Art of the Impolitic in Syria
He’s not wealthy or famous, a man of high education or rare breeding. Nor does he make much of a rebel. Yet here he is, a reluctant political operative deep into a declared “war” against Syria’s Baath Party.
A harried photographer and curator, Issa Touma is the son of an Arabic language teacher bewildered by his exploits and a homemaker who laughs and then weeps at them. She fears Touma’s audacity will get him arrested.
Touma, a 40-year-old Armenian Syrian who has never married, has pushed his homeland further than most people thought Syria could go. He has ignored orders from both the ruling Baath Party and the Culture Ministry commanding him to halt all unauthorized activities.
He has continued to throw some of the biggest and most ambitious international art festivals this country has seen. He has also endured years of investigations, interrogations and run-ins with government officials. He undertakes this political work with a weary resignation shot with flashes of spiteful defiance.
“I enjoy the victory -- yeah, I enjoy that. If you do something well, you aren’t going to enjoy it? Of course you are,” said Touma, a dapper, bustling man with a balding pate, round spectacles and a serious air. “But the victory only brings more problems. And in the end, this is not what I want. What I want is to do my photos. Only that.”
This is not another tale of a human rights activist, journalist or fledgling political candidate tossed into an Arab jail. You will not hear Touma utter the word “reform,” and politics leave him cold.
But it is a story about authoritarian rule and the improbable politicians it can create. Touma is a rare success story in a land where underdogs are traditionally crushed. He doesn’t fret over nationalism or Iraq; in conversation, his talk careens from pigeon trainers to fat men to Antigone.
“I know people would love to say it was Issa against the Baath Party, and in reality it was like that,” he said. “But the politics I did the last two years, it was only to survive.”
Touma calls his gallery Le Pont, “The Bridge” in French, and adorns its walls with all things scandalous -- pieces by Jewish artists, portraits of nude men and women, videotaped performance art verging on the pornographic -- none of it submitted to government censors for approval. His festivals lure artists from around the world to spill American jazz and African drums and Sufi dance into the chalky alleyways of this industrial town in the northern hills.
“I hate people when they’re like rabbits. Scared people, I can’t even look at them,” he said. “I know my work can help my country so much. If you haven’t visited Syria, you don’t know what is Syria. And I know the culture is stronger than any gun.”
Touma sponsors two major festivals a year, the International Photography Gathering and the Women’s Art Festival. In between, he holds a smattering of smaller shows and oversees his gallery, a squat space at the edge of the railroad tracks, where freight trains scream in the heat of the afternoon.
“He is so outspoken and so critical of the party but still gets everything done. In the end, he gets what he wants, and he’s very reliable,” said a Western ambassador who has worked with Touma and who, like many diplomats in the region, spoke on condition of anonymity. “That means it is in some way possible to do artwork critical of the regime and stay out of jail. He’s a good advertisement for the government.”
Until recently, that is. Last month, with 27 artists heading to Syria from 17 countries, Touma abruptly called off the International Photography Gathering, a multinational human rights exhibition, with just three days to spare. The Culture Ministry, Touma said, had agreed to pay more than $1,000 in printing and advertising costs, only to renege at the last minute.
So Touma called off the show, embarrassing just about everybody involved. He said he was strapped for cash and, moreover, sick of papering over the government’s interferences. A festival without printed catalogs to display the work would be unacceptable, he said. He held his ground even when the government changed its mind and offered to pay after all. In the end, Touma plucked the show out of Syria and rescheduled it for this month in the mountains of Lebanon.
“I haven’t slept in three days for working on this,” he said. “I am too tired. The problem now is too much.”
Syria is not known for brooking rebellion, and so it’s something of a mystery -- even to Touma himself -- why he hasn’t been sentenced to prison. Pressed on the question, he goes quiet for a minute. Then he spreads his hands, raises his brows above his glasses and grimaces. He doesn’t know.
“For seven years, I’ve been waiting every night,” he said. “I never went to a meeting of human rights. I never did political work. I never said anything against the Baath Party. I’m not against the government. I know they’re waiting for that word. As soon as I talk against the government, they put you in jail.”
It’s a typical Touma contradiction: He rails against the government one minute, and insists he’s politically disengaged the next. He antagonizes the government -- but only because he has to, he says.
Touma was studying agriculture and working as a jeweler when he fell in love with the camera. His early shows were humble affairs in his third-floor walk-up, which he turned into a crowded way station for a mix of bohemian painters, sculptors and photographers in 1993. They’d stay awake for days, painting, shooting photos and generally gorging themselves on art. They’d display their work on Touma’s walls.
It wasn’t long before Touma began to invite foreign artists to join the mix: He was starved for learning, and his isolation from the world beyond Syria had begun to sting. “I didn’t have people to show my way. I didn’t have money for travel and study,” he said. “To learn from visiting artists was very important.”
Touma deems Arab photography too heavy on pyramids and aging mosques, and says it has failed to explore the rich indigenous reality of common people.
In his own photos, he turns a black-and-white gaze on Syrian villages, on the streets of Aleppo and on religious festivals seldom glimpsed by tourists.
He brings the same practicality to his gatherings, which flourished through the years. He learned the ropes of organizing gallery exhibitions, making the rounds of the foreign embassies to collect patrons and bringing in visiting artists.
Each festival draws scores of artists from around the world for days of workshops, lectures and exhibitions. Over the years, the events have brought thousands of visitors to Aleppo. Touma isn’t making money off the affairs: He has managed to pay off the gallery by taking teaching and advertising jobs, but he’s barely scraping by.
Touma believes the scope and popularity of the events made some officials suspicious. “They thought I was supported by foreigners or Jews,” he said. Wary of being pegged a foreign agent, he said, he won’t accept a single dollar from the many embassies that back his shows -- instead, he urges them to buy plane tickets, rent hotel rooms and pay framing costs for the artists.
“I know very well that in this country, you can get hurt,” he said. “You have to protect yourself.”
Agents started to trail him in the mid-1990s, he said, and the Baath Party began to summon him to its local headquarters for questioning. The party officials wanted to protect him, he recalled them saying. They told him that he was constantly surprising them and that one day, if he wasn’t careful, he might just do something that would destroy his life. Baath Party officials declined to be interviewed for this story.
“There were a thousand orders,” Touma said. And he ignored every one.
Last year, after Touma refurbished Aleppo’s old electricity plant and adorned its walls with works for the Women’s Art Festival, the provincial governor padlocked the door. Touma cut the lock. When the governor threatened to flush him out, he reminded officials of all the ambassadors who were to attend and threatened to hold the exhibition in the middle of the street.
They backed down, and the festival carried on.
“There is not one tourist in this country, and there are American soldiers in Iraq, and I’m bringing thousands of visitors,” Touma said. “They are very, very stupid to hurt me.
“The old prime minister [Mohammed Mustafa Miro] was joking with me one day. He said, ‘Yes, we know you have a lot of problems, but when you die we will build you a sculpture.’ I said, ‘Why don’t you help me now and forget about the sculpture?’ ”
Touma isn’t afraid to fight dirty. He collected the private fax and mobile phone numbers of government officials, and dug up dirt -- extramarital affairs and the like -- on some of his adversaries in the party to keep them at bay.
“Anybody you hate in the government, you can find somebody else who hates him,” he said. “In any government in the world, there is somebody there who will help you, not because he likes you, but because he hates the other guy.”
One night last winter, he stood on his concrete balcony on the edge of Aleppo’s old city, looked out over the rooftops and systematically burned more than half his photographs and personal papers. The fire roared for four hours, consuming nude portraits, images of Sufi festivals and records of contacts.
“Maybe they can find something in my photography to use against me. If I’m going to work against them, I have to be very clean,” he said. “I was so angry the next day. Because you’re burning your work yourself. Nobody’s doing it against you.”
He dreams of holding one of his festivals in the Baath Party headquarters, a spectacle that would, he said, “kill them inside.” He has an exhibition coming up in the Assad Library in Damascus, the capital, and when he talks about it, he swells like a rooster. “I want to show how many people I can get,” he said. “It’s in Damascus, under the nose of my enemy.”
On a recent night, Touma made his way through the balmy darkness to share hibiscus tea and crumbs of gossip with a fellow gallery owner, Mohsin Khangi. From a back closet, Khangi drew forth a canvas he said he would never display: a brown and white depiction of a bull surrounded by muddy-faced, robed shepherds.
Touma frowned and shrugged. “So?”
Khangi pointed to a star emblazoned over the bull’s body. It had six points, Khangi said, like the Star of David.
“See, Israel is strong, and the Arabs,” he said, pointing to the shepherds, “have lost their character. If I showed this, I’d be in trouble.”
Touma rolled his eyes. “Have you ever heard, in the history of the world, of a gallery shaking a government by putting some paintings on the wall?” he said.
“Well,” Khangi replied, “only you.”
The laughter of the two men rang through the empty gallery.