international analysis and commentary

Creativity and the Arab Spring, conversation with Ammar Alani


Dr. Ammar Alani, a Syrian musician and filmmaker turned activist during the Arab Spring, has witnessed first hand the importance of art, music and humor in times of revolution. He participated in the Aspen Mediterranean Initiative – Media, business and societies: a platform for change, held in Rome on April 15-16, 2012. We spoke with him about creativity and the changing role of the media.

In precarious situations, creativity is often man’s only outlet for change. Could you share your experience with us and describe how creativity has become central in information sharing since the beginning of the Arab Spring?

Creativity is becoming a weapon, I know this notion might sound exaggerated; but you have to be here, close to the scene, to realize that it is not.

The regimes in the Arab world are dictatorships we inherited from the 60s and 70s of the previous century, and they are more or less using the same ancient and outdated governance and media policies and methods. And while they can claim supremacy in force, finance and media ownership, the one thing they definitely cannot offer is creativity, freedom and innovation. That is why the young generation is using these specific tools to alter the rules of the game, leaving the regimes unable to keep pace, at least in terms of winning the audience.

In one instance, hundreds of young protestors took to the streets raising blank signs, dozens of white boards with absolutely nothing written on them, yet the security forces were exasperated by that and started shooting and beating people. For everyone watching, including some supporters of the regime, it was really silly and stupid; it was a classic example of creativity winning over force.

An Arab analyst recently enlightened me on the importance of music and images in Arab culture, especially in their ability to instigate passion. Could you elaborate on this and discuss how songs, photography, film and cartoons played an important role during the revolutions?

The Arabs are emotional by nature without a doubt, and the moment the young generation decided to use content to fight bullets, it became inevitable to use every possible medium: music, cartoons, video citizen-journalism, social media campaigning and much more.

In Syria for example, 60% of the population is under the age of 30. If only 10% of those are activists, then we have more than one million individuals, all with access to cameras, phones, musical instruments, pens and paper, as well as the ability to publish and broadcast from their own bedrooms; an enormous amount of content, full of engaging ideas and genuine emotions. That indeed is proving to be very powerful.

The new conversation culture has cut out the middle man in many cases when it comes to information sharing, allowing news to be disseminated creatively by laymen in laymen’s terms. Could you explain the importance of this and how humor played a role?

I cannot emphasize enough the effect of humor and the role it plays, but let me try to put it in perspective.

The regime’s one and only strategy is entirely based on fear: the protestor should be afraid of losing his or her life, the so-called “minorities” should be afraid of democracy as the definition is “ruling of the majority”, the regime followers should be afraid of “probable” acts of vengeance against them, the regional powers should be afraid of security void and chaos, the global community should be afraid of Islamic fundamentalism, and the fact that international efforts can be summarized by more troops and arms (without actually sending any) only augments the fear factor.

So how do you fight so much fear? One answer the revolution provides is undoubtedly: humor.

It is no surprise then that Homs, once called the “capital of jokes” is now the capital of the revolution, people take to the streets and make jokes, laugh, dance and sing, not because of any hope that the regime might comply with their demands, but rather to diminish and subdue its only weapon.

Once, for example, the official media accused the protestors of getting paid to demonstrate, declaring that any signboard with the name of any opposition leader is – in a way – an act of treason. The next day, the protestors went out carrying signs that read: “To any opposition leader wanting to advertize in this protest, please call 0944541984”.

The traditional role of the media was to provide information to the people, but now it is also shaping public opinion. Could you offer your ideas on this, explaining any positive or negative impacts?

The media as “only” an information provider is ancient history, it has been telling you what it wants you to know about me – rather than what you should – for so long, we can hardly notice it anymore, and that is a negative thing for sure.

What is positive about our traditional media, on the other hand, is that it performs the “opinion shaping” part so poorly, it fails miserably, I mean, the things they try to convey are incredibly funny. In fact, one slogan that the activists circulated to describe our traditional media was “aiming for zero credibility”.

Good or bad, clever or stupid, the traditional media will eventually have to face the fact that opinions are being more and more shaped in the “cloud” of social media, and it’s always a good thing to shake the establishments.

Social media have provided a new outlet for artists who otherwise may have never been noticed, changing both the face and the role of art in society. How do you think the superficial nature of the internet could impact traditional art in the future? And can creativity become constructive, leading to political participation?

That is already the case, people are refusing to remain “the audience”, and they want to become participants, I think that they always did, only now, they can, thanks to social media.

Take Kafranbel for instance, this is a very small village in Syria, unknown even to the average Syrian and located in a province ironically called “the forgotten cities”, these people grow olives, and recently ideas!

Every week, a few dozens of the Kafranbel inhabitants brainstorm and create the most incredibly creative and powerful punch lines, they write them on paper panels, go to the grove, photograph themselves with a phone and upload the images to Facebook, as simple as this may seem, it is literarily revolutionizing the nation.

Just to share with you some of these punch lines:

–   We demand that school uniforms include a helmet, body armor and gas mask.

–   Forgive me my love; I mentioned your name in the interrogation.

–   Only in Syria, to get to heaven… just cross the street.

The same goes for visual arts, music, and other art forms, and it’s all coming from those we once considered poor, undeveloped, naïve and even stupid, they slapped us all in the face.

You are an activist, but considering the social media phenomenon, anyone could be an activist, as anyone could be a journalist, or even an artist. How do you see the definition of activist changing and what challenges do traditional activists face in this new climate?

I will answer this question with a simple statement: I was never an activist myself until the social media phenomenon came along, so the definition is changing to include me, a film maker and musician who has never been involved in any political or social activity in his life.

When we talk about social media, we have to be careful not to think of it as a monocular concept, on one hand, there is the “social” component, which is about community organizing, very much like unions and parties, or even parliaments, only these communities are not bound to geography or certain demographics, they penetrate societies and borders to reach a new breed of citizenship, “e-nabled citizens”, which is a term I coined to describe the internet enabling citizens to become active, and what defines such a person is connecting and sharing with others, which brings in the second component; “media”.

So, in a sense, you cannot be a modern, e-nabled citizen and not be active, it is inherent in this modern definition of citizenship, and soon we will have to rethink, not only journalism or art, but even trade, culture, nationalism and borders, it is globalization on a social scale rather than political or economical, it’s a phenomenon that we yet have to unfold and discover.

Syrians are struggling to complete the circle in their revolution. However, as a Syrian, could you describe creativity’s role in your country and how you see it evolving as we march forward in the information age?

The struggle is not actually specific to my country: the information age will help reveal the extent of injustice, the misdistribution of wealth and the crisis of authority everywhere, obviously, what is happening in Syria is a graphic manifestation of the problem, but examining the “occupy” movement around the world exposes the real magnitude of it.

It is in fact one struggle, and when two random people from anywhere in the world, get connected against all odds, one will ask: “how are you?”; the second will answer “not well!”; the first will reply “me neither, let’s do something about it”, only then, will the circle be complete.