Lucy Popescu

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Posts Tagged ‘syria’

Film review – A Syrian Love Story

Posted by lucypopescu on September 24, 2015

A syrian love storySean McAllister’s award winning documentary, A Syrian Love Story (2015), is a searing portrait of a family torn apart by dictatorship and war. Amer and Raghda met and fell in love in a Syrian prison fifteen years ago. They were both political prisoners – Amer was a Palestinian freedom fighter, Raghda a Syrian revolutionary – and both were tortured. On their release they married and started a family. McAllister first meets Amer in 2009 and over five years follows the family’s fraught lives. After writing a book about their love story and experiences in prison, Raghda was once again detained and Amer is left to bring up their four boys alone. McAllister films them talking to Raghda during a rare phonecall. Bob the youngest cries for his mum while Kaka, a teenager, tries to make sense of Basher al Assad’s tyrannical regime.

In 2011, as the ‘Arab Spring’ infects Syria and protestors take to the streets, Amer uses the opportunity to highlight the plight of Raghda, ceaselessly calling for her release. Finally his persistence, and pressure from the west, has the desired result and Raghda is released in a small amnesty of political prisoners. McAllister continues to film the family as they are reunited. His handheld camera captures their euphoria followed by the difficulties Raghda has adapting to home life and her insomnia – she is haunted by frequent nightmares of her time in prison. As the street protests intensify, McAllister is himself arrested in Syria and held for five days. His camera is seized and because it contains compromising footage of the family, they are forced to flee to Lebanon.

McAllister follows them there and finds Amer and Raghda’s relationship is showing signs of strain. At one point Raghda takes off, leaving Amer with the children, feeling hurt, confused and betrayed. As a Palestinian, he cannot claim asylum outside Lebanon but Raghda, as a Syrian political prisoner, has the necessary status for them to be accepted in Europe. Finally, she returns to Amer and the family is granted asylum in France. Once here, the tone of A Syrian Love Story shifts. McAllister captures the bleak reality for so many refugees, having to start afresh, mourning the disintegration of a country as well as the loss of their beloved homeland. Raghda in particular feels utterly untethered – she was well known in Syria, but in France she is a nobody. As their rows intensify, Amer finds himself a girlfriend while Raghda broods, smokes and gets drunk on wine. Using frequent closeups, McAllister captures the breakdown of their relationship with unflinching honesty, to the point that it becomes hard to believe that they would allow him such intimacy. It is some measure of their courage, and a desire to show the world their reality, that they do.

The family’s emotional journey mirrors Syria’s physical collapse and the personal and political are irretrievably entwined. It may be bleak viewing, but A Syrian Love Story is a timely and necessary reminder of what Syrian refugees face today. It’s a poignant tale of a marriage breakup that echoes the agony and heartbreak of countless other Syrians who have found their homes destroyed and their lives in ruins. For Raghda, at least, it also ends on an unexpected note of hope.

Originally published by



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Book Review – Syrian Notebooks: Inside the Homs Uprising by Jonathan Littell

Posted by lucypopescu on May 18, 2015

Syrian NotebooksIn mid-January 2012, the American-French author Jonathan Littell travelled to Homs in Syria with his colleague Mani, a photographer and translator.

They were smuggled into the city by opposition fighters with the Free Syrian Army and spent three fraught weeks bearing witness to the regime’s bombing of residential neighbourhoods and snipers picking off innocent civilians.

Littell was there to write a series of articles for Le Monde. On his return he realised that his extensive notes could also make a book documenting a pivotal moment in the conflict. Littell’s own emotional journey follows the sad trajectory of the opposition’s resistance.

At first he appears almost buoyant in his macho naming of the guns and weaponry used by both sides and their likely provenance. Littell adopts a nom de guerre, drinks whisky, the preferred panacea of hardened war journalists, and never complains about the discomfort of sleeping in bombed-out houses with the sound of gunfire all around. Gradually though, as the violence escalates, Littell starts to tire. He can’t shake a bad cough and becomes obsessed with meal times. He finds it increasingly hard to bear witness to the atrocities being committed day and night.

Listening to the numerous accounts of activists, fighters, doctors and ordinary citizens, Littell and Mani (aka Ra’id) have to sift through the information and decide what is fact and what may have been embellished. Some members of the FSA are suspicious of them, wary of it being reported that civilians have joined their ranks in case it supports the regime’s claims of “terrorism”. Others claim every death is regime-orchestrated.

A doctor describes in graphic terms how the wounded, both civilians and fighters, would be taken to the military hospital where he worked and were brutally tortured. He offers them evidence filmed on a camera-pen. “There were two torture tools,” he tells them, “an electric cable and strips of reinforced rubber.”

The YouTube videos the activists share with the journalists are gradually replaced by the physical bodies of the wounded and the dead. Littell conveys his sense of horror in stark, fragmented prose. After one particularly brutal day, his despondency is reflected in his writing and deteriorating health: “The coughing fits… undo me completely, leave me empty and trembling for a long moment.”

On his return, Littell warned Alain Juppe, then French foreign minister, that “the regime was doing its utmost to provoke cycles of sectarian violence while the FSA was frantically trying to contain them; born out of despair the Islamist temptation was growing but had yet to gain any serious ground.” Tragically, Islamic State is one consequence of the West’s inaction.

At the time, Littell was not to know that Homs would be bitterly fought over until last May, when rebel forces evacuated the city. But he clearly foresaw that “playing the extremists against the moderates” would serve President Bashar al-Assad’s regime well. More importantly, he realised that if nothing was done to curb the bloodletting, Islamist extremism would take hold.

Originally published by the Independent on Sunday

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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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