Dislocation and Wild Imaginings: Revolutionary Culture from Syria to Turkey

Sune Haugbolle

Image Credit: Mohammed Ali Atassi/Film International (All Rights Reserved)

Revolutions are also works of imagination. The ability to configure a new social world is essential to bringing it about, even if political revolutions never go according to plan. Ideologues featured prominently in the classic revolutions of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. But the work of imagination is equally a social process that interpelates the public sphere in radical dreams of a new social and moral order. Imagination stretches beyond borders and communicates with the experience of other people.

Of all the Arab uprisings since 2011, the Syrian revolution turned civil war is perhaps the one that has most truly involved mass populations in imagining a new order. As part of my research on secular ideology in the Middle East, I follow the revolution through networks of friends, online, and from recurrent fieldwork in Beirut in neighbouring Lebanon, where more than one million Syria refugess now live, awaiting a resolution to the seemingly intractable conflict at home. In Turkey, another million Syrians have made a temporary home. I follow the new cultural production that has burst forth from this revolution.

There’s no douby that it got stuck sometime in 2013. The advent of Islamic State is one of many cruel symptoms of what the failure to bring down the Assad regime has produced: a revolution morphed into social disintegration and routinised death and destruction. The tragedy that Syria has become does not mean that the revolutionary imagination has been broken. From their new positions in Europe, Asia and the Middle East, Syrians continue planning a new political order. The transformation happens on many other levels than the obvious political one. Writers, artists, activists, and ordinary people pine for home but also learn from their new locations, and from the basic experience of moving from one set location to an unknown future. Dislocation is a distressing and often tragic but perhaps intrisic part of revolution.

Therefore it’s not suprising that dislocation and movement are key themes in Syrian cultural production since 2011. One of the most striking examples is fimmakers Ali Atassi’s and Ziad Homsi’s recent Biladna al-rahib (Our Terrible Country) that follows the dramatic journey of famous writer Yassin al-Haj Saleh and the young cameraman and revolutionary Ziad Homsi from Douma outside Damascus to Raqqa in central Syria and eventually out of the country to Turkey. Saleh is the closest the Syrian revolution comes to having an ideologue. What is revolution today and what can a revolutionary icon do or say in a situation of apparent defeat? What images of revolution can filmmakers create in a state of what Gramsci called the interregnum, when the old is dying and the new is struggling to be born?

Saleh, more than anyone, has insisted on understanding the predicament of Syrian society and presenting a vision for the future. Critics have blamed the revolution for lacking a vision. Revolutionaries are aware of this critique and struggle with the internal contradictions in the uprising: the factionalism, fanaticism and sectarianism that have emerged and that seem to jar with the original vision of a democratic system based on respect for human rights, good governance, and above all, an end to corruption and the nepotism and injustice of a ruthless security apparatus under control of the Assad family. Saleh’s writings do not devise a political programme, but they offer a penetrating analysis of the problems that have faced the revolution, insisting on the need to resolve them.

Saleh and Homsi’s inter-asian journey raises the question of how people are to make sense of the unbelievable tragedy of Syria as it unfolds. The film performs a double interrogation of this question, because it does so through a documentary témoignage of the life-altering exit of a person, who independent of the film has offered some of the most persuasive analysis in Syria of the question raised by Lynn Hunt (1984) and other social historians and ethnographers of revolution: what is the structure of revolutionary experience, and how does it change political thought?

Hunt located the political culture of the French revolution in language, symbols, icons, rituals and other performative acts. They constituted what Raymond Williams (1981) called a structure of feeling of the revolutionary experience – the way it was felt, perceived and negotiated by contemporaries. As Saleh says when he is starting his journey out of Douma and out of Syria, the dominant structure of feeling in the Syrian revolution is movement: “Each has his own end point, his own Odyssey.”

Movement is narrated in different narrative structures informed by different stages of the revolution. The first stage is characterized by comedy and satire, the vast cultural production that dramatically altered what could be said against the regime in 2011 and 2012, performed in carnevalesque spectacles euphorically upending social norms. The second stage is romance, in which the heroes were “the brothers of the revolutionary fraternity, who faced a life-and-death struggle with the demonic forces of counterrevolution” (Hunt).

As the expected leap into the future meets increasing obstacles, as “the enormous gap between what we are and what we could be” fails to narrow, the narrative of movement turns to tragedy. As Hunt describes the latter stages of the French revolution, “The tragedy is that that the goal was so right, yet the quest for it inevitably failed. The heroes who nevertheless made the attempt were making a noble sacrifice of themselves for the sake of the community.” (Hunt)

Following Hunt’s three stages of revolutionary narrative, Our Terrible Country is located between the romantic and the tragic, at the time of interregnum. The interregnum was originally used to denote the time period between the death of a ruler and emergence of a new one. Gramsci – and later Agamben – extended the meaning from routine to extraordinary conditions of interregnum, when the extant legal frame of social order loses its grip, and a new frame is still at the design stage. This liminal stage is always violent and confused. In a time of extreme crisis, people must travel from their fixed location towards an unknown destination, both physically and mentally. In the film, this individual journey becomes a metaphor for the collective journey of a country trying to move, to walk, or to fight, together towards the utopian revolutionary victory where a new system becomes possible.

The journey involves struggle, a struggle that at times seems entirely meaningful because a space of opportunity has opened for radical change, and that space in itself is producing the shape of the new social order. At other times the struggle is truly Sisyphean. Many give up and either resign themselves to a life in exile outside of the realm of revolution, or to a continuation of the current regime. Saleh fights against impossible odds, like the hero of Albert Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus, in which he likens the absurdity of man’s life with the situation of Sisyphus, a figure of Greek mythology who was condemned to repeat forever the same meaningless task of pushing a boulder up a mountain, only to see it roll down again. He roasts in the Syrian desert sun, on his way from regime to Islamist fantic territory. As Saleh says en route to Raqqa, “the journey no longer made any sense, but I had no longer any option but to continue.” The answer for Camus is not surrender, but revolt and struggle, a struggle which in “itself [...] is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy,” as the final words of his essay go. Throughout the film, Saleh wears a smile that is remarkable given the circumstances.

With Syria left behind, Turkey, becomes one of many new locations for the revolution. In Istanbul, Saleh has opened a cultural house called Hamisch (margin). The revolution continues in books, on the internet, in conversations day and night, and first and foremost in people’s minds and in their engagements with each other. The prophecy of the early days of peaceful revolution in 2011, that there was no turning back to the days before the uprising, are cruely manifested in destruction, but also made into a lasting promise by the dislocation of the revolutionary space.