Amman, Jordan – The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote, “We have art in order not to die of the truth”.
Syrian artists might disagree.
Many of them have been detained, beaten and disappeared by the government for focusing their talents on the ugliest of truths around them.
In times of war, writers, painters, filmmakers and photographers often mirror its horror. We now look upon great works such as Pablo Picasso’s Guernica and Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, with nostalgia – neatly cleansed of the terror that inspired them.
Fast forward a generation and works born from the Syrian revolution will likely be part of our contemporary art world. But first Syrian artists must survive, and to do that many have fled the country.
Filmmaker Firas Fayyad tried to board a flight from Damascus Airport last November.
“I knew something was going to happen, normally when I go to the airport they pull me aside and ask me where I’m going and why,” said the 29 year old in Amman, Jordan. “But this time, from their looks it was so clear that they wanted something from me. They asked me to step aside for a few moments.”
Then they put a bag over his head, threw him into a car, and drove him to the first of a series of underground detention centres where he said he was beaten and interrogated repeatedly for four months.
Fayyad – a graduate of the elite Ecole Institute in Paris – had shot a film in Prague with deeply anti-Assad undertones and was about to fly to the Dubai Film Festival to showcase it. Only a small, trusted group of close friends knew about the project. He was betrayed.
The men interrogating him recounted in minute detail what only that small group could have known – such as the symbolic nature of each scene.
One interrogator, he said, was a sympathiser struggling with his conditions. He called off the beatings and told Fayyad privately who had informed on him.
“He gave me names and told me to never tell anyone,” he said, looking down at his hands.
After his release in March, Fayyad knew he was being watched, and could be arrested again at any time. He left the country on foot.
“I was running away with a massive group, of 80 or 90 people,” he said. “We crossed the border with wounded people, children, women, the faces that you see on this trip filled with exhaustion, yellow, staring eyes…”
He is now working to challenge the Assad government as an exiled activist, even though the once peaceful rebellion has transformed into an increasingly violent civil war.
“The revolution always creates a space for expression no matter what it is – if it’s a civil war or not,” he answered when asked if there is any room for creativity amid the current destruction brought by Syria’s conflict.
Hope for peace
Across town, artist Muna Al Aakad disputes that theory intensely.
Bare-foot, heavily pregnant, and sitting on the floor of a room converted into an art studio, she laments the loss of a peaceful revolution.
“It was like a peaceful battle,” said the 30 year old painter. “There was an artistic point of view in it – despite what happened later with people holding guns and weapons.”
Unlike Fayyad, she doesn’t see the Free Syrian Army as Che Guevara-style freedom fighters. Her hatred for the violence on both sides is clear in her paintings – two dozen or so leant against the wall.
One has a pencil sketch of a soldier attacking a naked, pregnant woman with a bayonet. As an activist, she was a part of the revolution and organised protests; but as an artist, it is her individual experiences she communicates.
“This is the language that I speak to the world in,” she said. “I am expressing the things I am living.”
Al Aakad is personally aware of how complicated Syria’s violence is. One brother was doing his military service when the revolution broke out and another was arrested for going to protests. Neither of them have been heard from in months.
She is painting furiously to finish her work in time for a gallery exhibition next month in Beirut.
While Syria’s conflict shakes the ground in Lebanon and fighting spills over the border, artists such as Al Aakad will be displaying their representations of its tragedy in the capital.
Fayyad too is hoping to complete his film soon. The finished version was snatched by the government officials who grabbed him at the airport, but he had backup copies of his footage hidden and is resolutely re-editing in a small studio in Amman.
He remains adamant that the Syrian revolution is still something inspiring and idealistic – centered on freedom and democracy. It would be easy to dismiss his views as those of someone far-removed from the cruel executions on both sides of the war – but there is no denying that he has been personally privy to the brutality. If some worry about the increasingly ethnic element to the war in Syria, this filmmaker is not.
Are you Sunni or Shia, I ask him?
“I am human,” he smiles.