Syria/ 3.4 International cultural co-operation  

3.4.2 Public actors and cultural diplomacy

The Syrian government is working on encouraging and protecting culture, the Ministry of Culture is considered the main player in the public sector, it works on popularization of culture among citizens, promoting and publicizing Arab Culture message and providing all resources for communicating and meeting  up with other civilizations and cultures.


The Ministry is taking over providing most means and requirements of local cultural work and international participations by staging exhibitions, festivals and art shows, producing films and theater plays, organizing local and international conferences and festivals, participating in Arab book fairs, international art exhibitions and biennials, also Arab and international theater and cinema festivals.


The Ministry has the speciality of contacting foreign cultural and artistic institutions and benefits from their activities by implementing cultural agreements and protocols concluded through the government cabinet (International Cooperation and Planning Commission) and signed between the Minister of Culture and his counterpart from the other country.


The Ministry Directorate for Cultural Relations follows up the implementation of these agreements and protocols terms, under the supervision of  the Cultural Management Department in the Foreign Affairs Ministry, which coordinates with the cultural missions of foreign countries( if a cultural center of the foreign country looking forward topractise in Syria) activities and cooperation are activated by virtue of the cultural cooperation agreements signed between the two countries through the cultural center. There is usually a room to include a large number of activities outside the framework of bilateral agreements, subject to the prior Ministry approval, decided by consultation and exchange of opinions between the involved parties. Mostly the cultural cooperation with the foreign countries reflects the depth of relations. The Directorate of Cultural Relations at the Ministry of Culture, coordinate most of the foreign communication missions of the Ministry of Culture, such as:

  • It coordinates the relations with “UNESCO”, “Arab Organization for Education, Culture and Science”, “Islamic Organization for Science, Education and Culture”, “UNICEF”, “the United Nations Development Program”, “European Union”, “GTZ”, “GAICA” and “Aga Khan Establishment” (the Syrian Citadels Rehabilitation Program). The Directorate also organizes the mechanism for receiving donations and technical and artistic aids presented by donating Organizations and International Establishments in cooperation with the concerned parties.

  • It supervises the execution of the Cultural Treaties and Aid Treaties terms, especially the part  that is concerning the Ministry of Culture with the participation of the Specialized Directorates.

  • It supervises the affairs of the Specialized Artistic Delegations, Scholarships, Exploring Missions, Training and External Facilitation.

  • It supervises the Cultural Centers abroad (France, Spain, Iran, Yemen and Brazil) and the foreign Cultural Centers in Syria (France, USA, Germany, Russia, Bulgaria, Great Britain, Spain, Italy, Holland, Denmark, Finland) and drafting regulations and special basis for organizing the activities conducted by these centers on the Syrian soil, which mostly based on teaching their mother languages and launching cultural programs to popularize their culture and arts including all cultural and artistic aspects and perform researches and studies (such as the French Center) in addition to artistic projects which adopt cultural dialog, exchange of ideas, development of artistic, technical and cultural management expertise (like the British Council projects) archaeological search and excavation (the Italian cooperation in the field of mosaic restoration).

  • Send invitations to the masters of art and culture and the intelligentsia to Syria to launch art, cultural programs, researches, cultural weeks, exhibitions, theater acts and cinema and popular art shows to present the development of the Syrian art and culture to the other countries.

 



Other local players

The Ministry of Local Administration

Local assemblies, in  the State general policy, are specialized in facilitating the local administration affairs and all acts needed to modernize the governorate “economically, socially, culturally, and structurally speaking” in a way compatible with the equal permanent development in the fields of planning, industry, agriculture, economy and trade, education, culture, archaeology, tourism, transportation and roads, irrigation, potable and sanitary water, electricity, health, social affairs and labor, services and recreational areas, mining and mineral wealth, disaster management and fire extinguishment, traffic organization and management and driver’s licensing centers, environment, sports and youth, and mutual projects between administrative units.

 

  • Some of the most important assignments of the local assemblies with its different levels are:
  • Issuing the administrative permission for touristic, educational and service structures.
  • Suggesting the establishment of social, cultural and sport clubs in all governorates.
  • Exempting some institutions, structures, and commissions from local fees and expenses.
  • Setting the bases and standards, especially for granting permission of billboard installation.
  • Selecting advisors to teach religion, give advice and preaches, and to practice religious norms in social care institutions working in the field of events.

 


All the governorate specializations that are applied in the laws and regulations especially for organizing civil societies work.


The Ministry of Local Administration together with local authorities, through governorates' councils, participates in the  cultural activitiestaking place in the country and provides the necessary infrastructures necessary for it. Also the mentioned ministry acts within the scope of the State general policy, plans, programs and laws concerning local and international cultural work (particularly through twinning between Syrian cities and cities of the world where artistic and cultural activities are exchanged).


The executive offices of the cultural sector are assigned to promote literary and artistic creativity in close cooperation with popular organizations in the country, organize cultural festivals and celebrations and art activities and exhibitions and conduct seminars and lectures, in addition to other overseas participations according to the general approach of the State. These offices also grant licenses to artistic, literary and cultural societies and academies pursuant to the rules in force.


Other ministries, particularly the Ministry of Tourism, participates in the country's cultural life by promoting Syrian archaeological heritage, culture and arts through its local festivals and participation in international fairs accompanied by many popular arts and folklore groups and handicrafts.


The Ministry of Information (regarding its duty: portraying state image) also contributes in the local cultural activity through its media programs and cultural and art festivals staged to disseminate and promote Syrian art and culture locally and overseas. This Ministry seeks in particular to support and promote the product of the TV drama sector (whether produced by the private sector or the State official TV), contributes in spreading and protecting Syrian drama, provide moral and financial support and facilitate participation in international competitions in order to transform this sector to a supportive industry and disseminate local thought and culture to the world through producing drama shows of major Syrian authors and writers.


The Ministry of Information launched new initiatives amongst what the ministry had called a “modernization and renovation plan” which included shutting down both of the local TV channels in 2013and launching a religious satellite TV channel named with “Nour El Sham” in 2011 and a new satellite TV channel named with “Talaqi”. The Minister of Information, Omran Al Zu’bi, had announced (according to the Lebanese newspaper Al Safir during the opening event of the Talaqi TV channel on 22/5/2013) that “Talaqi” embodies “his personal project that he dreams of and it is part of the Syrian government general strategy.”


I
t doesn’t seem that talking about “strategy” is a strange matter in the context of the Syrian official speech that sees what’s happening in the country as an “media war in the first degree.”


The Ministry had previously launched Souriana FM and Amwaj radio stations in Latakia, Al Karma radio station in Sweida, and the SyriaTimes E-newspaper. In addition to the mentioned, it had also established the Syrian Media Center in Moscow and the E-Information Management center in the ministry’s building.



Cultural civil associations (the new players)

This time period is a period of eruption for Syrian civil cultural institutions and groups. It’s also a period of activities and gaining experience and expertise that could be an alternative of long years of work. There are a lot of institutions that grew larger after the revolution, some of which are the following:


Al Makan Art Association[1] is a Syrian non-governmental and non-profit organization established in 2006. It aims to promote cultural and artistic exchange between East and West;to contribute to revitalizing art movements in Syria on Arab and international levels; and to offer means for encountering contemporary art around the world. The organization contributes to enabling and empowering young people to access knowledge through culture and cultural work, and it supports through its projects a sense of self-confidence and community belonging. The Association also promotes active participation of young people in their communities. The Ministry of Culture and the gallery of artist Mostafa Ali’s, who is known for his loyalty to the Syrian regime, sponsor its activities. The last of its activities was held in 2012.


The Syria Trust for Development (a non-government and non-profit organization established in 2007), was considered one of the key players on the cultural and socially developmental level since it was founded, until the beginning of the people movement in March 2011(its board is chaired by Mrs. Asmaa Al-Assad to ensure that the social development objectives are achieved in consistency with the national vision for change and social development).


The Trust is active in the fields of education, rural development, culture, and heritage and it plays an important role in the Local Syrian cultural scene through its projects and exchange of international expertise since its has overseas partnerships and is supported by most of  government and local institutions.


The Trust works with many international organizations and partners such as: Qatar Foundation, Association EchangesCulturels en Méditerranée, EC, EU, SDC, UNDP, Egyptian Population Council and many other programs and projects.


The Trust has also a partnership with the private sector, where it receives financial assistance from many Syrian companies such as SYRIATEL, MTN and other Syrian commercial groups.


While mentioning the Syria Trust for Development, we should refer to its cultural project “Rawafid”which stopped after many of its staff members had left despite the pressure given by the mother organization to stay. It’s a strong and direct reflection of the ending of the “mandate module” possibility in Syria, at least with the political authority that’s still in power in the current time. It’s also evidence of a “civil project return”. Prior to the revolution, it was acceptable for the independent cultural sector to “negotiate” with the political authority to achieve benefits that allow it to work.


The Syrian Trust for Development is still insistent on being present in Syrian society. Its activities are limited to regions controlled by the regime and operate in areas of aid, education, and health awareness, in addition to contributing in the promotion of handcrafts and setting up bazaars during holidays and school openings.



Ashari’ Institution for Information and Development:

This is a non-profit, informational institution that reserves some of its income for projects attempting to help those affected by the crisis in Syria. Nowadays, it works on a group of informational projects and civil activities inside and outside Syria to protect informational freedom by different materials of informational work.


The Ashari’ Institution project was launched in February 2010 with media campaign to support refugees in the north-eastern province of Syria after their farms had faced drought. This was done through mediacampaigns and various civil activities, including photography exhibitions and organizing periodic visits for journalists to the refugees’ camps.


After a year of field work in the Syrian drought refugee camps, the Syrian uprising started in March 2011. As a result, the Ashari’ Institution entered a new level of work covering the events and producing documentary films. Today, the Institution works on interviewing politicians and people in the field, recording reports and documentaries from places of action, and the group creates other informational projects and civil activities inside and outside Syria for the purpose of protecting human rights via different materials of informational work.


The association has continued its work for five years until now and has thirty-four films in its registry and thirteen various cultural and aid projects. It recently announced the “Syrian Mobile Film Festival” grant for six films; the value of each grant is ten thousand dollars.



Itijahat Independent Cultural Institution:

“Itijahat” is a cultural institution located in Damascus and founded by a number of Syrian cultural activists in 2011 as a civil company (a company established for ideological purposes).


Itijahat believes that the opportunities created by an independent cultural presence will enlarge in the transitional periods: as people needs and lives change from one level to the next. While a dominant culture is characterized by a slow reaction to reforms, an independent one is considered a newborn of changes and strongly relates to them. The dominant culture is responsible for its own vanishing, as it responds slowly to changes and is mostly connected to ideologies and beliefs that used to be popular ideas in the past.


According to what’s written on its website and Facebook page, Itijahat’s work depends on three points:

  1. Activating the independent artistic movement and collaborating with independent cultural artists and activists as part of a creative activity cooperating with its political and social environment.

  2. Providing academic and field research and studies necessary for cultural planning and building cultural and ideological projects relevant to the society needs.

  3. Renovating  the cultural policies and the principal intentions of art and culture, national wide speaking, to blend  the cultural definition with the developmental process.

Since its foundation, Itijahat has launched a number of cultural projects.


In the beginning of 2012 Ettijahat signed a cooperation agreement with Al Mawred Al Thaqafy, through which the former organization will play the role of coordinator with what are known as ‘National Groups’ that work on writing documents related to general trends which monitor cultural policy in seven Arab countries (Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Palestine and Lebanon).


In 2013, Ettijahat launched the ‘Research to Strengthen the Culture of Knowledge’ project and through it supported 11 researchers in terms of capacity building, creating opportunities for young researchers in the field of cultural policy and research. A few books by participant researchers came out in the form of studies as part of this project. Ettijahat also launched the second cycle of its research project in October 2014.


In May 2013, within the competition for research proposals to restructure governmental cultural frameworks in Tunis, Syria and Egypt, Al Mawred Al Thaqafy chose the research proposed by Ettijahat, which includes monitoring the current state of governmental cultural frameworks in the country and changes in the past two years. The research would also evaluate the performance of governmental cultural organizations within their existing structures and create a clear vision to restructure these governmental organizations taking into consideration suggestions and working mechanisms that can be applied within a precise time frame. The proposal would be implemented in 2014.


Ettijahat also completed its fifth periodic report on cultural policy in the Arab region. The report covers developments in cultural policy, legislation and practice in nine Arab countries (Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Mauritania, and Yemen) during the second half of 2013.


As a new stage in the development of the ‘Cultural Policy in the Arab Region’ project, Ettijahat and Al Mawred Al Thaqafy collaborated on launching the official website for cultural policy in the Arab region on the 12 July 2014. 


The website is an open platform for individuals and groups working directly or indirectly toward change of cultural policy in their countries or in the whole region.[2]



Kayani

Kayani is an independent artistic-informative project founded by a group of Syrian activists. It works to contribute to building a Syrian civil community through giving opportunities for new Syrian voices in the field of music and visual art. It’s interested mainly in recording aspects and human stories which create the background in the Syrian revolution in a creative and artistic way, suitable with the sacrifices of the Syrian people.


The following was written on Kayani’s Facebook page[3] on 16/5/2013 “after a complete year of producing and supporting documentaries and small reports, and holding workshops in those fields, the Kayani project has come to an end today. People in charge of Kayani project would like to thank those who have contributed and participated throughout that year in making this project successful”. An explanation was not given regarding the closure of the project.



Dawlati

Dawlati  was established in June 2012, and is a not-for-profit project for building capabilities and working on developing visual, audio and context exercise materials on democratic transform and transitional justice in Syria for:

  • The significance of diversity, being different, and accepting differences in viewpoints.
  • Attempting to minimize the desire for retaliation, and encouraging to ask for justice instead.
  • Making advertisements about human characteristics and the rule of law.
  • Peaceful transformation.

 


‘Dawlati’ published on its website[4] results up until the end of 2013 which are: 225 posters, publishing small booklets and pocket books that promote peaceful civil movements in cooperation with international organizations. Dawlati also launched its Syria Infographic project and is working on documenting works of art on the Syrian revolution.


Bidayyat[5]: A Syrian non-profit organization that provides support and production of short films, documentaries and visual arts. The organization also organizes specialized training courses on all the stages of documenting filmmaking. The ‘Bidayyat’ produced film ‘Baladna Al Rahib’ (‘Our Terrible Country’) won the Grand Prix of the International Competition at the 2014 Marseille Festival of Documentary Film.


Hamisch: The Syrian Cultural House in Istanbul opened in March 2014, a new independent space in intellectual and critical exile for the exchange of ideas, experiments and practice in the field of culture. It is also a space for cooperation and collaboration for artists, academics, intellectuals, and writers from Syria, Turkey and other countries.


The Creative Memory of the Syrian Revolution website[6] is a project for documenting cultural production in Syria that waslaunched in 2013 with support of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation. The site specializes in documenting the cultural affairs of the Syrian Revolution in all its forms. It aims at “documenting all forms of intellectual artistic expression in the time of revolution. It consists of writing, blogging and collecting stories from the Syrian people in the epic experience the crisis has brought and who have regained through it meanings of social, political and cultural existence,” as the Creative Memory of the Syrian Revolution website describes itself. [7]


The Syrian Center for Policy Research[8] was established in January 2012. It is a non-profit non-governmental organization that works in three main fields: policy research and studies, dialogue, and crowdsourcing and impact. Within these three areas are other activities such as training and capacity building. Since its establishment the Center has published a number of reports and research that monitor the demographic, economic, social and developmental effects of the crisis on the Syrian people.


The Syrian Association for Culture and Knowledge  took off in Damascus toward the end of 2013, with the aim to support culture and promote knowledgeable and scientific dialogue. It is a civil organization working to empower Syrian society knowledgeably and culturally in a civilized, dialogic and interactive environment in order to achieve human-centered sustainable development. The organization contributes to the flow of information, and creates an environment that encourages reading,  enhances knowledge-based and scientific discussions and expands community knowledge. The Association provides its activities with the support of official Syrian institutions such as the Ministry of Culture and the Syrian Trust for development among others.


The Syrian Charter Organization[9] is a movement that was born on 27 November 2011, out of a group of knowledgeable Syrian young people who strive for peaceful resolution in society. It is an international non-governmental organization registered according to EU legal procedures in the city of Horn in the Netherlands. The organization’s main base is in Berlin, Germany. Since its creation the organization has transformed from an ambitious political movement “to write a charter on the minimal demands of revolutionary activists and in spite of politicians achieve these revolutionary goals,” to a civil organization somehow specialized in new media; a qualitative leap that was preferred by activists in the movement to turning it into a frozen political party. After several discussions, the aims of the ‘charter’ were finally specified as “contributing to development and awakening Syria as well as increasing its role in the international community through spreading the culture of peace in Syrian society,” with complete reliance on “the energies of the organization’s members and volunteering” while distancing itself from all forms of funding and political dependency, as clarified by the organization’s director Mouannes Al Boukhari in his conversation with the online newspaper “Al Modon” in February 2014.


The Nahna Cultural organization[10] was established in 2013 and describes itself, according to its website as a Syrian civil society organization (license pending) concerned with creative development and works through culture, art and contemporary technology as active tools in the process of development and positive dialogue to the advantages of Syrian society. The organization  coordinates and collaborates with various official and civil parties involved in these fields. It holds its activities, which are generally coordinated and collaborated with Syrian Development Fund, in Mustafa Al Ali’s gallery in the old town of Damascus. Official Syrian media covers its various activities. In September 2014 the organization held a workshop of expertise exchange in cinema with a group of Syrian youths.


Al-Arfi Culture and Heritage Arcade is one of the houses opened in 2013 by the Syrian Ministry of Culture in collaboration with the AL-Arfi family in Damascus, as part of a plan to open Syrian intellectuals’ and novelists’ houses as cultural centers and literary and artistic houses. The Arcade contains a shop that sells publications from the Syrian General Commission for Books, a space for children’s drawing, and another space for music. The Arcade has a hall named “Ajabik Ajayeb” that contains a magic box and a space for a hakawati storyteller.


Also, cultural unions and networks were established and considered to be an alternative to the institutions in charge, which were joined by opponents to the regime. For example:


Syrian Independent Plastic Artists Assembly:

It was founded by a number of abstract artists opposed to the regime and its institutions on 14/1/2012. It was written in the foundation announcement of the assembly on the Facebook page of assembly that 229 members have joined to so far. Syrian abstract artists who are signing this declaration find themselves forced, with strong belief in their rights, to announce that the current syndicate does not represent them and thus, they have decided to establish a new manufacturing structure with their own means that will:

 

  • Protect them and their benefits.
  • Express their various, creative, and ideological choices.
  • Be part of the real modern Syrian culture.
  • Be open to world cultures and visual achievements.
  • Be a legitimate representative of a community that revolts tyranny and a lack of freedom.

 



The Syrian Writers Association:

Founded in Cairo on 18/9/2012, this is a Syrian civil society organization joined by Syrian writers from different literature and ideological currents. Palestinian writers who are living in Syria also enjoy a full membership in the Association. It’s also open to Arab and foreign writers who are supporting the Syrian people.


Reasons of Establishment:

We, Syrian intellectuals from different backgrounds, intend to constitute an association for free Syrian writers that expresses our participation in the Syrian revolution, inside and outside Syria. As well as showing our desperation for an independent democratic frame for all Syrian writers that expresses the new Syria that’s being born now in the streets of freedom.[11]


The Association published only one issue of its magazine as Writers’ Association Magazine when it was established; later the magazine’ name was changed to Awraq and its first issue was published in London at the end of 2013.. On 17/4/2013 the Association announced the Mazraa Prize for literature in coordination with engineer Yahya Al Qadamni who was conducting and funding the prize in the city of Sweida (1997 – 2011). Also, on 17/4/2014 the Mazraa Prize was awarded to three Syrian literary writers.


Syrian Journalists’ Association:

“Syrian Journalists Association” was founded in Damascus on 20/2/2012 and is considered an independent democratic assembly that complies with the essentials of the Syrian revolution for freedom and dignity and people desires for setting up a diverse and democratic State which provides freedoms, justice, and equality, and the rule of law with no discrimination.


It assures the diversity which the Syrian society is built on and the necessity to provide opportunities for its components to express their creativity. The Syndicate is proud of the languages spoken by the components of the Syrian population; Arabic, Kurdish, Assyrian, Turkmen and others.[12]


The Press Freedom Commission has worked on documenting violations against journalists by all warring parties.


During a press conference in March 2014 the unification of “the ‘Syndicate of Kurdish Writers in Syria’ and the ‘Syndicate of Kurdish Writers and Journalists in Syria’” was announced.[13]


In addition, there are numerous groups of Syrian intellectuals and Syrian media groups that are present through social media pages, and report news and activities without specifying goals or visions (including the Syrian Intellectuals collective, Syrian Intellectuals collective for the support of 12 – 15 March uprising, Media Syria, Damascus News).


Government financial support for international cultural cooperation

The Syrian government provides all possible financial support for international projects through the Ministry of Culture and Damascus Governorate in terms of providing places for shows and plays, movie theaters, lecture halls, and traditional cultural houses (such as Qasr al-Azm, Damascus Citadel, Asaad Basha Khan, Maktab Anbar and other free of charge locations).


These projects are exempted from all fees (to allow the entry of certain technologies according to the agreements signed and to project needs).


Government institutions take part administratively and technically through its cadres (and allow their partners to benefit from all available resources to support its cultural contribution and secure the possible means for success).


In many occasions government institutions bear some financial costs such as travelling, staying, transportation costs and other expenses for Syrian participants in the cultural projects they support or for foreign partners.


Chapter published: 06-05-2016


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