Lucy Popescu

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Posts Tagged ‘Saqi Books’

Book review – Syria Speaks

Posted by lucypopescu on June 19, 2014

Syria speaksSyria Speaks is essential reading for anyone interested in human rights or a better understanding of the current conflict. Comprising essays, stories, poems, songs, photo- graphs and cartoons, this impressive collection shows how artists and activists operate under repressive regimes and how their work can become “tools of resistance” in war.

Four decades of rule by the Assad family has wreaked untold havoc on Syria and its people: dissidents describe horrific methods of torture and claim that the testing of chemical and biological weapons on political prisoners was routinely practised by Syria’s Air Force Intelligence.

When Dr Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father in July 2000, he appeared keen to modernise Syria and expressed a desire for “creative thinking”, “constructive criticism” and “transparency”. The “Damascus Spring”, was short-lived, however. As the accounts and artwork in Syria Speaks amply demonstrate, Bashar has not only matched but far surpassed his father Hafez’s brutality in the past three years alone.

Given the silence that followed Hafez al-Assad’s devastation of Hama in 1982, it is fitting that the anthology begins with a veiled photomontage of victims of the massacre. Since the start of the revolution in 2011, many artists have revisited the events of 1982 in their work and compared the killing in Hama with current atrocities. A poster from the anonymous arts collective The Syrian People Know Their Way, depicts a child underlining the words “It will not happen again” next to a waterwheel, a landmark symbol of Hama. This also powerfully recalls the fact that it was the arrest of schoolchildren for painting anti-government graffiti in the southern city of Deraa that sparked the first protests in March 2011.

The difference between the uprising in Hama and the current conflict is that ordinary Syrians now have access to mobile phones and the internet. However, people quickly become inured to images of violence and, as the academic Miriam Cooke observes, the opposition needed to find new ways to retain the outside world’s attention. Many Syrian artists have risen to the challenge. After one massacre, the filmmakers’ collective Abounaddara posted a piece that depicted corpses wrapped in shrouds and joined by flowers. Artist Sulafa Hijazi vividly contrasts life and death in her illustration of a pregnant weapon.

Interviews with former political prisoners sit alongside work from the raft of citizen journalists who have come to the fore in recent months. Yassin al-Haj Saleh, a prominent writer imprisoned for 16 years, compares the role of the intellectual then and now. Meanwhile, the Syrian activist Assad al-Alchi talks to co-editor Malu Halasa about the role of local  co-ordinating committees. This network grew out of the early protests in March 2011 and serves to teach activists non-violent civil disobedience.

Much of the writing explores the effects of imprisonment and torture. Especially poignant is “Lifetimes Stolen” by Yara Badr who was imprisoned like her father before her. After listing “the dictionary of torture techniques” she describes what it means “to live on the verge of death … you are lost, as though drifting in the sea, waiting for the wind to bring you a sail that will take you back to life”. Her husband, Mazen Darwish, remains in detention and Syria Speaks includes an extract from his “Letter for the Future” smuggled out of jail, in which he wishes his torturers “happy lives for your children, with no fear and no torture”.

The anthology also documents the importance of revolutionary songs as a means of resistance – the popular Syrian singer Ibrahim Qashoush was murdered after inspiring crowds in Hama with his song “Come on Bashar, Get Out!”. As one activist explains, folk music has largely escaped censorship and “has therefore become a means by which street protesters have proclaimed their Syrian identity in the face of government claims of an ‘international conspiracy’.” Similarly, cartoons and comic strips can convey “subversive narratives” and, like mobile-phone images, are easily uploaded to social media sites.

This then is the central message of Syria Speaks. Artists and activists have had to find new ways to communicate and protest from the frontline. One of the most humorous and imaginative creations must be the popular internet series “Top Goon: Diaries of a Little Dictator”, available on YouTube and described as a “modern-day morality play”. It’s reminiscent of the British satirical television series Spitting Image, although far braver – finger puppets are used so they can be smuggled through checkpoints. Syria Speaks pays tribute to many extraordinary acts of courage and shines a light on the dark deeds of a brutal regime.

Originally published by the Independent on Sunday

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Book Review – No Sex in the City

Posted by lucypopescu on July 19, 2013

no sex in the cityEsma is a Turkish Muslim based in Sydney, aged 28, living at home, and still a virgin. She wants to stay that way until she meets “The One”. Randa Abdel-Fattah’s decision to explore a young woman’s attempts to remain true to her faith and traditional beliefs in a modern society is a bold one. In Esma’s world, family life is as important as her career and finding Mr Right. Her parents are Turkish immigrants and they participate in the hunt for a prospective bridegroom, with sometimes hilarious results.

Part of the pleasure of watching the popular television series Sex and the City was the friends’ endless verbal dissection of their sexual experiences. We empathised with them and laughed at their mistakes.

Abdel-Fattah presents four very different women seeking love and fulfilment and offers interesting variations on the usual tropes of chick-lit: Esma doesn’t believe in kissing, let alone sex, before marriage. She is happy for her family to organise blind dates and to meet potential suitors at their home. She sticks to her principles and, without undergoing a profound psychological or emotional journey, finds happiness.

For Esma, “dating” is limited to the search for a suitable marriage partner and her prudishness may grate with western readers. I couldn’t help feeling that contemporary fiction about women behaving badly is a lot more interesting than reading about dutiful daughters.

Fortunately, Esma’s three friends, Ruby, Nirvana and Lisa, fellow members of the No Sex in the City Club, are a little more flexible in their outlook and the dating mishaps they share are sometimes very funny.

Abdel-Fattah includes an interesting political dimension involving Ruby and Esma’s work with refugees and asylum seekers (Australia has  a terrible record for mistreating asylum seekers and Abdel-Fattah is herself a human rights activist).

There is also an engaging sub-plot about sexual harassment in the workplace. Esma’s boss, Danny, pays her inappropriate compliments, insists on asking her advice about his private life and posts incriminating messages on her Facebook wall.

Feminists and the liberal minded may find it hard to identify with  Esma’s self-imposed limitations. However, religious chick-lit is apparently a growing sub-genre and by focusing on the lives of four women of different faiths – Muslim, Jewish, Greek-Orthodox and Hindu – Abdel-Fattah will inevitably attract a varied readership. No Sex in the City is entertaining enough although, as the title suggests, it’s more Jane Austen than Candace Bushnell.

Originally published in the Independent on Sunday

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