“I was really happy during my time at university,” says Sana, “despite the anxiety we felt because of the general atmosphere of fear and inhibition. There was a lot of nepotism and it affected everything, from your acceptance at the university to successfully passing your courses to the competence of the teaching staff to the granting of scholarships and bursaries. I had some very talented friends who weren’t accepted at the faculty because they didn’t have the right connections, and I also met some students who had been accepted who had not even a modicum of artistic talent.”
After graduating, Sana worked in the private sector before getting married and traveling with her husband to a number of different countries, including Nigeria, Indonesia and France, where she lived for about seven years.
Sana says that the extended period of living outside Syria, from 1996 to about 2005, was a rich and important time, introducing her to new art, ideas and culture. Her residence in France, however, proved most vital to her technical advancement, as she learned new computer programs, did some freelance work and was one of the designers worked on the layout for the Arabic-language version of the newspaper Le Monde Diplomatique.
With every visit to Syria, Sana could sense the mix of humiliation and frustration that people at home seemed to be feeling, especially in comparison to the other people she encountered on her travels, and it made her feel alienated from her country. This went on until finally she was forced to return to Syria because of her husband’s work, and the couple settled in Damascus. It was very hard for her to re-adapt to life in Syria, and it took about a year for her to feel settled, especially since she kept returning to France for work commitments. She finally decided to cut all her ties and commitments to France so that she could properly reconcile herself to her new life. She had a plan to start her own publication, a cultural agenda modeled after one that was published weekly in France under the name Paris Coupe, which was very popular among the French public and considered a major source of cultural knowledge.
Sana faced a number of obstacles in trying to get her publication off the ground: there were so many security permissions that had to be granted and special licenses to secure from different ministries and other concerned institutions. All that, for a publication that sought only to list all the different cultural activities taking place in Syria over the course of the week in one location, so that the information could be made more readily available to the public. Sana was finally able to get all the necessary paperwork and procedures completed in order to launch her publication, but in turn, she had to agree to print that it had been published in cooperation with the Ministry of Culture on the front page.
“You cannot succeed in Syria if you don’t form partnerships with those in charge,” says Sana, “especially not when you’re working on a cultural project they consider ‘prestigious,’ and which they think might make them look good and improve their reputation with the public. I refused to make any such sort of bargains, and decided instead to make yearly contracts with different advertisers, relying on the revenue to cover all our printing and production costs, as well as salaries for employees and other costs.”
Sana worked on her project for about five years, and says it was a great success she managed to achieve as a Syrian citizen, both on a cultural and social level. The nature of her work meant she kept a close eye on the general situation around her, and she noticed a total disconnect between regular citizens and cultural life in general, given the amount of humiliation people had to endure on a daily basis.
Sana describes the period of liberalism that began after Bashar al-Assad came to power as a mere “marketing ploy,” entirely superficial and carefully curbed so as not to effectively change anything in people’s lives. That period, from 2001 to 2011, was catastrophic, as the regime worked to extricate itself from offering any form of support to the populace under the guise of “liberalism.”
“That so-called openness revealed so many different social ills,” says Sana. “For example, some galleries and exhibition spaces insisted that visitors abide by certain dress codes, which deterred people not only from going to those places, but from attending art shows in general. There were also all these benefit dinners that were organized so that their proceeds could go to one organization or another, and which were always organized under the patronage and to the benefit of, the children of those in charge. This led to a total disconnect between different social classes. Art criticism was stifled, and so criticism was limited to criticizing individuals and never the institutions in charge or the underlying systems.”
The government’s cultural and arts institutes cooperated with Sana’s cultural agenda. The agenda’s existence stimulated more cultural production by organizations that were almost entirely nonfunctional, despite the existence of 425 cultural centers across Syria. The agenda also received support from the private sector and proved popular among young people who would frequent foreign-run cultural centers, where the agenda was distributed for free. But its presence on the scene was too short-lived to enact any real change.
That period in which Sana worked on the agenda was concurrent with Damascus being chosen as the Arab Capital of Culture in 2008. This was also merely a show of artifice, as Sana says, with no lasting effect on ordinary people, who didn’t even understand what the designation meant in the first place. It was nothing but a long and empty festival, and had nothing to do with the Syrian cultural scene whatsoever.
“A lot of those who submitted project proposals to take part in the festivities were treated badly,” says Sana. “Their proposals were rejected even when they were well-thought out and vital. My own experience working with the festival was really bad, as those who were in charge of it treated everyone with arrogance and authoritarianism. You can say that the very narrow margin that was opened up during those ten years beginning from 2001 was like the margin offered by the festival to Syrian artists and creators. Our people have so many talents, so much to offer, despite every attempt to oppress them over the length of fifty years. Because as soon people are given even the slightest bit of room, there’s all this creative energy that just bursts out on every level.”