May 15, 2017 - The Alasalah is a group of Syrian youth and Syrian artists interested in reviving traditional Arab artistic tradition, with particular focus on Syrian heritage. They are involved in poetry, acting, music, song and dance. Louai Barakat/Zuma Press/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.Since the Syrian revolution, cultural activity has been of great political importance. Decades of political deprivation and the lack of means for political work in Syria led those interested in public affairs to find their ways into various types of cultural work as a means of having potential political impact.
Even when cultural actors in pre-revolutionary Syria didn’t directly seek to give political or social weight to their cultural work, that burden was placed on them in one way or another. This pre-revolutionary cultural work was distinct because it was to attribute its responsibility to different parties; either to the state and its various supervisory bodies, or to members of opposition parties that saw it as the only available platform for political resistance. Therefore, the product was evaluated based on its political connections.
It seems that the dialectic of pre-revolutionary Syria continues to provide valid analysis of the current Syrian cultural scene, despite all the geographical changes to Syria within its various spheres of power, as well as analysis of the millions of Syrians spread out to several countries abroad. This dialectic can help us understand the reality of Syrian cultural work today.
Despite the changes in the circumstances of its productivity, the level of politicization of such Syrian cultural activity hasn’t changed much, nor has the continued marginalization of groups of Syrians who had already been culturally marginalized for years before the revolution, although the reasons differ in part.
This particularly applies to Turkey, home to the largest population of Syrian refugees in the world. In the absence of any political bodies that could represent Syrians in Turkey to the authorities and local communities, Syrian cultural work plays a key role as the only form of political expression available to them.
Despite all the changes accrued, Syrian cultural work continues to carry the burden of political responsibility, working in parallel with - or on its side-lines, as we will try to clarify in this article.
Turkey as a working space
After the waves of Arab uprisings, and the violent state crackdowns that ensued, many Arab cultural and political actors moved to settle in Turkey, particularly Syrians. Until late 2015, Turkey had adopted an open-door policy with regards to citizens of the Arab Spring countries; many Syrians settled in the country that had created a new space for their political and cultural work.
It is a known fact that the Turkish government embraced many Syrian opposition parties such as the Syrian Coalition of Revolutionary and Opposition Forces and the Syrian Interim Government, among others, in addition to some Syrian civil society organizations in various Turkish cities, which have recently been experiencing a severe crackdown by the Turkish government.
In addition to these political institutions, many new and different Syrian cultural institutions and projects were founded in Turkey, and these can be divided into two main forms.
The first is the content creation platforms, such as radio stations, websites, news agencies and research centres, whose content is often produced for Syrians within their country, as is the case with radio channels, or for Syrian expats, as is the case for other platforms.
These Syrian content platforms may be produced by Syrian residents of Turkey, but their audiences are mostly residing in other countries; and thus, these platforms work in isolation from the local Syrian refugee communities, which are geographically dispersed among different Turkish cities.
The second type of Syrian cultural work is represented in cultural centres and initiatives that directly target Syrians on Turkish soil, whether through entirely Syrian educational initiatives, or through initiatives and projects targeting the Turkish community in an attempt at assimilation with the community. These differences have created noticeable disparities between the different projects, initiatives and centres.
Map of Syrian Turkey
According to Turkish government figures, nearly three million Syrians live in Turkey, most of whom are concentrated in the provinces of Sanliurfa in the south, and Istanbul in the west, which together have the largest Syrian populations at over 400,000 refugees each, followed by Adana, Mersin, Bursa and Gaziantep, each of which hosts hundreds of thousands of Syrians.
The Syrian expat population is generally dispersed among the cities south-west of Turkey, which are closest to the Syrian border, and there are often some pre-existing social and family ties between both sides of the border. The proportion of Syrians is also high in the cities of the Turkish west, near the Turkish economic center, but their proportion decreases in the central Anatolian region, excluding the south-eastern cities near Syria.
From the southern region closest to Syria to the west looking onto the European Union, Syrians face - without exception - perpetual social isolation.
More than four years after the beginning of the Syrian exodus to Turkey, a sharp disconnect remains between the Syrian and Turkish communities. This is due to several factors: the language barrier, the negative stance of Turkish opposition parties towards the presence of Syrian refugees, and the Turkish government’s neglect of their integration process.
In the absence of effective Syrian political representation, Syrian cultural work in Turkey has a large share of the responsibility for integrating Syrians into Turkish society, or at least for creating cultural dialogue that represents them.
The various Syrian cultural platforms bear and express this responsibility, and often this burden has been placed on them, by the isolated, tired and needy Syrian community desperate for any kind of organized support at an educational or even recreational level.
The curse of marginalization
In terms of the culture of pre-revolutionary Syria, which is constantly being criticised in reviews today, there has always been severe criticism of the Syrian state’s centralised cultural policies, where all cultural support is concentrated in city centres, especially the capital, while marginalizing the outskirts in general; from the capital's own countryside to the eastern region, which has been severely neglected by the government’s development policies.
However, in taking an overview of Syrian cultural work in Turkey today, one would find that this exact imbalance between the centres and outskirts continues with the Syrians of Turkey.
So, while official statistics show similar numbers of Syrians in Sanliurfa in the south and Istanbul in the west, the number and varieties of cultural work benefitting Syrian refugees are notably disparate when comparing both areas.
What makes the situation even grimmer is the fact that most Syrians in Sanliurfa are refugees from western Syria, an already culturally marginalised province – and so it seems that this curse of marginalisation haunts them, even when the political variables and countries change.
Furthermore, the forced transition of Syrians into Turkish life has difficulties that aren’t dissimilar to the sense of marginalization that many of them have become accustomed to – and continue to face – in their homeland.
In the second part of the article, we will elaborate in detail on the nature of cultural work targeting Syrians in Turkey, in terms of the work’s geographical distribution and its political and ideological tendencies. Furthermore, we will examine the tools of marginalization used against the Syrian communities in Turkey.
This piece was first published in Arabic on 6 September 2017.