Beyond the Headlines: Syria Speaks

As Reel Festivals return to Jura Unbound, this time with Syria Speaks, Literature Programmer Ryan Van Winkle explains how they plan to open a window onto a country and culture beyond the conflict.

Feature by Alan Bett | 03 Jul 2014

Syria Speaks, and so does its Literature Programmer Ryan Van Winkle while sitting in Summerhall discussing his evening of Syrian culture at Jura Unbound. He displays the type of enthusiastic verbosity you would hope and expect from somebody working on such an interesting and worthwhile project.

“The idea is that we use art and culture as a way of exploring a place beyond the headlines,” he states while discussing the primary aim of this event, and also of Reel Festivals in general; an organisation which works in regions of conflict, “using art to show that when people get together there are not too many dissimilarities between humankind.”

In this case the medium is song, dance and word; provided by a diverse range of Syrian artists, keen to show us the true culture and character of their country. “Your first immediate thought is a warzone,” Ryan admits, “... and it’s not a very human portrait of the place. What art does, it gives you empathy, understanding and context about where these conflicts are happening and what they’re doing to people. These are people just like you and I. Who care about their kids, who want a good boyfriend or girlfriend, who want to go out dancing on a Saturday night. They don’t want to work too hard, they want a good education; our basic human concerns, no matter where we’re from, what kind of trauma our countries have been through, are the same.” And by holding their lives in comparison with our own we may begin to see past the region's one-dimensional media generated stereotypes. “We have this feeling like, of course it happened there, they must have been expecting it, it’s a hotbed, a zone of terror," suggests Ryan of our pre-programmed patterns of thought. "...but mostly people were just hanging out there. I mean if a bomb fell on Summerhall people would be amazed.”

Insight and empathy, as far as Reel Festivals are concerned, are not only built through experiencing the work of others but by collaborating with them. “From working together and using art and literature we create relationships, and those relationships are really powerful and they’re something we love to share in events like this one.” A prime example is their poetry workshop, where artists come together to translate each other’s work. An act which must prove difficult, considering the intricacy and hidden personal meaning contained within this form. It’s something Ryan believes is “A really intimate and special act, one person to another.”

“Art gives you empathy, understanding and context about where these conflicts are happening and what they’re doing to people” – Ryan Van Winkle

Acknowledging its difficulties while discovering an unexpected bonus. “The great thing about the translation workshop is you get to say that thing to a poet that you never get to say, which is ‘What the fuck are you talking about?’” This refreshing honesty pays dividends. “They’ll explain what it means, they’ll break the poem down, they give a real insight into their lives and their experience and you need to internalise and translate that into English as best you can, translate that feeling. It’s a really incredible process.” And that bond of trust will then further benefit the Jura Unbound audience. “That friendship and that relationship when it gets on stage is really palpable, there’s a connection deeper than text.”

The evening promises a varied collection of artists, each offering a fresh perspective and very personal viewpoint. “We’re bringing Golan Hagi over,” a Syrian Kurd, doctor and Robert Louis Stevenson aficionado – having translated The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde into Arabic. A trip to Scotland will obviously suit him and he will be reading his award winning poetry on the night. “He feels the conflict very deeply,” Ryan explains, having been forced out of Syria and now living in France. The event also features Samar Yazbek, awarded the prestigious PEN/Pinter prize of International Writer of Courage. She wrote a diary of the first 100 days of the war and will be reading from this. Providing a unique view of the conflict through two sets of eyes will be Scottish Syrian Robin Yassin-Kassab, author of The Road from Damascus, a man who has written not only on the conflict but the general culture of the region. Malu Halasa's Secret Life of Syrian Lingerie will highlight the humour, resilience and strength of Syrian art, even in these most challenging times. Ryan suggests that the tone of the evening will be respectful while at the same time a celebration of life and culture. This will be typified by the band Raast. “The band is formed around one member who grew up in the Palestinian refugee camp outside of Damascus.” While providing some context about where their songs are coming from they plan to end the evening with some party music and a bit of a dance.

While Ryan earlier acknowledged that war is what comes instantly to mind when Syria is mentioned, it is a subject which will be addressed without miring an evening which hopes to delight as well as inform us. “It doesn’t always need to be about the war, I mean we’ve shown loads of great films which have taken place in areas of conflict but are really about something simple, like your first bicycle.” Yet the backdrop cannot and should not be ignored. “You can’t talk about Syria without acknowledging conflict but we’re not going to spend two hours dwelling on the horrors. We’re going to present the fullest possible picture we can. I want people to come away thinking that they’ve hung out with some beautiful friends in a beautiful place that they’ve never been before. I want to give that feeling to the audience.”

But what’s the role of poetry and music in this situation, is it going to save a single life? What can art achieve in the face of war? Beauty seems futile next to the suffering of millions. “It’s really hard to see the point of art when guns are being fired and many people would say there is no point,” Ryan acknowledges. However Reel Festivals attach a simple yet important purpose to their events. “The role is to remind us that there are human beings and lives here. I don’t really think that Assad is going to see a poignant painting and change the course of action, but I do think the more of these things can be seen and felt.”

We compare with Picasso and his painting in response to the hellish bombing of a Basque town during the Spanish Civil War. “What role does Guernica have to play? It makes us sad and shows us the bloody horror of it.” There is an additional function of art over reportage which allows a level of understanding and compassion. “The great thing about filmmaking and telling stories and writing is that it’s a direct line right into your heart – here are people and their situation, and here’s understanding for another human being.” And a final result may be for the artists themselves – for many the work must act as catharsis.

So, this is an event which offers many things: to see beyond the detached rigid headlines, to understand and empathise, to form bonds of friendship. Quite simply to sing and dance and experience the words and music of Syria. It refuses to present a one-sided flyer, or exist as a political or revolutionary tool. “We’re not going to try and tell you that war is bad.” Ryan concludes, “If you don’t know that by now...”

Syria Speaks is on Tue 12 August in the Guardian Spiegeltent, part of Jura Unbound