Malu Halasa on art from within Syria's prison cells

In Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Frontline, the critic and academic miriam cooke (sic) puts the country’s long history of detaining political dissidents into stark perspective. She tells Daniel Gorman: ‘It became clear to me that… the domination of the cell over the Syrian imagination was huge. People in daily life would talk about their houses as cells.’

For many Syrians the cell is more than mere metaphor and our book has a strong emphasis on prison memoir. The Kurdish-Syrian writer Dara Abdullah contributes a gritty realistic account of inside No. 1 Khatib Branch, in Damascus. As he is being escorted from his communal cell to the prison’s interrogation room, the people in solitary confinement live in holes in the floor as though constrained in coffins. Only the whites of their eyes peer out of the gloom. In this world, the most innocuous behaviour can be a punishable offence, as the graffiti says on a cell wall– ‘thirty days for hitting “like” on Al Jazeera.’

Sometimes graffiti might be the only evidence that someone has passed through before disappearing for good. The psychologist and writer Fadia Lazkani was incarcerated, as were her brothers.  Once out, she spent over a decade searching for a younger sibling who simply vanishes in prison. Without any clear proof as to what has happened to him – even the men who served with him on the inside are afraid to speak out – Lazkani refused to accept the death of her brother without proof. The account of the personal journey she makes to find him and her realisation at the end appears in her essay that took many years to finish.

In Syria, stories of many incarcerations within a family are not unusual. In her memoir piece, ‘Lifetimes Stolen’, the journalist and human rights activist Yara Badr experiences generational imprisonment. Her father, a former political dissident, was arrested and she remembers as a child going with her mother and visiting him behind bars. He gave her toys he fashioned from bits of wood and string that she keeps to this day.

Badr was arrested, released and re-arrested again after security officers from Air Force Intelligence made their the first raid on the Syrian Centre for Media and Free Expression (SCMFE), where Badr’s husband Mazen Darwish was the director. On a prison wall, Badr writes Darwish’s and SMFE’s names in elaborate calligraphy so the guards won’t be able to read it and punish her. Since his arrest in 2012, Darwish has not been heard of except for a letter that was smuggled out of Damascus Central Prison when he was awarded the 2013 Bruno Kreisky Prize for Services for Human Rights.

Badr is well versed in Syria’s ‘dictionary of torture’. From the start, whenever she was taken from her communal cell she heard sounds of people being tortured. In Rafik Shami’s novel Darker Side of Love, his main character, a communist imprisoned in Tadmor Prison in Palmyra, remembers the day when blond, German-speaking Stasi officers arrived and torture techniques were modernised. Tadmor was closed in 2001 but recently reopened by the regime to accomodate the growing number of detainees. More than 200,000 Syrians have been imprisoned during the uprising, Badr writes, a figure she admits is unverifiable.

A 2012 report by Human Rights Watch outlines the four different mukhabarat secret police organisations, each of which maintains several prisons or ‘branches’ in every Syrian city and town. The threat of arrest and the dangers inside prison have been programmed into the Syrian psyche, maintains the book’s coeditor Zaher Omareen in his essay. The ubiquitous symbol of regime propaganda throughout Syrian society has been the official photographs of Bashar al-Assad and his family. When Omareen himself is suddenly arrested he realises, ‘There is no need for pictures in prison. Everything attests to the State’s absolute dominance; this stark reality no longer requires symbols behind which to hide. On the outside the ubiquitous photograph of the Syrian leader has a purpose. It is there to make you think of one place, always: prison.’

Detention is a state of mind for many Syrians. As the artist Sulafa Hijazi admits, ‘Inside Syria, people live as prisoners in a huge cell. Once we … escape from there we discover that we’re still inside.’

Malu Halasa is one of the editors of 'Syria Speaks: art and Culture from the frontline

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