SYRIA Dissident Syria: Making Oppositional Arts Official, by Miriam Cooke. London, UK and Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007. viii + 166 pages. Notes to p. 175. Bibl. to p. 185. Index to p. 196. $74.95 cloth; $21.95 paper.
Reviewed by Margaret L. Venzke
Dissident Syria brings to light the work of Syria's artists and intellectuals, though primarily the former, to make known the voices and works of those who remained in Syria after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, which occasioned some ostensible political relaxation. Miriam Cooke, who heard on more than one occasion from Syrian writers the refrain, "Our literature does not leave our country" (p. 17), sought redress of this situation in writing this book. She focuses on the period 1989-1996, the terminal date to incorporate her six-month stay in Syria in 1995-1996. Dissident Syria presents an interesting mix of the author's personal experiences and observations, interviews, and descriptions and some literary commentary on the works of those she interviewed.
Two thoughts above all inform this narrative: Vaclav Havel's injunction "to live in truth" (p. 20); and the official Syrian government slogan "Culture is Humanity's Highest Need" (p. 19). As Cooke notes, the latter is freighted with a disciplinary connotation, the verbal causative form (thaqqafa) of the Arabic word for culture meaning "to straighten crookedness" (p. 30). In the hands of the Syrian state, culture has become a tool of social control.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Cooke observes, the Syrian state tightened its hold over the production of culture at the same time as it projected a facade of freedom and democracy. We are introduced to intellectuals who sought to live by Havel's injunction, and who consequently suffered grievous incarceration. In the Syria of Hafiz Asad (d. 2000), we see not unexpected censorship and "permitted criticism," to use, as Cooke does, the expression of Lisa Wedeen,1 3to indicate the state's acknowledgment of the need for some criticism as a safety valve, but here drawing the line between permitted criticism of the state but absolutely no criticism of the leader himself. Cooke also observes that the Syrian government engages in "commissioned criticism" (p. 72), that is, encouraging the dissident to criticize, but then coopting his very criticism. To wit, the Ministry of Culture might publish "sensitive" books but withhold their distribution within the country, only to send them to venues outside to serve as an example of the freedom of expression enjoyed by Syrians. Similarly the two or three films that the government funds annually are simply not released.
Dissident Syria consists of an Introduction, in which the author presents a thumbnail sketch of Syria since the Ba'th coup of March 1963, which ushered in a still continuing rule by martial law, eight chapters, and a Postscript. …