Children are the heart of Syria’s Revolution

A Flood in Ba’ath Country is Omar Amiralay’s final film — he was hired by the regime to film state propaganda in the 1970’s in a documentary called “Film Essay on the Euphrates Dam.” It was supposed to be a tribute to the “greatest development project” of the Syrian regime. The process of making the film politicized him as he spoke to rural Syrian families on the outskirts of Deir Ezzour who described the realities of the regime’s Euphrates Dam Modernization Project. As a result, Amiralay created “Everyday Life in a Syrian Village,” one of the most haunting Syrian archival films that shows the reality of the regime’s neoliberal environmentally destructive projects that devastated rural populations in Syria. In 2003, he returned and created the film “A Flood in Ba’ath Country” about another regime modernization project in the village of al-Mashi. He documented the militarized school system in Syria and the way children are forced to perform obedience for the state. He shows how part of the regime’s propaganda strategy for the dam project was having children recite a God-like story about how the president “mastered” nature and carved new worlds from clay in the name of his people. Amiralay films the daily rituals Syrian students are familiar with — singing Ba’athist anthems, saluting each other in military formation, of their compulsory military class in the junior high level and daily forced recitations of the glories of Arab nationalism. How all students are forced to wear Ba’athist military uniform from the seventh to twelfth grade with different symbols for each grade.

Image: Screenshot from A Flood in Baath County

In Syria, since the 1970’s until the early 2000’s, seventh grade til the twelfth-grade students were required to take Madit al Qawmiyah — a required class on Ba’thism once a week. In this class, you receive indoctrination for the Ba’athist Party. In junior high, students were made to military training classes where they learn to use barudehs (old Czech rifles) — how to deassemble and reassemble the guns. In the 10th grade, there was a required twenty-day summer military camp where students were assigned certain missions by the state (Dagher 2019). For example, in my father’s year, students were assigned to plant trees and do hard labor at the High Institute for Ba’ath Party, or al Al-3idad al 7izbi, the highest institute for Ba’athist training. At the camp, students were required to perfect the salutations they learned at school and they also learn how to shoot the barudehs. Former low-ranking Ba’ath officers oversaw this mandatory field trip for boys and girls. From the 1970’s til 1990’s there were also extracurricular Ba’ath organizations that students could join — in elementary they were called al Talai’3 al Ba’ath and in junior high and high school these programs were called Al-Shabiba. If students joined, they received certain advantages and attended private meetings where they received training on how to monitor fellow non-Ba’athists. In these programs, created after the North Korean model, students learned from party members how to write reports about any subversive activities that other children may be participating in (Dagher 2019). In high school, students could opt to take Muzaliyin and Muzaliyyat or parachuting training. If they finished this training jumping from parachutes from airplanes — they received extra points on their high school exit exam. Wedeen and others document how Syrian students accept Ba’athist indoctrination with sarcastic and rebellious slippages, which varied based on where they were in Syria and the level of dissidence allowed to exist during ritual performances, where citizens act “as if” they comply with the state.

As my dad says “When we were little, we would pass by the school building on our way to the fields. As we walked by, we would throw and break the windows. To us, the school was a symbol of oppression. One time we were throwing rocks, and this old guy came and yelled at us. ‘This is your school, our village pays for this, this is a space for us, a space where you learn. You should appreciate your education.’ We were scared he might tell our parents, or worse, that he was in the Ba’ath party and would tell the police.” These stories embody the mixed ambivalence toward the school as a public space that is both the result of the community’s labor and for many children, a symbol of the dominance of the state, especially because physical abuse is sanctioned as a consequence for not complying with the militarized ritual. These militarized aspects, physical punishments, and forms of resistance exist to this day, which was the launching pad of Syrian’s revolution. In 2021, videos go viral on Facebook that document the new forms of militarized rituals, where Syrian schoolchildren are made to recite how the current revolution is a terrorist instigation and that Bashar al Assad is the rightful father of the Arab state.

In an episode of the Syrian drama “Qulub Sagheera,” Rima Fleihan shows one of the main protagonists, a woman lawyer, who is called to an apartment where a deaf child named Wafa’a lives. She became deaf after a male teacher hit her so hard at school that it made her lose her hearing. The parents and family are supportive of the child and sell their house to give her an operation. The child decides to go to sign language school and teach other deaf children. Fleihan exposes the ableism inherent in the Ba’athist authoritarian regime educational system, one that operates on dismembering and disabling children for expressing themselves in the the school which becomes a site for transference of military values.

Let us recall the roots of the Syrian Revolution. The children of Dera’a were resisting in one of the most militarized places in Syrian society — their school. They reappropriated the walls of their school as a political canvas onto which they could reflect their political aspirations. They could echo the exhilarating slogans of the Arab Spring that were traveling through networks across the region on television sets and social media… “Freedom, freedom,” “The people want the fall of the system,” and, their own personalized creative slogan: “Time’s up doctor.” The children were tortured and maimed. They had their fingernails pulled out and their genitals were mutilated. But the regime did not kill them. They dismembered them and allowed them to live to serve as an example of their brutality. This was a message, that this is the punishment for resisting. If this is what the most vulnerably members of society will receive, imagine what the rest will endure. The children of Dera’a are still alive today and carry this trauma in their bodies, in all our collective memories. They are told they are to blame for the ruin of our country.

Grafitti on the school walls in Dera’a that reads “It’s your turn, Doctor,” referring to Syria’s ophthalmologist dictator-president, Bashar al-Assad.
The school in Dera’a where children graffiti’id their protest art.

I believe the issue of challenging child abuse is central to the Syrian Revolution, and strangely, it is rarely mentioned in analyses of Syria’s uprising. It is about how a totalitarian system of violence abuses children. I often wondered why the photos of Dera’as swollen, bruised, beaten bodies did not spark the cross-region solidarity that Bouazizi’s body aflame did. Then I realized perhaps it is because child abuse is so normalized in all our cultures globally and is so often swept under the rug. But fighting against that violence is the heart of our struggle. It’s what brought an intensely traumatized and scattered resistance together in a sense, to fight for the right for children to feel safe in their own bodies.

Syrian children and youth post videos of themselves performing theatre, using the arts, protesting in creative ways. These videos are allowing the most vulnerable, marginalized, targeted members of society — children — to express overtly political messages using their bodies, to somatically embody visions of freedom and express futurist vistas. These arts-based practices, often silent plays, literally let them use their bodies as a form of resistance and a channel for storytelling. It allows disabled children to be at the center of resistance. Disabled children, which I would argue are most, if not all Syrian children to a degree who have experienced the traumatizing realities of war and siege, deliver political messages that insist on their right to play, and their right to exist in a capitalist, totalitarian regime that operates on the dismemberment of the Syrian child.

A play put together in the countryside of Idlib to explain to the world Syria’s struggle.
A festival for International Children’s Day in which children perform plays about their right to play.

Syrians are creating pedagogies of liberation as the regime targets schools and children’s spaces. Due to COVID and multiple displacements, children in Zummar camp in Northwestern Syria near Armanaz cannot attend school. Mostly women volunteers gather to teach Arabic lessons to children under olive trees. Syrians teaching classes under olive trees are building alternature societies. Here I am conjuring the term alternature (alternative but not as in the Latin definition of alternative — different or oppositional to the native) as an alternative future that linguistically emphasizes the environment and mother earth. These are practices that dismantle capitalism through cultivating life in the form of plants and natural spaces, valid gendered contributions to revolutionary change that plays a huge part in cultivating our futures. These spaces exist because Syrians have literally been pushed out of institutional regime-controlled walls-and they exist with many challenges, including weather interruptions, flooding, and a lack of resources to buy books and supplies. And still, they persist.

Image: Mohammad Sweidan teaches his outdoor class under the olive trees in Idlib in 2019. Pedagogy is political. On the whiteboard, the teacher has written “I have a right to education, I have a right to education, I have a right to education,” which the child is copying underneath.
Image: Photograph of Idlib’s outdoor schools by Muhammad al Homsi for Syria Untold from December 2020.

This past year, a sixth-grade Kurdish girl from the Hasakeh region of Syria made a creative, mobile school for Syrian kids out of school in Istanbul during the COVID-19 pandemic. Her name is Gholstan Mustafa. She made desks and table out of cardboard boxes and created fun activities to teach the children math, languages, and social studies. Her father said his daughter’s idea came from her love for education and that Gholstan made sure to take into account social distancing and mask-wearing protocols for COVID in her initiative.

Image: Gholstan and her school. Source: First Istanbul 2020.
Image: Gholstan and her school. Source: Aramme 2020.

When there are limited resources, Syrians exhibit amazing forms of creativity when given the space to envision the kinds of spaces they want. Just as the youth in the Syria Revolution from Damascus to Tal to Dera’a reappropriated the walls of public spaces as an archive to record freedom visions and the names of local detainees, youth are mapping out new forms of institutions as capitalism collapses in Syria. Post offices where the names of imprisoned people are visible as you walk in; schools that are mobile and open-air, in imaginative personalized containers. They don’t need much to design their own worlds.

I used to work in a Syrian youth collective, where we would take kids to local museums and parks as field trips. Once we were invited in by a France exhibit in a local park. I was chaperoning a group of Syrian children and driving them to the activity. In the car, the kids raised a critical conversation about how France was Syria’s former colonizer. “Didn’t France occupy us? Why are we getting invited now when they took all our stuff before? Will they say sorry?” “Now the U.S. is coming in to Syria like France did before and creating more war and destruction for their own gain,” a middle schooler chimed in. Then, a tiny voice chimed in from the youngest boy in the car. “Teacher, teacher (ainsa, ainsa) I don’t know if you’ll believe me but my grandfather says he remembers the French! He told me fought against the French!” “I believe you!” I said. “Teacher, teacher, and, I don’t know if you’ll believe me but… That’s why I speak French! And I speak four languages! Turkmani, English, Arabic, and French.” “I believe you!” I said. I believe you. I believe the Syrian child who speaks multiple languages, who is traumatized and overdisciplined, underestimated, forced to perform tokenism, who is in refugee camps studying under olive trees, who the colonized space will only know one side of, who will not understand their political and social world. The Syrian child’s phrase “I don’t know if you’ll believe me but…” assumes a misunderstanding, remembers a default rejection of the subaltern subjectivity; it anticipates misrecognition because misrecognition is the usual. These children’s critiques and theorizations emerged while the collective I was working with was debating whether or not we should bring “politics” into our work — but the reality was, the children were already politicized. Every arts activity we did was political — while painting birdhouses we would have conversations on displacement and creating mobile homes for displaced beings. While painting flower pots, they would paint the revolution flag and talk about planting flowers in the earth after it had been bombed. Through creativity, Syrian children are expressing deliberately politicized messages and expressing new societal visions. Children are creating their own spaces of fugitive beauty and collective freedom under extreme circumstances of duress.

So who will believe the realities of Syrian children? Who will really listen as they poetically and artistically reflect on the multiple forms of displacement and the knowledge of surviving genocide that is in their bodies, their ancestries? Who will listen to the dreams of Syrian children? What if their knowledge is the key to our liberation, the embodied wisdoms of the future?

The entire Syrian revolution began because the Syrian state used what Jasbir Puar called “the right to maim.” The their children of Dera’a, their resistance, and their mutilated, beaten bodies, their tortured bodies, this was what began the revolution. I argue that disability is being mobilized in a political way via arts based practices — the state has disabled youth for making art — graffiti — and these children were disabled because they chose to make art. And today they are continuing to making art and envisioning creative spaces from their often disabled bodies. That is the antithesis to militarization. It is healing.

Syrian PhD Candidate at the University of California, San Diego in Ethnic Studies. Poet, dreamer, jewelry maker, mermaid.