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Keywords in Contemporary Syrian Media, Culture and Politics

Introduction

In: Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication
Author:
Omar Al-Ghazzi London School of Economics UK London

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It was in March 2011 that unprecedented protests took place in Syria. Inspired by a wave of uprisings elsewhere in the Arab world, many Syrians took to the streets and called for reform in a country where acts of public political dissent had been forbidden. As the protests escalated, subsequent events such as regime backlash, civil war, foreign interventions and a resulting refugee crisis continue to devastate the lives of millions. However, as I write, I feel the weight of time moving on. More than ten years on, it is precisely this temporal distance that allows for a reflection of what happened, including to the words we use/d.

Syrian and Syria-focused scholars look back from various positionalities and contemplate the magnitude of what took place over the past decade as Syrians continue to struggle with a crushing sense of loss. Part of this challenge relates to renegotiating the distance between writers focusing on the uprising and war and the words they use to write about it. The theme of this special issue is these words. The words we choose to write and speak with are the building blocks of the arguments we construct, but they are also indicative of a wider collective emotional and intellectual attempt to shape the world around us.

In the rationale for this issue, I take my cue from Raymond Williams’ canonical work Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (1976) in examining how words change according to shifting political, social and economic situations and needs (Bennet 2005: xvii). Williams understands language as a form of social production and explores words as such products—and in this way, keywords could be used as a method of social analysis (Moran 2021: 6). As Williams states, language is the articulation of active and changing experiences; it is ‘a dynamic and articulated social presence in the world’ (1977: 37–38). Williams’ work on keywords must also be understood in tandem with his conceptualisation of culture in terms of the tension between residual cultural elements and practices, those formed in the past but active in the present, and the emergent that take shape in defiance of a past order. In these interactions, structures of feeling shape cultural meanings and values that are “actively lived and felt” (Williams, 1977: 132).

In the case of Syria, think of the word revolution (Arabic: thawra), the primary descriptor that anti-regime Syrians use to discuss the upheaval in the country. In 2011, the choice of the term revolution to describe protests took inspiration from a historical anti-colonial revolutionary political culture and demanded its disentanglement from the Al-Assad regime’s lexicon. In 2011 Syria, the imaginaries invoked in revolution belonged to the future. Revolution was associated with the adrenalin of collective protest. It was a word that came to life when chanted in the streets or posted on social media. The word’s meanings, though, twisted, turned and morphed into others as time passed. Today, in 2022, the word is melancholic, as it embeds the weight of the passage of time and accumulates feelings of loss and despair. It is not only the emotional investment in this one word that is changing but also the power structures giving it shape. As I have argued elsewhere, there are shifting temporalities of the word revolution shaped by power relations, as demonstrated in the following three modalities of invoking the term: 1) authoritarian rhetoric seeking to monopolize its use, whether in relation to the past or the future; 2) a protest tactic of mobilization inspiring others to join a movement, and 3) a melancholic reflection of a past experience providing a sense of identity (Al-Ghazzi 2023). These are examples of a single word.

Many different words have had their meanings reshuffled over the past ten years, and for this reason, I have invited scholars of Syria to reflect on key terms of their choice in this special issue. More specifically, scholars trace how these terms got caught up in the upheaval and gained or changed meaning over the past years. Going beyond technologies, media forms and art conventions, tracing the circulation of words extends the linguistic analysis to the cultural realm as it demonstrates that words cannot be assumed to carry the same meaning across countries and contexts. This is relevant and interesting to think about in relation to the Arabic language, with the differences between its dialects and spoken or official forms. A ‘keywords approach’ also shows how much political nuance can be lost in direct and standardized translations, for example, from Arabic to English. This approach then contributes to the conception of politics as performed and challenged at the level of the everyday by ordinary people (Bayat, 2017). By locating politics at the level of the popular and the everyday and the language through which it is articulated, this series of essays contributes to the growing field of Arab cultural studies (Sabry & Ftouni, 2016, Al-Ghazzi, 2019), particularly as it pertains to a longer history of popular politics in Syria and the region.

Throughout the essays in this issue, we learn about Syria’s divided publics and their emotions. We observe how some words implode to reflect warring and revolutionary publics and act as discursive fuel poured onto the flames of war. In this way, this issue conceives of words as texts around and against which various publics coalesce or unravel in a revolutionary context (for an elaboration on revolutionary publics, see Kraidy and Krikorian 2017). The keywords also shed light on the links between the discursive and the affective as we observe how the meaning of words can only be understood in relation to the context of their lived and remembered circulation and deployment. During times of revolution and warfare, when violence tears society apart, words must be thought of in relation to the affective, the embodied and the performative (Al-Ghazzi 2021). This includes, for example, the euphoria of chanting words and slogans in a public square for the first time, the (overcoming of) fear of arrest and death associated with using some words and the joy that comes in reclaiming historical words that were previously forbidden or used in oppressive ways.

As for the choice of words in this special issue, I invited participating authors to suggest key terms that have dominated Syrian media and political culture since 2011. Collectively, these choices may be conceived as efforts to contribute to archiving a political culture, not least in showing how the uprising and war in Syria divided Syrians into two camps. Ghazzawi, for example, examines the word ‘Ramadyeen’ (the gray ones, meaning those who did not take a clear stance against President Bashar Al-Assad in support of the uprising). She discusses the word’s uncomfortable position within a revolutionary repertoire but also its progressive political potentiality. Ibraheem and Zakar discuss the word Jawlan (Golan) and how the invocation of the Israeli-occupied region can operate as a mode of enfolding Syrians into competing political orders. Bader Eddin chooses the word ‘al-abad’ (eternity) and examines the temporal and religious connotations of how it is deployed in the Al-Assad regime’s political communication. For his part, Dukhan writes about the word ‘shawi’, referring to Syrians from the northeast Jazeera region. He traces its shift from a derogatory term to a reclaimed self-identifier of the region’s people. McGee focuses on the word Rojava and explores its revolutionary deployment in Syrian Kurdistan as well as the more suspicious association the term has gained in its Arabic circulation.

Other words speak of the brutality and violence in Al-Assad regime’s crushing of the uprising. Badran explores the word ‘tashbih’, marking the beginning of the uprising in reference to the shadowy figures who intimidated, maimed, and tortured Syrian protestors. He argues that it exemplifies the logic of annihilation characterizing the regime’s authority. Ibold highlights the word ‘mundasin’ (infiltrators)— tracing the power positionalities of its invocations as it circulates across modes of expression. Other authors focus on the emotional resonance of key terms in Syria’s political memory. Al-Doughli writes about the linkage between the words love and blood and locates its origins in Arab nationalist theorization and repertoire. Gatt writes about ‘ya hef’, a melancholic expression of disappointment and moral shame over the way events unfolded. For her part, MacManus unpacks the word ‘al-nuzuh’ (displacement) and how it forges new forms of memory and collectivity about an accumulated historical sense of uprooting and defeat experienced by Syrians and Palestinians. Finally, Aubin-Botanski writes about the word ‘harâ’ir’ (the free women) and the tensions between the term’s conservative religious connotations and collective revolutionary deployments.

Together, these keywords revisit the language used by Syrians, or imposed on Syrians, to recall and unpack the power and logic of their changing meanings, circulations and cultural-political effects. In doing so, the analysis of keywords not only contributes to understanding the radical changes and traumas Syria has undergone but also points to the continued significance of applying keywords as a method and approach for cultural and socio-political analysis.

References

  • Al-Ghazzi, Omar (2019) Keywords in Arab political memory: Mahdi Amel’s vocabulary revisited in 2017. In Sabry, Tarik, & Khalil, Joe (Eds.) Culture, time and publics in the Arab world: media, public space and temporality (Vol. 4). Bloomsbury Publishing.

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  • Al-Ghazzi, Omar (2021). Forced to report: Affective proximity and the perils of local reporting on Syria. Journalism. Epub ahead of print. DOI:10.1177/1464884920984874

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  • Al-Ghazzi, Omar (2023). Taking Revolution Seriously: A Keywords Approach to Middle East Studies. In Khalil, Joe, Khiabany, Gholam & Yesil Bilge (Eds.) The Handbook of Media and Culture in the Middle East. NJ: Wiley.

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  • Bayat, A. (2017). Revolution without revolutionaries. In Revolution without Revolutionaries. Stanford University Press.

  • Bennett, Tony, Lawrence Grossberg and Meaghan Morris (eds.) (2005). New Keywords: A Revised Vocabulary of Culture and Society. Oxford: Blackwell.

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  • Kraidy, Marwan. M. and Marina. R. Krikorian (2017). The revolutionary public sphere: The case of the Arab uprisings. Communication and the Public, 2(2): 111-119.

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  • Moran, Marie (2021). Keywords as Method. European Journal of Cultural Studies, 24(4): 1021-1029.

  • Sabry, T., & Ftouni, L. (2016). Arab subcultures: Transformations in theory and practice. Bloomsbury Publishing.

  • Williams, Raymond (1976). Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (2nd ed.). London: Fontana.

  • Williams, Raymond (1977). Marxism and Literature.Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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