From March 18-19, 2022, I was honored to participate in the inspiring “For Syria” conference, organized by the American Coalition for Syria in Washington D.C. The event was both an exuberant celebration of Syrian culture, and an opportunity for activists, artists, and policy makers to collaborate on plans for supporting civil society in Syria, and bringing the Assad regime and Putin’s Russia to justice for war crimes they are actively committing in Syria and the Ukraine.
The event was scheduled to coincide with the 11th anniversary of the Syrian Revolution, and this harrowing milestone suffused the two days with a powerful sense of poignant urgency. Tears of joy and sorrow accompanied every moment of the conference, as recollections of homes and families, now buried under the rubble of Assad’s bombs, were resurrected in stories, songs, images, and bites of rich and sweet swar as-sitt.
I attended the event as a visiting artist, and upon a late-night arrival to the conference center on Thursday, March, 17, I was overjoyed to meet my fellow artists, Syrian American painters Etab Hrieb, Nada Odeh, and Suhair Sibai.
The gifted Syrian American photographer Saad Fansa was also in attendance, presenting his haunting images of Syria’s rich and varied historical and archeological treasures, some of which have been destroyed by Assad and ISIS. All of the artists I met told me moving, and often wrenching stories about their fraught memories of life as an artist and/or a woman under the creatively stifling twin terrors of Assad and ISIS. One of the artists burst into tears as she told me how her young son was murdered by ISIS in 2014, a pain too unbearable to even imagine.
Despite the many recollections of suffering, the art itself was radiant–bursting with color and energy. Etab Hrieb’s landscapes of Syria sang with thick swaths of bright blues, purples, and pinks.
Nada Odeh’s expressive paintings were a celebration of Syrian women, and her memories of secluded courtyard fountains, cool, verdant refuges for women and girls from the searing heat, and the gaze of men.
Artist Suhair Sibai poured her passion for female beauty and strength into large portraits of Syrian women, their shining eyes like beacons through Sibai’s veils of glazed color, an alchemy of pigment, varnish, and even roofing tar!
On Friday evening, the paintings and photographs became a backdrop for two wonderful poets, Mariam Abou-Ghazala, and Cenna Khatib. Abou-Ghazala spoke of how the faint, wafting, scent of jasmine transported her from a California traffic jam to the flower laden streets of Syria, the sounds of birds mingling with the plantitive voice of an old man singing about his lost love.
Poet Cenna Khatib, who treasured her visits to Syria as a young girl, tearfully told of how her childhood optimism in the first heady years of the Syrian Revolution, had been battered and wounded by years of brutal struggle, yet still remained strong and hopeful, despite the scars: “And there is still an 11-year-old somewhere here, with dowey bright eyes and rose colored glasses, who is eager to keep her promise, and as long as this Revolution continues, I swear to be a part of it.”
Friday evening ended with a powerful flourish as three talented musicians Dylan Connor, Wafsi Massariani, and Muath Edriss filled the conference hall with the beautiful music of Syria.
Musician, activist, and teacher, Dylan Connor was responsible for organizing and curating the art, poetry, and music for the ACS event, and has been faithfully using his immense talent to shed light on the Syrian crisis for over a decade. Dylan sang several songs, including the heart wrending “If Only You’d Listen,” which has 8.9 million views on social media. With lyrics like “Where are your tears? Where is your voice? Time is running out but we still have a choice,” Connor’s song is a rallying cry for allies, Syrian and non-Syrian alike, to shake off their complacency and apathy, and to use their unique abilities to speak for their Syrian brothers and sisters.
After Connor, the popular Syrian-Czech singer Wafsi Massariani took the stage. His deep, sonorous voice shook with emotion as he performed “Janna Janna (Heaven, Heaven) a duet (via recorded audio) with the late Revolutionary hero Abdelbasit Saroot. Massariani, and later oudist Muath Edriss, inspired an intense welling of nostalgia, pride, and solidarity to everyone in attendance.
With tears streaming down their faces, attendees in business suits and dresses, clapped, sang, and broke into spontaneous dabke. “This feels like it did in 2012,” said one of the conference goers, “when everyone was on fire for the Revolution.” Chicago physician and activist Zaher Sahoul explained that in 2021, when he approached Dylan Connor about including artists and musicians in the DC event, it was the ineffable, rejuvenating effects of the arts he hoped would reignite the community’s passion and resilience for the marathon that is the quest for justice and freedom in Syria.