The Day My Syrian Friend Wished She Were Chinese

How are we limiting the scope of artists based on their place of birth?

More than a year ago, Berlin-based Syrian visual artist and director, Sulafa Hijazi, posted on her private Facebook page a picture of a Chinese temple with the following description, “I am fed up with the word ‘Syria,’ fed up with Syrians, Syrian art, Syrian refugees, Syrian culture, Syrian food, Syrian traditions… Why didn’t I get to be born in China?”[1]. Over 100 people liked her post, and I was one of them — I knew that this was the expression of her deep frustration as a 21st century artist who happens to be from Syria, and therefore who is expected to mainly address war in Syria and its devastating consequences through her work. With no doubt, Syrian artists are now first recognized through their national belonging, before meeting the recognition they seek as global artists. This applies too to Syrian arts managers, and to their counterparts from current conflict zones. But what if we wanted to be more than that? Yes, I am an arts manager from Syria, I have a deep knowledge of the Syrian art scene and context — but I probably know US and European cinema, theatre, music, visual arts, and literature as much as I know Syrian works in the same fields, if not more. This might be the consequence of cultural colonialism, but this doesn’t make it less true. I guess this is also the result of everyone’s personal path and artistic encounters. I hear and understand all the questions about my national belonging, my identity, my responsibility, and everything that is expected of me as a professional in the arts coming from what is considered today as one of the most dangerous countries in the world. I get the ethical profondeur of my mission, I really do. I know that the world needs answers, but would the world allow me to be something else as well?

Asking Syrian artists — and only Syrian artists — to address the world’s questions is extremely complicated. It involves our responsibility as citizens to help ease the suffering of our people, but also as global citizens who have the necessary expertise and influence to tell the truth about the daily realities often omitted in the news, and even to rectify certain narratives. The ethical aspect of our role as artists and arts managers from Syria, and from other conflict zones, is unquestionable. We have a deep knowledge of the history, language, and culture; we can put things into context and enlighten our colleagues from the rest of the world. The frustration comes from the way the international art scene looks at us, and how we are often confined in tight boxes. The same boxes we end up looking at ourselves through, because this is how we were taught to perceive ourselves, “I am a performing arts manager from Syria, so everything I do should be related to Syria.” In a way, it’s like asking one’s imagination to be confined within specific geographical borders. I left Syria more than seven years ago, yet I’m still there — not only because it’s “home,” but also because my activities as a performing arts manager and writer do keep me there.

Untitled 2012 — by Sulafa Hijazi

I’m not sure though that being a Chinese artist or arts manager would be much different. They too would be expected to mainly be representatives of China, its history, and current narratives. Nonetheless, I think that I understand what my friend meant. I could write a similar appeal: “at this specific moment in history, on this specific day, I wish I were anything but Syrian. I wish no one asked me anymore about Syria, because it’s too complicated and painful, and also because I don’t live in Syria anymore and my imagination had to leave with me. I wish I were just an artist beyond any national belonging, and that my art and creation could be totally free from any prior expectation or prejudice.”

I never asked Sulafa if this is what she truly meant, but this is how I understood her words based on my own journey as an arts professional, and how my career has totally shifted when the Syrian uprising turned into war. I’m aware of how urgent talking about Syria is today, but there are also so many places I want to be, so many artists from all around the world I want to work with, so many stories that I’m eager to tell, and not all of them are about Syria, because Syrian artists and arts manager can/should work anywhere and on any topic they want. No one questions when a European or a U.S. arts manager gives their expertise on Arab artists, or decide what path their careers should take or which narratives should be promoted — nor would they be expected to represent and promote artists and stories mainly from their countries of origins. I believe that if we — the majority of non-Western arts professionals, artists and arts managers alike — are not playing these roles yet, it’s not because we can’t, but because we don’t have enough weight yet on the international art scene to be such influencers on the work of others. There are of course so many reasons for these imbalances, starting from the poor presence of non-Western creation in the established discourse on art history, to politics of power, centralization of the markets of culture, restrictions on mobility, and the list is long.

Untitled 2012 — by Sulafa Hijazi

A lot of work still needs to be done in order to give more opportunities for our community of talents and creative minds internationally. One might think that this isn’t an absolute necessity, that the urgency lies somewhere else. This might be true, but personally — and I think that my friend Sulafa would agree with me — I still want to know that I have the choice to see my career evolve naturally between my responsibilities as a citizen and my dreams and ambitions beyond any national confinements. Today, I too wish I were Chinese, and by “Chinese,” I mean being from anywhere that wouldn’t hold me responsible to constantly talk about Syria. I wish that the works of contemporary Syrian artists, from all fields alike, would be first perceived through their artistic value and what they say about the state of the world we all live in, and where the Syrian tragedy is with no doubt the global metaphor of how dark our times have become. And, aren’t we ALL responsible to raise our voices against this tragedy, especially when global politics keep failing us? I might be naive to think that the international community of artists has a shared responsibility towards all sort of injustice; but do we have another choice than counting on arts and culture to intervene and to play a part in changing perspectives in a world crushed by its leaders and by those who control contemporary narratives, including in the arts?

[1] Posted on October 13, 2016. Translated from Arabic.

About the author:

Jumana Al-Yasiri was born in Damascus, Syria. She is the daughter of an Iraqi filmmaker and a Syrian-Palestinian actress. As a child, she enjoyed accompanying her mother to rehearsals; this is how she first learned that theater can bring understanding and answers to political and social issues, and that what happens on stage has the power to change the lives and perceptions of both the artist and audience. Jumana has fifteen years of experience designing and implementing residencies, music festivals, theater productions, conferences, grants, and training programs for artists and cultural practitioners. She is a Paris-based performing arts manager, curator, panellist, researcher and translator, working between Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and the United States. In 2015, Jumana was appointed as the Middle East and North Africa Manager at the Sundance Institute Theatre Program, co-leading the development and the implementation of the program’s outreach in the region and beyond. Jumana holds a BA in Theatre Studies from Damascus Higher Institute for Dramatic Arts, and an MA in Comparative Literature from the University Paris VIII. In 2012, she met Arab-American poet and visual artist Etel Adnan, and since then she’s been in conversation with her and researching her work. Currently, she is drafting a script called Restlessness, inspired by this encounter.