Damascus in Exile The art of speaking about war

Today "Damascus in Exile" starts in Berlin.
Today "Damascus in Exile" starts in Berlin. | Photo: Bernhard Ludewig

Culture in a foreign country. Or in familiar surroundings? The Goethe-Institut attempts to find answers to this question in the Damascus in Exile series of events. For two weeks, Syrian artists and authors will discuss the effects of war and expulsion on their work.

Pictures. Pictures of people who rise up against the regime, go on the streets to protest. Later, other pictures of coffins holding corpses. Corpses of the protesters presumably, shot down by the minions of the Assad regime.

Pictures from the theatre production While I Was Waiting by the Syrian playwright Mohammad Al-Attar, performed at the Basel Theatre Festival. What do these pictures represent? From the point of view of one of the protagonists, Taim, one thing above all: Revolutionary kitsch and sentimental political pathos for the audience abroad.

Nabil. Nabil. | Photo: Bernhard Ludewig Taim once chronicled the civil war with his camera. After being beaten up, he fell into a coma from which he, it is feared, will never awaken. But if he left behind something like a message, perhaps it is this: Don’t let yourselves be misused, not even for the good cause. Another reservation resonates, unspoken, namely that with so much violence, one no longer knows who actually stands for the good cause.

Mohammad Al-Attar, dramaturge Abdullah Al Kafri and Johannes Ebert, secretary-general of the Goethe-Institut, will discuss the abysses of allegiance.

Attar’s play, artfully permeated by contradictions and reservations, also gets to the heart of a central aesthetic and ethical question: How do we speak about, how do we show the Syrian revolution today, or rather what is left of it in its sixth year? How do we speak, especially at a spatial distance from it, of an unbridled force, which for outsiders can easily become a drama and a projection surface of edifying pity? What about the strategies of politicized art?

“Talking about war and war’s display”

Anyone who represents the war runs the risk of using this reversal from barbarism to the Biedermeier, which Goethe outlined in Faust with a keen eye for the abysses of German, perhaps also European, snugness: “On holidays there’s nothing I like better / Than talking about war and war’s display, / When in Turkey far away, / People one another batter.” Yes, it can be viewed with pleasure and does not feel bad at all: “You sit by the window: have a glass: / See the bright boats glide down the river, / Then you walk back home and bless / Its peacefulness, and peace, forever.”

Künstlerin Alina Amer. Artist Alina Amer. | Photo: Bernhard Ludewig War as a drama: playwrights and dramaturges especially may feel themselves called upon to recall and appropriately deal with the ambiguity of the term “drama.” For in exile they all too easily run the risk of becoming the allies of their audience: namely, in the production of emotional turmoil that is never immune to being a staged, stylized one. The glass of wine that Goethe’s “neighbour” so gladly drinks in Faust is, after all, also there after each performance. If things go badly, the artistic discussion of ongoing war is turned into simple voyeurism.

Tell what happened

But speak one must, if only because silence is no alternative. “Two million people died. Imagine you walk home through your streets and all the people are dead,” writes Cambodian author Kim Iklin in her novel The Missing. For Iklin, after the catastrophe there is only one right decision: “Tell others what happened.” She is now able to do so in Arabic thanks to the commitment of the publisher Marwan Adwan, director of Mamdouh Adwan Publishing. Promoting the Arabic language through new authors and translations from other languages is a central concern for Adwan.

Film director and producer Diana El-Jeiroudi. Film director and producer Diana El-Jeiroudi. | Photo: Bernhard Ludewig Another concern is to broaden the scope for debate, which the Arab culture, like any culture, so urgently needs. Even and especially in times when, not only in Syria, political direction has been taken over by protagonists who have a rather distant relationship to the printed word, but an all the more intense relationship to shouted words, sharply cutting commands, pleasure in verbal humiliation. Marwan, his colleague Samar S. Haddad and the president of the Goethe-Institut, Klaus-Dieter Lehmann, will be talking about the Syrian publishing scene.

He continues to suffer from nightmares, writer Assaf Alassaf admits. In one of these dreams he is captured by a soldier and is transported away. In spite of his entreaties, the soldier will not tell him where he is going. Eventually, the guard and hostage reach the goal: a sealed space, where the officer in charge subjects the prisoner to a never-ending orgy of blows and insults.

Damascus has become a place of horrors.

Return to Damascus?

Brutality makes civility melt away: there is no place for the will to understand. “Words are white twin lambs / that run in all directions,” the Palestinian poet Zakariya Muhammad describes the fragile components of human expression, which now, more decisively than ever, flee in all directions and make desolate the local cultural spaces.

Language dies, smashed by the fists and weapons of its despisers. That is why it has to go into exile. But what are the possibilities to return? Assaf Alassaf and the authors Colette Bahna and Ulla Lenze will discuss this.

And that’s why it ultimately makes sense to offer the language this exile. All those countries that now offer protection to the victims of war also create a space for civility. For here, too, those are safe who advocated the word before the wars, understood to be the most noble faculty of humanity, as (so to say) our transcendental organ, through which we proceed beyond ourselves, expanding the radius of thought and sentiment into infinity.

A space for culture

At the press conference (from the left): Jörg Schumacher, Pelican Mourad, Johannes Ebert, Diana El Jeroudi and Alina Amer. At the press conference (from the left): Jörg Schumacher, Pelican Mourad, Johannes Ebert, Diana El Jeroudi and Alina Amer. | Photo: Bernhard Ludewig Certainly, the examination of exile and violence in the Middle East (violence that is now getting closer and closer to Europe, especially Germany) can quickly become “pornography of suffering,” as they once called it at the Goethe-Institut. But that cannot be a reason for silence. Culture needs space.

Humankind owes it not only to the Syrians to provide this space. It owes it to itself. Damascus in exile also means, above all, civilization in exile.

It is only there that it can now survive.

By Kersten Knipp