On July 3, Human Rights Watch released a report exposing at least 27 Syrian torture centers. The accompanying press release noted, “The systematic patterns of ill-treatment and torture that Human Rights Watch documented clearly point to a state policy of torture and ill-treatment and therefore constitute a crime against humanity.” As preparations for Independence Day celebrations were underway all over the United States, this was a stark reminder about people’s ongoing struggles for freedom and dignity, and the brutality with which they are often met.
So, what do you do when you are working to overthrow a regime, and even singing a controversial song can get your throat slit by state-supported thugs? How can you register dissent, or build a community of resistance and support for change?
The Syrians, despite confronting what Human Rights Watch calls a “torture archipelago,” have a lot to teach others about doing remarkable things with what little they’ve got — using creativity and humor on many fronts, not only as coping mechanisms but as a viable way to fight back and build capacity. Here are five of my favorite tricks from the Syrian arsenal of cultural resistance actions:
5. Staging a theatrical pseudo-wedding for a bride that is actually a gas cylinder,and a groom, revealed to be a dressed up deisel cylinder — an excuse for a big party while dramatizing the scarcity of essential resources.
4. Painting protest messages onto ping pong balls that can roll down surrounding hills into the main city to carry messages of solidarity and resistance.
3. Leaving MP3 players in trash cans to blare resistance messages.
2. Plastering Bashar al-Assad’s face on a pack of cigarettes with a warning that “the Syrian regime is a main source of cancer and heart and lung disease.”
The top prize goes to some unlikely little creations: puppet shows. More specifically, the finger puppets of Masasit Mati (Top Goon) and the videos posted on YouTube of their mini-productions. Because it is so dangerous to be outed as a resistance artist, the performers behind the project prefer to let their fingers do the talking — literally.
Launched in November 2011, the Top Goon episodes are each 5 minutes of insightful, brilliant, often laugh-out-loud-funny and heartbreaking action against the rule of the Assads. They are full of poignant messages for building community, pleas for working together, admonitions against violence and reality checks on the current situation. Comments on one of the videos included a wish for the next government of Syria to be as clever they were.
At one point, Bashar al-Assad, known in these shows by his diminutive baby name, Beeshu, lectures on instituting the law of gravity so as to put an end to the so-called “flying protests” — quick-forming, mobile protests akin to flash mobs. In another show, the thug character blames the protester for why they’re in prison, but the protester replies, “I will be free to go in a month, but you will still be here.” The message is clear: we must each choose freedom and dignity ourselves or be complicit and imprisoned in jails of our own making.
The thug, ultimately, is portrayed not just as an enemy of the people, but as a tool of the state, and, as such, on the losing side. Perhaps this will help sew seeds of mass defections among the authorities’ foot soldiers as they realize their fate is ultimately tied more directly to the masses than to those giving orders.
The 13th show, “The Final Episode,” starts off with Beeshu telling the audience that he has heard them, but he will not step down — because “the president and the people are one.” But he is then prevented from leaving the stage by his human puppeteer, wearing a mask, who proceeds to tell Beeshu that he is “the one who breathes life into you,” and he is done carrying the burden of the regime. Beeshu declares these “treasonable words.” In a flash, a cardinal truth about power is conveyed; as the puppeteer controls the puppet, the people can control the president. He then makes Beeshu dance to a protest song before dismantling the puppet and facing the audience to deliver an impassioned closing statement: “This is the easy part, believe me. The more important and difficult step is to forgive each other and build a free, civil and democratic Syria.”
Top Goon has been watched by hundreds of thousands, garnering worldwide media coverage. The power of the mighty mini-puppet lies in its ability to not only say what an ordinary citizen cannot, but to physically demonstrate the existing relationships that must be changed, as well as the responsibilities that must be accepted by people on their road to dignity and freedom. Such creative outlets provide a means for people in the resistance to speak clearly, and for delineating a future path of potential struggle with a lower risk of retaliation from the authorities. These and other myriad bits of art and cultural protest demonstrate in no uncertain terms that the Assad regime has lost control of the Syrian people’s imaginations, and the regime’s control over the country is in serious jeopardy.