Dissident Syria

Making Oppositional Arts Official

Dissident Syria

Book Pages: 208 Illustrations: 13 illustrations Published: August 2007

Author: miriam cooke

Cultural Studies, Gender and Sexuality > Feminism and Women’s Studies, Middle East Studies

From 1970 until his death in 2000, Hafiz Asad ruled Syria with an iron fist. His regime controlled every aspect of daily life. Seeking to preempt popular unrest, Asad sometimes facilitated the expression of anti-government sentiment by appropriating the work of artists and writers, turning works of protest into official agitprop. Syrian dissidents were forced to negotiate between the desire to genuinely criticize the authoritarian regime, the risk to their own safety and security that such criticism would invite, and the fear that their work would be co-opted as government propaganda, as what miriam cooke calls “commissioned criticism.” In this intimate account of dissidence in Asad’s Syria, cooke describes how intellectuals attempted to navigate between charges of complicity with the state and treason against it.

A renowned scholar of Arab cultures, cooke spent six months in Syria during the mid-1990s familiarizing herself with the country’s literary scene, particularly its women writers. While she was in Damascus, dissidents told her that to really understand life under Hafiz Asad, she had to speak with playwrights, filmmakers, and, above all, the authors of “prison literature.” She shares what she learned in Dissident Syria. She describes touring a sculptor’s studio, looking at the artist’s subversive work as well as at pieces commissioned by the government. She relates a playwright’s view that theater is unique in its ability to stage protest through innuendo and gesture. Turning to film, she shares filmmakers’ experiences of making movies that are praised abroad but rarely if ever screened at home. Filled with the voices of writers and artists, Dissident Syria reveals a community of conscience within Syria to those beyond its borders.


Dissident Syria is a powerful, insightful, and incisively analyzed book that deserves to be read by students, academics, and policymakers alike. miriam cooke has succeeded most admirably in her goal to bring Syria's cultural harvest outside the country.” — Margaret L. Venzke, Middle East Journal

Dissident Syria provides an engaging picture of Syrian cultural life. . . .” — Edward Ziter, Theatre Journal

“A thorough – and heartbreaking – account of creative life in Syria, and an implicit homage to the indomitable human spirit, in this case Arab men who can be counted among the great dissidents of our times. . . . Miriam Cooke’s book on dissidents in Syria exceeds its original purpose by opening the door to Syrian intellectuals, writers and filmmakers. It points to a crucial problem – the abuse of power that has turned that nation into a police state – and opines that Syria, with all its richness and diversity, deserves better. Given real peace, both inside and outside its borders, Syria could again become a center of creativity, culture and civilization.” — Etel Adnan, Al Jadid

“[cooke’s] conversations with local authors make up the most interesting part of the book, especially those who discuss the opportunities and constraints they felt as writers in Syria, the literary lifestyle, and what they’ve endured to create their works. And her summaries of the major works allow readers to glimpse into a hard-to-access literature, little of which has been translated or made available to Western audiences.” — Jessica Jacobson, feminist review blog

“[cooke] candidly writes about her initial failures to grasp nuances of Syria's culture, including giving a public lecture on women's literature in Syria with Assad's pronouncement on culture as its title. . . . Yet Ms. cooke's persistence paid off with startling revelations about the middle ground in Syrian art between collaboration and incarceration.” — Richard Byrne, Chronicle of Higher Education

“[m]iriam cooke’s Dissident Syria is a useful examination of Syrian artists’ struggle to produce critical works while on the one hand evading reenlistment by the Syrian regime to bolster its legitimacy, and on the other, avoiding the fate of many Syrian artists and dissidents: prison, or worse.” — Michael Page, Syrian Studies Association Newsletter

“cooke offers a scathing critique of the current regime, a heartfelt identification with the dissidents among whom she worked and lived, and a thoughtful analysis of the contradictions not only of Syrian society and culture, but of scholarship on the Middle East as well. For this reason this text should be required reading for upper-level undergraduate and graduate-level courses in Middle East studies, literature, human rights, politics, and public policy. The lessons to be learned from Syria, and from this analysis, extend far beyond the limits of Middle East studies or Arabic letters.” — Jonathan Shannon, Monthly Review

“cooke usefully destabilizes the category of ‘women writers’ without undermining its potential power, showing how the controversies among various literary societies and writers in Syria are caught up in multiple contexts and shifting centers of power in an ever-changing Syria.” — Jill M. Hoslin, Contemporary Women's Writing

“cooke’s book portrays for us the story of Syria’s history from a unique and interesting angle, through the eyes and via the stories, biographies, creative works, and thoughts of Syrian intellectuals and creative artists.” — Eyal Zisser, Middle Eastern Studies

“In Dissident Syria, scholar of contemporary Arabic literature miriam cooke sheds light on the heretofore neglected world of Syrian oppositional culture. . . . This important work will attract specialists in a range of disciplines in the social sciences and humanities. Dissident Syria will appeal to those interested in Syrian, Arab, and Middle Eastern expressive culture. It adds an important dimension to the literature on the relationship between politics and the arts. It also forms a significant contribution to a growing body of work on prison literature. cooke’s accessible, engaging style makes Dissident Syria an ideal choice for undergraduate courses in the same range of topics.” — Christa Salamandra, Journal of Middle East Women's Studies

“Including notes and a few illustrations, this book of personal observations is a valuable contribution to the study of dissident literature and culture, particularly in the Middle East. Recommended.” — C. E. Farah, Choice

“This book fills a major gap in our knowledge of the intellectual history of Syria’s writers, filmmakers, and artists.” — Ja’far Muhibullah, Digest of Middle East Studies

“This volume is a fascinating record of the limits of freedom.” — Peter Clark, Banipal

“Dissident Syria demonstrates the power of art against the power of the state, the versatility of the creative mind in the face of brute force. miriam cooke’s book is a fascinating read.” — Issa J. Boullata, World Literature Today

Dissident Syria is an important and urgent book. In her fascinating account of Syrian cultural productions during the 1990s, miriam cooke documents the abyss between Syrian lived experiences and the rhetoric of the state. She extols the creative minds whose works exemplify the power of art.” — Susan Slyomovics, author of The Performance of Human Rights in Morocco

“With respectful seriousness, a fascinating narrative, and a lucid style, miriam cooke, a very distinguished writer and Arabist, offers in Dissident Syria a probing examination and illuminating account of Syria’s sloganeering culture—where literature and the arts are manipulated and the unconscious becomes the hero. cooke’s book is powerful, stimulating, and remarkable for its empirical analysis and daring.” — Abdul Sattar Jawad, former secretary general of the Iraqi Writers Union


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

miriam cooke is a professor of Arabic literature and culture at Duke University. Her books include Women Claim Islam: Creating Islamic Feminism through Literature and Women and the War Story as well as the coedited collections Muslim Networks from Hajj to Hip Hop; Opening the Gates: An Anthology of Arab Feminist Writing; and Blood into Ink: South Asian and Middle Eastern Women Write War.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments vii

Introduction 3

1. “Culture is Humanity’s Highest Need” 19

As If... 20

Slogans, Slogans Everywhere 26

Freedom and Democracy 30

2. Our Literature Does Not Leave the Country 36

Nadia al-Ghazzi 39

Colette al-Khuri 42

3. No Such Thing as Women’s Literature 48

Ulfat Idilbi 49

Salons and Mallahat al-Khani 53

Nadia Khust and the Nadwa 57

4. Commissioned Criticism 65

Culture after the Fall of the Wall 68

Commissioned Criticism 72

The Fantasy of Choice 77

5. Dissident Performances 81

Performing Dissidence 84

The Ghoul 87

Historical Miniatures 92

6. Filming Dreams 100

The Extras 102

Dreaming Features 106

Documenting Dreams 116

7. Lighten Your Step 121

Ibrahim Samu’il 124

Waiting 127

Ghassan al-Jaba’i 130

Lessons from a Rogue State 142

8. Leaving Damascus 145

Postscript 160

Notes 167

Bibliography 177

Index 187
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-4035-5 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-4016-4
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