The End of Silence in Syria: Interview with Syria Untold

Art is Peace, collective art project in Aleppo, Syria. Photo by Art Camping.

Syria Untold is a new online storytelling project dedicated to the non-violent Syrian uprising. Project participants, both in and outside of Syria, are working to collect, curate and provide context for content related to civil disobedience, nonviolent movements, and creative resistance to the Assad regime. In their words, “Syria Untold wants to give visibility to the extraordinary work that other websites, social networks and groups of activists are producing within the Syrian uprising. It aims to explain who is producing them, how, and why.” Advox editor Ellery Roberts Biddle interviewed Leila Nachawati Rego, a co-founder of the project who is an active Global Voices contributor. Nachawati is a Spanish-Syrian activist, writer, and communications studies scholar at Carlos III University in Madrid.

How has your relationship with Syria evolved over time? How did the uprisings in 2011 affect this relationship? And how has the conflict affected this relationship?

Even though I grew up in Spain, I used to speak about Syria in whispers. The terror imposed by the regime that Syrians have endured for decades was so deeply rooted that even people living outside would be scared to speak up for fear of the repercussions on their relatives inside the country. After 2011, that wall of fear and silence was broken, and this is probably the one victory of the uprisings, the one thing that gives me hope. No more silence, everything is out in the open now.

How has the conflict impacted creative and journalistic communities in Syria? It would be interesting to hear both the literal/physical components of this, as well as the psychological ones.

Imagine a society where kids are brainwashed into believing that the ruler of their country is an unquestionable godly-like figure, where parents don´t speak in front of their children for fear that they may accuse them of being traitors against the State. This brainwashing has of course had an impact on art and creativity, with everything being produced to idolize the Leader and his family for decades. The true artists, poets, writers, singers were killed or rotting in Assad´s jails.

After 2011, all the creativity repressed for so long gave way to endless forms of expression, from the very witty banners and messages chanted at demonstrations to the songs and poems written to celebrate freedom and to drawings, cartoons and the graffitti movement in Syrian cities and villages. It is art in the non-academic sense of the term, art “out of the salons,” like the group “The Syrian People Know their Way” calls it. Art that emerges from grassroots movements and from the popular need for self-expression after decades of fear, repression and self-censorship.

"Exchange" by Comic4Syria. Comic depicting real events that have taken place in Syrian prisons.

“Exchange” by Comic4Syria. Comic depicting real events that have taken place in Syrian prisons.

Syria Untold seems very much like a project of translation — translation of local issues for a global audience. Does this seem like an apt interpretation?

Yes, it is. On the one hand, if you take a look at the Arabic and English versions, they are quite different, the translations are non-literal because we believe the context needed to reach out to English-speaking and Arabic-speaking audiences is different. On the other hand, there is the curation aspect, that has a lot to do with translation too. The process of choosing, framing and putting the huge amount of contents produced by Syrians into context is in itself a translation of the Syrian civic movement of the ground amid all the deafening geopolitical conversations that tend to ignore Syrians.

What has it felt like to review materials from project participants? Are there particular pieces that have struck you emotionally, intellectually?

There are so many… All of the Syrian creators, the campaigns, the groups working on the ground to maintain the spirit of the uprising, that is increasingly kidnapped by extremists forces trying to impose their own political and religious agendas. The way young artists in Aleppo and other places have been using art to bring hope to people under shelling is probably one of the most inspiring ones. Also, the work that people on the ground are doing in self-management and self-government with very little resources, in places like Kafranbel, Raqqa…

There are so many that it is hard to choose. I think the best contribution of the site is to provide a space where all Syrian artists, campaigns and initiatives on the ground can be easily found and understood in context.

It seems especially important for the project to be online, so that people in different physical places can participate. Do you see Syria Untold as a place where people are connecting with one another, forming new relationships?

Our aim is to become a bridge between media, human rights organizations, and anyone who wants to know about Syrian grassroots initiatives and creative resistance, and those who are working on those initiatives. The fact that those voices on the ground are not visible in the international conversations that are taking place tends to alienate people trying to make a difference in an increasingly militarized context. So we hope this project can help make the so-called non-violent movement more visible, promote interaction between different groups and help them reach out to media and other organizations.

This project cuts against mainstream media narratives of yes-no/black-and-white that have dominated coverage of the conflict. If you were to re-frame the narrative in a few sentences, what would you say?

I would like to quote my friend Amjad Taleb here, who wrote this on his facebook page a few days ago and I think summarizes how many Syrians feel at this false dichotomies posed by media and the “international community.”

If you would ask Syrians to choose between dying by gas while sleeping or dying under torture, I think you could expect the answer. If you asked them to choose between Assad and AlQaeda I think you should expect the answer too.

But if you stop being an asshole and ask them what they want and dream of, then the answers would be more amazing than anything you might have read or heard of… Only if you stop being an asshole.

Obama's red line, by Comic4Syria.

Obama's red line, by Comic4Syria.

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