The will to live and triumph over ugliness of war is giving Syria's culture scene a much needed facelift
Since the start of the crisis in Syria, the capital has been experiencing the bourgeoning of a unique kind of cultural scene. Individual and collective initiatives that the authorities once kept in check with an iron fist have a new found freedom. Musical performances, plays, and poetry reading sessions are now everywhere, in all corners of Damascus. This is a glimmer of hope in a city surrounded by violence and misery.
Life in the streets of Damascus has a semblance of normality. Its people have been able to cope with the fighting taking place around the city. The sound of the falling shells pounding the capital’s neighborhoods has become the soundtrack of the daily lives of the Damascenes, who, throughout the past three years, have managed to adapt to their new reality, despite its cruelty, and benefit from its effects to create an impressive cultural scene that was almost non-existent prior to the crisis.
The oldest city in the world can only boast three theaters and two cinemas. In 2008, Damascus was chosen as the Arab Capital of Culture for that year. During that period, Syria witnessed unprecedented artistic and cultural activities. Afterwards, intellectuals and artists in Syria called for repeating the experience and making it permanent, rather than a one-time event.
However, those voices and their supporters did not reap anything but disappointment in the end. Successive Syrian governments repeatedly ignored the most basic requirements for a cultural life in the country, such as providing a sufficient number of venues and forums to accommodate the nascent and proliferating projects, which at the bare minimum needed decent venues to showcase their productions.
The oldest city in the world can only boast three theaters and two cinemas, one of which – Cinema City in Al-Thawra Street – recently closed. If we ask about the reasons why the Ministry of Culture has not been trying to find effective solutions to these kinds of problems, the same answer is usually given: that the ministry's budget is very limited, and does not exceed 1.4 percent of the state budget.
Although this figure seems dismal at first, it loses its validity as an excuse when we learn that this is the norm anywhere. Accordingly, the quest to find a more logical, more reasonable answer for our old question continues.
No doubt, the battles raging on the outskirts of Damascus have forced its residents to live in difficult conditions. But despite the ongoing crisis, there has been a silver lining too, limited as it may be.
For instance, the cultural scene that had been decaying for nearly a decade is no longer stagnant. Those who are familiar with the situation in Damascus agree that intellectual life in the city has developed remarkably over the past year with many cultural and artistic initiatives materializing.
Some people active on the cultural scene attribute this to the preoccupation of the security services with national security issues. In the past, these agencies imposed strict control over any activities or events within the governorate. Poetry reading sessions, art exhibitions, theater plays, concerts, and literary salons all needed permits and prior approval.
Today, the climate appears more positive. Hardly a day passes in the city without some kind of cultural initiative, activity, or event, which are “improvised” – as all of them seem to be not the product of meticulous planning. They are born out of the belief of their organizers need for the will to live, to triumph over the ugliness of war, and their confidence that there is hunger for art among a people that have been exhausted by the incessant violence.
The cultural scene that had been decaying for nearly a decade is no longer stagnant. Social media sites are now replete with public invitations for an impressive number of cultural events in Damascus. This first started with a poetry event titled “Poetry and Wine” in an old pub in Damascus, organized by Ahmed Kanaan, who was inspired by an event with the same name in a bar in Beirut.
This kick-started a series of similar weekly events, including the Sehnaya Cultural Forum by Adnan al-Azrouni and the City Lights gathering by Omar al-Sheikh, which takes place in a café in the Bab Sharqi district.
Other noteworthy events include plays read by Kifah al-Khoss with partners from the Higher Institute of Dramatic Art in a cafe in Bab Touma; and street performances developed by Nagham Naessa, called Project Wamda. The latter has become one of the sources of joy for the pedestrians in the city’s streets, who are fortunate enough to stumble upon their performances.
The Damascenes have been able to create a sophisticated cultural scene during the crisis, while at the same time addressing the long-standing problems of culture in the country that predate the three-year-old conflict. Pending the end of the war, it seems that there still are people in Damascus who believe in life and who believe that it should continue.
As the Syrian crisis intensified, and life became more difficult and hopes began to recede, the young actress Nagham Naessa launched Project Wamda, in collaboration with musician Ari Sarhan, last year. The project features famous Syrian songs performed in squares, markets, and streets of Damascus.
As the performers sing the songs, Naessa documents the spontaneous reactions of the passersby with a video camera. The band has already visited many streets in the Salihiya neighborhood and Old Damascus, and videos of the performances can be seen on YouTube.
In a previous interview with Al-Akhbar, Naessa said that she intended to organize flash mobs in the alleyways of the old city, hospitals, buses, and other unexpected places, pointing out that the project does not receive any financial support or media backing.
Rami Kousa is a Syrian scriptwriter