to walk the fine line between creating sympathy for its violated women and LGBT characters and being too depressive. In his novel, Zaghmout does not only showcase the problems that Jordanian women and LGBTs face, but also explains the mentality behind it.

The form and language of ’Arous Amman is no less controversial than its content. It is made up of a series of monologues and reflections by its main characters: 4 women and a homosexual man with very little dialogue. If this sounds daunting, it isn’t. Zaghmout divided his novel into short, blog like sections written in a simple language often using colloquial words which made it easy to read and accessible for a wider audience. While the style he adopted definitely helps in spreading his advocacy message, it triggered heated debates among the more traditional Jordanian intellectuals who call for elitist literature written in pure fusha (literary Arabic language).

Rather than its simple language and form, which I personally found suitable for the message that the novel conveys, what I didn’t like in ’Arous Amman is its romantic ’everyone lived happily ever after’ ending because it lies in contrast with the story’s serious and sometimes even tragic tone. To avoid including spoilers here… it just wasn’t convincing!

’Arous Amman is definitely a good choice if you are a foreigner interested in better understanding the psychology behind women and LGBT rights violations in the Arab world. While the novel might offer little new information for Arab readers, its power lies in challenging the traditional mindset of Arab societies and being brave enough to call social prejudices and atrocities by the name.

The Odd One Out

Growing up in a family of doctors, Buthayna Ali’s household couldn’t have possibly been further removed from the arts. I discuss with the Syrian-born artist in Damascus how societal, religious and gender-related taboos fuel Ali’s oeuvre.

Buthayna Ali at her exhibtion We. 2006. 330 rubber swings, rope, sand, sound and light. Total size: 600 square metres.

Since the first time she attended an art exhibition as a tiddler, Buthayna Ali knew she wanted to become an artist. As a child, she would organise weekly in-house exhibitions for her family and showcase portraits of them, landscapes and sketches of her surroundings. Although her father expected her to study medicine, Ali applied to Damascus University’s Faculty of Fine Arts (where she now teaches painting) and later completed a diploma in painting from the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-arts and a Master’s degree in Islamic Art History at the Paris IV Sorbonne University.

As a multimedia artist, Ali is not only the odd one out in her family, but also within the Syrian art scene that is still largely dominated by classical art forms. Even though Ali admires the works of artists like Michelangelo, Manet and Schiele, the modernist art tendencies of artists like Duchamp in the early 20th century left the biggest impact on her. “The freedom in art in the 20th century helped me break many boundaries. Art for me is about freedom,” Ali says.

I can’t decide which is more provocative in conservative Damascene circles – the art forms that Ali pursues or her eagerness to break the taboos of sex and religion in her work. One thing is certain: Ali’s work never fails to raise eyebrows in her native Syria. When asked what her thoughts are on addressing ‘square issues’, Ali shrugs. “Art is meant to break traditions. It is important to free your tools and open your mind to new ways of expression,” she says, acknowledging acceptance of the fact that conventional spheres in Syria may not appreciate her work. “The first time I saw an installation as an art student in France, I thought it was crap. You don’t wake up one day and start to like video or installation art,” she adds; “To appreciate these art forms, you first need to understand the process that led to their creation and this does not happen between one day and another.”

Breaking Taboos

Even outside Syria, Ali’s work causes controversy. Her installation, No Comment, features copies of the Qur’an, Bible and Tanakh chained inside a glass display case with audio recordings of Islamic verses, Assyrian hymns and Jewish songs. It was denied entry into Jerusalem for participation in the 2009 exhibition, The Other Shadow of the City, curated by Samar Martha at Al-Hoash Gallery. Through the work, Ali criticises religious hypocrisy and implies that the teachings of the three religions are no longer followed, but are instead used for political propaganda. Ali did not receive an official explanation as to why the work was rejected. The work, which was never exhibited, didn’t make it back to Damascus and was ruined on the way.

“I made this artwork especially for The Other Shadow of the City exhibition and I chose this subject because Jerusalem for me is about these three religions and their fight to gain control over the city,” Ali said. “I was very disappointed that the art work was not allowed into Jerusalem. I’ve always dreamed about visiting Jerusalem and I was so excited that my work could be exhibited there.”

Y Why! 2010. 22 cement slingshots, rubber and leather. Total size: 600 square metres.

Her easygoing and informal persona allows her to stroll along the streets of Damascus to convince ordinary Syrians – from the local butcher to the veiled woman walking down Souk Al-Hamidiyeh – to talk to Ali openly about their views on sex, life and the concept of homeland. In her installation, Marionettes, Ali probed men and women from different cultural and religious backgrounds on Syria’s curious lingerie production which includes edible undergarments and remote-controlled bras that play music and spring open with a press of a button. The inspiration for this work came from seeing kitschy lingerie spread out on a peddler’s small table next to the Sayyida Ruqayya shrine in Old Damascus. “I found it very contradictory that it is a taboo to talk about sex, yet it is perfectly normal to sell lingerie in front of places of worship and to have women, mostly veiled ones, go into the Syrian equivalent of sex shops where men sell them lewd lingerie!” exclaims Ali.

The piece, exhibited in Point Ephémère in Paris in 2007, features eight lingerie items hung by strings, like marionettes, and which face eight mirrors. Visitors standing in front of the mirrors appear to be wearing the undergarments; a changing room – for anyone wishing to try on the lingerie – plays audio files of conversations between Ali and interviewed men and women who had been asked their opinions on the lingerie and whether they would purchase any of the items. To Ali’s surprise, most of the Syrian men she interviewed said they didn’t like them, while the majority of the women said that they would wear them.

Syria’s provocative lingerie production caught the interest of other artists as well. Designer Rana Salam and writer Malu Halasa published the book The Secret Life of Syrian Lingerie in which various Syrian women voiced their fears, hopes and view of sex and marriage. In Marionettes, Ali decided to go a step further by making visitors of her exhibition, even if only virtually, wear that lingerie and thus see the subject from a more personal point of view.

“The work is about the viewers rather than the exhibited lingerie. I wanted to challenge the visitors and dare them to wear those lewd pieces,” Ali says pointing out that interaction with the audience is why she chose to make installations instead of paintings.  “A boundary always exists between the viewer and a painting, and it takes a long time to overcome it. Installations, on the other hand, involve all the senses of the viewer making the artwork easier to grasp and more intimate. This also makes it more colourful. Monet painted the Cathedral in each period of the day to show it, each time, in a different light. My installations change with every visitor; each one of them make it appear in a different light.”

Y Why! 2010. 22 cement slingshots, rubber and leather. Total size: 600 square metres.

Issues of Displacement

During the interview, roles were often reversed and Ali was the one asking the questions – something akin to the second nature of a restless artist. “In Arab countries we take many things as a given. There are a lot of things that you don’t question because you are not supposed to,” she says. “I didn’t choose my name, my sex, my country of origin or the religion I was born into. There are a few things left where I can have a choice, so why not? Asking questions gives me choices.” Her constant travel between Europe, Syria and Canada for study and work allowed her to question the concept of home, especially when meeting second-generation immigrants who consider their parents’ country of origin as their homeland even though some had never lived there and don’t speak its language. “Can you inherit a homeland?” Ali asks. “I don’t understand how it can be that you grow up and spend your whole life in a certain country and yet feel that you belong to another one that you’ve hardly visited!” Inspired by the immigrants and their sense of dislocation, Ali created the photomontage, Examples, in which she asked immigrants in various countries where it is that they call home. Exhibited in 2008 at Paris’s Enrico Navarra Gallery, the work features interviews and portraits of Ali’s ‘examples’ created in a book format, but hung. Like bookends, each person’s face and the back of their heads framed the contents within, thus inviting viewers to read what is essentially, within these ‘minds’. The conversation then begs the question: where does Ali call home? Unflinchingly and in a heavy Damascene accent, she quickly says, “Al-Sham (Damascus) is my home. I don’t see homeland as a political unit though. Less than 100 years ago, the Syria we know today did not exist. My homeland is where I grew up and where my childhood memories are.”

Dislocation is also a central theme in Ali’s installation, Y, which was commissioned and later purchased by Mathaf Arab Museum of Modern Art. The artwork is comprised of 22 slingshots which symbolise the 22 Arab countries that according to Ali, “catapult their citizens”, or, in other words, force them to immigrate and seek asylum for various political, economical and social reasons. Using cement, Ali sized each slingshot according to the size of the Arab country it represents and reflected its migration rate during the last decade in the length of its rubber straps. Why slingshots, I ask? “Because they involve a short period of flying. They give a sense of freedom. This initial freedom, however, is short-lived. They will soon hit the ground with a brutal jolt,” replies Ali, referring to the emotional impact of being uprooted.

Calling for Equality

Ali insists that she is not a feminist. However, the Syrian tradition of deeming trivial or casual conversations ‘women’s talk’ and the fact that two women’s testimonies equal a man’s in Syrian courts provoked the title of one her most recent works, Don’t Talk to Her, She’s Only a Woman! that was exhibited at Tütün Deposu in Istanbul in 2010 as part of the Sharing Waters sauna meets hammam project curated by Ulla Kastrup. In the piece, Ali explores the hammam as a refuge for women away from the sphere of male influence and authority; a place where they can spend “me-time” and share their secrets and concerns mostly concerning the opposite sex.  Ali’s belief of women being unequal to men is not restricted to Syrian society – the work includes a Japanese woman’s recitation of discrimination in her workplace because of her gender; an Iraqi refugee’s tales on being a prostitute in Syria and an American woman’s criticisms on society for frowning upon her having four or five sexual partners. “I see the hammam as a place where women peel off their clothes and restraints and enjoy a short period of freedom and gather strength to face their lives in a patriarchal society,” adds Ali. “It was very hard to convince women to open up and tell me the stories that they would otherwise confide in their close friends in a hammam.” Getting these women to talk was not the only challenge – Ali’s subjects opted to record their voices on tape for sake of privacy as opposed to speaking with her face-to-face. This element of ‘secrecy’ and indistinctness was reflected in Don’t Talk to Her, She’s Only a Woman! via two standard metal lockers fitted with 15 closed tier boxes in each. Light and recordings of each woman’s narrative spill out from the sealed boxes. Yet, when viewers open a locker, the light goes off and the sound is muted.

Light forms an integral part of Ali’s works. Since her first show, an installation of a tent which was also her graduation project at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-arts, was criticized by the jury for not using light, Ali put a lot of effort in this aspect of her work.

“I felt that by not using light I let my work down. Light in an installation is just as important as colour is in a painting,” Ali said.

I’m Ashamed. 2009. 750 photographs, sound and light. 323 x 843 x 355 cm.

I’m Ashamed. 2009. 750 photographs, sound and light. 323 x 843 x 355 cm.

Ali’s most recent exhibition took place last November in Venice in the Fondazione Prada’s new exhibition space, the Ca’ Corner della Regina, where she showcased her work Y. Since then, however, the artist has not made any new artworks. The anti-regime demonstrations which began in Syria in March 2011 and rising death toll have had a profound impact on her; being so emotionally engrossed in the rebellion has distracted and conceiving other artwork is not a priority she holds at present.

When asked about her future plans, Ali shakes her head. “I used to tell my students at the university that if you stop working for one day, then you are not an artist! Yet here I am, one year after the unrest started in Syria and I am no longer able to work,” Ali says admitting that it is the first time she stopped making art since she was a little kid. “Living inside Syria, I feel like I am inside a box and I can no longer see things clearly. So many people are dying and all I am left with is a deep feeling of shame,” she pauses. “My only plans now are to see the end of the bloodshed in my country.”

This article was published in the current March/April issue of Canvas art magazine. See pdf version here.

Behind the Scenes

Political disagreements and production cuts are affecting the creation of television series for Ramadan this year.

Unshoodat Al Matar Film Set Location 1

The success of Syrian dramas is their ability to convey the social and political concerns of Syrians and Arabs. This year, however, what used to be a strength has turned into a weakness. The outspoken views expressed by some Syrian drama professionals towards the unrest in Syria has caused production companies to deny work to certain artists and has also prompted some activists to boycott dramas made by people with whom they disagree. Further, the economic impact of the unrest that began in March is also impacting the funding available for producing new dramas.

Both factors are causing a decrease in the film industry this year, and this drop will be visible during Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting that begins in August. Many Arabs recognise this season as being as much a time for watching drama series as it is a time for religious devotion. Arab and Syrian production companies release their soap operas during Ramadan.

While there are no exact figures on the number of Syrian soaps that will be produced this year, drama professionals say the number will be far fewer than the 30 series that, according to statistics provided by the state news agency SANA, were aired during Ramadan last year.

Production down
Although political disagreements are hurting drama production, the economic impact of the unrest is the main hindrance in the production of television series.

Syrian producer and actor Firas Ibrahim said in an interview with Shorouk News website that major Syrian production companies stopped several soaps that were planned for this Ramadan season due to financial worries. While he said he is not planning to stop the production of his drama series Fi Hadret al-Gheyab (In the Presence of Absence) about the life of late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, he said he is worried that it will not achieve the financial success he anticipated.

“With demonstrations sweeping over the Arab World, there has become a real marketing crisis because of a fall in advertisements that are the main financers of TV series,” Ibrahim told the website, adding that channels that used to pay about SYP 95m (USD 2m) for a series are now only paying SYP 9.5m (USD 200,000).

According to Ibrahim, some television channels are not signing contracts with studios to buy rights to air series currently in the making because of concerns that, because of the unrest, the production companies would fail to complete the series in time to be broadcast during Ramadan or that they will not attract viewers.

Boycotting drama
Drama, like political dialogue, is also becoming polarised in the current climate. Increasingly, there are online campaigns by young Syrian activists to boycott both series that feature pro-government artists and those that feature people who support the opposition. This division makes it harder to convince advertisers to invest in Syrian soaps this year, since it reduces audience size.

“No sane advertiser would invest in a series that is boycotted by the audience,” said a young woman from Damascus who is a member of a campaign to boycott pro-government artists and asked to remain anonymous.

Activists published lists of pro-government and opposition artists and named them as “shameful” or “honourable” according to which side the activists support. The founder of a Facebook page to “dishonour” pro-regime artists, who asked to stay anonymous, said his page’s “followers” are not only boycotting dramas that feature pro-regime artists but also the channels that broadcast them.

“The boycott has already started. When I asked [people] to boycott (Syrian actor) Abbas al-Nouri’s programme on MBC channel, the followers not only agreed but even asked to boycott all channels that work together with artists from the shame list,” the founder of the page, which had more than 19,661 followers at the time Syria Today went to print, said.
Manea’ al-Jarba, founder of a Facebook page that lists artists who support the ‘Syrian revolution’, said he compiles the lists according to the artists’ statements to the press and their posts on social-networking sites.

Even Egyptian activists, who compiled their own shame lists during the Egyptian revolution, started an online campaign that calls upon the Egyptian production companies to terminate their contracts with pro-government Syrian artists.

There is only one shame list by pro-government activists, but Syria Today could not reach its founder. In addition to listing opposition TV professionals, the list also names politicians and other public figures who support the Syrian revolution. The list had 1,123 followers by the time Syria Today went to print.

Joelle and Rasheed 1

Infighting
Perhaps more interesting than the economic impact of unrest on Syrian television and its effect on viewership is the drama it is causing behind the scenes. Disputes among drama professionals over the unrest in Syria are aggravating the challenges to producing television series this year.

A petition signed by more than 300 Syrian actors, writers and other TV professionals calling for the Syrian government to “lift the food siege imposed on Dera’a” and to provide the city’s children with food and medical supplies sparked tension between drama professionals. The artists released the statement, dubbed the ‘milk petition’ – because of its request that residents be given milk and other necessities – following the Syrian military operation that started on April 25 in the southern city of Dera’a against what the government alleged were “terrorist groups”.

The signatories were criticised in a campaign by other drama professionals and media spokesmen in both official and some private Syrian media. Famous directors such as Hesham Sharbatji went as far as publicly calling those who signed the petition – including his daughter, director Rasha Sharbatji – “traitors” in a programme on the private Syrian TV channel al-Dunia.

In a statement published shortly after the “milk petition”, 22 Syrian film production companies announced in a statement that they would boycott all its signatories. The companies described the petition’s “fabricated claims” as “a political statement masked as a humanitarian call” that aims to “offend both the Syrian nation and its government”.

Some Syrian production companies also called for rescinding the Syrian Order of Merit that President Bashar al-Assad granted Muna Wasif, the famous Syrian actress and mother of prominent opposition figure Ammar Abdulhamid in 2009, because she had signed the petition.

In an interview with the official Syrian TV, director Laith Hajo said that the Syrian artists’ union also discussed firing members because of their political views.

“We demanded lifting the emergency law and now every Syrian citizen is creating his own emergency law and giving himself the right to randomly attack and fire others,” Hajo told the channel.

As a result, TV professionals reported concerns that they will lose their jobs.

“They [Syrian production companies] want to stop me from working because of my humanitarian call,” Mey Skaf, a Syrian actress who signed the petition, said. So far, she added, none of her contracts had been cancelled.

Attempts at reconciliation
Moves by public personalities to address these disputes have so far failed. A meeting organised by a Palestinian figure to bring opposing drama professionals’ views closer ended without resolution – there was an argument and several attendees walked out. All footage of the meeting captured by local media was seized by the authorities and could not be aired. Drama professionals, some of whom attended the meeting, did not reply to Syria Today’s repeated requests for comment.

President Assad also met a number of Syrian drama professionals, including the actress Wasif, who described the meeting as “transparent and civilised”. During the meeting, Assad asked the artists to stop their accusations and stressed that “the word traitor is not included in our dictionary”, Wasif told the Syrian media following the meeting.

Still, Syrian artists continued to argue publicly over their political stances.

The founder of the Facebook page to “dishonour” pro-regime artists said he believes that regardless of the artists’ views and the boycott campaigns, few people will watch television series this Ramadan anyway.

“Arab news channels are all that Syrians watch these days,” he said. “People from both sexes and all age categories are breathing politics. I don’t expect things to settle down before Ramadan and therefore this year’s drama season will suffer a huge blow unless it focuses on politics and the current Arab revolutions.”

Facebook page founder Jarba agreed, adding: “The Arab World is busy today reshaping its identity, which is taking place on the ground and not on the screen.”

I published this article in Syria Today magazine.