Jasmin Siddiqui from the street art project "Herakut" stand in the exhibition "Colours of Resilience" in Frankfurt Main, Germany, 06 June 2014. The exhibition deals with pictures and memories of Syrian refugee children in the various refugee camps that they have visited. Boris Roessler/DPA/Press Association Images. All rights reservedOn 28 March 2011, less than two weeks into the Syrian uprising, the then Syrian Culture Minister Riad Esmat inaugurated the Syrian Cultural Days in Turkey event with his Turkish counterpart Ertugrul Gunay. The Syrian minister described the event as “a symbol of the deep-rooted and developed relations between Syria and Turkey, which was not merely an occasion for cultural and artistic exchange between the two countries; but rather an everlasting festival of love between Syrian and Turkish intellectuals.”
Yet this festival of everlasting love barely lasted a month: in late April of that year, Ankara recalled its ambassador in Damascus as one of its escalating actions against the Syrian regime, followed by the severing of relations between the two governments, and of course the annulment of the festival of eternal love that Esmat had spoken about.
If we were to review the Syrian cultural sphere in Turkey today, it would be clear that its reality is far more complex than a seasonal cultural festival between two neighbouring countries. Now that Syrian refugees have grown into large communities within Turkey, analysing the map of Syrian cultural work would have to include studying the different Turkish cities hosting cultural work, as well as the ideological differences between Syrian cultural platforms based in Turkey.
What culture are we talking about?
In its 1982 conference in Mexico, UNESCO defined culture as "the whole complex of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features that characterize a society or social group. It includes not only the arts and letters, but also modes of life, the fundamental rights of the human being, value systems, traditions and beliefs."
From an academic viewpoint, it has always been difficult to define such a complex and multi-layered term as culture. Therefore, this article will rely on the general UNESCO definition when describing Syrian cultural work in Turkey.
In pre-revolutionary Syria, the term ‘culture’ was used broadly to describe all artistic and literary activities, as well as those related to the humanities. Religious expressions were excluded from the Syrian definition of culture, at least by the official platforms that formulated public opinion.
When examing Turkey, we will adopt a broader definition of Syrian culture, which will include the activities of Islamic institutions; as these institutions hold powerful social influence and are representative of Syrian cultural expression in the eyes of many segments of Turkish society. Therefore, our definition of Syrian cultural work in Turkey includes these religious institutions, whether we like it or not, and therefore, they should be mentioned at least when mapping Syrian culture.
Furthermore, the scope of our definition here will include initiatives by cultural institutions rather than individual initiatives that are difficult to monitor.
Culture near the border
The cultural effectiveness of the Syrian community in Turkey does not depend on demographic density; not all Turkish cities are overcrowded with culturally active Syrians. This is due to factors related to the Turkish state’s structure and cultural centralisation dominated by the cities of Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir which are experiencing a cultural renaissance compared to other cities with high population density, such as Urfa, Gaziantep and Hatay in the south near the Syrian border. Each of these cities has hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees in addition to large local populations.
The second reason for Syrian cultural stagnation in Turkey’s southern cities are the policies of donor and civil society organizations, whose work in the south often prioritises the needs of Syrians inside their homeland over anyone else. Because of the crushing war in Syria, cultural work is comparatively not a priority.
However, a notable exception is the city of Gaziantep, which has many civil society centres that organise regular Syrian cultural work. This is due to the nature of the Syrian social dynamic in the city, which hosts a large segment of university educated Syrians working in Syrian and international organisations. The Turkish government also plays a crucial role in licensing and facilitating the work of such organizations, which may face difficulties in other cities.
For example, in Gaziantep the Islamic Levant Society for the Teaching of the Holy Quran implements Islamic cultural projects with the support of Arab and Islamic donors, in parallel to Beitna Souria Centre, a civil society organization and a secular cultural centre funded by Denmark.
As for Urfa and Reyhanli, there is the Islamic Levant Organisation as well as Sham Sherif Association. The Sham Sherif Association also operates in Mersin, Gaziantep, Urfa and Bursa, where we also find the Syrian Cultural Centre/Fajr Iqraa, whose slogan reads: ‘Raising future generations on Islamic moral standards.’
The Istanbul of contradictions
Moving onto the Turkish cultural capital, there is a notable parallel presence of contradicting Syrian cultural institutions.
In neighbourhoods with densely populated Syrian communities, due to various economic and social factors, there is a high concentration of Syrian Islamic cultural centres, such as the Islamic Sham Association, Sham Khotaba Association [the Association of Levantine Preachers] and the Syrian Islamic Council, among others.
In parallel, there are secular cultural centres that offer a non-religious Syrian cultural product that differ based on the organisational culture and can be further categorised by their work mechanisms.
In the historic Al Fateh neighbourhood, we find Safhat Bookstore, which, together with Al Dar Centre in the neighbourhood of Beyoglu, can be considered a Syrian cultural space, and depends on the spatial nature of its location as a basic feature of its work.
The space in which this centre is located is a work space where diverse and varied cultural activities can be implemented. High quality outputs are not necessarily a prerequisite for this type of centre, whose philosophy is to receive everyone rather than to produce intellectual or artistic content, a fact observed in what we call Syrian cultural content production centres.
As an example of Syrian cultural content production centres, we find Hamish Centre in Beyoglu and Arthere in the neighbourhood of Kadikoy, where the theoretical intellectual product is dominated by lectures and meetings organized by Arthere.
Arthere focuses on the establishment of artistic residencies for Syrian artists, to help integrate them into the Turkish art market by presenting a Syrian product that is competitive in terms of its artistic value rather than merely its Syrian identity.
Syria beyond the wall
The study of Syrian refugees’ cultural expression in Turkey is of special importance today as it could help exploring the future of Syrian communities in asylum countries, especially in societies where public sentiment towards refugees plays a role greater than government policies in giving refugees a sense of security or stability, as is the case with Syria’s neighbours to one degree or another.
A few days ago, a tweet went viral in Turkey, in which different Turkish cities were compared to the seven kingdoms from the TV show, Game of Thrones. In that viral post, Syria was ‘the place beyond the wall’ from the TV show; in other words, the place where evil savages live and wait to destroy the humans on the other side, protected by the great wall.
Changing such mocking views of Syrian culture – such as this Game of Thrones tweet - demands endless efforts; at the very least to move public opinion of Syrians from savages ‘beyond the wall’ that protects humans from other humans. We don’t dream of being better; but merely of being among them.
This piece was first published in Arabic on 30 September 2017.