Can creativity blossom after Arab Spring?

Hind Shoufani.
Hind Shoufani.

Message from the Middle East: Did the Arab Spring herald a false dawn of creative freedom, and has its failure curtailed an artistic renaissance?

I hate censorship. But I also love my life. My freedom, and my physical safety. These are the contradictions that any non-commercially minded artist has to carry with them into the boxing ring, if they find themselves wanting to create controversial taboo-busting work in the Arab world.

I host, curate and rabble rouse in a platform called the Poeticians, and recently we took 100 people or so on a poetic but difficult experience into our minds and guts, spewing poems about the world crumbling around us.

Before we got on stage, I had to censor a poem another friend had written, and this bad taste in the back of my mouth will last a long time.

We do it all the time, those of us who live in fear of our thoughts catapulting out of our clenched hands straight into a prison cell, a dungeon somewhere, never to be heard of again. We censor, are censored, we whisper, hush our voices, tone it down, remove sentences and images, and wonder if it is all worth it. Wonder if immigration is the answer, and whether the Western model really wants to hear our truth, or merely use us as poster children for their propaganda of not-quite-there-free-speech. Will they tout us as ‘saved’ by them for allowing us uninhibited creative spheres of personally political art?

We choose between fear and frustration, between truth and consequences, between dignity and survival. Between here and there. Between money and love.

You may think this is poetic license for exaggeration. But I grew up in Damascus, where paranoia and rumours drip into the tap water you drink, and taint every cell of every piece of art you may ever wish to unleash on the world.

I spend my life as an adult wondering how far is too far. Wondering if that knock on the door, those men in plain clothes, that inevitable silencing that my parents expected in Syria in the 1980s would make its way into my life, today, in the new world of 2014, post the Arab Spring era.

I cried my lungs out when Egyptians took to the streets and pushed victimhood out of their kneecaps and rose up. I bawled when I saw Syrians dancing in streets in non-violent protests that demanded an end to oppression. Until this day, I dream of Tunisia, of kissing her muraled walls, and dipping my free toes in her unfettered unruly azure sea. The daughter of revolutionaries, nothing in the world moves me more than people ecstatically uniting on the streets to take back their rights. It is my undoing, my secret world of hope and naiveté, persisting. It is the most beautiful sight I have ever seen.

I started research on this article itching to rant about how the Arab Spring did not fulfill its dual aspirations as catalyst and vessel for people’s freedom to create. After a week spent reading, listening and watching the art work of a region explode in dramatic outbursts, I am no longer as depressed, nor am I convinced that it has all come to naught.

This is what I take away from the entire heart-rending past few years: "Things need not be as they are. A transformative moment shows us that the order we take for granted is not the given and necessary and inescapable order. It is merely one order, and even if it is held in place with the barrel of many guns, it is still created by somebody, and serving some individuals and not others. When we loosen the grip of Control Cultures we see the emergence of characteristics associated with creativity," wrote Alfonso Montuori in East West Affairs.

Despite a radically difficult summer, change is still blasting doors open in the Middle East, contradictorily evoking new unabashed forms of artistic expression mixed with much fear, some hopelessness, new faith and a lot of satire. From the many lives stolen by dictatorships, there has risen a tumultuous ragtag group of bloggers, thinkers, writers, journalists, activists, singers, dancers, nude-photo provocateurs, poets, painters and filmmakers who persevere. I love them all.

"The Arab spring allowed an opening for people to express themselves creatively, but it also gave them a topic to work with. One of the reasons we saw much less censorship during the conflicts was that they had so much of it before, that during the high-powered periods of major upheaval, when the state apparatus collapsed completely and could no longer clamp down as much as before, it felt like there was a breather. They were fighting a war for survival, and too busy to chase artists. Street art flourished, films came out, speaking out online was rampant and people had a reason to express," The National’s Faisal Al Yafai told me.

In Lebanon and Egypt and Tunisia it is street art that captivates above all else as a newfound speaking-truth-to-power expression. Ali Rafei describes his work as an experiment with all forms of street art, ranging from spray painting to stenciling and wheat pasting, and his intent is "to uplift and inspire through big portraits and messages that relate to his own people – his Arabic identity, its inherited legacy of liberalism, intellectual thinking, and fighting for freedom".

Yazan Halwani has developed a new style by combining Arabic calligraphy and arabesques with urban Western graffiti styles. "I painted in Tunisia a girl blowing a flower made of Arabic letters, her influence spreads and gets carried by the air," he wrote alongside the accompanying image online. "Would you hire a chef if he didn’t make food and bullied you inside your own house? In Lebanon we have the tendency to assume that we live in a democratic country and do not need an Arab Spring. The system today has nothing democratic: your deputies/representatives do not need the people to elect them anymore, political parties control the country."

Of note here is the crossover of geography. More and more, we can enjoy collaborations between young artists in regions that are struggling with turmoil and unsteady change.

Is there anything in the world more frightening to Control Cultures than the mingling of creative work across sects, landscapes, multi-media forms and genders? In the divide and conquer world they have ruled for decades, this is their reckoning.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the world of music, particularly Arabic hip-hop, which has transcended all our expectations and has become a new language spoken in the blooming youthful, social and cultural stratosphere.

I think fondly of my buddy Deeb, who sang to the crowds in Tahrir Square. I meet him at various festivals in Europe, spreading his sweet smile, his hopeful words and his sense of humour. Deeb quit his corporate job after the revolution and became a full-time musician, living his truth. Is he depressed about what the consequences in his country have been? Yes. Yes he is. But I am not unaware that without a nation rising in defiance, he may still be miserable in a day job not made for him.

My most feverish aural sound-blast memory of 2013 is from a concert I attended in Metro Al Madina in Beirut, where the best of hip hop melted together on stage in a climactic showdown of political diatribe of the highest poetic meter. Of note was El Rass from Lebanon and his duet with the Syrian El-Sayyed Darwish, who, dripping with sweat, fervour and a kind of abandon I had never seen before, sang – nay preached – their profound faith in their people, their dreams of a loftier life, and their vehement rejection of systematic governmental violence. Darwish endlessly belting out verse after defiant verse with zealous passion is something I will never forget. He had just arrived from Damascus to Beirut that evening, and he brought with him his entire nation.

Go, listen to the brave voices of Dakn, Faragh, Haykal and Boikutt on their track Taht il Khajal, to el Rass and Abyusif on the track SIM, and others like Hello Psychoallepo, Maryam Saleh – who worked with Zeid Hamdan on Nixon Baba, a satirical track poking fun at fallen scandal-tainted leaders – and Sulimania who produced the track After the revolution.

Satire, sarcasm and belittling regimes and institutions that no one dared criticise before is a common thread in much of the underground art.

One of the masters of this is Karl Remarks. His blog has catapulted to international attention because of his dry, sardonic, clever and very biting work that focuses on the toppling of presidents, regional discontent and general news. Check out his series ‘Three dictators walk into a bar’. He is working with a treasure trove of material as the political wheeling and dealing in these countries defies logic more and more everyday.

An example of social commentary focused on female empowerment issues is the NooNeswa’s group, which campaigns to change attitudes toward women in Egypt. Its project, Graffiti Harimi (Female Graffiti), "aims at breaking social taboos through graffiti allowing women to reclaim public spaces." They rattle my happy heart by stencilling images of famous Egyptian women with thought-provoking quotes. One image juxtaposes the gorgeousness of Oum Kalthoum with a quote from a song written by poet Ibrahim Nagi that reads: "Give me my freedom, set loose my chains." In another, Egyptian star Soad Hosny announces "Girls are like boys."

Mosireen, with its super smart play on words in its Arabic name, is a non-profit media collective in Downtown Cairo that was "born out of the explosion of citizen media and cultural activism in Egypt during the revolution. Armed with mobile phones and cameras, thousands upon thousands of citizens kept the balance of truth in their country by recording events as they happened in front of them, wrong-footing censorship and empowering the voice of a street-level perspective."

They are joined by Mini Mobile concert, a moving bus that puts on musical street concerts for the public. The brains behind it is Ramez Ashraf, who took it upon himself to create an alternative to "the idea that our streets are filled with ugliness, eyesores and unbearable noise that renders us Egyptians intolerant and aggressive," explained Ashraf in an article written by Thoraia Abou Bakr for the Egyptian Daily News.

One of the most moving accounts of the Syrian revolution is penned by the intellectual Sadik Al Azm in the Boston Review. "Add to that the various innovative art, music, performances, plays, dances, balloons, prayers, satirical cartoons, sarcastic comments, and critical graffiti that this revolutionary generation resorts to in resistance, and you have what I would call the finest hour of Syrian civil society. The carnivalesque spirit in these practices –in the Bakhtinian sense of mocking and deflating the pretensions of high power and oppression – was unheard of in the classical struggles of decolonisation but has been a consistent feature of contemporary protest, especially the Arab Spring," he wrote.

The picture, though, is not all of triumph. There has been an onslaught of tragic events surrounding the artwork of many fighters who dared stand tall in the face of ‘Control Cultures’.

In 2013, Weld El 15 wrote the song Boulicia Kleb, which landed him a two-year prison sentence. "I was only using the language of the police. They have harassed me verbally and physically. As an artist, the only way I could answer them is through art," he said in a Facebook video.

In Syria, we have our bloodiest and most radical art scene yet. Notorious for its censorship of anything and everything related to the regime, Syrians have been the most brave in terms of defying this past and forging into a freakishly violent future.

Every Thursday, artists now draw anti-Assad placards and banners for protesters to use on Fridays. One poster had Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. "My precious," he says, underneath the title "Lord of the Thrones." The protest anthem, Come on, Bashar, time to leave, is attributed to Syria’s famous protest songwriter, Ibrahim Qashoush. Though his lyrics moved thousands of protesters in Syria in their weekly demos, his body was soon found in the river flowing through his hometown. The message was clear; he was found with his throat cut.

Another recent Syrian victim to meet his end because of his art was sculptor Wael Qashtun, who was tortured to death. Perhaps the most poignant memory for me in the Syrian art-o-sphere of resistance is the image of famed cartoonist Ali Ferzat, who had both his hands broken after disseminating radical work about his political anti-establishment leanings. The next cartoon publicly depicting him showed him in a hospital bed, his hands wrapped in casts, with his middle finger clearly sticking out in a rude gesture. The creative humorous brilliance of the Syrians knows no bounds.

Countless writers, bloggers, journalists and activists are in jails in various countries, or have had to flee their homes for fear of persecution. In the quagmire of death, threats, the loss of voice, limbs and clarity, we are floundering in a cesspool of vague boundaries. The limits to our creative expression — which really should not exist at all in a utopian world I dream of — shift and reconfigure themselves at the whims of censors. This is the reality we must contend with, and it is not disappearing anytime soon. But, it is clear, we have broken through the barrier of fear.

"It doesn’t take a lot to liberate the creativity of the Arab people, particularly starting with the traditionally most oppressed groups, youth and women. … The people need to be allowed to express their creativity, and if there’s one thing Control Cultures will not tolerate, it’s unfettered creativity, with all the surprises and potential instability they bring. In Control Cultures, the people must be controlled," wrote Alfonso Montuori in East West Affairs. "The real challenge facing the youth and the women who so boldly participated in the Arab Spring is showing what’s next.

"The ready-made images of existing political formations are easy to understand even in their Control Culture obsolescence. What the movement needs now is not one dominant vision, one mega-ideology, some new grand narrative about a glorious (and clearly inevitable) future. It is, rather, to begin to articulate what a post-Control Culture future would be like, and to create attractor-images that can inspire the emergence of a new Creative Culture. … It is about creating a culture that is generative, that promotes the development of new visions, solutions, and alternatives. A culture that engages people in a collaborative process of creative inquiry as they explore the possibilities for better futures. The time has come to mobilize the human imagination, show the alternatives to Control Culture, and develop Creative Cultures that thrive on diversity, freedom, and creativity."

Is everything perfect? I wonder to myself often. No. Can I scream from the broken rooftops of Gaza everything I ever wanted to write about my homeland(s)? No. Is it time to leave it all behind and retire in the West, much like Poirot, and grow marrows in the countryside? Not quite yet. Do I self censor? Everyday. Will it end? I don’t know, but I will it to change.

Will I continue to scratch and scrape, make art no institution wants to support or encourage, and smear my truth all over the rubble of this region? Yes. Am I terrified of the backlash after my Palestinian feature documentary film premieres this year? Yes. Have I watered it down to an extent that degrades my dignity? No, I have not.

Will I continue to work in poetry and film and hope that it stirs the imagination of others? You bet.

(Hind Shoufani is a Palestinian filmmaker and writer. This article appears in Campaign Middle East’s sixth anniversary issue.)

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