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Studies & Reports
Art in Conflict By Basma El Husseiny
Apr 2018

Part Three of the long article: “The State of the Arts - Current Issues in Artistic and Literary Creativity in the Arab Region”

Basma El Husseiny – December 2017

Six years of armed conflicts in Syria and Libya and more than two similar years in Yemen have left, and are still leaving behind, hundreds of thousands dead and wounded and millions of people forcibly displaced or made refugees. The damage done to cities, villages, houses, schools, and hospitals is incalculable; the same can be said of architectural and archaeological monuments that have stood for thousands of years.  Meanwhile, the  Israeli occupation of Palestine continues,  marked by an escalation of oppression and violence against Palestinians after  the Second Intifada in 2003 (reaching unprecedented levels in the 2008 War on Gaza), and the US occupation of Iraq also continues taking the form of various armed conflicts , ultimately spawning armed Islamist terrorist groups, the most notorious of which is the Islamic State (known as ISIS) The political and militaristic nuances of these regional conflicts are beyond the scope of this article, but of particular interest here is their impact on the cultural production and artistic creativity of the region. I will try to provide a brief overview of this impact in all its manifestations, bearing in mind that some indirect and deeper effects will only appear in the fullness of time, since the state of the arts and creativity cannot be separated from people's moral and material situations.

There is no reliable count for the number of Syrian artists, writers, cultural managers and producers, and publishers that left Syria between 2011 and 2016, but we can estimate that it was at least 50% of those inside Syria before the revolution if we consider the large number of Syrian plays, films, publications, and concerts taking place in Germany, France, and Turkey, for example. Many of these were presented at prominent international festivals and events.

“The breakdown of security and political stability in Syria resulted in flagrant violations of cultural rights. The regime still arrests dissenting artists and writers, like Zaki and Mihyar Cordillo, Samar Kokash, Adnan Zerai, and others. Artists’ unions refer dissenting artists to disciplinary courts or courts dealing with terrorism as punishment for the positions they take, even if they are outside the country. The Syrian Artists' Syndicate issued a report referring some of its dissenting members to a “disciplinary council” due to “their neglect of their trade union’s obligations.” Most of those listed reside outside Syria but have nontheless been sentenced to prison by the court of terrorism established by the regime after the start of the Syrian Revolution. These include Jamal Soleiman, Abdul Hakim Quotaifan, Mai SCaf, Maxim Khalil, Louise Abdel Karim, Samih Choukaer, and Mazen Al-Natour: all have received prison sentences for opposing the regime.”[1]

The forced migration of Syrian artists, some of whom actually became refugees, was not restricted to the artists who publicly opposed the regime; many artists who left Syria had no history of political activism or publicaly-known political positions. Their exodus was possibly caused by the regime expanding its radius of oppression and destruction, to an extent that made many politically neutral artists want to distance themselves from it. Another reason could that working inside Syria is considerably more difficult now due to mounting pressures by security authorities, increased scrutiny and censorship, and the ongoing economic crisis. Finally, there is no doubt that the presence of the Islamic State caused waves of migration among the artists who lived in areas under its control.

The impact of the exodus of Syrian artists is especially visible in Damascus, which has seen a sharp decrease in cinematic and theatrical production and the number of fine art exhibitions.  Even music concerts have been largely limited to the “Assad” Opera House and a few other government-operated venues. Cornerstones of the once thriving arts scene, such as the ECHO (Sada) Music Association, the Teatro Theatre (managed by Mai Skaf), and the DOX BOX documentary film festival (managed by Orwa Nyrabia) have all but disappeared; Skaf and Nyrabia moved to Europe after being arrested and harassed by the Syrian regime. The deterioration in security, the proliferation of military checkpoints, and the crippling economic crisis have all made audiences reluctant to attend cultural events. Outside Damascus, the situation is much worse: a significant number of cultural sites and artistic venues in Aleppo were destroyed in the course of the violent conflict between regime and opposition forces. The same has occurred (albeit to a lesser extent) in Homs, Hama, and in the small towns that surround these cities, many of which had cultural centers and small theaters

An even more significant change may be the mass migration of a large part of Syrian “audiences” to several countries. The Syrian diaspora is estimated today at 6 million people, 4.8 million of whom are asylum seekers.[2] Most of these people reside in neighbouring countries: Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, with fewer in Europe (predominantly Germany), and fewer still in Canada and the United States. Most of them live in small communities outside or on the outskirts of cities. Their living conditions vary widely according to the policy and economic and administrative capacity of the host country. It may be premature to reflect on the impact of the emergence of these small immigrant communities over the past few years, but they are clearly isolated from the services and cultural activities provided both by their host countries and by their fellow Syrian migrant artists. Germany, for example, is home to a large number of Syrian artists; however, productions are directed primarily at German audiences and rarely reach the Syrians living there. Most art aimed at Syrian audiences is created by German artists, and is often labelled as community art, which usually means that it is of a lesser artistic value and is made to convey direct social messages.

In Yemen, a large number of civil society groups enjoyed a burgeoning cultural scene until 2014. The Arab Spring brought with it the promise of change in a largely conservative society and this was manifested by the e proliferation of rap and hip-hop, non-commercial film screenings, and street art. These activities dissipated almost entirely upon the eruption of war between the Arab Coalition forces and the Houthis.   Most cultural institutions ceased their work; these included Alafif Cultural Foundation, the Noaman Foundation, the Ebhar Foundation for Childhood and Creativity, and the SAWT Association.[3] Numerous artists and managers of cultural institutes have been forced to escape from Yemen after receiving threats from Houthi forces and after some of the offices of cultural were raided and vandalized.   Meanwhie, the Saudi-led Arab Coalition has destroyed part of the Old City of Sana’a, a listed UNESCO World Heritage Site, despite the fact that the Coalition includes countries that are signatories of UNESCO conventions to protect and safeguard cultural heritage such as Jordan, Egypt and Morocco.

The few cultural societies that continue to work in Yemen, or those attempting to support work in Yemen from outside, are finding it very difficult to secure funding; culture has been pushed to the bottom of the government’s list of priorities during war time, and the few artistic productions that receive government funding are closer to political propaganda than art.   International donors do not pay much attention to cultural work in Yemen, nor do they support Yemeni artists forced to migrate from Yemen to Europe or other Arab countries.  All this has resulted in a rapid decline in Yemeni cultural output, leaving the public arena clear for interventions by hardline Islamic ideologies that ban art and criminalize artists.

The situation in Libya is similar to that of Yemen. The main difference is that the number of cultural civil society organizations that existed before the armed conflict erupted is much smaller and that most of these organizations began their activities in 2011.  Nevertheless, the two years that followed 2011 saw an acceleration of cultural and artistic productivity; and a new spirit of originality imbued these young organizations, such as the Arete Foundation for Arts and Culture, Tanweer, and the WaraQ Art Foundation. But security concerns following the assassination, kidnapping, and arrest of cultural activists like Intisar Al-Hasairi, Ahmad Zora, and Jabir Zain quickly put a halt to these activities and many of those who worked in the field migrated elsewhere shortly after. Ahmad al-Bokhari, director of Tanweer, described the situation in Libya as follows: “Hope was the main driver behind cultural and artistic activities in Libya. Hope drove cultural and artistic actors to put a lot of effort into organizing artistic and cultural activities and events, but despair reigned after the widespread use of weapons and after the cultural sector was hit and freedoms got restricted. Audiences lost interest in cultural activities because they had different priorities such as queuing for hours to get cash from ATM machines, and the recurrent power cut offs. Add to this the intensity of the political situation, the rise of intolerance and prejudice, the lack of safety, the spread of chaos and the mobility difficulties for women in particular; all this has negatively impacted the work of civil society organizaqtions working in arts and culture. Moreover, most European embassies and donors have left the country and it has become difficult to communicate with outside parties, let alone receive funding from them or work with them. All activities carried serious risks, especially those that adopt liberal or human rights values.”[4]

The situation in Iraq is not dissimilar, except for adding few more years to the destruction of cultural life which worsened as of 2006 in the course of the waves of sectarian violence that ensued the US occupation of Iraq. Cultural ties between Iraqi cities were harshly severed to the extent that cultural events in Basra, for example, did not involve or engage with artists and dintellecturals in Baghdad.  The lack of security, the escalation of terrorist attacks, and the collapse of the physical infrastructure have all led to serious difficulties in mobility within the country, and to organizing national cultural activities and projects.  Additional challenges were posed by   ISIS’s occupation of the city of Mosul and the partial secession of Kurdistan, which despite its political necessity has negatively affective cultural life in Kurdistan, and more generally in Iraq.    Cultural life in Iraq was also badly affected by sectarian violence, continued political tensions, the political and religious partisanship of both officials and artists, and more recently, by the economic austerity policies driven by reduced oil revenues and increased military and security spending. All this has led to severe atrophy in Iraqi culture. According to poet Hussam Al-Sarray, “The problem with Iraqi culture is that it lacks continuity. A new art or cultural organization is formed but then it disappears and its members disperse. One example is the Akd Gallery, which returned to the scene in 2003 and finally closed down in 2014; it is just one of many examples.”

In the four aforementioned countries that continue to witness open-ended military conflicts, the civil infrastructure has consequently been severely damaged.  The damage includes the destruction of schools, universities and colleges, archaeological sites, cultural centres, theatres, and cinemas.   Plans for the reconstruction of Syria, and possibly parts of Iraq, are already underway. No such plans exist for Libya or Yemen, where the power struggle is far from nearing an end. However, there is no available information on Syria's reconstruction plans, for example, in terms of including components that cater for cultural and artistic production. Moreover, the demographic changes occurring in many areas in Syria, together with the fact that such reconstruction plans will most likely be implemented by huge regional and international corporations, and without popular participation, all threaten that this "reconstruction" may be completely void of any organic cultural life based on social vitality and diversity.

On a different level, arts education in the four countries is increasingly suffering from the lack of teachers due to forced immigration, the scarcity of employment opportunities, the decrease in government and donor funding, and the deterioration of the physical and technological infrastructure that is needed for arts education.  The few remaining arts education institutions and colleges in the four countries are unable to communicate with those in more developed countries due to the big knowledge and technology gaps that exist between them, and the language barriers.  One potential solution  which is yet to be explored is designing alternative ways of teaching the arts at lower costs and with simpler technological requirements, thereby making arts education accessible to displaced and refugee communities within and outside these countries, while at the same time promoting artistic products as a social necessity within these societies.

The situation in Palestine is perhaps the hardest, albeit not the worst, among the Arab countries that are subjected to wars, as the Israeli occupation of Palestine continues into its seventh decade, with no clear settlement of this conflict.  The years in the afterglow of the 1993 Oslo Agreement carried a sense of optimism stemming from the promise of a middle-ground solution to the conflict involving establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel in historical Palestine, and consequently brought a significant influx of international financial assistance to Palestinian NGOs, including cultural ones.  However, in comparison, the years following the Second Intifada that ended in 2005, were marked by a wide-spread realization of the failure of the Oslo Agreement, a loss of belief in the two-states solution, and an increased disappointment in Palestinian leadership by the majority of Palestinian populations.  Since then the bearing of the Israeli occupation has magnified; roads have been closed, cultural work has been subject to severe restrictions, especially in Jerusalem And Israel has built the Apartheid Wall and has almost completely isolated the Gaza Strip. Since 2007, international financial assistance to Palestine from major government funding bodies such as the European Union, the Government of Japan, and the International Monetary Fund, has declined steadily. Funding programmes from private donor institutions such as the Ford Foundation, The Open Society Foundations and others have followed the same trend. Further decreases in funding also followed the influs of Syrian refugees in 2012, as major funding programs were directed at these refugees in Europe and in Syria’s neighboring countries.

This decrease in funding has had a severe effect on cultural life in Palestine. Many active and effective organizations had to reduce their programs such as Al-Kasaba Theatre and Cinematheque, ASHTAR Theatre, and the Freedom Theatre. El-Hakawati Theatre (the Palestinian National Theatre) has been at risk of closure more than once and the Ougarit Institute had to close down.[5] “Today, in 2016, almost two decades since the creation of the Palestinian National Authority and four years since Palestine joined UNESCO and signed eight of its conventions (including the UNESCO 2005 Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions) the independent Palestinian cultural scene that has become mature both in form and content  is at risk of disappearing. Many non-governmental artistic and cultural organizations in the West Bank and Jerusalem face the risk of closure due to administrative and financial difficulties.  Freedom of expression in Palestine has regressed tremendously, thus creating conditions that are not conducive to independent artistic creativity.  Additionally, the cultural sector appears to be dominated by new players and multiculturalism is under threat. Naturally, the after-effects of the Arab Spring in countries neighbouring Palestine has spilled over into its borders. Independent culture has been disproportionately affected by changes in regional and global priorities. The work of the independent Palestinian cultural sector in Jerusalem is subjected to severe and persistent harassment by the Israeli authorities, while Gaza’s independent sector has suffered appallingly since the division of Palestine in 2006.[6] The few remaining Palestinian artists in Gaza struggle to present their work in the absence of funding and under the arbitrary censorship of Hamas”.[7]

Despite these difficulties, numerous Palestinian cultural institutions have remained active due to their strong institutional capacities and their widespread social support; the limited funding still provided by prominent Palestinian foundations like the Welfare Association and the Qattan Foundation has helped considerably.  It is also worthy of note that the Palestinian Ministry of Culture, despite its weak financial resources, was the only Arab ministry of culture to prepare and publish a cultural strategy for 2011-2013, as a result of a process in which representatives from the Welfare Association, Qattan Foundation, UNESCO, and the government agencies were all involved. Another notable development has been the alternative arts curriculum prepared by Al-Harah Theater in Bethlehem, which focuses on the teaching of performing arts techniques and prepares graduates for the job market.[8]

Due to a variety of historical reasons related to the struggle against the occupation and the absence of an independent state that has governmental cultural institutions, cultural life in Palestine is characterized by the wealth of successful cultural civil society organizations and initiatives that include unique models in management and funding. Palestine’s strong presence in international cultural events is a manifestation of this success.

More generally, cultural life in these five countries has been considerably damaged, not only due to the direct effects of war, occupation, and civil strife, but also indirectly because of the rise of fundamentalist religious groups and their increasing popularity in some parts of these countries. The impact of fundamentalism went beyond the usual forms of banning certain artistic work and threatening artists, to something more dangerous and much deeper: giving legitimacy to old beliefs that seemed to have diminished such as banning “art” in general, and prohibiting the mingling of men and women, and even male and female children.  Furthermore, the subscribers of such extreme ideologies promoted contempt and ridicule of artistic and literary creativity, with an assumption that such matters are trivial and inappropriate in times of war or political conflict.[9]

Artists and activists in most of these countries are finding themselves caught between two sides of a conflict. One side is called secularism; and this where most artists and cultural activists are usually situated, together with the professionals from middle and upper-classes. The other side is called Islamism; this side is popular among larger segments of society, generally poor and uneducated. This is of course a sweeping generalisation and there are many exceptions, but speaking broadly, secularism is less popular in the countryside and small towns and among the poor, and the opposite is, to a lesser degree, also true. Artists find themselves in the middle of this conflict, siding consciously, or marked as so by the media, with the secular side. Consequently, they are considered hostile to conservative Islam, and their work is seen as a violation of the social traditions and religious concepts embraced by Muslims. To make matters worse, it has often been the case in countries with violent political conflict that artists and intellectual elites have been supported either explicitly or implicitly by the very political regimes against whom the masses have revolted. All these factors have contributed to the stigmatisation of artists and intellectuals and to their portrayal as being the children of dictatorships, divorcing them from the values of the rest of society. At best, this image promulgates a class divide by suggesting that artists and cultural activists do not understand the hardships of the common man.

This stigmatisation of artists and intellectuals cripples the ability of artists and intellectuals to contribute to social and political change, often to the point of making it impossible. How can cultural actors play an important role in the change process when the very people for whose benefit change is intended choose to reject them? The actual result of rejecting and isolating artists and intellectuals, and their work, is that the process of change takes place without the much-needed critique and assessment of existing values, concepts, and social structures. As such, change usually tends towards cementing the old conventions further; in other words, it is usually to the benefit of the most extreme religious ideologies. Naturally, this leads to the reduction of freedom of expression in society and limits the work of artists, even to the extent of threatening their mere existence.

The question then reintroduces itself: what can artists do to change this equation? There have been many attempts to do so in cultural work, but these raise other questions about the instrumental use of artistic work, and what it might entail in terms of sacrificing aesthetic values and the experimental aspects of artistic creativity, as well as questions about the difference between art and advocacy or education and awareness raising activities. I Such questions are very pertinent in Syria, Yemen, Libya, Iraq, and Palestine, but are also important to consider in the other Arab countries that have not experienced much change or where the change process has been stopped.

It seems to me that one answer may lie in finding a position for artists and intellectuals that would be within a safe distance from the two conflicting powers of secularism and Islamism, and certainly distanced from the current regimes, while at the same time avoiding being confined to a bubble that is isolated from reality.  Such a position should allow artists and intellectuals to engage with reality, but in a more impartial way so as not to take one of the two sides. I do not know how feasible this proposition is and I cannot describe its features with any precision: all I can do is leave this suggestion it in the hands of the reader as one potential direction.



[1]From a letter by Abdullah Alkafri, playwright and head of Ettijahat- Independent Culture, in response to my questions in July 2017.

[2]Source: Human Rights Watch World Report 2017

[3]Source: From a letter by Nabeel Al-Khadr, cultural activist and member of the National Cultural Policy Group in Yemen, in response to my questions in July 2017.

[4]From a letter by Ahmad al-Bokhari, cultural activist manager of Al-Tanweer, in response to my questions in July 2017.

[5]Source: The cultural policy report from Palestine 2016 – Cultural Policy in the Arab Region website

[6]“Looking to the Future of Cultural Work in Palestine” – Fatin Farhat, Cultural Policy in the Arab Region website

[7]The film Macho Talk was banned in 2011 because a woman in the film appeared without a hijab on; Hamas also stopped popular singer Mohammed Assaf from performing in 2014.

[8]From a letter from Marina Barham, the Al-Harah Theatre General Manager

[9]There are numerous examples of ISIS preventing celebration in areas it controls in Syria. The group also rewrites folk songs to suit its own propaganda. The Syrian regime has for decades monitored and censored arts. Most of these examples, and others, are listed in the article “Syrian Art in Liberated Areas: An Orchestra without a Maestro,” on https://www.enabbaladi.net


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