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Two Films for the Syrian Unraveling

[Still from Omar Amiralay's [Still from Omar Amiralay's "A Flood in Baath Country"]

A Flood in Baath Country. Directed by Omar Amiralay. 2003.

Tea on the Axis of Evil. Directed by Jean Marie Offenbacher. 2009.  

As detentions of Syrian activists escalate and reports surface of nearly 500 dead, it is worth recalling that during the throes of Tahrir Square three months ago, all seemed quiet in Syria. Newspapers pronounced Syria “stable” and the risk of large-scale protest “unlikely,” and Bashar al-Assad used a rare interview with the Wall Street Journal to lecture his beleaguered counterparts on the practice of enlightened dictatorship. That same week marked the passing of Omar Amiralay, a titan of the Syrian documentary tradition since the outset of Assad family rule. Among the cruelest ironies of Syria's belated arrival to the “Arab Spring” is that Mr. Amiralay died just short of witnessing the beginnings of an authoritarian unraveling so exalted yet elusive in his work.  

Amiralay’s final film, Flood in Baath Country, revisits the subject of his first documentary: the Assad dam on the Euphrates river and the rural communities intended to be its beneficiaries. Film Essay on the Euphrates Dam (1970) was an enthusiastic catalogue of Ba’ath economic modernization in its most ambitious phase, framing the dam’s construction as an assertion of burgeoning Arab socialism – the predominance of man over nature, and of Arabs over their enemies. Flood, like much of Amiralay’s later work, delivers a subtle yet firm condemnation of the Ba’ath and a portrayal of Syria as a adrift, like so many boats floating haphazardly over Lake Assad, anchored in nothing but rhetoric.  

Amiralay introduces us to the village of el-Machi – a “microcosm” of Syria and an authoritarian fiefdom in its own right, subject to the fifty-year rule of Diab el-Machi, who is at once a “tribal chief” and Syria’s longest-standing MP. This marriage of “traditional” and state power provides the film’s first indictment of the Ba’ath, whose discourse embraces a social and symbolic turf war between feudalism and state authority. Flood unfolds in visual chapters, cycling through a dozen or more long, still, and wide-angle shots of the lakeshore, the sparse living quarters of Diab el-Machi, and various offices and classrooms in the local primary school. Repetition lends Amiralay’s Syria a sense of static and cyclical time, one that is mirrored by the omnipresence of framed, fading Hafiz al-Assad and the chants of “Vanguard!” which waft periodically through missing doors and windows.  

[Still from Omar Amiralay's A Flood in Baath Country]

Flood’s focus is el-Machi’s primary school, where children learn about Syrian dams in the obtuse language of the radical Ba’ath. In their textbooks, the Euphrates is personified and drafted into the service of the revolution. It became a “civilized river” after the president called on it one morning bearing gifts. The students absorb their lessons dispassionately, reciting en masse the relationship of “sacrifice” to “freedom” much in the same way they might recall the relationship of cosine to hypotenuse. One lesson concludes thus:  

Teacher: So is the dam solely the work of Syria, or an act of national liberation?

Students (all together): An act of national liberation.

Teacher: So it’s an act…?

Students: Of national liberation.

Teacher: An act…?

Students: Of national liberation.  

Syria has long been a focal point for the literature on “persistent authoritarianism,” and a sizeable chunk of this work hones in, as Flood does, on rhetoric and spectacle, and on the instrumentalization thereof in service of an ever-more elastic set of policies over time. By revisiting the construction of the dam through the lens of the school, Amiralay draws parallels between the manipulation of the physical world and manipulation of the symbolic one. But the operative processes of the latter are (pardon the pun) far less concrete. Watching Flood in the midst of the Syrian revolt demands that we revisit questions of how such discourse was conceived, and why it survives to this day; of how it was intended to function, and the degree to which it has failed.  

The discursive strategies of Hafiz al-Assad’s early tenure endeavored to reconcile the simultaneous processes of state-formation and nation building, the former concerned with administrative authority and the latter with imagined community and consensus. The early Ba’ath glorified the peasantry even as it accused them of “backwardness” and undertook a rural re-education campaign entwining the values of Arabism with the new statist logic of “development.” [1] Power is both personalized and generalized, and causal relationships that remain unproven in the empirical sense run rampant in the realm of Ba’athist rhetoric.   

Flood displays an acute generational dissidence in terms of embracing the ideology behind this requisite political speech. Whereas Diab el-Machi weeps as he recalls how the late Assad “held the Arab nation on his shoulders,” for the students, phrases like “ready to sacrifice for the party and homeland” are cold and clinical, devoid of emotional meaning and certainly of the politics that underpinned them forty years ago. The students’ propensity to forget what comes after “love of the Arab homeland” in their daily anthem speaks to Lisa Wedeen’s argument that the twenty-first-century Syrian state doesn’t expect its citizens to believe its slogans, only to repeat them. [2] But the popular satire and humor that for Wedeen form flipside of state rhetoric are absent. There is no breathing room, no social or political space un-blanketed by rhetoric.  

In Flood’s oft-repeated signature shot, the camera rides with excruciating slowness through a doorless doorframe, facing sideways such that the frame itself becomes a vertical barrier. In this way, we pass from empty hallway to dreary classroom, pausing to take in a lesson, with eyes straining to transgress the frame faster than the pan allows. The claustrophia of the slow camera mimics circumscribed political vision, where the cleansing of words from their meanings over time has delimited the possibility of articulating viable political alternatives. In this way Flood cannot imagine space for popular opposition; the state as embodied by its discourse is paper-thin, but firmly affixed to the eyes of its subjects. Towards the end of his life, Amiralay was unambiguously pessimistic about Syria. “I live in a country steadfastly marching on its hooves to its own demise, after it was betrayed by its rulers, deserted by its brainpower and abandoned by its intellectuals,” he said.  

Amiralay shot Flood in Baath Country in 2003, as Syrians grappled with the onset of economic reforms that would drag the state ever more from its militant roots. Yet one of Flood’s final scenes unequivocally dampens suspicions that Bashar al-Assad – with a “reformer” label and a question mark slapped on his presidency by dissidents and internationals – would slowly steer Syria out of its ideological and intellectual stupor. A room we’ve visited thrice before is revealed to be the school’s new “computer lab.” Pacing in front of the unopened computer boxes hitherto ignored, the schoolmaster describes them as “part of many gifts from the comrade Dr. Bashar Hafiz al-Assad, who is calling for modernizing the country. These computers are essential … They meet the demands of our time, and those of modernity which will lead us into the future …” As the speech continues, its meaning crystallizes: the computers are the dam of the present moment.  

And so the cycle continues. We find ourselves back on Lake al-Assad, conversing with the unnamed, unseen elderly man whose soliloquy on time and change opened the film. The Euphrates used to be a very different river, he explains, but the children don’t understand this. “They think this lake has been here forever.”  


 

As the title suggests, Tea on the Axis of Evil grapples with different political rhetoric – and it features an altogether different cast of Syrians. Suspicious of the Bush-era headlines that make up the film’s introductory montage, American filmmaker Jean Marie Offenbacher sought a way to capture strains of Syrian cosmopolitanism, secularism, and humor in a way that would help Americans reconsider neo-con foreign policy logic. Tea was born out of the urgent impetus to establish that far from being evil, Syrians are in fact just like us. 

The meat of Tea comprises interviews with forty or so English-speaking Syrians, leaning perceptibly towards the young, the secular, the educated, and the fashion-conscious. An inter-religious, college-aged group gathers for a birthday party, and later for some salsa dancing. An elderly man from Maaloula wishes for world peace in Palestinian Aramaic, “the precise language of Jesus Christ.” (Eastern Christianity and antiquity are focal points; both have historically ranked highly among cultural tropes that bound popular American engagement with the Middle East. [3]) Actress Amal Omran speaks to the limits of experimental theater in Syria. Nihad Sirees, a TV writer celebrated for his series on Khalil Gibran and the United Arab Republic, reflects on the corporatist state as a cow. “Who is going to drink the milk?” he jokes.  

With Omran and Sirees leading the way, Offenbacher’s interlocutors are compelling - self-possessed, energetic, creative, and sardonic at times. But as documentary subjects they fall flat, because they are performing themselves – that is, performing the idea of an elite, secular Syria – for an American audience assumed to be watching through Bush-tinted glasses. The project lends these Syrians the ominous responsibility of representing their nation to a hostile audience, and they respond in kind. In Syria, we have no sectarian problems. In Syria, women are free to have a family and a career. It is a shame that this impetus overshadows narratives of their own life and work, which are far more engaging.  

[Still from Jean Marie Offenbacher's Tea on the Axis of Evil]

Tea’s cinematography reads like an extended tourism trailer for the backpacking type: unencumbered cameras jostle through Souq al-Hammidiyya and interviews are frequently shot from several feet above or below eye level. Sparse narration provides an offhand set of “historical facts” that range from campy to callous. Palmyra is identified as “Queen Zenobia’s stomping ground,” while Hama is the sight of Hafiz al-Assad’s “retaliation” against an extremist, teacher-murdering Muslim Brotherhood. The latter claim is Ba’athist historical narrative as pure as any text from the classrooms of el-Machi; such narratives go largely unchallenged, as though the project of making Syria palatable for Americans requires that some things be swept under the proverbial carpet. The result is a certain utopian otherness, the flipside to Flood in Baath Country’s rural dystopia.  

The film’s greatest faults lie, unsurprisingly, in its treatment of Islam. Like so much American cultural work on Muslims, Tea establishes a bifurcation between "Good" and "Bad" Islam, [4] and it participates in the strong Orientalist tradition of casting the veil (or lack thereof) as a measure of social progress. [5] Offenbacher’s Muslims wear a small, stylish veil, or none at all, as they walk arm in arm with uncovered friends. Women in black niqab, by contrast, are not interviewed. We see them only in wide angle, their faces obscured by distance and by blurry shapes in the foreground. Tea is infused with paranoia about the “rise” of religiosity in Syria, where "Saudi money" has something to do with the fact that “more and more young girls are starting to cover themselves.” This same suspicion of hegemonic religion lurking in the Syrian shadows has surely contributed to the wishy-washiness of American commentary on the Syrian revolt.  

Ultimately, Tea on the Axis of Evil tells us less about Syria than about the American sociocultural currents that preceded and inspired it. The film is perhaps best read as an exemplary text of a certain gentle new Orientalism, a post-Bush framework where overtures towards “understanding” mingle with a lingering set of unexamined assumptions. Indeed, “unexamined” may be the keyword for Obama’s decidedly half-hearted rebuke of the Syrian crackdown (as, of course, American drones continue to soar over Libya). For the American body politic, Syria is neither here nor there: neither half-man dictator deserving of a full military ouster nor enough of a mirror image to warrant identification, sympathy, or aid.  

In a candid moment with Suzanne Manneh of New American Media, Offenbacher explains her audience thus:  

There have been some Arab viewers who were disappointed or upset because the film was in English and that I was making this film as an "outsider," but my response is nobody cares what Arabs think of the Arab world — they won't believe this film if it were made by a Syrian.  

Therein lies the rub – the necessity of an American intermediary to validate Syria’s claims against an “axis” that only ever existed in the American mind. It is precisely such logic – a denial of the Arab right to even discursive self-determination – that has serviced the unrepresentative regimes of the Middle East for so many years, both internally and externally. Omar Amiralay understood this. If he had lived just a few months longer, we might yet have a richer picture of the personal and political objectives driving young Syrians into the perilous streets of Deraa, Banyas, and Homs.

[A Flood in Baath Country and Tea on the Axis of Evil are both available from the Arab Film Distribution website.]



[1] Aurora Sottimano and Kjetil Selvik, Changing Regime Discourse and Reform in Syria. St. Andrews Papers on Contemporary Syria, Raymond Hinnebusch ed. (2009).

[2] Lisa Wedeen, Ambiguities of Domination: Politics, Rhetoric, and Symbols in Contemporary Syria (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1999).

[3] See Melani McAlister, Epic Encounters: Culture, Media, and U.S. Interests in the Middle East, 1945-2000 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001).

[4] See Mahmood Mamdani, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror (New York: Doubleday, 2004).

[5] Several excellent ethnographies have reexamined this paradigm, explicating how contemporary Muslim women locate power and “modernity” within an Islam that is personal, mutable, and removed from the realm of Islamic politics. See, for example, Samah Selim’s review of Saba Mahmood’s Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject.

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