Art and activism at the Lebanese-Syrian border

Refugee camp in the Bekaa Valley. Anaïs Ortega, Author provided

January 2019. It’s 7:30 am and the air is freezing here in the refugee settlements in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon. We are five educators on site this morning. Muzaffar, one of our students, is not wearing shoes and he is swinging his purple feet over the bus seat. The student activity is called “the bus project” and is part of an education program for Syrian refugees coordinated by SALAM, the organisation I work for near the Syrian border. It is here that most of the Syrians who have fled the war live or survive day after day.

Lebanon is currently one of the countries hosting the most refugees in the world (1.5 million refugees according to official numbers, but some NGOs suggest that up to 2 millions). SALAM, which means peace in Arabic, set up its headquarters here in 2016 and works with a team of international volunteers. Their main projects are both educational and cultural: tutoring classes for children and adults in the camps, music and sports activities organised in a community centre and a mobile cinema. Other major international NGOs provide medical aid or food distribution.

If the daily lives of the displaced are an ongoing struggle for survival, it is also a constant battle against boredom and emptiness. Unemployed for the most part, people are waiting for the war to even though their situation often appears irreversible.

Photo portraits of Aleppo’s inhabitants

Around us there are only tarp tents and mud. In the distance, I can see olive groves, vineyards, and the mountains that constitute the geographical border with Syria. I think of images relayed by the media of the country and its devastated cities. Removing myself from the relentlessness of the imagery is not an easy, but I try to superimpose the work of Issa Touma in my mind.

Issa is a Syrian photographer and curator from Aleppo. We met in 2017 in Madrid where he presented his short film “9 Days: From My Window in Aleppo”. In 2012, from his window in Aleppo, he filmed the conflict between the so-called free army and the troops of Bashar Al-Assad. Nine days during which time stopped behind the shutters of his apartment, from where he recorded the conflict raging in his street. In the documentary, Issa, who has good reasons to fear for his life, seems to accept the hopelessness of his situation. Yet, he is not a passive spectator, and he films this war testimony day after day.

A photo by Issa Touma.

It is an experience that draws another timeframe where the present seems to play the leading role. Issa managed to escape. He fled to Europe, but he returned home as soon as he could. In Notes from Aleppo, his most recent work, through a series of videos he describes life in a city rising from its ashes. He portrays people who stayed in Aleppo or chose to return to the city in ruins.

Since 2017, 500,000 men and women have returned to Aleppo, a city that counted 2.1 million inhabitants before the war. Among those who remained in Lebanon by fear of being associated to “the rebels”, rightfully or wrongfully so, or afraid that their children could be enrolled in the regular army, are the people who live in this refugee camp. Here, stuck in the middle of this valley at the bottom of the mountains, so close and yet so far from their country, their little huts are buzzing before my eyes and the thick smoke of the sobias (iron stove used to heat the tents) is forever engraved in my retina.

Music and social cohesion

These territories can stimulate intercultural exchanges, but are also conflictual spaces where inequalities between populations are important. For Syrians who recently settled here, the Bekaa Valley has become, a place of constant transit and segregation, a space where they do not belong to but cannot leave either. We are far from an idealised land that promotes mobility, gatherings, and exchanges. Everything suggests that creativity does not belong here, in circumstances where the practice of artistic activities is a luxury. Yet, imagination becomes crucial, individually and collectively, not in an attempt to escape reality through a purely aesthetic project but rather in a quest for collaborative experiences. However, to do so, one must find the physical and mental space to stimulate sensory exploration in such a difficult environment.

The Sounds of Change project. soundsofchange.org, Author provided

Lucas Dols possessed the infinite energy needed to organize sustainable participatory artistic projects in the hotbed of the Middle East. He has created Sounds of Change, a pedagogical project and utopian experimentation that is both a local and a transnational experience. The organisation is established in Lebanon but also in Jordan, Palestine, Holland, Turkey, Greece, Canada, India, and Ukraine. Sounds of Change uses music as a vehicle for change, to create bridges and simulate social inclusion, empathy, collaboration, and creativity. Their music workshops are dialogues between sounds and movements. No one needs to be a musician, it is about exploring one’s musical self and listening to others.

I saw Lucas for the first time in Tanayel after a long day of work. He immediately attracts attention and transmits energy. I remember participating with some apprehension to one of his workshops. We were about ten adults led by an improvised conductor, a participative and co-productive audience. Little by little, the strange cacophony became music, a surprising exercise infused with complex and intoxicating emotional dynamics, a form of participative art that transcends purely aesthetics and becomes a social and symbolic exercise. Later on, I saw the work of Ahmed, another member of the organisation with the children of the camps. Several times a week, he organises a choir at a community centre in the valley. Music allows wounds to resurface, war traumas are revealed, and what was invisible suddenly becomes visible.

Knitting the days

Here like in Syria, waiting is part of the everyday life. So there is time for these types of projects. Too often, We forget this aspect of war when we live in peace: perpetual expectancy and hope for a better tomorrow without any clear vision of the future. What can we do when there is nothing to do, nothing but daily survival in an existence that is not really ours? It is hard to grasp the pervasive emptiness filling everything.

The Syrian artist Diana Jubi came up with the idea of a textile calendar. Day after day and since the beginning of the war, She knits a scarf that serves as a calendar. This long piece of wool has no other function than to be a witness of the time passing. It is an activity that is familiar to us, concrete. For those who have never experienced war or never lived in forced exile, being able to feel this expectation is to perceive another reality.

The Sounds of Change project.

Artistic practices feeding on reality attempt to provoke debate or social change. They refute both traditional activism and purely mercantile, formal, and narcissistic forms of contemporary art. Like the artist Tania Burguera, these artistic manifestations reject the Western assumption that art has no function. These artistic approaches incorporate an emotional dimension; it is a double-edged sword. According to researcher Sara Ahmed, who works on gender issues and postcolonialism, emotions have political implications. They have an emotional power that can generate social change and can be used or misused.

“Artivists” also advocate for the use of emotion as a tactic (short-term) or as a strategy (long-term) for political action. For them, affecting has effect. The link between art and activism seems more topical than ever. Just consider the curatorial choices of cultural institutions and organisations, major art competitions, biennials, prizes, calls for projects, or academic publications. Reclaiming art and adopting inclusive and democratic aesthetic strategies to stimulate social and political change is not a utopia, it is a rapidly developing reality that takes the most unexpected forms.

Meanwhile, in the Bekaa, families are waiting without knowing if or how long the situation will take to evolve, at the mercy of a political context they cannot control. It is about fighting against indifference and creating sensorial spaces through the work of artists to give these people a voice and therefore a place.

This article was originally published in French