28 September 2011, Damascus
Erfan invited me to his home to see his photo and video works. He lives far away from the center in an illegally built area but I wouldn’t call it a slum in the context of Damascus where most of the areas are a bit informal and chaotic. Erfan said that when the chaos makes him anxious, he goes to Sham City Center, which is a western style shopping mall. It reminds him of Vienna, where he studied fine arts. Pushing the shopping cart around the supermarket relaxes him, though he can barely afford to buy anything.
Erfan told me, both on video and face-to-face, his experiences as a second generation Palestinian refugee in Syria and Libya, where a classmate shouted him to go back to his country when he had no idea of the concepts of country, Palestine or refugee.
Erfan's parents flew from Palestine in 1948. Erfan was born in Syria but emigrated as a baby to Libya. He dreams about going one day to his Palestinian home village he has never seen. Erfan doesn’t have any citizenship but a Syrian passport stating that he is a Palestinian refugee.
Erfan defines himself culturally Muslim though he doesn't believe in God. He is against the Islamist rebels and supports the Syrian government in these difficult circumstances. He thinks that the rebellion is controlled and financed by Saudi Arabia, the United States and the European Union. He thinks that there will be never justice in the world, the rich are always against the poor.
Erfan asked if I wanted to go to his favorite mall but I preferred him to take me to a Palestinian refugee camp. He said it was not interesting, that there was nothing to see, but I insisted and finally he accepted. We cabbed to the camp and it looked like any other part of the city. The only difference was that there were less photos of Bashar al-Assad and photos of Yasser Arafat were everywhere. Erfan says that if I want to see misery I have to go to see the camps in Lebanon. Erfan has no bad word about the treatment of the refugees by the Syrian government.
I was looking for a present for my one-year-old son. Erfan suggested a toy AK-74. I was horrified by the idea but he said Palestinian kids play fedayeen.
20 September 2011, Damascus
Some extracts of the interviews by Tareq Neman in the article The War for Credibility about the media in Syria, published in English in the October issue of What's On Syria magazine. The surnames seem to be abbreviated, because most of the Syrians wouldn’t tell their political opinions (especially if they against the regime) in public.
Khaldoun Sa, 45, math teacher: Local media will not cover the news neutrally and global media will not transmit the right news.
Ahmad Sa, 27, employee: I watch the Syrian official channels because they refute the fake clips that protester upload on YouTube.
Souha Ra, 52, house wife: I can’t imagine that there is anyone who believes Al Jazeera or any enemy channels – they are working to defeat Syria, the land of heroes, the last castle against Israel.
Ahmad Ab, 27, dentist: The Americans are working to destroy Syria, they are using all what they can to control the minds of the Syrians.
Hannan Li, 30, housewife: Let’s not forget the great work our national media in this very difficult stage, they have played a very big role in calming and comforting the people who saw the news and rumors that were being broadcast on the biased channels.
Hanna Sa, 30, accountant: I watch and believe the local media because they work to ease the situation, they love Syria and they desperately try to show the fact that the other channels work on hiding the facts. Good intentions justify the unrealistic coverage sometimes.
Ammar Sa, 52, professor: People will not believe the state channels whatever they do because they are hiding the truth that everybody knows.
Salem Sh, 25, teacher: I will never believe Syrian media, especially after the lie saying that the demonstrators were thanking God for rain.
Riiko Sa, 35, artist: Al Jazeera and the Western media base their information in the propaganda. The Syrian government should give journalists visas that they could see that it’s peaceful here and that the majority of people are against the Islamists and support the government, which doesn’t mean they like everything what it does.
17 September 2011, Damascus
I skype home and see my daughter on the screen of the iPhone. She asks in Spanish who is that man with mustache. I get homesick and shave my facial hair. Then I do some shopping in Raed’s tiny corner shop, where I get always my milk, juice, beer and cigarettes. He opens seven days a week, seven in the morning every morning and closes at two in the night. Then he watches two hours TV and sleeps two hours but he doesn’t complain and never looks tired.
I buy stuff for my Syria for Dummies slide show: Captain Corn Cheese Flavor, Fifty Jambo Snacks with Chicken Flavor, Ranim Snacks Ketchup, Ammo Corn Japan Flavor and Turbo Chocolate Cream Wafers.
All the shops are like Raed's. No supermarkets, no department stores. This is kiosk capitalism, a bit like what I saw in the 90s in Russia. I’ve tried to find out if Baath Party’s Arab socialism was real socialism during Assad Senior’s regime but nobody has explained this to me yet and Wikipedia has no information about it. At least the official enemies of that time were: imperialism, Zionism, capitalism and the Muslim Brotherhood.
13 September 2011, Damascus
We are driving through Aleppo's chaotic traffic in Carine’s (name changed) Honda Accord. The 21-year-old girl is studying fashion design. She belongs to the Armenian minority of Syria, they are 50 thousand in the city and 100 thousand in the country.
According to her, the current regime protects the minorities, including hers: the Armenians have their culture, their language, their school and their church.
Carine lives in a bourgeois ghetto. She doesn’t have any Muslim friends, she spends her time with other Armenians. She tells that even in the University she finds it impossible to communicate with the Muslim fellow students. She could never imagine marrying other than an Armenian man – who else could dance to their traditional songs with here, she asks.
Carine is afraid of any change in the country. She thinks that things can get only worse and doesn’t understand why somebody wants a revolution now when the past ten years, since Assad Jr. is in power, the country has been developing fast to better direction, especially in the economy. If there were free elections, Carine would vote the ruling Baath Party and president Assad. I ask about poverty, could that be to some people a reason to rebel. Carine says that in Syria everybody has enough to eat, you can find a falafel sandwich for 10 SYP (15 Euro cents). It's true that I have seen only one beggar during the first week in Syria.
I’m lounging in a restaurant with Anahid (name changed) drinking arak, a typical Syrian anise flavored alcoholic drink, and smoking nargile, waterpipe. Anahid is 25 and finished her fine art degree last year in Aleppo where she still lives though she is originally from Homs, which is one of the epicenters of fighting between the military and rebels. All her family lives in Homs and they are trying to get out but it seems to be impossible, too dangerous. She shares a flat, which serves also as a painting studio, with other young artists in Aleppo.
Her friends represent all religious and ethnic groups of the country. In Homs the Armenian community is small, she had to relate with people from all other communities. She says that actually she doesn’t like Armenians and their ghetto in Aleppo. Anahid is hoping that everything will change in the country. First, she demands civil rights and free elections, though she doesn't know what party she would vote.
Anahid asks if I need any eau de toilette, she can get good discounts on them because she earns money now by working in the make-up business, though she is dreaming to be able to work full-time artist and to do a master degree in Europe, maybe in Germany.
11 September 2011, Damascus
My workshop was a success. The participants were two clearly different groups: bourgeois Christian art students and art lovers and Palestinian youngsters from a refugee camp. I told them about my list works and showed a selection of lists in works of contemporary art. Then they produced an awesome set of lists including: My Favorite Cartoon, Important Camps for Palestinians, Food for Poor People, My Favorite Thing I like but I Can’t to Buy It or Do It, The Name of People I Love but I Can’t See Him, Reforms I Want It to Be in My Country, Names of People Who I Losted in My Life, What I Hate in Men and The Perfumes that I Love [all sic].
In the afternoon, I walked in the Public Park and realized that somebody was following me. I sat down, he sat down. I got up, he got up. I turned, he turned. I sat down again, he sat down again. Later in the hotel lobby another guy came to talk to me joyfully and informed me that he had seen me at the Aleppo airport the other day. Am I monitored or is it just my imagination because I want so badly to be important and dangerous?
Issa had invited some friends to his place to have dinner. It was good to talk with many people in a relaxed atmosphere. We were sitting at the terrace, eating Syrian pizza, drinking Lebanese beer and smoking American cigarettes. One moment Issa said that if somebody hears me, we are all going to end up in jail.
After the dinner, ten of us got in Angelique’s SUV and drove to Malika, an open air night club decorated with plaster copies of ancient sculptures. It was strange to be dancing in a supposed conflict zone in an exclusive discothèque with fireworks and all possible paraphernalia – I was so excited (or drunk) that I ended up dancing on a DIY podium made of two high stools and performed a kung-fu jump landing on the floor and injuring my foot.
Now I can’t walk. I spend the day in the Public Park reading Zakaria Tamer’s Breaking Knees before catching the flight back to Damascus, where it seemed that the national football team had won some important trophy but I found out that it’s not only 10 years since the 9/11 but also 46 years since the birth of president Assad.
07 September 2011, Damascus
President dairy products are here popular. I asked the driver who picked me up from the airport why there are photos of president Assad everywhere. He said that it’s because everybody loves him. I’ve been taking photos of the photos of the president on the shop windows. Most of the businesses have them but also honor the father of the owner with a picture. Other hero often depicted is Real Madrid's Christiano Ronaldo. Two guys stopped me and wanted to see my photos. Police? No idea. They said my photos are very good.
The Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat asks every week 120 intellectuals of the country opinion on current issues. This week the question was can the West win the War on Terrorism? I answered that they can win by nuclear bombing all Muslim countries to the stone age, carrying out an ethnic cleansing in the Western countries interning the Muslims, their supporters and other dissidents in camps. Furthermore the CIA should infiltrate agents in every company, family and square to report of any activity against the freedom, democracy, capitalism and other Western values.
I read the answer to the trainee of the Institute who lives with me and she informed the director of the Institute, now in Helsinki, who sent me a message telling that if my answer will be published, the residency is canceled immediately. In my answer, I didn’t tell any opinion if the West should win. The question was technical and my answer was technical. The director says that the Syrians and Arabs don’t understand irony and sarcasm and they would burn the Institute if my comment is published in Helsinki. Does he think they are less intelligent than the Westerners? How an orientalist and a colonialist can be the director of the Finnish Institute in the Middle East?
The Institute demands the right to censor all my comments in media during and after the residency. I think they have no idea who they are dealing with. I was afraid of spying and censorship of the government's intelligence service but now I've been spied and censored by the orientalist Finnish Institute.
04 September 2011, Damascus
Today R and B didn’t stand for Rhianna and Beyoncé but for Syrian Arab Airlines RB402 from Madrid to Damascus. There was no inflight entertainment but I was reading El País newspaper with big demonstrations on its first page – the revolt was not in Syria but Israel. Kati from the Finnish Institute, that hosts me in Damascus, has told that the name of the Southern neighbor can never been mentioned in Syria, our code name is Iisalmi (a town in Eastern Finland). In Syria it’s called the Zionist entity.
I was seated next to an Aleppian guy who has lived 12 years in Madrid and this was his first visit back home. He said there was no trouble in Aleppo. Right, but would I think like that on my way to Helsinki saying that the situation is fine because the Finnish Army is killing civilians only in Tampere and Turku. Maybe he was an agent of the securitry apparatus of the Baath party and trying to find out if I sympathize with the opposition.
The first thing Anniina, the trainee of the institute, told me when I arrived, was that the building is microphoned and my e-mails are read. Do they really monitor us so closely that they have Finnish speaking staff listening to the conversation? The infrastructure of the country looks poor but maybe they spend the money for more crucial things. Anniina informed me also about an escape route to use if the situation escalates and the pillage begins. She recommends me to have an emergency bag always prepared. I remember that I was told that when I was in a residency in Tokyo - but it was for earthquakes. We have a Toyota Land Cruiser with a full tank and diplomat number plates ready to rush to Beirut in a case of emergency.
So I got in the country but it wasn’t that easy. The border police took me to a backroom to an interrogation. Five agents were asking me about my profession. I had written on the immigration card painter. It was tactical – I think it sounds more neutral than artist, it could refer to any surface finishing – but it was also the first time I have called myself painter. My professor Henry would have loved that. In the interrogation I tried to smile and look stupid though I was shitting my pants.
First impressions: a) Photos of president Bashar al-Assad are omnipresent. The cult of personality is overwhelming. Mr. Assad never looks towards us in the photos but somewhere to a glorious future. b) No police anywhere. How should I interpret this? Maybe the less you see police, the more agents there are around us. c) People do picnics by the highway between the airport and the city. Maybe it’s the only place where you have a strip of grass in this desert land. d) Pepsi is bigger than Coke here.
01 September 2011, Cervera de los Montes
Press release (translated from Finnish)
The artist Riiko Sakkinen spends the period between Septmember 4 and October 2 in a residency in Damascus. The residency is organized by the Finnish Fund for Art Exchange Frame and the Finnish Institute in the Middle East. Sakkinen will be staying at the Institute in Damascus. In addition, he gives a workshop for local art students in Aleppo at Le Pont Galler, which organizes international art festivals in the city. During the residency, Riiko Sakkinen will be collecting visual material to compose a work titled The Riiko Sakkinen Syrian Encyclopedia.
Currently almost all Syrian cities have anti-government demonstrations with hundreds of thousands of participants. Violence breaks out across the country on a daily basis. The government has arrested many people, including artists. Representatives of the media are not really allowed enter to the country.
In this situation, the artists should not boycott the country, but their duty is to strengthen contacts with local actors. Traveling to Syria is not safe but it is more insecure to live there permanently or study art or work as artist, Sakkinen says.
Riiko Sakkinen was born in 1976 in Helsinki and he lives in Spain. His works deal with the global consumer culture and politics. His works have been censored in China and South Korea. Sakkinen's works are included in the permanent collections of the Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma, Helsinki, and the Museum of Modern Art, New York.