(L to R): Malu Halasa, Paul Mason, Armand HuraultAt the Translating the Syrian News event held at the Free Word Centre in London on the eveing of Thursday of last week, a panel discussed how events in Syria are reported by the international and Syrian media and how the contrast between what is presented to a domestic and global audience can be mediated.
The event was chaired by Malu Halasa, who began by saying: "What is the news telling us about Syria, or rather what are we not getting from the news from Syria, and how is this information, or lack of information, forming our perceptions about the country?" The panel would also look at "the knock-on effect: how these perceptions affect government policy towards Syria."
Halasa is co-editor of Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Frontline, published recently by Saqi Books of London.
Syria Speaks is a unique showcase of the work of more than 50 artists and writers challenging the culture of violence in Syria. "Their literature, poems and songs, cartoons, political posters and photographs document and interpret the momentous changes that have shifted the frame of reality so drastically in Syria," declares the book's cover.
The Free Word event was a fitting prelude to the UK tour of Syria Speaks, organised by Reel Festivals, from 11 to 16 June. Reel Festivals is presenting the events in partnership with English PEN, Saqi Books, British Council, LIFT Festival, Prince Claus Fund, CKU the Danish Centre for Culture and Development and the Arab British Centre. The project is supported with public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England.
The tour begins on 11 June at the Rich Mix in London, and takes in Bristol Festival of Ideas (12 June), Oxford (Ashmolean Museum, 13 June), Liverpool Arab Arts Festival (14 June), Bradford (Fuse Art Space,15 June) and Durham University School of Government and International Affairs (16 June). The visiting authors will also take part in workshops with English PEN at schools, refugee community centres and a prison. In addition there is an event at Waterstones bookshop in Piccadilly, central London, on 17 June at 7pm.
The packed-out Free Word event was presented jointly by Free Word and by English PEN: Syria Speaks has a 2013 English PEN Award for promotion within PEN's Writers in Translation programme. The event was Part of Free Word’s Translators in Residence Programme and the Islington Word Festival 2014.
The evening was introduced by Alice Guthrie, one of Free Word Centre's two translators in residence for 2014. Guthrie is one of the five translators who worked on the Syria Speaks book.
Malu Halasa is a London-based writer, editor and curator of arts events and the author of several books including The Secret Life of Syrian Lingerie: Intimacy and Design (Chronicle Books, 2008) with Rana Salam. She co-curated three exhibitions of Syria's art of resistance in 2012-13 in Amsterdam, Copenhagen and London.
Halasa's co-panellists were Paul Mason, Armand Hurault, and Zaher Omareen who is like Halasa a co-editor of Syria Speaks: the third co-editor is Nawara Mahfoud. In addition to co-editing the book, Omareen has contributed to it an essay: "The Symbol and Counter-Symbols in Syria: Power and propaganda from the era of the two Assads to the Revolution of Freedom and Dignity".
Omareen is a Syrian researcher and writer who has published articles and short stories in the Arab and English press. His short story "First Safety Manoeuvre’ won prizes awarded by the Danish Institute in Damascus and the 2012 Copenhagen Festival of Literature. He has worked on independent cultural initiatives in Syria and Europe, and co-curated exhibitions on the art of the Syrian uprising. He is a PhD candidate in Contemporary Documentary Cinema and New Media at Goldsmiths College, London University.
Paul Mason is the Culture and Digital Editor of Channel 4 News and has worked extensively as a journalist and broadcaster for a number of productions including BBC2′s Newsnight. He is the author of three books: Live Working or Die Fighting: How the Working Class Went Global (Harvill Secker, 2007), Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions (Verso, 2012) and Meltdown – The End of the Age of Greed (Verso, 2012).
Armand Hurault is deputy coordinator at ASML, a Syro-French organisation supporting the emergence of an alternative and professional media landscape in Syria. At the start of the uprising in 2011 he provided regular Skype training sessions to Syrian citizen journalists inside the country as part of his work as former coordinator of the ‘Syrian Voices Initiative’ (2011-2013) at Transnational Crisis Project in London, a project that was funded by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO).
A major focus of the event was the striking growth in citizen journalism in Syria over the past three years. Halasa noted that Syria Speaks includes critical essays by free speech proponents and interviews about news gathering and the rise of a citizens journalist movement inside the country.When the killings started in Syrian "the regime had a very well-oiled media machine; ordinary Syrians felt that they had to take matters into their own hands," Halasa said.
Zaher Omareen, who was a freelancer and a journalist working in Damascus at the time the uprising began, set the scene. "To be honest the revolution in Syria surprised us as it surprised the outsider or the Western media," he said. Soon after the uprising started in March 2011 the government took action against and arresting journalists. The regime asked international journalists to leave the coutnry immediately.
As for Syrian journalists many of them, especially the professioinal ones, spent weeks or months in prison for dealing with Al-Jazeera, the BBC or other news providers. "So we found ourselves without any professional media coverage and we started trying to find alternatives to tell others what happened inside Syria."
Susannah Tarbush, London