Art and the question of change
In 2016 I was asked by La Sedeta Centre and the Vila de Gràcia public library to prepare a conference lecture entitled “Contemporary Syrian poetry”. I suggested to the organisers of that that I should choose six young poets that a lecture might absorb in an hour and a half. The conference, entitled “Six Syrian Poets”, eventually led to the publication of the anthology, Jo sóc vosaltres. Sis poetes sirians [I am you. Six Syrian poets], a book that was published in 2018 in a co-publication by Godall and Pol·len Edicisons, So de Pau.
Each of the poets I chose for that anthology was in an unenviable situation, to say the least: there were those who were immobilised in southern Damascus, besieged by the forces of the Assad regime at the time; another was in prison, detained by Syrian intelligence because of his journalistic and political activity in support of the revolution. The latter Wael Saddeddin, managed to send me poems in various ways while in prison. Others were in exile in Europe, or in some Arab country. I cannot forget that one of them, Rasha Omran, because of the psychological situation she had been in, was in the operating theatre for open surgery while I was preparing the book. What these poets went through was not only the result of the poetry or the articles they wrote; it was mainly related to the position of the intellectual during any societal struggle or any struggle for just principles. Nor can I lose sight of one of the most important points: that some of these poets had been at the forefront of informing the media about what was happening in Syria at the time.
The situations suffered by the six poets caused me, in the preface I wrote for the book, to develop a line of questioning that I found very complicated: Is poetry a revolutionary matter? Is revolution a poetic question? What is the value of poetry in the face of what my six protagonists are going through? In fact, the first question became: Can poetry and literature be responsible for the changes that take place either in our societies or in other societies to which we export our artistic production? Is this possible even if the artist paints himself a certain colour and puts an identification card on his chest? Perhaps he is then only allowed to present himself in that same way? This point breaks down other questions that are often thrown in the face of those of us interested in the relationship between art and society. The answer, however, always takes very profound forms, which can just as well be summed up in the essence of the question: Can art bring about a fundamental change in society? What is the role of the artist and the intellectual in these changes?
I believe that the role of art also lies in confronting social changes as they occur. From this position, we can look affirmatively at the enormous production created by the Arab Spring revolutions, especially in Egypt and Syria: in the songs, visual art, photography and literary research, which were an expression of desires for change and were among the means available to confront the military dictatorship.
In Syria, for example, the village of Kafranbel was famous for the expressive banners that were published very week.
In Egypt, Muhammad Mahmoud Street was filled with murals denouncing the ferocity of the dictator Mubarak’s government.
Muhammad Mahmoud Stree, Egypt
But will the dictator allow such means to continue? Of course not. We have the example of Ali Farzat (photo 4), the Syrian plastic artist, who, when he had published his drawings portraying the Syrian revolution, was kidnapped by the intelligence services of the Al Assad regime and tortured – every one of his fingers was broken by the end of the ‘investigation’. Or, there is the example of the singer Al-Qashush, whose songs spread throughout the Syrian revolution. He was also kidnapped by the intelligence services. He was found, days later, stretched out on the bank of the river, with his throat ripped out.
The path of change through art and literature can be a complex subject, and its realisation depends on the success or failure of the movements that surround it. But the artist can certainly make noise through his or her expression, or send a human message to inform the course of events, especially in societies still under the rule of dictatorships.
Now that I have returned to working in the theatre as a professional and researcher, the same ideas continue to run through my head in this new space and, of course, these questions still haunt me today. Added to the name “artist” is the adjective “refugee”. I therefore find myself faced with the dilemma of “the refugee artist”, and trapped within the space of expression that is allowed for it. Among the many artistic genres, Syrian theatre has remained active in recent years in its European exile, and has presented numerous shows, most of which dealt with the theme of migration and asylum. These plays varied between professionalism and amateurism. Their target audience has always been the European public, an audience that has often failed to understand the real dimensions of the tragedies from which the playwrights have fled. All Syrian theatre production prior to 2011, created outside the revolutionary or exiled framework, is therefore understood as “folklore”, the particular, non-universalisable.
Last year, in particular, saw the presentation of El Retorno de Danton [The return of Danton], a Syrian theatre performance written by Mudar Al-Hajji and directed by Omar Al-Arian. The plot of the show presents the behind-the-scenes creation of a Syrian play in Europe: the aim is to show the changes to which the company, now a “refugee” company, is subjected, which radically affect the process of creation and production of the show. On the other hand, we cannot treat Europe as a single, homogeneous mass: there are clear cultural differences, which directly and indirectly affect the productions.
This process of renaming that I have already mentioned, from “artist” to “refugee artist”, radically affects the genre. It is no longer just that, from a European point of view, the Syrian artist presents Syrian or Arab art generally – because of a broader association. Rather, everything that Syrian theatre now presents to Europe can be framed under the concept of “refugee theatre”, meaning that the theme of the play is inevitably related to the theme of asylum and the theme of war.
But there are deeper questions: To what extent does being a refugee depend on the writer? What is left for him, beyond the subject of asylum? The character of Aina Cohen, in Mort de dama [Death of a Lady], laments that the same audience that has forced her to recite her poem La camperola [The peasant] for more than thirty years and which has therefore only allowed her to sing about almond trees, now reproaches her for always talking about the same thing. If Cohen obeys her desire to explore other themes, she will be socially banished; whereas if she insists on the theme left to her, she will become boring.
It follows that the Syrian plays that are presented in the theatres of European cities can be divided between those which, in order to obtain the support of European capital, have to respond to the needs of the European gaze and present the protagonists as victims, and those which, on the other hand, and avoiding the theme of asylum, do not secure sufficient resources for their production.
The work on El Retorno de Danton explores the process of Syrian theatrical production in Europe and attempts to raise questions about our theatre, its traditions and its presence on the continent. The plot, outlined above, presents the story of a Syrian theatre group working to present The Death of Danton, by the famous German playwright George Büchner – in fact, the play is an adaptation. The company has only ten days to prepare the first show and present it to a group of financiers on whose decision the fate of the production depends. In these ten days, presented in five scenes, the play shows us everything that happens to the Syrian artists behind the scenes: What happens to these artists, apart from being refugees, ten years after the Syrian revolution? How does it affect their trajectory?
What distinguishes El Retorno de Danton is that it falls into the second category set out above, and it presents us starkly with an experience that demands to be contemplated. The relocation of the Syrian professional theatre to Europe is the key point in the production. The new location, spatial and symbolic, has palpable consequences even in the chorus of their work, their questions, their themes, which cannot always be explained by the condition of “refugee”. This is a condition that is always present, but whether or not it is the focus of one’s work no longer depends on the individual, but on their environment. When the theatrical artist flees a collapsed society, what he could say in that society is dead, and he must again ask himself the question: Who is the audience? How does the audience see things? What are their expectations, their questions? And, before all of this, what would a Syrian playwright have to say in this theatre?
I return here to my own questions. How can the artist be accountable to society and also affect it? What new questions can an artist ask, being now as much a refugee as an artist? What does the public ask of the refugee artist? What can the refugee artist say that can be heard? What can the refugee artist not say, if he or she wants to be heard? Will he/she be understood by the host society when he/she is just that – “an artist”? Or, on the other hand: Can the host society adapt so that the adjective is no longer necessary? And, before that: Is the position of the artist and of artists, univocal? Will they always be against power? Here I am thinking of Bulgakov, who wanted to be able to speak freely or to go into exile, being a counter-revolutionary. Or again: How can an artist who is dead speak? I am thinking of Gassan Kanafani, the Palestinian novelist killed by a car bomb in Beirut by the Mossad, or of Al Qashush. What position does the artist take, also, in the face of possible death?
Written by: Mohamad Bitari
Palestinian poet, translator, writer and journalist from Syria.