I co-wrote this article with Israa Hazel for Global Voices on 14 January 2019.
After eight years of brutal war in Syria, the Arab League announced it will reinstate it as a member and resume ties with President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Syria was expelled from the Arab League in 2011 over the fierce repression of peaceful protesters against Assad, but now it seems the war is ‘ending’ with the Assad regime’s victory, backed by Russia and Iran.
On December 17, 2018, Sudanese President Omar Bashir visited Assad in Syria, even in the midst of his own political upheaval and brutal repression. On December 27, the UAE re-opened its embassy in Syria and Tunisia resumed direct flights with Damascus. A day later, Egypt, which has been developing ties with the Assad regime under the Abdel Fattah el-Sisi regime for years, invited Syria’s national security chief to meet with his Egyptian counterpart. Egypt is also lobbying Tunisia to get on board, and Algeria agrees.
Jordan resumed trade deals with the Assad regime in October 2018 (while closing its borders to Syrian refugees fleeing regime offensives) and Bahrain’s foreign minister and member of the country’s ruling family, Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa, exchanged a highly publicized hug and kiss with his Syrian counterpart Walid al-Muallem at the UN General Assembly that same month.
Meanwhile, in Lebanon, an ever-stronger Hezbollah has been calling for Damascus to be officially invited to the Arab Economic and Social Development Summit, set to be held in Beirut this month. A source told (Saudi-owned) Al-Arabiya that the Assad regime’s return to the Arab League “might be put up for debate” during that time.
Since the revolution and subsequent war began in 2011, the Assad regime has been pushing a narrative of ‘normality’ in Damascus to its supporters at home and abroad. To resist this narrative, a photography collective called the “Lens of a Young Damascene” is among those documenting life inside Assad-ruled Syria as it takes steps to rebuild diplomatic relations, especially in the Arab world.
Resisting from within
Despite many signs indicating cooperation from the Arab regimes, members of the “Lens of a Young Damascene” (or “Dimashqi Lens” for short) collective know that the war is not over in Syria. People continue to bury their dead and say goodbye to those who fled. What’s left is tragedy and destruction — children sleep on the streets and sell anything to survive. Resources are scarce and fear prevails above all.
The collective uses various social media platforms like Tumblr, Flickr, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to share these realities through images of daily life in Damascus, highlighting the struggles ordinary Syrians face in a country where human rights violations have become the new norm.
Recently, the collective has curated images with added poetic comments, transforming them into Instagram stories to capture the miserable, intolerable conditions.
These stories have been wildly popular with Syrian Diaspora social media users who view this account as a rare insight into life in a country where they cannot return out of fear of being detained or killed by the Syrian regime.
Portraying Damascus ‘as it is’
Global Voices sat down to speak with members of “Lens of a Young Damascene” collective.
Global Voices (GV): Who is “Lens of a Young Damascene” and what do you hope to get out of it?
عدسة شاب دمشقي انطلقت بأيام المظاهرات وقت كان الاعلام الرسمي عم يكذب المظاهرات ، وانطلقت الصفحة لتوثق المظاهرات والدمار والانتهاكات يلي كانت عم تصير عن طريق الصور الفوتغرافية عوضا عن الفيديو يلي كان منتشر بالفترة هديك.
اهدافنا كانت انو نبرز حقيقة الواقع وتشوف الناس المظاهرات والاحداث يلي عم تصير بعيون اهل الشام.
Lens of a Young Damascene: “Lens of A Young Damascene” started in the early days of demonstrations when official Syrian media would deny that these demonstrations are happening. So the page started to document these demonstrations and the destruction and violations that happened through photographs instead of videos which was the common tool back then. Our goal is to highlight the situation so that people can see the demonstrations and the events unfolding through the eyes of Damascenes.
GV: What is the story behind your “End of 2018” project? And how have Syrians reacted to it?
في كل سنة نختار صور تحكي قصة العام السابق، ولكن في هذا العام وقد بدأنا بنشر واستخدام القصص على انستغرام وعملنا على عدة قصص حتى الآن مميزة روائيا وأدبياً كانت آخرها حكاية 2018 ، فقد قمنا بعرض صور العام من خلال حكاية أدبية من كتباتنا وروايتنا عن الاحداث التي وثقناها وسجلناها خلال هذا العام.
القصة لقت رواجاً كبيراً واحبها الناس لانها حكت ما حصل في هذا العام بصدق وشفافية وصراحة، وعبرت عما في داخلهم.. وأعطتهم الأمل رغم كل الألم والقصص المحزنة التي سردناها.
LYD: Every year, we choose photographs that tell the story of the last year, but this year we started using and sharing these pictures through Instagram and we’ve worked on several special stories that have a poetic element to them. One of the last stories was the story of 2018 in which we showcased the year’s photographs through a story that we wrote and that narrated the events that we documented throughout the year. The story was a huge success and it was very much loved by people because it told the real story of what was happening in the last year truthfully, in a way that expressed how they feel about it.
GV: Before this story, you had many others published through your social media pages that describe the situation of civilians in Damascus through photography. How would you describe the photos you take and the stories behind them in relation to the narrative that seeks to normalize the regime?
في قصصنا نعمل جاهدين على ان نصور الشارع كما هو وننقل صورة الحدث كما هية .. بعين أهل البلد واحساس اهل البلد… الاعلام الرسمي ينقلها بعين النظام وبلسانه … وروايته دائما تمشي في سكة معينة مضللة لكل الناس.
فهو يسمى المهجرين ارهابيين ويرحب ويظهر ايران وروسيا على انهما صاحبا البلد بينما نراهما دولتان محتلتان استباحاتا الارض مقابل حماية النظام وابقاءه في دمشق
LYD: Through our stories we work hard to portray the current situation of the Syrian streets as it is, through the eyes of its people, reflecting how they feel. Meanwhile, the Syria media tells the regime’s narrative, and theirs has always been misleading because they portray internally displaced people as terrorists while welcoming incoming Iranians and Russians as our own people. We view them as invading countries that have violated our land in exchange for the protection of the regime and ensuring Assad’s hold over Damascus.
GV: You are in Damascus. What are your impressions on the life of people there and the living standards in general?
الله يعين الناس.. الناس حالها حال.. في شي لا يتسع بصورة وكميرا وقصة… دمشق مليانة ملايين قصص البؤس التي لا يرويها احد. على الرغم من ذلك هناك فئة تعيش حياتها في دمشق وهي فئة الاغنياء واصحاب المصالح مع النظام أما البقية فهم فقراء ولا يوجد طبقة
لا يوجد ما يسمى عودة سوريا كما كانت قبل الحرب لأن سوريا لم تعد سوريا بالأصل. فهي بلاد محتلة خسرت مليون على الأقل من شعبها كشهداء ومعتقلين وحوالي 10 ملايين لاجئ حول العالم.. فهل منطقي ان نقول ذلك؟
مؤيدو النظام واعلامه يسوقون لذلك ويقولون انها تحت سيطرة الاسد بينما سوريا يرتع ويلعب فيها الايرانيون والروس وكل ما يخطر ببالك من جنسيات.
هذا ولم نتحدث عن البناء والاقتصاد الخ… سوريا لتعود لما قبل الحرب تحتاج لخمسين عام على الأقل
LYD: God help them. The situation is quite dire here and it cannot be truly be conveyed through stories and pictures and cameras only. Damascus is full of misery-filled stories that aren’t told by anyone. In spite of that, there is a certain group in Damascus that is enjoying a lavish lifestyle and they are usually the rich people whose interests align with the regime. Meanwhile, the rest are quite poor because the middle class has ceased to exist.
There is no turning back to pre-war Syria because Syria isn’t Syria anymore. We’re talking about an invaded country that has at least a million of its people either martyred or detained. We also have 10 million refugees around the world, so is it logical to suggest that things are back to normal?
GV: It does seem that your stories have reached a wide audience among the Syrian Diaspora. Why do you think that is?
هم يحتاجون من يريهم دمشق دون كذب وتلفيق ، ونعمل جاهدين على ان نلبي هذه الحاجة.. نحن نروي بصدق ليس لدينا شيء نخسره ولا مكسب ولا نتبع لأي جهة
LYD: They need someone to show them Damascus as it is without any lies or fabrications and we work hard to do that for them. We tell our story truthfully and we don’t have anything to lose or gain in this. We also don’t follow any faction.
GV: Finally, what is your message to the international media?
رسالتنا أن لا يلتفت الاعلام لما يقوله النظام ، وان مصادر الناس والمصورين والمواطنيين الصحفيين اصدق بالف مرة من رواية الاعلام الرسمي.
LYD: Our message is that they shouldn’t pay mind to the regime’s narrative, and that the sources provided by the people and citizen journalists are much more reliable to tell the truth than official Syrian media.