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Perspectives on Syria: Exploring the Historical Trend of Artist Oppression

In August of 2011, the civilian death toll in Syria had just surpassed 2,000. Today, that toll is reaching 200,000 and the conflict is being pushed further and further into the periphery of media attention. It makes sense then that one victim, one news item may have gotten lost since August of 2011. One of those victims still stays with me: Ali Farzat.

Farzat, now living in exile, had been Syria’s most influential political cartoonist for years before revolution broke out in the streets of Damascus. However, it was only when revolution did break out that Farzat depicted his president, Bashar al-Assad, for the first time in this cartoon. The response was swift and clear: members of the Syrian Army seized Farzat and broke both his hands.

Since the dawn of despotism, oppressive leaders have used this tactic to cement power. To silence an artist is to reconstruct the image of the human condition — a condition that in all reality would be better served free. In terms of sheer numbers, perhaps the most prolific regime of artistic suppression occurred in Russia, spanning from Tsar Nicholas I through his successors, imperial and Communist. Similarly prolific authors, like Fyodor Dostoyevsky, were swept away to labor camps, with the hope that they would never be read again. While the Tsar succeeded in “reforming” Dostoyevsky, he failed to kill the author’s movement — in fact, it was a similar movement that would end up killing the Tsar’s son a generation later. While the generation that followed had its own serious issues and its own streak of despots, the hope remains that lessons learned can lead to a moderate a fair transition of power elsewhere.

Assad attempts to save face by silencing critics while he stands on the bodies of 191,000 Syrians and the rubbled homes of another 9.5 million. There is an irony in that. There is an irony in that the only way he could have ever saved his name from the spite of history would have been to save those lives, save those homes.

However, perhaps the true irony is that in a tyrant’s attempt to silence dissent through art, he only spurs it on; if not by the artist he beats than by the next generation, if not in the land that he rules than by those who live in exile. The true irony is that there is only one despot, but thousands of artists ready to take up the cause.

Here is a cartoon Farzat published just 8 hours ago.

This post was written by Zach Ackerman, STAND’s National Outreach Coordinator.

Read the whole Perspectives on Syria series here!

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