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Research focus Syria - Cultural production and social change since the 1980s

Foto: Friederike Pannewick

Our research group's focus on Syria includes a number of individual and joint research projects, concentrating mostly on Syrian cultural production.

| Database: Syrian authors published since 1980

Project coordinator: Felix Lang

For this database, we are collecting interviews, articles, books, blogs, videos, and other documents on and by over one hundred Syrian authors of fiction and poetry from the 1980s to the present. This material is intended to form the basis for different research projects on the Syrian cultural production in the past 35 years. The database will be accessible by students and researchers at the CNMS.

Biographical information
Published works (fiction and non-fiction)
Published interviews
Secondary literature
Social media output

| Figures of Thought in novels by Syrian writers since 1990

Felix Lang and Friederike Pannewick

This project, situated in the field of digital humanities, aims to trace the changes in “figures of thought” in large corpora of fiction and non-fiction written by Syrian writers over the past fifteen years with the help of information retrieval software. The concept of “figures of thought” as used in this project is based on the notion of cultural conceptual systems of cognitive anthropology (cf. Bennardo/Kronenfeld 2011). The project proceeds in two steps: firstly, texts are searched for word clusters which relate to specific conceptual systems; secondly, changes in the composition of the individual word clusters over time will be mapped.

The primary aims are:
to elaborate a productive working definition of “figures of thought”;
to map changes in these “figures” in relation to historical time;
and finally, to establish what kind of relationships (if any) exist between social changes and changes in these “figures”.

| Cultural intervention and the war in Syria - Transformations of the field of cultural production and the role of european public diplomacy

Felix Lang

This project explores the role of European PDOs for Syrian cultural producers in exile between 2011 to 2018. The main hypothesis is that public diplomacy institutions to a certain extent have come to replace institutions of the national field which have become dysfunctional for an important segment of cultural producers and consequently play a significant role in the transformations of the field of cultural production which is currently in progress. In particular, the PDO’s intervention would seem to lead to (1) the opening up of a new space of possibles; (2) the reversion of the hierarchies between producers; (3) the reversion of the hierarchy of genres; (4) a partial re-definition of the values of the field; (4) a split between national and exilic cultural production.

This project is part of a larger postdoc project on the role of European public diplomacy organisations (PDOs) in contemporary MENA cultural production. It is conducted in cooperation with the ERC Project Social Dynamics of Civil Wars (Giles Dorronsoro, Pantheon-Sorbonne).

| Syrian cultural production in the light of radical political change

Sonja Mejcher-Atassi and Friederike Pannewick

Interested in the intersection of culture and politics, this project takes the radical political change of the ‘Arab Spring’ as the starting point to reconsider Syrian cultural production prior to 2011 and to explore newly emerging cultural practices and the ways they have responded to and participated in the very political change out of which they were produced. It focuses on new ways of writing between testimony, autobiography/memoir, journalism, and fiction, as forged by a younger generation of authors and highlights two shifts: a transition from subversive, indirect criticism expressed ‘between the lines’ to direct confrontation in the public sphere, which almost inevitably leads to questioning the role of the writer; and a documentary turn in writing and cultural production at large, which has brought to the fore the visual image, in particular the genre of the short film.

| Translating the language of the Syrian Revolution

Eylaf Bader Eddin

While the Arab revolutions have obviously triggered extensive social and political changes, the far-reaching consequences of the cultural and linguistic changes have yet to be adequately considered. For activists, academics, and journalists, however, the revolution was – in the first instance – one of language, a break with the linguistic oppression and torpidity of the old regimes that saw the creation of new languages enabling them to inform, narrate, and translate the ongoing events and transformations. This revolutionized language has been transferred from Syria to the world by narrators with competing voices (native and non-native academics, journalists, activists etc.).

The crux of the research project is to examine and analyze the translation(s) of the language of the Syrian revolution (2011-2012) from Arabic into English on the one hand, while on the other considering the linguistic and extra-linguistic dimensions of the revolution (the language of the banners, slogans, graffiti, songs, and its representation through these media) as another way of narrating events, in short as another act of translation. This dual use of translation demands a broad definition: translation is accordingly understood as the movement of an event from a native place (language and culture) to another (different language and culture).

Since most representations of the Syrian revolution are linguistic, it can be expected that an analysis of the different languages and translations of the events in academic works, blogs, websites, etc. will prove fertile ground for understanding the varied perspectives on the transformation processes, pursuing the questions: “how are events, narratives, and testimonies written in/out of the place of the event?” and “what can the ‘lingual memory’ (Spivak) and ‘collective memory’ (Halbwachs) of the language of the protests narrate and inform?

| Literary subversions in the work of Zakaria Tamer

Abdellatif Aghsain

The doctorate project focuses on the Syrian author Zakaria Tamer (b. 1931) and his short stories written between 1960 and 1994. Zakaria Tamer is a member of a generation of authors whose literary production is shaped by the historical and political experiences of the 1960s, foremost the defeat in the June War of 1967 and its repercussions.

Not only did this generation of young writers have to assert themselves vis-à-vis an already established literary field, but also deal with the question of the form and function of literary writing in a situation characterized by political repression and censorship. Authors like Zakaria Tamer see themselves subject to a dual censorship, one that is internal to the literary discourse and one imposed by authorities. Their desire to continue to engage critically with the problems of their society and publish their literary work demands that they develop a new writing style that itself is doubly subversive: it subverts state control, challenges the status quo and transcends the old literary narrative of the 1950s. Employing the genre of the short story, Zakaria Tamer weaves into his texts a multi-layered literary subversion reflecting on post-1967 censorship and its impact on individual lives in Arab societies while also mirroring the break with traditional narration. The subversive is not merely some aspect of his writing but rather inheres to the very practice and style of his writing – and so is present structurally and formally – and is characteristic for the broaching and discussing of controversial problems of Arab society in times of political repression. In this repressive context Tamer’s work functions as a space where emotions, opinions and demands, unable to be expressed individually, are articulated.

This work proceeds from an anthropological understanding of Tamer’s short stories, approaching the literary text neither as merely an autonomous work of art nor as a representation of society. Instead, the emphasis is placed on a correlation of both, interpreting the texts as fictional figurations of interactive relationships between human dispositions and the respective circumstances, whereby these dispositions continually transgress these circumstances (Jürgen Schläger, Wolfgang Iser, 1994). If, on the one hand, the literary text is subjected to the conditions of its production, on the other it is at once a response to and a transcending of these very conditions, performed in a permanent subversion of the given social and political order.