Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Front Lines

Book Review

  • Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Front Lines

  • Edited by Malu Halasa, Zaher Omareen and Nawara Mahfoud
  • 328 pages 
  • Published by Saqi Books, London, 2014
  • £12.99

As the war in Syria drags on into its fifth year, Syrian artists are seeking new ways to convey the urgency of the situation to the outside world, for whom this intractable conflict has become a kind of permanent background noise. Surveying more than 50 artists, writers and collectives working within and outside the region, Syria Speaks explores the value of art in times of war and, more specifically, alerts us to the critical function of social media in contemporary conflict zones such as Syria.

The book offers a collection of fiction, nonfiction, poetry and visual art— most of it anti-Assad, pro-nonviolence, and of necessity covertly produced. Visual art is interspersed with gut-wrenching stories of violence and loss, interviews with activists, and essays about art-making in situations of censorship and/or diaspora. There are handmade banners, cartoons and posters, as well as photographs by both professionals and amateurs who have assumed the role of “citizen-journalist” in the absence of news media.

Since the eruption of the war in March 2011 and the subsequent crackdown on public dissent, the Internet has been the most important venue for public exhibition, organization and dialogue. As art historian Charlotte Bank explains in her essay on the poster-making collective Alshaab alsori aref tarekh (“The Syrian People Know Their Way”), the old utility of mass-produced posters as a vehicle of public communication has unraveled in today’s Syria, but the messages and historic symbolism of the poster are still mobilized.1

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  1. Charlotte Bank, “Alshaab alsori aref tarekh: The Art of Persuasion,” in Syria Speaks, 69. []