Culture, according to UNESCO, is the “collection of spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features that define the identity of a given society.” For Syrians, culture is the recipient into which are poured all the political, military, human and social developments experienced over the past three years. It will produce new forms for societies that are no longer what they used to be, and develop new human concepts and values, some of which we will recognise while others will shock us. Does the word “identity” still mean what it meant before 2011? And do our criteria for defining our affiliations still resemble what we once easily recognised as “Syrian”?
Many of culture’s roles were affected over the past few years. Some of these roles are momentary and immediate, like documenting people’s everyday stories and, through this process, documenting the period of radical change that the country is going through. Another immediate role is defending art as an independent free voice that recounts the present and imagines the future. Other roles, however, are more long term, like intervening in education systems and integrating culture in the mechanisms of reconciliation and the promotion of understanding and dialogue.
Until this moment, most cultural initiatives have sought to close the small gaps in the nonexistent cultural activities system. The reality, however, is bigger than all of us: individuals, institutions, groups, writers and researchers. This makes the direct impact of these cultural initiatives intangible and unfelt, impossible to gauge and, more ominously, perhaps also unsustainable. From this comes the need to build strategic provisional consensus on the priorities for cultural activities in Syria. This paper is, at the core, the beginning of a search for consensus on the role of culture in the process of deep and complex political, social and cultural change that the Syrian people are experiencing today.
This paper is available in Arabic here