On February 3, 1982, the regime of Syrian President Hafez al-Assad massacred thousands in the city of Hama, quashing the city’s Muslim Brotherhood-led uprising. Thirty years later, during the current Syrian uprising, the government has again subjected Hama to substantial military action. In the midst of this on-going violence, Syrian activists have marked the thirtieth anniversary of the 1982 Hama massacre with Internet-based user-generated videos, representing the first time people have spoken in a public and even creative way about “the events,” as they are referred to in the country. The finger puppet web series “Top Goon: Diaries of a Little Dictator,” a thirteen-part comic production created by a collective of Syrian artists, recently featured an episode called “Beshuu`s birthday,” in which Hafez al-Assad returns from hell to remind his son and current Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of the success of the 1982 Hama crackdown. During the episode, a fearful Bashar musters the courage to remind his father that during the Hama massacre he killed everybody but Ibrahim al Qashush, a Syrian singer whose popular song “Yalla Irhal ya Bashar” or “Come on, Leave Bashar” has become an anthem of the 2011 Syrian uprising. In this song, al Qashush mocks Bashar and his well-known inability to pronounce the letter “s”: “Go, Bashar…May you and the Baath party be destroyed…Go and fix your pronunciation of the letters!” (In July 2011, al Qashush’s body was found in a local river, his throat cut and larynx removed along with signs of brutal torture).
The dark humor found in Top Goon and the songs of al Qashush might seem misplaced in light of the thousands of deaths across Syria (more than 7000, according to the opposition group Local Coordination Committee) and bombings taking place in major Syrian cities (such as the February 10, 2012 bombing in Aleppo, which left 28 dead according to Syrian authorities). In fact, however, these creative forms of political activism are one of the few mechanisms left for nurturing civil disobedience in a conflict that has been increasingly depicted as a civil war. As a Syrian communication expert who wishes to remain anonymous points out: “The more we see an armed conflict, the more it means that the regime has succeed in its campaign. They know how to play when arms are involved, but do not know how to react to mash-ups, parodies and irony.”
“One of the goals of artistic production is to bring a sort of relief to people who are suffering on the ground,” say Mohamed and Ahmad Malas, Syrian twins, playwrights, and actors who were imprisoned by the government for a few days after joining the artists` demonstration in Damascus in July 2011. The Malas twins now live in Cairo and travel around the world raising awareness about the suffering of the Syrian people through their theatrical plays. Recently, the Malas twins have been
performing their plays in Paris where they also began filming a new project, which registered more than 5,000 views two days after it was posted on YouTube. In the video, the playwrights stage a vox-populi on the Champs Elysee, blaming Bashar al-Assad, the Baath party and Syria’s corrupt regime: “You see this, how beautiful Paris is? Here people go to the theater and appreciate culture, not like in our country, where you’ve pursued a mafia politics, and theater is just another place for corruption.”
In speaking of the President and the regime, the video is filled with curse words. In the past, such insults would never have been used against the President or the Baath party, but with the old fear gone these once untouchable symbols of state power are now regularly ridiculed and derided. Using extreme, unpleasant expressions that were never before heard in Syria is a form of liberation, represents a symbolic break with the past and serves as notice that many Syrians will never again blatantly pretend to believe the magnificent rhetoric of the Baath party and the President.
Hussein Jabri, aka Abu Zoheir, exemplifies both the trend towards “cursing,” and its political significance. Jabri has reached near hero status on YouTube with his videotaped phone calls to Syrian officials from the presidential palace, the government and different secret services branches. He begins the conversation by greeting the official with a polite, warm welcome. Things, however, quickly turn surreal as Jabri offers to sell new devices for bombing protesters to the secret police, and then levels extreme curses against the regime. Even people who object to his vulgar style have reacted positively to a phone call in which Jabri forced a secret service official to confess that the government, and not the “armed gangs” referred to in the official narrative, tortured and killed Syrian activist Ghrias Matar.
During the Syrian revolution, perhaps the most striking examples of irony and dark humor have emerged from Homs, a city that has seen the worst violence so far. In the past days, Homs experienced heavy bombings and shelling in what is believed to be an attempted crack down against a vibrant center of street protests and rebellion. The virtual alleys of the Internet reflect Homsi creativity, documenting the protesters` chants and the dances performed during demonstrations across the city’s streets. A satirical Facebook page pretends to offer washing and lubrication services to the tanks used to crack down against protesters in the city. The most popular joke on the page mocks the regime’s claim that, because the protests begin with the word “Takbir” (an incitement to praise God’s greatness), the demonstrations are being led by Islamists, and, in its place, creates a new slogan “Tahwiil” (the word used for bank transfers), a clear reference to the regime’s greed and corruption. Another very popular Facebook page “the Chinese revolution against the Chinese dictator” reports on events in Syria as if they were taking place in China, and pokes fun at regime officials as if they were Chinese communist party members.
Also from Homs is the Facebook page, “Kulluna Jaratheem” (We Are All Germs), which mocks the official narrative describing protests/protesters as “germs”. Bashar al-Assad is represented as Doctor Dettol – a disinfectant widely used in Syria – while Syria’s citizens are depicted as germs, “whether bacterial or viral.” Interestingly, the slogan “We Are All Germs” as well as the page’s avatar are parodies of a government-backed public relations campaign that
featured on billboards in Syria during the early stages of the uprising. These billboards included a raised hand declaring, “Whether progressive or conservative, I am with the law”.” Whether girl or boy, I am with the law.” Soon thereafter, parodies of these government posters circulated around cyberspace. Depicting the very same raised hand, each poster carried a different slogan. “I am free,” said one raised hand. “ I lost my shoes,” echoed another – suggesting that the shoes had been thrown at the dictator, a customary symbol of protest in Arab culture. “I am with Syria” featured on other cyber-posters. “I am not Indian,” joked another poster, revealing Syrian wittiness as well as awareness that the regime has exclusive control over the formal meaning of “law” and “lawlessness.” “I am not Indian” is the ironic answer to a regime that asks its citizens to abide by the law as if they are foreigners who do not know the rules of the game in the country.
“I am not Indian” and cyber-posters featuring multiple-colored hands, which mirror the hands raised in the Syrian street, are perhaps the best examples of citizenship regaining its legitimate place over and above concepts such as “law,” “nation,” and “unity,” which the regime has historically monopolized and manipulated. They are also prime examples of an emerging remix-culture, first theorized by Harvard Professor Lawrence Lessig, that exists in the form of an inner creativity producing and re-manipulating symbols and narrations, which is finally blossoming in Syria despite the horrible circumstances.
*Donatella Della Ratta is a PhD fellow at the University of Copenhagen, and the Danish Institute in Damascus, focusing her research on the Syrian television industry. You can follow her writing and work at www.mediaoriente.com and on twitter @donatelladr.