The impact of the arts on the Syrian revolution
The arts that emerged during the Syrian revolution are unrelated to the “politically committed art” that so dominates our impressions of the 1970s and 1980s in the Arab world.
This assertion may surprise a few readers, particularly since the creative output of Syrians in their revolution was targeted, in the sense that it was directed at an objective and espoused a cause. However, there is little indication that “committed art”, midwifed by ideology, linked to national and patriotic festivals and fashioned from slogans and the language of political fervour, has a place in the Syrian revolution. What has emerged, down alleyways and cramped public squares, is a creativity unburdened by ideology, which treats national issues as a tool to obtain freedom and not self-contained and self-sufficient issues of identity. The cause is not freedom itself but the means to obtain it, a truth that provides a solid starting point for investigating the state of the arts in Syria’s continuing revolution.
Marcel Khalifa’s posture and Ibrahim Al Qashoush’s throat
Between Upright I walk, the Marcel Khalifa song, which long repetition on the frontlines of struggle and resistance has made a repository of sublime emotions and dreams, and Go on, leave, Bashar, belted out by popular singer Ibrahim Al-Qashoush at demonstrations in Hama against the Al Assad regime, there are a constellation of small differences that taken together show how the purpose and thrust of patriotic anthems have changed since Khalifa’s day.
In Khalifa’s song, “the back is straightened”, “the coffin” is raised onto the shoulder, the “palm of the hand” grips an olive branch and “the heart” becomes “red” and “a garden”. Despite the deep bond that links this song with the Palestinian resistance against the Israeli occupation, when it comes to analysing the song’s words a degree of psychological distance can be felt, perhaps attributable to the inability of the language to convey the strength and immediacy of these patriotic sentiments. Khalifa’s song speaks in general terms and it deploys an extensive vocabulary (olive, heart, coffin, posture) without ever defining whose back is straightened, who raises the coffin on their shoulder or whose is the red heart. In reality, when Marcel Khalifa performs he answers these questions by dedicating the song to “the martyr” or “the resistance fighter on the front line”, pre-empting the natural desire to assuage our curiosity by combing through his lyrics. This generalizing tone and wordiness are characteristic of the majority of the songs that fall under the rubric “committed art”. Childish dreams and fantasies are mixed with metaphors, symbols and allegories, a potent concoction that regardless of the intentions of the songs’ authors contributes to the creation of a false consciousness, deceiving and ideologizing its listeners.
When Ibrahim Al Qashoush sings Go on, leave, Bashar, he avoids generalizations. He names his enemy: Bashar al-Assad. This clarity is one of the principle differences between committed art and the output of the Syrian revolution. It is true that the enemy of Marcel Khalifa’s songs is also clearly identifiable, but only in general, universal terms that lack specificity. For instance, we may tell a killer that he is a killer, but it is far more powerful to describe how he kills. This is exactly what Al Qashoush does. As he puts it in his song: Bashar, you germ,/ The words you say make sense no more,/ Your news is bad news.
The lyrics to Go on, leave, Bashar are not saturated in metaphor: there is an identified enemy to whom it is directed. Moreover, the excerpt above makes reference to the obscurantism of the president’s speeches and the dreadful consequences of his criminal policies. This supports our assertion that compared with the songs of Khalifa’s time the revolution’s anthems do not just set their subject in lyrics and melody but also provide that subject with a context whose content is usually political in nature. Furthermore, the standardization of style in the songs of “committed art” and their deployment of set verbal and structural formulae contrasts with the greater degree of adaptability in revolutionary songs. Al-Qashoush adapts his songs according to the fluctuating circumstances of the revolution itself. When Bashar al-Assad made his first speech before parliament, telling the world that there was a conspiracy against Syria, Al-Qashoush had his answer ready: Bashar you liar,/ You and you speech go to hell,/ Freedom is just round the corner,/ Go on, leave, Bashar.
By the same token, the generalizations of “committed art”, its formulaic nature and extensive use of metaphor confined its effectiveness and influence to mobilization. It is certainly true that many of these patriotic anthems remained embedded in the collective consciousness of large swathes of the Arab public, but divorced from the specific issues and events that produced them. They were repeated in all situations and contexts, to mobilize and incite, but their effectiveness in addressing the current reality of the struggle and their connection to the immediate context seemed non-existent. The songs of the Syria revolution appear closer to the consciousness of their audience. Here, it is events that make the songs not than language and metaphor, thus making their impact all the stronger.
From sacred to profane
The influence of daily life and reality on the vocabulary used in the Syrian uprising’s songs had rendered them immune to the ideology which characterized “committed art” and which moved it irresistibly into the realm of the sacred. The quotidian is the antithesis of the ideological; adaptability versus immovability. The dominance of party political ideologies in the anthems of the Palestinian/Arab revolution has become a form of despotism, shielding committed art from criticism and lending it an air of infallibility that remains unshaken no matter how poor its quality. For decades, dramatists, artists and singers have positioned themselves as monks to the cause, encircled with a halo of truth and unable to accept dissent or criticism.
It might be claimed that comparison of these two singers is unfair. Khalifa, for instance, was active in an era overshadowed by the Arab-Israeli conflict and its discourse, which ensured that all political songs tended towards stereotyping, uniformity and the repetition of generalizing slogans. Al-Qashoush is singing in a very different period, one that privileges simplicity and the clear and honest expression of one’s thoughts. But no sooner is this comparison suggested, than another name pops up: Sameeh Chkeir
Chkeir is a Syrian singer who is strongly influenced by Marcel Khalifa in terms of both style and content (both men, for instance set Mahmoud Darwish to music) and has also sung and composed melodies for the revolution in his country in a way quite different to his former work.
This becomes obvious on comparison of any of Chkeir’s old songs and his famous anthem, Oh pity!, which he dedicated to revolution and is now considered one of the uprising’s most famous songs. Formerly, the committed artist Chkeir deployed a non-specific vocabulary and obscure metaphors accompanied by raucous “revolutionary” music, something we can hear for ourselves by listening to his famous song about the Sabra and Chatila massacre which begins: Beirut, Beirut of the great massacre and the blood/ Of children, wine in the drunken soil,/ The Nazis have entered Sabra and Chatila. Comparing this with Oh pity!, released in the early days of the revolution, we notice many of the same characteristics that we noted in our assessment of Al Qashoush’s lyrics.
Chkeir and Al- Qashoush on the same page
Chkeir first sung Oh pity! shortly after the first protests in Deraa. Hot off the press, passionate and free of metaphor and similes it confined itself to unadorned description and pointed the finger at the criminal responsible. With reports of Syrian security forces firing on peaceful demonstrators in the southern city fresh in his mind, Chkeir sings: Oh pity! Oh pity!/ The bullets whined at the defenceless, Oh pity! He goes on to describe the schoolchildren whose fingernails were ripped out for writing The people want the fall of the regime on the walls of their school: And children in the bloom of youth, how can you arrest them?/ And you, a son of my country, killing my kids,/ Your back turned on sense and attacking me sword in hand, Oh pity! Oh pity!
We can see here that the singer, originally from the Syrian city of Soueida, is intentionally keeping his song as simple and clear as possible to ensure that it achieves maximum effect. The words do not match the typical struggle formula of his earlier songs, warbling about the homeland and martyrdom. Instead, they are descriptive, outlining what happened without poetic ornaments or overblown rhetoric. He goes on singing as if reciting some epic ballad: I heard these youngsters say “How close is freedom, how close…” … They chanted to it… They saw the rifles and said, “There stand our brothers… Don’t shoot us… They shot us with live rounds, we died by our brothers’ hands, “We died in the name of national security, Who are we, who? Ask history, history will tell”.
At the beginning of its final section we can discern one of the inspirations for Chkeir’s song: the slogans chanted in demonstrations decrying the regime. The singer uses the line He who shoots his people is a traitor, a slogan chanted by the people in response to the security forces’ use of live rounds against them. It goes on: The jailor can’t stand a single word of freedom, it rocks him to his foundations, and at the crowd’s cry he leaps like he’s been stung … He leads our chants with his gunfire, we, the ones that said, Who kills his people is a traitor, whoever he might be.
Although he ends the song calling on Syrians to have hope he never falls into the trap of the patriotic zeal that characterized his earlier songs: The people are like destiny, once awoken never stilled, the people are like destiny, and hope remains, oh pity! Oh pity! In this song, Chkeir is finally on the same page as Al-Qashoush: he, too, names the killer and does so by recounting the details of a story and setting it in a political context.
Elitism and commitment
Filmmakers, dramatists, singers, artists and writers suddenly found themselves facing a lake of blood, prompting them to re-examine the function and aims of art and above all else, the question of what film, song, poem or play could be meaningfully produced in a country where more than a hundred martyrs fell each day. The fact was that the revolution shook the concept of art’s purpose to its foundations. The prevailing understanding in Syrian cultural circles saw it as an elitist cultural product divorced from public concerns, trapped in the gilded cage of private salons, theatres and those cafes monopolized by intellectuals. This concept now came face to face with a street in revolt.
For decades art had been the preserve of elites: they created it, produced it, watched it and consumed it. Society, impoverished, with its middle classes in ruins, kept away from the only fitfully active art scene. The irony is that a country like Syria, ruled by an ideologically driven party that monopolized and manipulated culture and the arts and tried to use them to build a monolithic Arabist-nationalist nation, ended up with deserted theatres, cinemas abandoned to the rats and gloomy groups of cultural types in coffee shops, while the Syrian people chased ceaselessly after their daily crust. The casual observer could be deceived by Damascus’s luxurious cinemas and its Opera House, by its lively schedule of poetry evening and plays. But the cultural scene in Syria, especially in the provinces, was and is a wasteland.
One of the effects of the revolution was to free the arts in Syria from the stagnation that was one of the products of its domesticated culture. Released from elitism it no longer gave priority to rhetoric, fantasy and the old modes of expression. A new authority had imposed itself on the scene: the street. The demonstrators who spent long hours in the squares and streets excelled in producing ways of expressing their rejection of the ruling regime, innovations that embraced the full spectrum of the arts: popular and contemporary, traditional and modernist. The revolution liberated the arts from its locked chambers and made it readily available, a tool to be used in a complex set of ways: to be produced and interacted with, but always characterized by a spirit of freedom and liberation that rubbed off on its creators.
Perhaps the most convincing evidence for our argument is that ordinary people never participated in the production of “committed art”, which was the preserve of a few cultural figureheads. The Syrian revolution engaged with those who joined it: it opened a space for everybody to participate in creating the “revolutionary moment”, whether by singing, playing music, chanting or reciting poetry.
Using this evidence to suggest that revolutionary art is free from the characteristics of “committed art” has a further purpose: to sketch out another aspect of the differences that separate the period of ideological, absolutist and raucously sloganeering cultural production from this new period of improvisation, when the arts make themselves humbly and with no claim to absolute truth. Returning to our initial comparison, Marcel Khalifa’s “posture” is no longer “upright”: the temptations and demands of the market have forced it to stoop too often. The artist who once liberated his music from the clichés of the struggle has moved on. As for Ibrahim al-Qashoush’s throat, the same throat that sung Go on, leave, Bashar, it has been slit by Syrian security.
Between the posture that was held metaphorically stiff-backed in a time of trading on nationalist issues and the throat slit for brazenly fingering the killer there are many differences, differences that will become ever more apparent as the revolution takes root and in doing so generates ever more songs and art.
Translated from the Arabic by Robin Moger
 “Germs” was the term chosen by the regime to refer to revolutionaries first.