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.
HELLO KITTY LINGERIE UNDER THE JILBAB
27 September 2011, Damascus
I went to the souq, the huge market, and bought for my wife some Syrian fantasy lingerie, available next to kids’ clothing, spices and teapots. It’s a bit like the stuff that can be found in sex shops in the West but more humorous and playful. Many Muslims equip their honeymoon with an enormous number of different sexy outfits. The idea of finding that under a black jilbab is exciting. The Syrian Christians I’ve met, consider this kind of underwear vulgar, it’s exclusively Muslim culture and people from all Middle East come to Damascus to buy this gear which is made in Syria, not in China. I got panties that play lambada and a tiny bra that has multicolor glimmering led lights. The Quran advices the wives to entertain their husbands.
FINALLY IN THE DAMASCUS ART WORLD
25 September 2011, Damascus
I met again Abir and she took me to All Art Now, a non-profit space she runs and the only place to see contemporary art in Damascus. The space is in the old town in a rundown building which permits a flexible use of the galleries and keeping traces of previous projects visible. Now the activities have been paralyzed during the crisis, even Egyptian artists are afraid of traveling to Syria.
All Art Now had on view still a smoothly curated group show of Damascene artists. The theme is memories and most of the artists had treated the issue from a personal point of view but it was impossible to see the works without the context of the current situation. The exhibition curated by Abir presents five installations that become sequels of a horror film scenery about the history of this complex country. Nisrine Boukhari shows an installation with 30 hanging knives in between curtains - I found this out when one of the knives was situated an inch from my eye. Erfan Khalifa's installation is closed because he has lost his memories due to an electroconvulsive threrapy. In a keyhole you can see a stack of white plastic chairs.
We walked to a restaurant to meet most of the artists of the show: Erfan, Muhammad and Nisrine. I was of course asking about the politics. Everybody talked me like the official propaganda of the government and now I was speaking with Sunni Muslims, who are, according to the Western media, supposed to support the rebellion. What I don’t understand is that why the situation is painted so black and white: Assad’s dicatorship Vs. Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamist regime. Of course, I’d pick also the current regime of those two but I refuse to believe that there are no other options. The most important thing to these art world people is to keep the religion out of the politics and develop the country even more secular if possible.
ROCKING IN HIJAB
23 September 2011, Damascus
I’ve been lonely and I my injured foot has limited my movements in Damascus but this week I decided I had to meet more people and move around despite of the pain and the incapability of the Institute to introduce me to any people. I’m making good work – Syria for Dummies slide show has now almost 300 photos - but if I don’t meet more people I don’t understand myself the work I’ve done.
I’ve been speaking to people at falafel stalls, carpet shops and bars. A common attitude towards the political situation is not to support the Islamist rebels but neither to back blindly the regime. Many Syrians hope that Assad would reform now when he has been challenged. An Islamist revolution would destroy the fragile multiculturalism of the country. This is the only place I’ve seen where niqabed and miniskirted women buy the same halal meat in the same butcher´s shop and girls in hijab go to rock'n'roll concerts.
I met finally Abir who runs All Art Now, a non-profit space that is the only place to see contemporary art in Damascus. I asked how big is the art world in the city and first she said that it’s formed of about fifteen people but later reduced it to seven. Abir seemed to like Syria for Dummies but said that she could not exhibit it because of the photos of the photos of the president. I find it interesting because I just make something that anybody can see visible. It’s too much to juxtapose some transitory consumer goods and the eternal political leader.
Thursday night is when the weekend begins here and people go to party, most of them without getting drunk. I found a bar with dancing and drinking people and talked all night with a 24-year-old Muslim DJ. He kept his hand front of the mouth and whispered me that he wants to kill the president with his own hands. His cousin had been just killed by a riot control sniper (if you ask some other people, they would say that the sniper was in the orders of the Islamists). But what really got me surprised was that a Muslim could drink much more than a Finn, I hardly was able to walk back home.
BLACK AND WHITE FALLACY
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.
THE PATRIOT PANORAMA
19 September 2011, Damascus
I had never seen a painting that could be compared in size with the 130-meter-long Tishreen Panorama, which the visitors look from a circular rotating platform.
I was the only person visiting this 1973 October War (called Yom Kippur War in the Zionist entity) memorial and sitting on the VIP seat and accompanied by six guides (one of them guiding me and the others laughing at my translated comments). At the entrance armed men in civil apparel had checked my passport and written down its number.
The work, engineered and painted by North Koreans, depicts the battle of Quneitra in the Golan Heights. It’s annoying to see a romantic presentation of war without any horrors – no Syrian casualties, no fear, no blood, no raped civilians. It’s awfully false and beautiful. It would be easy to laugh at the Syrian patriotic pride of a lost war but I’m from Finland, a nation that remembers its defeat in the WWII (allied with the Nazi Germany) with producing regularly war hero films and forgets the concentration camps where the Soviet civilians were interned.
One day, I want to paint my Turbo Realist Panorama. I need few hundred thousand euros and a squadron of Korean painters. I would just add burgers and beer service while your seat rotates. And of course a gift shop what the Syrians had totally dismissed – maybe this really is a sort of a socialist country.
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.
ARTIST TALKING TO NOBODY
15 September 2011, Damascus
The Finnish Institute organized yesterday night my artist talk and they told me they had invited some "selected" art world people to see my works and chat with me. They said that in these uncertain times it's better to keep it small and private. Before the residency I asked them if could make a small exhibition but according to them my art can not be exhibited in Syria. They would have never invited my kind of artist but I was chosen by Frame in Helsinki.
We had wine and canapés prepared – but nobody came to listen my talk. I don’t know what this tells about Damascus, maybe it’s more about the Finnish Institute and the idea of exporting culture. I would never participate in any activity organized by the Syrian Institute (if it existed) in Madrid or Helsinki. These institutes don’t have real contact to the local art world and from outside they look like simple propaganda. After the conflict with the director of Institute, I’m also thinking about the possibility that my artist talk was fake, that they invited nobody to avoid troubles.
Residencies make sense only when they are done in collaboration with local institutions. The national structures could offer funding and housing but the content should be responsibility of somebody who genuinely knows the context and the people. The Institute hasn’t been able to introduce me to anybody here and I’m feeling extremely lonely. I didn’t know what it was going to be like here and I was mentally prepared to face a variety of problems but definitely I didn’t think about getting bored.
AN ENEMY COMBATANT IN THE BUILDING
14 September 2011, Damascus
The Finnish Institute in the Middle East, where I’m staying, is a magnificent Ottoman palace in the heart of the old town. An amazing setting to feel the history but far away from the present. The atmosphere is hideous. The director is back from Helsinki and informed me that he sets the rules and if I don't follow them, he can "kick me out" any moment. The rules include a right to censor everything I write or say during the residency. The Institute demands also a right to censor my article that I've been asked to write for Framer, the magazine of Frame Finnish Fund for Art Exchange which has organized my residency. I tried to speak to the director about dialogue and horizontal communication and proposed him to go together to hammam - Finnish men have always had the important discussion in sauna - but he said no to everything and now I consider him an enemy combatant.
INTERVIEWS OF TWO SYRIAN ARMENIAN GIRLS
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.
DANCING IN A CONFLICT ZONE
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.
THE TROUBLE MAKER ATTITUDE
09 September 2011, Aleppo
I had again a question and answers session at the airport about my profession. I’m supposed to define here my practice often. My passport was confiscated in Damascus and I got it back at the Aleppo airport. No idea why they needed it during the domestic flight.
Yesterday, I talked about my work at Le Pont Gallery to a crowd of about 25 people. They didn't ask too many question but Issa said that what could I imagine - The Syrians have never been encouraged to ask questions. The frightened and orientalist Finnish Institute had said that I should not show any works containing sex or politics but Issa, my Aleppian host and the director of Le Pont, told me to talk like anywhere else and people seemed to like what they saw. When I read the Manifesto of Turbo Realism, I pointed out that it was written in the global context and should not be interpreted to be particularly against the Syrian regime.
After the lecture I went with Issa to May and Nathalie’s place to see their paintings. They both graduated last year from the Faculty of Fine Arts of the Aleppo University. Then we went to have dinner and smoke nargile. After that we got a cab to go to have some drinks in the decadent Baron Hotel, where people like Agatha Christie and Lawrence of Arabia lived and partied.
I was already sitting in the back seat of the taxi when men in civil clothing holding automatic guns told us to get out. Issa had taken a photo of an old Lada parked next to a building with president Assad’s photo but no text was telling it was a police station. Nobody was able to explain me what kind of security organization it was.
Issa was taken into the buiding and the rest of us were left in the street but our ID cards were taken. I asked the man to identify himself. He smiled and made clear and he had a gun and he didn’t need any badge. Later Nathalie was taken inside the buiding also to be interrogated by a fat guy who had arrived in a fancy car with two bodyguards.
We were set free one hour later. Issa came out with a bunch of men who forced him to say both in Arabic and English that he was sorry for taking the photo of the security car and causing problems. For Issa this seems to be normal. He is the official trouble maker of the Aleppian art world and the organizer of the controversial International Photo Festival and Women's Art Festival.
After the incident, one of my students (in the workshop beginning today) showed us a photo of that same sinister car taken with her mobile phone. I told her with admiration that it's the attitude she should have in her all art work.
FINNISH CENSORSHIP IN SYRIA
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.
THE DAMASCENERY - ALL POSTCARDS FOR ME ALONE
05 September 2011, Damascus
My first Damascene breakfast: Rhiana Farms milk and Nescafé. Anniina says we live in a bubble - we can just read the death toll on Al Jazeera news every morning. Should I believe in Al Jazeera, BBC and CNN that transmit only lies if you ask the supporters of the government? Or should I read the news from the Russian RT or Hezbollah’s Al-Manar?
Everything looks normal here in the Christian old town except there are no tourists at all. All postcards sold at the souvenir stalls are for me alone. Did I come to a conflict zone where I’m going to see no conflict? The only violent thing is the mosquito commando raiding my body last night.
I’ve walked down the most ancient Arab street in the world. I’ve seen at the souq the funny honeymoon lingerie that the whole Arab world comes here to buy. I’ve been in Omayad Mosque and spotted the skeleton of John the Babtist but I though there was going to be corpses of the victims of the state terrorism on the streets.
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.
MY LAST ASSAULT FORCE
03 September 2011, Cervera de los Montes
I feel a bit desperate because the Operation Golden Monkey closes tomorrow in Helsinki and practically nothing has been sold. It would be easy to blame always the gallerists but if none of them is able to place my work anywhere, the problem must be in the artist or in the artwork.
Tomorrow I'm going to Syria. This might be my last assault to be a successful artist. Syria under revolt can provide me tremendous material to create my best work ever. I need to be stronger, harder and faster.
My wife is worried for me traveling to a war zone. I´m worried just because I don’t know if I get in because I don’t have a visa. Finnish citizens can get – at least before the conflict – the visa at the border because there is no Syrian diplomatic representation in Helsinki.
I have to be an artist like a Navy SEAL.
SAKKINEN IN SYRIA
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.