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Issue 167

Productive Anguish

How to survive exile

BY Kaelen Wilson-Goldie in Opinion | 31 OCT 14

Khaled Malas, Drawing of a Well (from ‘Excavating the Sky’), 2014. Courtesy: the artist

On a quiet Sunday afternoon in September, Samer Saem Eldahr – a 25-year-old artist from the Syrian city of Aleppo – was sitting in a flat with no furniture, sketching out three possible visions for the future. In the first, he would make a fourth album under the name Hello Psychaleppo, further developing the syncretic style of electro-shaabi music he had pioneered that elides trip-hop, gritty dance music and tarab. In the second, he would study traditional Bedouin music until he could compose his own, updated for the digital age. In the third, he would delve into the prevalence of birds in Arabic culture, drawing on the region’s heritage to create something new.

Eldahr studied painting in a strict academic setting, but he has been messing around with music since he was a child. At five, his older brother introduced him to Iron Maiden and AC/DC. At 12, he learned classical Arabic music. When he heard Dr. Dre for the first time, he became a rapper, briefly, and later played in bands, doing vocals, on guitar, whatever he could.

But, in terms of shaping a life around work, Eldahr stuck to painting. When the uprising in Syria erupted into the Battle of Aleppo two years ago, his parents dispatched him to Beirut. At home, no galleries were open and the situation across Syria was becoming too devastating to describe. What was meant to be a quick trip turned into a record deal, a marriage and an indefinite stay. Eldahr exhibited his paintings, made two albums and began performing live in Beirut, Cairo and Paris.

Surrounded by three electric guitars, an oud, two MacBooks, a Marshall amp and a keyboard, Eldahr explained to me in the briefest of terms that he left Syria for his safety, but also for his career – which seemed like a shorthand way of saying the possibility of any kind of future at all. As it happened, I visited Eldahr just a few weeks after meeting Khaled Malas, a 33-year-old architect who had devised an ingenious project for Rem Koolhaas’s architecture biennale in Venice. ‘Excavating the Sky’ (2014) is both a collection of stories covering 100 years of flight from Syria and a ‘displaced Syrian pavilion’: a renegade project consisting of a 120-metre-deep well in an undisclosed location in Syria which supplies potable water to a community of 15,000 people who are both out of government control and unmoved by militant Islamic rule. Describing the work, Malas uses the words resistance, alchemy and hope.

A few months prior to speaking with Malas, I had met Charif Kiwan, a filmmaker in his 40s who is the spokesman for Abounaddara, an anonymous collective that posts a new (often brilliant, often bracing) video online every Friday, chronicling the details of daily life in Syria through three and a half years of open revolt.

That these three men, who represent three different examples of artists in exile, have made the best work I’ve seen or heard this year speaks to the cruel inheritance of the Syrian conflict, which, for all its horrors, has enriched Lebanon’s cultural life. Relations between the two countries are gruesomely complex. Few exceptional thinkers have found common ground: the late filmmaker Omar Amiralay, the intellectual Yassin al-Haj Saleh, and the journalist Samir Kassir, who was assassinated in 2005, and probably lost his life for appealing to the Syrian opposition (the case is one of many that remain unsolved). The Lebanese have not been uniformly welcoming to the million-plus refugees in their midst. In a lecture, later printed in the essay collection Representations of the Intellectual (1994), Edward Said described exile as ‘productive anguish’.

In another lecture, posthumously anthologized in Between Parentheses (2011), Roberto Bolaño considered exile, at its best, synonymous with courage. The responses of both writers are apt in relation to Syria, given the rage and violence they captured and conveyed. Said was nostalgic. Bolaño was romantic. Eldahr, Malas and Kiwan are, above all, determined to continue creating and responding. Eldahr told me brightly that, for all the uncertainty of his situation, he was never bored. To make new work and imagine sharing it was more than an affirmation of the future. It was the most basic, mind-blowing thrill of being alive.

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie is a writer based between Beirut, Lebanon, and New York, USA.