Virtual Archive Preserves Memories of Syria's War Through Art

In a bid to fight the regime’s assault of forgetting, ‘Creative Memory’ attempts to save tens of thousands of photographs, graffiti, caricatures, biographies and film clips

File Photo: A Syrian boy walks past graffiti in the village of Kafranbel in the northwestern province of Idlib, June 24, 2013.
AFP

An ageless woman, her head covered with a blue scarf, sits on a yellowish rocky hill and looks out at the yellow horizon. A barbed-wire fence closes in on her and in the distance an armored car can be seen, appearing to belong to the Jordanian military, which is there to prevent the residents of the camp from entering Jordanian territory. Alongside the photograph is a dry explanation stating that “The photograph shows patients from the Rukban Camp waiting on the Jordanian border to be allowed entry into Jordanian hospitals. Some of them are being transported to a medical center near the border but it lacks the adequate equipment capable of dealing with many cases.”

The photographer is unknown; the caption states only that it was published on the Facebook page of one Abu Khaled al-Hurani on October 17, 2017 and transferred to an archive about a week later.

The archive in question is a huge website containing tens of thousands of photographs, graffiti, caricatures, biographies and film clips collected over the years to preserve the memory of the war in Syria. It was established in 2013 with the assistance of the German Friedrich Ebert Foundation and it has been ballooning ever since into a virtual museum for scenes of the never-ending war.

The site where the archive appears, creativememory.org, is being updated all the time; the last work to join it is a caricature by Fares Garabet showing a fat American soldier stabbing a Syrian civilian in the stomach next to the words “American withdrawal.” There is no need for further explanations of the caricature, which relates to U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw American troops from Syria.

Perhaps in a few years, this event will no longer be remembered, but this caricature will preserve the blow that struck Syrian civilians this week, and especially the Kurds, who are left without support or protection.

The site, which appears in three languages, Arabic, English and French, is nicely divided according to the works’ themes, dates and the names of the cities where battles and murders took place. It is easy to navigate and one can spend hours there without seeing everything.

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One theme, “Idlib Walls” is titled: “In the beginning was the graffiti.” Indeed, graffiti was of vital importance in this war: The protest slogans sprayed on the walls of the southern city of Dar’a in March 2011 are what sparked the conflict between civilians and the regime’s forces. Like the Arab Spring protests in Egypt and Tunisia, graffiti in public spaces became the masses’ newspaper, their Facebook and WhatsApp. Later came poems, photographs, stories and memories.

The eight years of war in Syria did not silence the muses and the best artists from all realms took part and still do in establishing the collective memory that opposes the regime’s narrative. On the site one can find the biographies of artists persecuted by the government, many of them murdered, imprisoned or who managed to flee the country and continue their artistic work.

In April, the site published a book by Sanaa Yazigi, “The Story of a Place – the Story of a People,” in which the author collected the stories of people from five cities, villages and towns in Syria to give Syrians the opportunity to tell their personal story of events, stories that were prohibited for publication for a long time, according to the book description. Yazigi concedes that she could not collect all the stories and that researchers still have a lot of work ahead of them, but says she at least wanted to attempt to prevent the destruction of memory that has already erased from the internet more than 150,000 video clips.

The preservation of memory is just one of the goals of collecting the artistic works and graphical expressions of the war. Creating awareness of the war’s impact on the lives of millions of civilians is another important mission.

To this end, a group of Lebanese artists launched theater presentations they call “Images” in which professional actors use colloquial language to tell the stories of women whose husbands’, brothers’ and parents’ fates are unknown. One of the stories describes a woman who decided to take out a death certificate on her husband’s name although she doesn’t know whether he is dead or being held in one of the prisons. The reason is that as a widow she is entitled to assistance, which she could not receive as the wife of a prisoner. “My daughter has hardly spoken to me since she found out what I did. I tried to explain to her that I got tired of the hardships of life and the cost of living and debt and that the money will help her brothers. But she threw at me that I’m just looking for excuses and that I had no right to do this. When I hear her, I choke and regret it.”

“May those who have forgotten hear the voice of injustice/and the scream behind the bars/We will help them be released/We will liberate them from the margins of forgetfulness/They will break out of this darkness,” Moaz Abdulla sings in “Dream of the Darkness,” which appears in the music section of the website. Like memory, forgetting is also a living creature that can spread and expand or shrink and disappear. One may hope that the virtual archive with the name “creative memory” can stand up to the assault of forgetting that will certainly come when the war ends and a new regime rises in Syria.