Coalescence of the displaced: Syrian civil society beyond borders

Project summary

This project, part of Tamara Al-Omm’s PhD research, aimed at understanding the mechanisms through which Syrian civil society remained active despite the exile and displacement of the majority of its intelligentsia. This research is based on in-depth interviews with Syrian artists, writers, activists, intellectuals and organisations in Beirut and Istanbul.

Project details

Location: Syria

Year(s): 2017

Project director(s): Tamara Al-Omm (University of St Andrews)

Lead institutions and funding:

  • CBRL

Project feature article (appeared in CBRL’s Bulletin 2018)

Prior to the 2011 uprising, Syrian civil society was dominated by government-controlled bodies that restricted organisational activities and engaged in unbridled suppression.

It was during the early period of the uprising that new political voices began to emerge within civil society, enabling a freer undertaking of activities, the building of connections, and the expression of thoughts and ideas that had never been previously possible. However, while it was possible for those involved in civil society to function inside the country in the early stages of the uprising, this grew increasingly more difficult as years went on. Many of those playing key roles in the articulation of civil society’s new voices were forced to leave the country and re-establish themselves and their work abroad. This dispersed actors across various continents, resulting in the connections and networks built whilst in Syria, now being maintained and expanded beyond Syria’s borders.

It is this metamorphosis of Syrian civil society that resulted in the final section of my PhD research, and which necessitated the last phase of fieldwork, supported by CBRL. Fieldwork sought to explore the phenomenon of exiled Syrian civil society, with primary research questions inquiring as to how and why Syrian civil society remained active despite displacement of the majority of its actors. This research inquiry entailed conducting interviews with civil society actors in Beirut and Istanbul in 2017, including in-depth interviews with Syrian artists, writers, actors, musicians, film-makers, activists, intellectuals and organisations.

Findings: struggles in exile
The most potent characterisation of all those interviewed in Beirut and Istanbul was a sense of absolute exhaustion. Life in exile – in general, but in Lebanon in particular – has become increasingly difficult. Attacks from security services as well as the general populace – both verbal and physical – have almost become the norm. Costs of living are increasing, while opportunities for work are diminishing.

Most difficult of all is the slow but steady departure of those involved in Syria’s exiled civil society to Europe and the Americas in the hope of a better future. While this move sometimes means the end of their work (although not always), it is those who remain in Beirut and Istanbul who feel their absence most profoundly. Connections become interrupted, projects suspended, and plans for the future put on hold indeterminately.

Moreover, there is a sense of overwhelming resignation, especially in light of the international community’s change in approach to Assad’s involvement in Syria’s future. Many interviewed resigned themselves to Assad’s continuous presence, while retaining little hope for the future and the conflict’s peaceful resolution.

Despite this, it is the death and displacement of so many and the destruction of so much that stops people giving up. For Jawad Muna, the founder of the newspaper Souriatna [Our Syria], when asked why he continues, he responds laughingly “I cannot say, but I ask myself that every day, ‘until when will I be here?’ But we keep going… Maybe tomorrow will be better.”

Fundamentals of Syrian networks of civil society
In the early days of the uprising’s peaceful protests, it was the shared values of freedom, dignity and citizenship that played a role in the formation of Syria’s new civil society. Today, themes of rebuilding and return are added to this agenda, driving many of civil society’s actors to continue their work.

A major challenge facing civil society actors in exile relates to the fact that they continue to build for a future Syria that is largely unknown, while attempting to maintain the collective memories of a Syria that no longer exists. Bidayyat, a Beirut-based organisation supporting filmmakers through training and production, attempts to preserve some of these memories whilst maintaining its ‘resistance’ orientation:

“this is the importance of culture. If you look to our work, we have a huge archive of visual material about places, people, ways of living, and stories that are part of the collective memory of Syrians. Continuing to produce films, to raise some debate [about this material] is an act of resistance… It is about how to ensure, through documentation work, that other things can survive.” (Interview 27/7/17).

There is also an undeniable sense amongst all those interviewed that a shared Syrian identity, however complex, is fundamental to their continued work and determination for change. The identity of resistance that was formed within the newly found voice of civil society, early on in the uprising, continues to be heard in the voices of those interviewed.

“I think a person’s belonging to a country or place is a portal for their ability to change…I am from this country, I understand it, I was part of its revolution. I believe that my Syrian identity is the portal for me.” (Interview 19/7/17).

Another of these fundamentals is the desire to build networks of support and advocacy through the spreading and sharing of information about the situation on the ground in an attempt to break with the ‘grand narratives’ that exist within the mainstream media about the plight of the Syrian people. For Atassi, Syrians are not just victims of barrel bombs or other forms of violence but are victims of the mainstream media and the way in which it reports the Syrian conflict in general (Interview 27/7/17).

Creating spaces
One of the most interesting findings that emerged from fieldwork is the physical spaces established or used by actors in Syrian civil society to work, express themselves in, and importantly, feel safe in. In both Beirut and Istanbul, these spaces act as meeting points for creativity and discussion. Hamisch in Istanbul and Bidayyat in Beirut (both cultural organisations), provide spaces for Syrians to gather and interact, while offering training programmes, lectures and seminars. Ettijahat (Beirut) supports developing intellectuals and artists with funding, training and research opportunities.

There are also spaces that have emerged by chance and over time, but which operate below the radar. A small bar for example, in the sleepy residential area of Geitawi in Beirut, provides basement space for Syrian artists (and a variety of locals and foreigners) to use for work and social life. For a number of Syrians I interviewed who live without any official identification papers, this space also provides a place of relative safety, distant from the threat of security forces. This threat was much less an issue for those based in Istanbul. Despite this threat, many spoke of a sense of freedom in exile, being able to function with relative autonomy away from the Syrian regime.

Syrian civil society networks in exile have found a multitude of ways to express their voice, struggle, and creativity while showing resilience and determination to continue what so many Syrians sacrificed their lives for since 2011. Whilst their work may not always be perceived or even intended to be overtly political, the very acts they undertake are a form of continued resistance against the oppression they continue to face. In this way, the political voice that many Syrians found at the start of the uprising continues to be expressed within the realm of civil society, across and between borders. Ultimately however, the question remains
as to whether any of these emerging networks are able to transform themselves into a political movement which could play a role in the political realm of the current crisis.

Interviews: Oroa Mokdad, Interview 19/7/17; Ali Atassi, Interview 27/7/17; Jawad Muna, Interview 15/8/17

Project bibliography

Al-Omm, Tamara. 2020. Coalescence of the displaced: Syrian civil society beyond borders. Bulletin of the Council for British Research in the Levant 2018-2019, pp 29-30.