SEATTLE — On March 15, 2018, the Syrian Civil War entered its eighth year. During this time, more than 465,000 people have been killed and more than 12 million have been displaced. What started as peaceful protests in response to a lack of civil rights freedoms and economic instability in 2011 quickly turned deadly as the Syrian government, led by Bashar al-Assad, cracked down on protestors.
Civil War Pushes Syrian Poverty to All-Time Highs
Throughout the ensuing war-torn years, the conflict has seen the complete destruction of major cities such as Damascus, Aleppo and Raqqa. In a report by the U.N. Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, the percentage of people living below the poverty line has risen from 28 percent in 2010 to a staggering 83.4 percent in 2015, while those living in extreme poverty has also increased from 14 percent in 2010 to more than 50 percent in 2015.
With most of the country now living in poverty, the need for humanitarian aid has also risen exponentially. By the end of 2015, a reported 13.5 million people needed aid. Of those, 12.1 million needed access to absolute necessities, such as water and sanitation. A country is dying, and with it so is, seemingly, a bright and vivid culture. Art, music and poverty in Syria are coming to a crossroads as this country’s crisis has no semblance of an end in sight.
However, amid all the savagery, there are those who are reclaiming their identity and culture through artistic expression. Whether through music, art, photography, film or any other artistic medium, Syrians are holding on to the country they will always call home.
Refugees Shed Light on the Intersection of Art, Music and Poverty in Syria
Bassel Al Qatreeb is a musician who left the small city of Salamiyah, Syria during the war. Fleeing to Germany, Qatreeb remembers having to say goodbye to his family as well as all of the musical instruments he had to leave behind. Some of his family eventually joined him, as well as his most beloved instrument, the oud. “It was a memorable moment when I got to play the strings of my oud again,” Qatreeb stated. “The oud is a special language for me when I can’t speak German.” Qatreeb is also a music teacher, so being able to play and teach is a way for him to both integrate into his new society while also giving the German people a sense of his own heritage and identity.
Tammam Azzam is an artist from Damascus who now lives in exile in Dubai. Azzam’s art shows the suffering and destruction of the Syrian people and the apathy of the international community. “I’m an artist that’s doing artwork with a political background . . . because I’m Syrian so I have to be involved in what’s happening in my country,” Azzam stated. His The Syrian Museum series juxtaposes Western art, from artists like Picasso, Goya and Da Vinci, with images of the desolate, defaced and contemporary Syria.
Abounaddara is a collective group of Syrian filmmakers who are trying to affect change in how the war is being portrayed. The group, made up entirely of anonymous volunteers, creates short films giving voice to ordinary Syrians. They capture the day-to-day lives of those still living inside the country and in nearby refugee camps. They are capturing a strong look at art, music and poverty in Syria as only Syrians know it.
Charif Kiwan, who heads the group, believes that President Assad has been incredibly savvy in manipulating the image of the war. His Instagram account shows him as a benevolent dictator, kissing babies and waving to crowds. Kiwan has stated that “the idea is to make films that allow the universal viewer to feel something without knowing anything about Syria.”
Syrian Artists Continue to Keep Their Homeland at the Forefront
The past 25 years of growth that Syria had seen has been completely undone by just five years of conflict. As President Assad continues to take strong control over his people, the suffering grows more and more intolerable. Food production in Syria has dropped by 40 percent. The World Food Programme has delivered more than one million metric tons of food to displaced families on the move since the start of the war.
The conditions which Syrians are forced to endure are nothing short than a travesty and a humanitarian failure. Art, music and poverty in Syria are coming together in ways no Syrian, or any other person, could have ever imagined. But as they continue to showcase the real issues that are plaguing the country, they will force the rest of the world to act. They will recapture their homeland and their stories will never be forgotten.
– Aaron Stein