"Say Cheese", from Occupied Kafranbel. Source: Kafranbel Facebook page.
Kafranbel, also known as “the little Syrian town that could”, is a powerful symbol that SyriaUntold considers crucial for a better understanding of the Syrian reality. In a series of two articles we will explore the key themes and characteristics of Kafranbel’s production, which provides an insight into the Syrian scenario through powerful and creative storytelling.
Of all the changes crystallizing around the ideals of the Arab uprisings, the ones that are unquestionably positive are those in the creative and expressive arenas. While the entire region is witnessing an artistic renaissance that can be linked to the emergence of Arab theatre during the uprisings of the 50s, the Syrian case is particularly extreme and prolific. To understand the complexity of the Syrian scenario, it is more important than ever today to follow the stories told by local citizen-made cultural and artistic production, which differs from the international geopolitically-dominated accounts of the country.
Israel’s attacks on Gaza in 2009 were the first case of a conflict mediated by social media.Both inside and outside the Gaza strip, citizens and members of Hamas used Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other platforms to narrate, document and condemn the attacks. But no group’s use of these platforms was as intensive and coordinated as that of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).
A year ago the uprisings that had started in Tunisia and Egypt reached Syria. Next week will mark the anniversary of the moment when the Syrian people decided to stand up against opression. In this revolution, Syrian youth have played a crucial role, being at the forefront of the global struggle for freedom and dignity – and its main victims. A few days ago I wrote about this for the Zurich International Relations and Security Network:
In the uprisings that started in Tunisia, spread through the Middle East and North Africa and reached Western countries such as the US and Spain, young citizens have played a key role by questioning the systems inherited from the previous generations and demanding new forms of representation.
Speaking up after decades of silence
After more than forty years, most Syrians had grown used to viewing the Baath regime as an oppressive, yet unquestionable, power. There was an attempt to overthrow Hafez al-Assad, father of the current president Bashar al-Assad, in the city of Hama in 1982. It was so violently repressed — it led to the slaughter of 20,000 people and became one of the single deadliest attacks of an Arab leader against his own people — that a whole generation was traumatized and subdued into political paralysis. Since then, no attempts to ignite an organized reaction against one of the most repressive regimes in the world have succeeded.
It took another generation and the revolutionary trend sweeping the region for Syrians to take to the streets to demand freedom, justice and dignity. Young people in Syria led the mobilizations for change, just as they did in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. They envisioned a future in which their voices would be heard, and they used new tools and channels to share and spread their hopes of transforming their country into a place respectful of everyone´s rights.
New spaces in the land of state-controlled media
Despite minor improvements in the last decade, the majority of Syrian mainstream media are still owned and controlled by the government; foreign journalists are virtually banned from entry. Tools provided by the internet have allowed citizens to create their own narrative however and share real-life events with the world, in real time. Internet media and platforms are flooded with images and videos taken by protesters (mainly through mobile phones), then shared by citizens and media worldwide.
Facebook pages such as “The Syrian people know their way” showcase a collection of creative examples of graphic design, posters, photos and videos produced by young activists that aim to reflect the spirit of the revolution and provide further inspiration for the on-going struggle. Aware of the importance of icons and visual representation, they combine their designs for blogs, websites, posters, banners, with the promotion of effective methods of peaceful civil resistance against the regime´s brutality — without engaging in militarization.
YouTube popularized what has now become the anthem of the Syrian revolution, “Irhal ya Bashar” ["Bashar, get out"]. The song by Ibrahim Kashoush encourages the Syrian president to leave office, replete with provocative lyrics and a catchy dabke beat. The government first tried to stop it by silencing the singer: In a symbolic and macabre response to Kashoush’s chanting, the singer was found dead on 5 July 2011, his throat cut and his vocal cords ripped out — a clear message to anyone willing to speak up.
Although Kashoush may have been killed, his voice was not silenced. The song became even more popular, with demonstrators singing it in Syria and abroad. It ignited a strong reaction to the on-going repression and drew even more international media attention to the Assad regime.
To counter online opposition, the government used the internet for its own purposes by lending support to pro-regime hackers. Syria´s Electronic Army, a group of hackers acknowledged as a positive force by Assad in a June 2011 speech, took over certain Facebook pages — such as those belonging to presidents Nicolas Sarkozy and Barack Obama — and flooded them with comments like, “We love Bashar al-Assad”. In order to try establish that nothing terrible is happening in Syria, the government has also accused international media of fabricating content and claimed YouTube was the epitome of “the West’s moral bankruptcy and cooperation with terrorism”.
Despite attempts by the government to delegitimize and criminalize them, Syrian activists have nevertheless managed to attract global attention to their struggle — and it seems that they are winning the media battle, after decades of silence.
Mobilizing “the silent majority”
Social media platforms, particularly YouTube, are being used by young Syrians to try mobilize what is known as “the silent majority”: other Syrians who are still afraid of speaking up. A widely-shared video called “What are you afraid of?” shows a teenager talking to a young man sitting in the dark. The first one lists the reasons why the other one might be afraid, and encourages him to take a stand:
Are you afraid of the Security agents? Believe me, they’re afraid of you. If Hamza and Hayar who were kids are not afraid, will you be?
Are you afraid of sectarianism? We are the country of love and coexistence and peace… We have rights, and we will take them!
What are you afraid of? Your country is calling you, your country is calling you!
If we, the youth, do not fight for change, who will?
Do you like living like this? Do you?
Now we have a chance to change our future.
Bloggers and online activists such as Hussein Ghrer have also called on Syrians to take a stand against repression: “Silence doesn’t serve us after today. We don´t want a country where we get imprisoned for uttering a word. We want a country that embraces and welcomes words.”
Ghrer, like many other bloggers and human rights activists, has been arrested twice by a regime that considers freedom of expression a threat. His detention sparked outrage among fellow bloggers and activists, who issued a joint statement that summarizes what Syrian activists stand for and the threats they face:
Hussein was detained because this regime fears freedom. Words are Hussein´s weapons, and ours too. We want these weapons to break the silence. We urge you to raise your voice for Hussein´s freedom and all prisoners of conscience in Syria.
Although Syrians have been paying a very high price for their agitation, citizens have continued to create their own narrative with tools provided by the internet. The gap between the state-controlled narrative and that of the population is growing wider and wider because of the hard work and sacrifices of Syrian activists.
Syrians opposing the regime are aware of the state narrative and have counteracted it through powerful online means. Another song, “We want to fill the dungeons”, created by a group of activists who call themselves “The Strong Heroes of Moscow”, addresses the propaganda that floods Syrian media with pointed lyrics:
We will fill the dungeons and pack the prisons for the Assad nation. No freedom, it´s all nonsense, it´s all a conspiracy that comes from the West.
Who said “God, freedom and nothing else”? We will shred them like lettuce.
They´re just a million infiltrators, they are not the majority.
Your media performed its magic and exposed the Salafi terrorists.
Your name raises us on high, even if your people die of hunger, we´ll elect you for life.
The state narrative mocked in this song contrasts with the revolutionary narrative that Syrian youth have broadcast, focusing on demands for freedom, anti-sectarianism and non-violence.
Non-violent resistance inspired the Syrian uprising from the beginning, but it has been met with arrests, torture and bloodshed. 26-year-old activist Ghiath Matar from the Damascus suburb of Daraya — dubbed “the Syrian Ghandi” — was known for leading the initiative of facing security forces with bottles of water and flowers. He was hunted down and tortured to death on September 10. The Syrian Local Coordination Committees issued a joint statement that mentioned the dream Ghiath had died for:
Ghiath and his friends in Daraya were advocates of non-violent struggle. He believed that a free and civilized Syria can’t be realized except by Syrian men and women in their peaceful struggle against the violence of the regime, with all the love they have facing the speech of hatred, by refusing to be like the butcher or use his tools.
How much more can Syrians endure?
Young Syrians once believed in peaceful resistance, but the brutality of the regime against unarmed demonstrators has clashed with their dream of seeing the country transformed into one where fundamental rights are respected. Youth unemployment was already among the highest in the world before the revolution, and six times higher than the rate among older adults; the lack of opportunity had forced thousands into emigrating. Now, after a year of crackdowns — and with the country on the verge of economic collapse — young Syrians find themselves trapped between unemployment and death.
Thanks to content uploaded by activists being widely shared, their struggle can be followed by citizens all over the world – and, for the first time in decades, there is near-worldwide solidarity with the cause of the Syrian people. However, without unified international pressure, young Syrians will be alone in facing a regime that has driven its own people to despair. The world needs to do more than watch the bloodshed in real time.
As massive demonstrations take place all over the country demanding the end of Syrian president Bashar Al Assad’s regime, Syrian state TV reported a suicide bombing in the Midan neighborhood of Damascus on Friday, January 6.
International media have quoted Syrian state TV saying “immediate information indicates that a suicide terrorist blew himself up at a traffic light in the Midan neighbourhood,” but regardless of who is responsible for the attack some of the images show clear evidence of fabrication.
On this video that shows what is allegedly the crime scene, a person holding a microphone is suddenly seen on camera placing plastic bags beside a patch of blood on the ground. What is a reporter for Syrian TV doing moving stuff around at a crime scene? The way the presenter becomes speechless when she notices is priceless:
This other video shows what are allegedly the first images of the attack. The text below the images says “We apologize for the ugly scenes” as the camera shows corpses, people screaming and a man saying “See? This is the freedom they want”. But what´s shocking about the video appears during the last seconds: Two men from the security service hug, one apparently wounded, but right before the camera shuts down they separate and stand up with a “we´re done filming, right?” gesture.
Fabrication is not new in a country where the government owns the media and bans international journalists. Two weeks ago the Syrian government blamed a similar bombing on al-Qaeda, including a fake statement and website which initially fooled international media to report the story of the Muslim Brotherhood claiming responsibility for the bombings. Syrian blogger Anas Qtiesh wrote an excellent post about the findings that clearly show that the fake statement and website were easily traced back to regime affiliates.
Sometimes someone expresses the way you feel about something, or someone, so accurately, that there´s no need to add a single word. I would like you to read my friend Jillian York´s piece for the Guardian on our friend Razan Ghazzawi, who was arrested by the Syrian government on Sunday. #FreeRazan . And #FreeSyria.
I got an urgent instant message from my good friend Razan Ghazzawi last Tuesday night. Having tweeted and blogged against the Syrian regime for the past several months under her real name, from inside Syria, Ghazzawi was concerned that she had become a target.
Always prepared, she sent me her contingency plan: close her online accounts. Syrians who have been arrested and detained over the past nine months have reported having their passwords demanded by authorities. Though closing her accounts wouldn’t help her, it could protect her friends – that’s the kind of person Ghazzawi is.
Those close to her say that she was on her way to a workshop in Jordan organised by her employer, the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression, when she was arrested. Though it’s difficult these days to understand anything the Syrian regime does, her blog may have been the impetus for her arrest, or it may not have, but in either case her outspoken writing could very well make things worse for her.
By birth, Ghazzawi is an American citizen – though she would undoubtedly resent the idea of that being used to free her. In any case, it is unlikely that the US government could have any pull with the Syrian regime at this point.
I met Ghazzawi in 2008 at a conference in Europe. We only connected briefly – she was working on her master’s thesis – but we kept in touch and when I visited Syria the next year, reconnected. She is a consummate activist, never content to let something slide, always thinking, sometimes too much. She is passionate about LGBT and gender rights, Palestine and, of course, her beautiful Syria.
Though Ghazzawi had blogged under her own name for several years, at the start of the Syrian revolution she had a change of heart, changing her name on Twitter and locking down her Facebook account. I never asked, but I assumed she was scared. She left for a while for Lebanon, then Egypt, but ended up back in Syria soon after; I can only assume she felt compelled to return.
Eventually, she decided against anonymity, returning to her former outspoken nature and tweeting, her opposition to the regime coming across loud and clear.
What I appreciate and respect the most about Ghazzawi (and what I suspect is what irks a lot of other people about her), however, is her honesty and humanity. Though a staunch supporter of Palestinian rights, she has denounced the double standards of Palestinian resistance groups that have expressed support of the Syrian regime. She has not been afraid to speak up against those she disagrees with, even her friends. For that, she is among my heroes.
She has also been pragmatic, sceptical even, of the role of social media in Syria and throughout the region, consistently claiming that “online activists are overrated”. Bemused, annoyed even, at all of the invitations she’s received to represent Syrian digital activists at conferences, she has taken a pragmatic approach to the effect of digital tools in Syria, where access to the internet hovers at around 20% and DSL is mostly unavailable outside of Damascus.
Last time I saw her, at the Third Arab Bloggers Meeting in Tunis, she drove the point home: after learning that Palestinians had been denied visas to attend, she slapped a sign on her back that read: “OK, [Palestinians] denied entry. Let’s not just tweet about it!”
It is ironic then, that her own online outspokenness may be the cause of her arrest.
In respect to the Syrian opposition, Ghazzawi has been thoughtful, nuanced, writing about her love of Syria and her desire for a simultaneously free and peaceful Syria. On her blog, she recently wrote:
“Colonisation made us all a bunch of nationalists [fighting] for a label [rather] than for a value. I want to be living hand in hand with all of you, and this cannot be done if we see ourselves as ‘majorities’ and ‘minorities.’ The foundation of this logic lies in nationalism.”
But if there is one thing that represents Ghazzawi more than anything, it is her belief in the power of people – not politicians, not parties, but individuals. “It’s time for people’s self-determination to rule the region, you just wait and watch,” she wrote in October. Let’s hope that her prophecy is correct.
This week Muslims celebrate the festivity of Eid Al-Adha, that commemorates Abraham´s sacrifice. In this year of revolutions, uprisings and changes, this festivity means even more for Muslims in the Middle East and North Africa. People in Syria, after months of unbearable loss due to the regime´s brutality, do not have much to celebrate. The town of Homs, where the uprisings began, has seen peaceful demonstrators killed every day since mobilizations began, and they continue to struggle against opression while they bury their beloved ones. These days are a great occasion to show them support and solidarity, and we can do that through an awesome campaign organized by a group of Syrian expatriates who encourage people to do this:
1. Dial 0096331, then dial 7 random numbers
2. Say “Happy Eid”, or “Eid Said”, or “Eid Mubarak” + the country where you are calling from
3. If you know Arabic you can definitely say how you feel about Homs and share your best wishes for the town and for Syria. Please don´t mention anything political or that can be used against them.
The campaign is already huge and lines are collapsed sometimes, but I just managed to reach a Homsi home, and a sweet lady answered. I told her I was very proud of Homs and wished them the best. She kept saying “Shukran shukran shukran”.
Here´s an audio of a Saudi man who did the same thing. It´s very touching to hear, and for those who don´t understand Arabic, here´s the translation:
Salam Aleikom/ Aleikum Es-salam / Who´s talking? / This is Mohammad AlMudhem, from Saudi Arabia / Oh, son, you got the wrong number, / Yes, I know, sister. I´m calling you randomly, to tell you just one thing. /Tell me, dear/ We stand with you in solidarity, with all our hearts /God bless you, my son/Listening to you makes me very happy, sorry to disturb you, I just wanted to wish you Happy Eid / God bless you, my son! / Best wishes and I hope you stay safe / Who´s talking again? / This is Mohammad Almudhem / God bless you, best wishes and longest life to you/ But tell me about you, is your family ok? / Yes, we are, thanks so much, God bless you, God bless you!
I met Alaa Abd El Fattah a few weeks ago at the Arab Bloggers Meetingin Tunisia. I interviewed him for the Spanish news-site I contribute to, Periodismo Humano, and he shared his insights on the role bloggers performed during the movilizations in Egypt and the challenges ahead. A few weeks later, Alaa is in prison for allegedly “inciting violence”. Facing military trial, he has refused to answer questions in order not to grant it legitimacy. The Egyptian military has tried tried more than 12,000 civilians since January, when Egyptians toppled Mubarak.
When I asked Alaa about the role of bloggers during and after the revolution, he mentioned how bloggers and online activists have been key catalizers of the demands of other members of Egyptian society. They have echoed the demands of trade unions, teachers and other professionals, whose voices are not normally covered by mass media, and have been at the forefront of defending human rights in the country. Alaa and all others demanding freedom, justice and an end to emergency law are being persecuted today just as they were during Mubarak´s dictatorship.
The Egyptian military has received approximately $1.9 billion of US taxpayer money since 1979, according to EFF International Director of Freedom of Speech Jillian C. York. All of us hoping for a free Egypt (and a free Bahrain, and a free Syria, and a free Yemen…) demand and end of military trials and an end of all international support for this institution. International efforts, after months of praising the legitimacy of citizen demands on the region, should focus on supporting free speech and granting the rights of all citizens. Free Alaa!
At the Arab Bloggers Conference in Tunis. October 4, 2011
“Welcome to free Tunisia”: This is how Tunisian activist Sami Ben Gharbia introduced the 3rd Arab Bloggers meeting that is taking place in Tunis. Being here, in the first Arab country that has toppled its own regime, is quite meaningful for everyone attending in this year of the Revolutions. Participants from 15 Arab countries, together with others from countries like the US, Trinidad and Tobago and Ghana, are sharing insights and experiences on issues that go from net neutrality and net freedom to coverage and monitoring of the upcoming elections in some of the countries of the region. We are all missing the Palestinian participants, who could not make it because of VISA concerns. Apparently the Tunisian government denied them access to the country, which has deprived us, once again, of the voices of these very crucial actors in the Middle East and North Africa region. We have issueda statement expressing our concerns about this to the Tunisian government. These are the tweets that started it:
I´ll post more on the contents of the conferences and workshops soon. Meanwhile, here´s an Aljazeera piece covering the first sessions: Bloggers say Arab Spring has gone global. And follow us on the #AB11 hashtag on Twitter.
Last week I had the opportunity to take part in a conference with a very challenging title: “Social Media Heroes”. It was organized by Fundación Telefónica and Aerco, which did an amazing job, providing us with live streaming and simultaneous deaf-mute translation. I admit that I was hesitant about the title in the beginning, but then I realized that I was going to have a unique chance to present a large audience with some very real heroes: the Syrian activists who are risking their lives on a daily basis to make a difference in their country, to bring freedom and justice to a context of institutionalized unjustice and repression.
Syrians are doing an outstanding job trough their use of technology and the Internet to register and share what is happening in one of the most closed and repressive countries in the world. They´re not only working on making change happen but they are also narrating and sharing their own history. In my presentation, “Activism in Syria: the Internet and decentralized communications for social change” I went through some of the threats activists face, how they protect themselves and the continuing battle between freedom and repression online and offline. Please let me know what you think!