The soul of history | Windows and Mirrors

Syrian arts curator and cultural advisor shares how art can tell the story of history.

Since the civil war in Syria began in March 2011, millions of Syrians have fled their homes.

Almost eight years later, the conflict continues and more than 10 million people have been displaced, living as refugees around the world.

As a journalist, I could give you more facts and figures, such as all the sides fighting in the conflict, the number of casualties or a timeline of key events in the war. That would be one way to tell the story.

Another way to tell the story would be through art.

“Artists, they humanize the numbers,” said Alma Salem.

Salem is an arts curator and cultural advisor with the Syria Sixth Space project, which according to its website, is an “independent nonphysical contemporary art curatorial platform that extends notions of the ‘real’ for artists and audiences, it is a pop-up media-art gallery, an alternative space for all Syrian artists and artists interested in Syria.”

On Feb. 7, Salem gave a public lecture at the University of Washington Bothell, discussing her work and how artistic expression relates to human rights.

Salem’s appearance was organized by the school’s Islamophobia and the Arts research interest group.

The group connected with Salem through member Anida Yoeu Ali, a professor in UW Bothell’s School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences (IAS).

Ali met Salem in 2016 at the Salzburg Global Seminar, an independent nonprofit focused on challenging current and future leaders to shape a better world, according to its website. Ali, an artist and community activist, was asked to speak at that year’s event about resilience and the arts. Salem was another speaker at that year’s event. The two remained in contact since then.

Ali suggested Salem to the research interest group as someone they should bring in to speak because the way she presents her information is from the heart. Salem has a story to tell and it’s real, Ali said.

Maryam Griffin, another IAS professor at UW Bothell and member of the research interest group, said Salem’s work relates to one of the courses she teaches this quarter on human rights and the freedom of movement. Griffin said they focus on how people resist and Salem’s work represents just that.

The third member of the research interest group is Silvia Ferreira, who Ali and Griffin said was instrumental with all the logistics for putting Salem’s visit together.

During her talk, Salem discussed how Syrian artists have used their talents and skills to give voice to the unheard. She showed work ranging from calligraphy, to cartoons, to photography. Salem said art is also a way for them to celebrate the people they have loved and lost as a result of the conflict in their country.

“We don’t have funerals,” she said, adding that in some cases, they are not even able to express their condolences.

Salem told her audience that the art pieces she curates represent their Syrian culture, religion, history and more.

In addition to her work curating for Syria Sixth Space, Salem is working on another project: the Freedom Museum. She said this will be a digital museum curated by activists, open to the world and focused on the issues of freedom — all forms — and those who challenge it. The art will be from the perspective of those who want freedom, not those who give it, Salem said. The goal is to also have a physical space for the museum in Montreal in about five years.

Fayrouz Elkordy, who is in Ali’s course on contemporary Muslim artists this quarter, attended Salem’s talk and thinks the idea of opening the discussion and expanding the idea of freedom to all types, not just political, is “pretty amazing.” She said this would open the discussion to so many people.

Another idea that struck Elkordy during Salem’s talk was that of history and art being the best way to tell a story. Elkordy said history is not just about who wins and loses. It’s about who is affected.

Attending Salem’s lecture also made me think a bit more about the work I do as a journalist.

There’s a saying about my line of work: Journalism is the rough draft of history.

It’s our job to report the facts about what happens in our communities, the country and the world. Yes, we give you the wins and losses. But if we are doing our job right, we should also give you the perspective of who is affected in the story.

But there is only so much we can do when trying to share someone else’s story with our readers, viewers and listeners. There is only so much I can do in this column, which focuses on telling stories that are not often told and highlighting voices in our community that are not often heard.

Because when you hear someone’s story firsthand, it is something completely different. And Salem said this is what makes art such a powerful form to reach people.

“It’s powerful because it’s about the people,” she said. “It represents the people.”

She said art is more personal and therefore, more trusted.

As a journalist, I should probably be insulted by the idea that we can’t be trusted — or that there are more trustworthy sources of information than us. But I’m not. At least not in this context.

Because we may give you the whos, whats, whens, whys and hows of history.

But art will give you the soul.

Windows and Mirrors is a bimonthly column focused on telling the stories of people whose voices are not often heard. If you have something you want to say, contact editor Samantha Pak at spak@ soundpublishing.com.

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