Syria Is Doing Well

Poetry readings are held in regime-controlled Hama to prove security has been restored (“Syria is Doing Well (Suriya bi-Khayr)” is a well-known slogan used by the regime to suggest the country is quickly recovering from the “crisis”)

(Photo: a quote from the Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani: "In short, we wear the cape of civilization, but our souls live in the stone age" [Waleefalrooh/CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

“You can say that Hama now resembles a bride kidnapped by a gang: most of these poets are looking at her chains, watching her blood dripping, listening to her screams, and yet they write about the zagharid that filled the air before her capture.”

div>(Hama, Syria) At the beginning of every week, the posters hung on the doors of the Cultural Centre in the central al-ʿAssi Square catch the eye of the passersby, inviting them to literary symposiums and poetry readings.
People express different opinions on the purpose of such events, especially in light of the current security circumstances: some see them as a continuation of life, since the listeners can sense in the poetry renditions a true desire to break the wartime routine, while others tend to criticize them.
“I’d rather read poetry and prose online, where there is more freedom of speech, especially when you compare that to what you hear in poetry recitals,” journalist Abdur-Rahman(1) told Good Morning Syria, unable to hide his great affliction for Hama’s dreadful cultural situation.
“The political circumstances in the city and in the country in general have dragged culture into a state of deep hibernation that won’t end until a clearer solution is seen in the horizon. This is why we feel insulted by the marginal space poets are allowed to have, while they are still living under the Syrian regime’s security grip. Poetry should be a real attempt to break the chains, to find a skylight in this great prison,” he added.
In July 2011, after the Syrian troops entered Hama to stifle the protests that had flooded the city, all cultural activities were suspended for over two years. Then they resumed with the introduction of poetry readings at the Cultural Centre. Many of the city’s writers and poets welcomed these symposiums in the hope that they would have been a chance to bring culture back to life.
“Reviving the cultural scene in these times is a message sent to the outside world about the resilience of this great (Syrian) people and its high esteem for literature,” said Samer, a member of the Arab Writers Union in Hama.
He added: “Poetry readings are held in accordance with a political decision aimed at reanimating culture and unveiling young talents that manifest their love for the homeland and its leader by writing patriotic poems. Large amounts of money are spent to cover these seminars in the media: the Syrian Arab Television and Radio Broadcasting Commission (SATRBC) constantly airs them (on the Syrian terrestrial channel) to emphasize the stable security situation of the city.”
The Cultural Centre, where these readings are held, used to be a place full of life, where students would spend most of their time. Subsequently, the Syrian regime turned part of it into military barracks and the building is now surrounded by sandbags, not to mention the concrete blocks that keep vehicles away.
The Cultural Centre staff and its event coordinators are entrusted with sending SMS invitations for the readings to as many intellectuals as possible.
“A poet is, above all, someone who can fill the stage with his recitation,” Mohammad, an employee at the Cultural Centre, told Good Morning Syria.
He explained that “there are no specific requirements, but the poet must be talented, without necessarily being a a member of the Arab Writers Union.” “According to the plan laid down by the Directorate of Culture upon the resumption of cultural activities, at least two activities must take place every week: poetry readings, lectures and literary seminars, in addition to activities for children,” Mohammad continued.
A poet only receives the amount of 1200 SYP (the equivalent of four dollars in the black market) as compensation at the end of the event, regardless of his experience.
When I attended a reading myself, I had no trouble finding a seat, the chairs were practically all vacant, and the room resembled a dark cinema hall with dusty curtains decorated with the flags of Syria’s ruling Baʿath Party. Still, the employee, Mohammad, insisted that the readings are popular in general.
At the beginning of the event, everyone stands up for “a minute of silence for the martyrs of this country,” an expression used by the host before he moves on to introducing each poet.
Since power cuts are practically constant in the city, the poets have to recite their works in a dark hall most of the time, holding a paper napkin to wipe the sweat dripping from their foreheads onto their poems. This is the reason why poets are at unease on stage, doing grammatical and metrical errors.
As for Abdur-Rahman, the journalist, he recalled the cultural history of Hama and how it has been a shining lighthouse for several decades. Then he grew quiet for a moment and said: “You can say that Hama now resembles a bride kidnapped by a gang: most of these poets are looking at her chains, watching her blood dripping, listening to her screams, and yet they write about the zagharid(2)  that filled the air before her capture.”

All names used are pseudonyms to protect the identity of the sources.
Zagharid are traditional wedding ululations in the Arab world.