This week Syrian writer and journalist Samar Yazbak was awarded the Pen Pinter prize jointly with Carol Ann Duffy. Ms. Yazbak was recognized for her courage in opposing the Syrian regime in her book, a woman in the cross fire. The book is an insider's account of the Syrian uprising and her opposition to the regime. Ms. Yazbak, an Alawite, went against her own family, sectarian and clan loyalties for the sake of the revolution. Yet despite the hardship and exile Ms. Yazbak dedicated the prize to the martyrs of the Syrian revolution and its unsung heroes.
Ms. Yazbak's award highlights the intense pressure that Syrian artist's face in their country. However, her experiences pales in comparison to many Syrian artists. The poet Faraj Bairaqdar for instance, was imprisoned during the 80s in the heart of the Syrian dessert on suspicion of being a communist and only released in 2000. The horrors of the semi-mythical Tadmor prison makes Guantanamo look tame. Bairaqdar recalls how 138th security brigade was airlifted in to the prison and murdered political prisoners in their dormitories. When I asked a retired presidential advisor to President Hafez Assad in 2008 about the repression of the 1980s, he was unapologetic and replied that "mistakes had been made" and that was that. In Tadmor those "mistakes" caused the deaths of 250-500 political prisoners and scarred Bairaqdar's imagination forever.
However, it is not only violence or the threat of it that Syrian artists have to contend with but also the insidiousness of the Syrian police state. Miriam Cooke's Dissident Art, has shown how artists and intellectuals are constantly faced with the dilemma of remaining true to their art and working with a schizophrenic regime. The Ministry of Culture on one hand encourages cultural events to 'educate' its citizens. Yet at the same time keeps artists on its toes because it has not demarcated the boundaries' of its censorship laws. Censors forbid some works of art and allow others without there being an apparent pattern or reasoning. Sometimes it gives a commission to dissident artists whilst other times the artist is in a Kafkaesque nightmare chasing signatures for the project higher and higher up the bureaucratic ladder until it comes to nothing.
In times of crisis the regime may even allow criticism. The Syrian sculptor Mustafa Ali was commissioned to make pieces that alluded to state repression. Poets like Muhammad Maghout criticized the government and yet was celebrated on Syrian state TV following his passing in 2006. The regime allows dissent for the same reason Bashar Assad allowed Facebook during the Syrian uprising; it's a good tool to identify dissenters, allows for pent up frustration to be vented and gives the state a liberal appearance. There are of course some red lines which cannot be crossed as the cartoonist Ali Farzat learnt: the president is untouchable.
The inability of artists to divine the intentions of the regime means that the opposition artists remain in a state of paranoia. How far can the artists push the limits? Is the artist dissenting, co-operating or being a tool of the regime? This flux within the soul of artists do not allow for the creation of an opposition ideology directed against the regime.
If by some miracle, the artist's work has managed to get past the censors largely unscathed, the message still has to penetrate regime ideology. The Assad regime used the October war 1973 to cultivate a formidable ideology over forty years. Countless streets, schools, stadiums and universities were named after its initial successes. The war and the occupation of the Golan heights allowed the regime to create a myth of a besieged Syria on constant war readiness. Consequently Syria runs under emergency laws, has a cult of personality surrounding the head of state and has spawned fifteen intelligence agencies competing with each other to keep its citizenry let alone its artists, in a state of fear. It is this milieu that the artists' work inhabits.
Of course many Syrian readers may appreciate the work and see through the regime's propaganda. But they are faced with the stark choice of either accepting the regime, opposing the regime or as Vaclav Havel suggests, learn to live within a lie. In this context Ms. Samar Yazbak's fearlessness and her struggle to remain true to her principles can only encourage Syrian dissent in Syria.