Syrian Satire: Amid The Bloodshed, What Makes Syrians Laugh?

In The Midst Of War, Satire Returns To Syria

Syrian activists using video to depict the gory reality of battle rarely leave anything on the cutting room floor.

Whether it's footage of furious protests, mortars hitting houses or dead children in makeshift hospitals, these 'citizen journalists' tell a brutal and unrelenting story.

But there is also another side to the opposition's creative response to the uprising in Syria.

And some of their work… is funny.

After years of oppression, satire is back in Syria.

"The type of expression has now shifted, the subtlety has gone," Rime Allaf, associate fellow at Chatham House, told the AP recently. "Today, for the first time in recent Syrian history, people are able to get out and say it openly."

In one satirical YouTube series, 'Top Goon: Diaries of a Little Dictator', President Assad appears on a gameshow called 'Who Wants To Kill A Million'. He does well against his opponents, Gaddafi and Mubarak, before eventually destroying the set out of fury when he loses:

Another Syrian using satire to tell his story of the uprising is the man known as Jiim Siin, who runs a blog and YouTube series known as Chronicles of the Pressure Cooker.

His work takes the form of audio plays, monologues and absurdist skits, recorded often using little more than an iPhone camera, which poke fun (with a serious edge) at the strange world of Syrian politics at a time where the country is close to falling apart.

"What I love about these clips is the language: a rich, pungent, evocative vernacular… basically colloquial poetry," wrote one blogger of the series recently. "Yes, I know I’m getting carried away, but I can’t really think of a more creative response to the situation than this."

The satirist behind Jiim Siin is Syrian, but lives mostly outside the country. "The uprising has changed my life in ways which are far less dramatic than it has the lives of people living inside the country," he told the Huffington Post UK. "Especially in areas which are besieged, bombarded or used as a combat arena. Yet, I felt strong changes in my outlook and my feelings: fear for my parents, relatives and friends who are inside Syria.

He used humour to fight his frustration, he said: "Humour was the only way I could deal with my anger. Bittersweet, dark satire was the expression with which I felt most at ease in order to make contradictions visible."

"In terms of format, radio plays are an obvious inspiration," he said. "I do monologues and dialogues, the former being inspired in their dark humour and derision by Ziad Rahbani's great audio improvisations during the Lebanese civil war. Derision is key to my approach … I am inspired by the absurdity and playfulness of Month Python's Flying Circus, but I am very far from achieving anything like that."

In another recent satirical video members of the Free Syrian Army unpack a crate of weapons 'sent' by the EU and Turkey, which turn out to be slingshots and rolled up pieces of paper:

One Twitter user responded to that clip:

Much of the satire of the Syrian uprising draws on a rich tradition of dark humour in the country's cultural past.

From the social criticism inherent in the plays and poems of Muhammad Al-Maghou in the 1970s, to the satire which bloomed in Syria's (brief) 'spring' after Bashar al-Assad's ascension to power in 2000, irony and self-deprecation is nothing new in the country.

Neither is the danger associated with expressing it. Now, as then, some of Syria's top satirists are paying the consequences for their work.

One of those is Ali Ferzat, a cartoonist who was recently forced to flee Syria in fear of his life. An exhibition of some of the 15,000 cartoons he has published in dozens of Arab newspapers opened in London recently.

According to Ferzat the cartoonist was friends with Bashar al-Assad before he took over from his father as president, with what many believed to be a reformist's agenda. When Bashar eventually took over in 2000, Ferzat, encouraged by the regime, began a satirical magazine called 'al-Domari', or 'The Lamplighter'.

It was the first independent paper published in Syria since the Baath Party came to power in 1963.

"But when I realised Assad was more excited by the project than I was, I got scared," Ferzat said in London recently, at an event hosted by Free Word and the Reel Syria festival.

He was right to be worried. By 2003, angry that they were increasingly the target of al-Domari's comics, the regime effectively forced the newspaper to close, paying protesters to demonstrate, intimidating advertisers to pull out and filing defamation cases in court.

Ferzat's relationship with the authorities grew ever more tense, even as he attempted to mask his satire behind symbolism. Eventually he depicted Assad himself in a critical cartoon, published online. "The first to disaster," Ferzat said.

Finally, in August 2011, the regime snapped. Ferzat was pulled from his car in Damascus by masked gunmen, who he believes were employed by the government. They beat him and broke his hands, and dumped him by the side of the road near the airport.

As another Syrian artist, the novelist Manhal Al Sarraj, put it at the Reel Syria event: "The security forces do not love beauty. They're scared of art not only because it's criticising them but because it threatens to wake the people up, and open the people's eyes".

Since the attack, Ferzat's caricatures of regime figures have become potent symbols of the uprising, carried by protesters and used online to represent the movement against Assad.

Ferzat is also aware that his work has taken on a life of its own.

"My work is in the fabric of the revolution," he said.

In a similar way, the academic Donatella Della Ratta has shown how early attempts by the Syrian regime to quell the uprising through an advertising campaign were undermined by graffiti artists and online activists, who used the symbols but changed their meaning.

'I Am With The Law' said a government campaign in Damscus when the uprising began. The message was swirly appropriated and remixed by the activists. 'I Am With Syria' (right) said one response.

The government's 'I am with the law' became the uprising's 'I am with Syria'. 'I lost my shoes', joked another version of the poster.

Della Ratta notes that some of the most potent satire so far has come out of the city worst hit by the violence: Homs.

But the growth of a so-called 'creative resistance' in Syria, even amid the worsening bloodshed, doesn't necessarily mean that everyone agree about what should happen next.

YouTube satirist Jiim Siin does not agree with all aspects of the Syrian opposition - and he disagrees with the idea of military intervention or arming the Free Syrian Army. But he remains a critic of the Assad regime, and the complexity of his views merely reflects the complexity of the uprising.

"Before the uprising, Syria had opponents but no opposition," he said. "Now it has opponents and oppositions but still no opposition. … One of my clips ends with the security officer telling his lieutenant 'When the opposition prepares a communique which is readable, clear, practical and which my brain can understand, come over and wake me up.' I recorded that clip in November 2011 and I am saddened to see that it still rings true in March 2012."

For a satirist it's important to be as critical of the opposition as of the government, he says.

"I am very harsh with the regime, but I can be strongly critical of the political opposition, if only for their failure to find a common ground and to formulate a project beyond the fall of the regime. How can an uprising turn into a revolution if there is no project beyond bringing down the regime?

"There are very brave and well-respected opposition figureheads, there is a lively blogging and tweeting community, and most of all there are hundreds of thousands of Syrians who have been taking to the streets again and again, facing bullets, arrests and torture. Nobody should be astonished if the failure of political oppositions to find a common ground drives those people to desperation."

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