Raqqa intellectuals turned into blocs formed by political, economic conditions

The first book exhibition in Raqqa, northeastern Syria, after the exit of the Islamic State - 22 June 2022 (Asharq al-Awsat)

The first book exhibition in Raqqa, northeastern Syria, after the exit of the Islamic State - 22 June 2022 (Asharq al-Awsat)


Enab Baladi – Raqqa

Several cultural movements and events have seen the light in the northeastern city of Raqqa over the past years, whether organized by institutions of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) and civil society and local organizations or by unsponsored artists themselves.

However, political and civil trends in Raqqa contributed to the division of the city’s intellectuals, including writers and artists, into several blocs, according to Falah Abdulbari, one of the fine artists residing in the city. This has made some of them inclined to the political party that serves their ideas regardless of the public interest.

“This is inappropriate for artists, as it is their duty to neutralize their art and literary production from political positions,” Abdulbari told Enab Baladi.

Abdulbari avoids attending cultural events held by AANES in his city for fear of being considered affiliated with the Autonomous Administration and its political and military position in Syria, he said.

The politicization of art is undoubted in Syria. At present, Raqqa is no different. After all, it is part of this conflict-ridden geography, Abdulbari reckons.

Living in dignity and freedom depends on the elite and intellectuals and their defense of people’s rights in the face of any authority and their fight for independent individual life; this would be recognized by the existence of freedom of belief, different ideas, and alternative behaviors.

During the Baath Party’s rule in Syria since the seventies, culture was harnessed in the service of power and the prevailing ideology. Consequently, it has lost its meaning, while its various elements and productive stages have become captive to the regime at every moment. These elements are adapted to the authority’s perception and the sacred teachings of its ideas and figures.

Therefore, the influence of culture remained limited in Syria, where tyranny prevails, and one opinion and one color dominate, and a dissenting voice is forbidden and will be destined for murder, imprisonment, or exile in the presence of an audience reconstituted to bless the ruling authority’s actions.

Individuals had no cultural work, role, or function other than to glorify the ruler’s personality and repeat their sayings in approval.

During the Syrian revolution in 2011, people, intellectuals and writers included, were unleashed to break down the Syrian regime’s products at all political, artistic, and social levels.

Non-independent culture

Intellectuals and artists met by Enab Baladi in the city of Raqqa are accusing the Autonomous Administration of politicizing the cultural events it holds and shoving its slogans and flags into every cultural event held in the city, or even in other areas of northeastern Syria, despite their demand that it “does not involve itself and its slogans in these events” and maintain the independence of cultural and artistic events.

Certain writers and artists fear that their names will make it to the records of the regime’s security services on charges of “dealing with AANES,” which, they say, would be enough for their arrest whenever they head to regime-held areas.

According to Ali al-Fandi, a member of the Intellectuals’ Union in Raqqa, the Union is unable to assemble artists or writers who are currently in the city within the same event. “You see, some of them prefer to avoid attending events organized by AANES, while others conduct their own activities. A third party is more inclined towards activities organized by civil organizations”, al-Fandi told Enab Baladi.

The financial remuneration paid by civil organizations to artists and writers attending or participating in their initiatives “significantly exceeds the salary that AANES is able to give to its employees. Money became an attraction because of the economic situation in Syria,” al-Fandi said.

There is youthful creativity generated by the political and intellectual conditions in the regions of northeastern Syria in general and the city of Raqqa in particular. This energy can have its own complex and long paths through the use of video and montage techniques, according to al-Fandi.

But at the same time, the youth does not possess financial and technical support, and it needs to grow and create the stability that allows the building of cultural and artistic institutions different from old institutions in terms of modern values and mechanisms with new and free-thinking patterns, and working mechanisms that are different from those established by the Syrian regime.

During armed conflicts and security unrest, there usually is no safe opportunity to produce a true culture and new art that serves society. In 11 years, however, the Syrian revolution has influenced Syria’s culture fundamentally and directly and prompted it to rebuild a vision of itself, its functions, and its themes. It will take a long time to revisit the past and its culture, as well as new forms and tools that cannot be provided without stability, study, and meticulous professionalism.

Different blocs

According to what Enab Baladi had monitored, the most prominent cultural blocs that appear in Raqqa at the present time are the Raqqa Center for Culture and Arts and the Culture and Antiquities Committee in Raqqa Civil Council, whose events are financially and logistically sponsored by the Autonomous Administration through the holding of exhibitions, the printing of books and magazines, the production of songs, and the holding of fine arts exhibitions.

The second cultural bloc is sponsored by civil organizations that hold exhibitions and artistic events in private galleries and is supported by grant projects for organizations operating in Raqqa and other areas of northeastern Syria.

A final group of the aforementioned blocs holds its activities with individual efforts in cafes and halls, such as the Bait al-Qaseed cafe, Fusshat Hiwar, and al-Rokn al-Thaqafi, or in the private homes of the people who organize these cultural meetings.

Positive phenomenon

A member of the Culture and Antiquities Committee of the Raqqa Civil Council believes the cultural blocs currently visible in Raqqa are a product of the social and political divide that Syrians are experiencing after a long period of armed conflict.

The committee member, who declined to disclose their full name because they are not authorized to talk to the media, considered that “these blocs, as negative as they are, carry a lot of positivity, as they demonstrate the safe space that AANES has provided for the multitude of cultural events and currents currently practiced in the regions of northern and eastern Syria.”

Within the city of Raqqa, there are many private cultural halls and cafes, all of which host events independently of the Autonomous Administration. The places belonging to the Autonomous Administration are the Intellectuals’ Union hall, the Raqqa Center for Culture and Arts, the National Library, and the Public Library.


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