Dancing in Syria Favorite 



Dec 19 2011


Homs Syria

In Protests, Syrians Find the Spark of Creativity 

By NEIL MacFARQUHAR, New York Times 

BEIRUT, Lebanon — You could call it the dance-athon to dislodge a despot.

Among protesters across the Arab world, Syrians —particularly the restive residents of Homs — have embraced an unusually musical approach to their uprising. They have expressed their demand for change through catchy tunes and collective choreography, to the extent that mourners packing a street one day this month began to dance during a protester’s funeral, a conspicuous break from the traditionally somber ritual.

“It was a combination of both a physical and a psychological reaction,” said a young actor, describing how he had cut loose at his very first demonstration in Damascus, the capital.

“Nobody told me to dance — it just started,” he added, speaking anonymously, like many Syrians, out of fear of reprisals. “It was weird, but I liked it. Something is changing in the minds of the Syrians.”

On the simplest level, the dancing signals that despite months of bloody repression, the euphoria people feel in seeking freedom cannot be suppressed, participants said.

Singing and dancing are manifestations of what many Syrians describe as a much broader cultural flowering. Some of it gets expressed through the relative safety of the Web, and much of it involves humor and satire. In a country where people often considered themselves dour and habitually too cowed by an oppressive government to mock it, this is a major cultural shift.

“As a society, we were united by fear. We were never unified by mutual sentiment,” said Orwa Nyrabia, a film producer. “But there is a new patriotic sentiment that is much more grass roots. It is not something bestowed by the regime.”

Syrians marvel at the vivid, dynamic and creative aspects of this awakening. A Facebook page called the Chinese Revolution derides the Syrian government on many levels, not least the official position that the uprising is imported, the result of a foreign plot. The Facebook page describes every antigovernment action in Syria as if it had taken place in China. Damascus is Beijing, and President Bashar al-Assad of Syria is President Hu Jintao of China.

Another Facebook page, called the Homs International Tank Wash and Lubrication Center, also follows events with an ironic twist, calling on the government not to withdraw its tanks from civilian areas lest that bankrupt business.

A few pranksters apparently took their furtive protests onto the streets — creating stunts, especially in Damascus, that bedeviled the government. For example, an amplifier hidden atop a building on a main square broadcast the recording of a Homs antigovernment demonstration. Security forces are said to have run around central Damascus madly trying to find the marchers.

Once, the capital’s main fountains were dyed a bloody red. Another time, protesters painted scores of Ping-Pong balls with words like “Leave” and “Freedom” in red and blue ink, and then released them on a hill above Mr. Assad’s house. A video shows them clattering down the cobblestones, and activists insist that frenzied security agents scoured the streets to collect them all.

The Syrian government turned down a request to interview Najah al-Attar, the vice president for cultural affairs, about the artistic outpouring.

Many of these events are difficult to verify, because the government has admitted only a few foreign journalists into the country, and then only for a limited time. But a constant stream of creative videos has appeared on YouTube.

Among the latest is a 15-part series called “Top Goon: Diaries of a Little Dictator,” with English subtitles. It presents the crisis through four finger puppets, including “Beeshu,” a belittling nickname for Mr. Assad. With a beaky nose, protruding ears and a long, narrow face, the two-inch puppet captures the president’s elongated visage.

In episode one, Beeshu dreams that the government has fallen, only to be reassured by his military aide, Shabih (which means thug), that 99 percent of the population still loves him. When Beeshu decides to resign anyway, the aide barks: “Are you crazy? Have you gone mad? Do you think that it’s your decision?”

One of the videos’ creators, who noted that finger puppets are easy to smuggle through government checkpoints, said he loved the idea “of presenting the president as this little figure.”

“We wanted to break this taboo that he is somehow God and bring him back down to earth,” said the videographer, who declined to be identified for fear of retribution.

Many artists stress a simple point, that they hope peaceful protest can usher in democratic change without a civil war.

The singing and dancing are also designed to rebut the government assertion that the protesters are jihadists, because most Islamic extremists abhor singing and dancing. “One of the main things that the Syrian people have discovered is joy,” said Usama Muhamed, a filmmaker who fled to Paris. “They have discovered a new life. They have discovered themselves.”

The exact origin of the street dancing is obscure, although one theory is that it began in Homs after security forces confined protesters to narrow streets.

The choreography stems from traditional dabka dances, in which men in a circle with their arms around each other hop from foot to foot. The moves have been adapted to mass demonstrations by dancing in long lines.

Sometimes the dancing resembles a stadium wave, and sometimes it feels more like Broadway, with thousands of people shaking first their right fist, then their left fist, then clapping over their head in unison while singing.

A film named “Waad” after a Homs neighborhood contrasted the dark, menacing streets patrolled by the armed forces at night with the raucous demonstrations.

Abdel Baset al-Sarouti, 22, a singer who was once the celebrated goalie on the Syrian youth soccer team, emerges as a star in the film. Mr. Sarout often stands on another man’s shoulders, his muscular frame swaying as he leads the crowd in a traditional call and response called zajal, which is also enjoying a renaissance as protest art. In one scene, the crowd somberly recites a Koranic verse about victory, and the next minute Mr. Sarout starts singing insults against Mr. Assad. The crowd erupts, dancing.

In an essay about the film, a historian, Elias Khoury, marveled, “From where do all these throats come with such bravery to confront the weaponry?”

Syrian activists are convinced that soldiers loyal to the government have made targets of artists, including amateurs. A man named Ibrahim Qashoush was said to have had his throat cut during the summer after he sang the highly popular antigovernment anthem “Come On, Bashar, Leave.”

The Syrian government has responded with feints of its own. Government supporters have rewritten the lyrics of the most popular antigovernment anthems, and some independent Web sites have been attacked.

Before the uprising, Syrian artists tended to keep their discussions about democracy within the smoky confines of the Rawda Cafe, their favorite Damascus haunt. Their demands for change did not seem to resonate, creating a certain disdain among artists for the public.

But the outpouring of creativity has changed that. Mr. Muhamed, the film director, said many intellectuals had been amazed to discover that ordinary Syrians led dual lives; by day they marched in demonstrations praising the government, while at night they apparently cursed it. Now they are dancing to demonstrate their joy at expressing their true sentiments in public.

“Now is the moment when the day and the night have met,” Mr. Muhamed said. “It is the beginning of life as human beings.”

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