On March 28th 2011, less than two weeks into the Syrian uprising, the Syrian Culture Minister Riad Esmat inaugurated the Syrian Cultural Days in Turkey with his Turkish counterpart Ertuğrul Gunay. The Syrian minister described the event as “a symbol of the deep-rooted and developed relations between Syria and Turkey, which was not merely an occasion for cultural and artistic exchange between the two countries; but rather an everlasting festival of love between Syrian and Turkish intellectuals”.
Yet, this festival of seemingly everlasting love barely lasted a month: In late April of that year, Ankara recalled its ambassador in Damascus as one of its escalating actions against the Syrian regime, followed by the severing of relations between the two governments and the annulment of the festival of eternal love that Esmat spoke about with enthusiasm.
If we were to review the Syrian cultural sphere in Turkey today, it would be clear that its reality is far more complex than a seasonal cultural festival between two neighboring countries. Now that Syrian refugees have grown into large communities within Turkey, analyzing the map of Syrian cultural work would have to include studying the different Turkish cities hosting cultural work and the ideological differences between Syrian cultural platforms based in Turkey.
Taking into consideration the absence of any political representation for Syrians in Turkey, the Syrian cultural work there carries a heavier burden and responsibilities, such as integrating Syrians in the Turkish society, or at most, creating a cultural discourse that represents them.
This type of responsibility is explicitly adopted by some Syrian cultural platforms in Turkey, and in other cases it is a role that the Syrian refugees in Turkey ask for.
In the light of the previous facts, the analysis of the Syrian cultural work in Turkey imposes itself as an approach to understand this semi-sole social representative of Syrians in Turkish society. By analyzing the Syrian cultural work we might have a better look on the near future regarding the relation between Syrians and Turks in Turkey.
Organization of the Paper
This paper is structured as follows: In the first section, I provide a brief discussion on the definition of culture and cultural work. Next, I survey the background in which Syrian cultural existence in Turkey emerged and developed since 2011. I then describe the Syrian cultural platforms under study and examine two different variables, the funding of the platform and its political tendencies. In the last section, I address the empirical findings of this work.
What is culture? According to Raymond Williams (1995, p. 85), the word ‘culture’ or ‘the culture’ is one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language. That is not only because of its intricate historical development, but also because it is now used for crucial concepts in several intellectual disciplines and in many distinct and incompatible systems of thought.
Williams found it compelling that in archaeology and in cultural anthropology the reference to culture or a culture is primarily to the material production, while in history and cultural studies it is principally to signifying or symbolic systems. This often confuses or even conceals the central question of the relations between ‘material’ and ‘symbolic’ production, which in some recent argument - cf. my own Culture – have to be always related rather than contrasted (Williams, 1995, p. 91).
Furthermore, UNESCO's 1982 conference in Mexico has defined culture as “that complex whole which includes knowledge, beliefs, arts, morals, laws, customs, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by [a human] as a member of society” (World Conference on Cultural Policies, n.d.). That definition seems diffuse, but the fact that it attaches culture to societies or individuals as a part of a society is helpful for us in order to shape our own definition for the Syrian Cultural Work in Turkey.
The contradiction between the material and the symbolic production described by Williams can be used as an introduction to the definition of ‘culture’ and ‘cultural work’ employed in this paper. Before 2011, the word ‘culture’ was mostly used to describe artistic and literary activities, as well as for the human sciences activities in Syria.
Meanwhile, religious activities were not considered under the umbrella of ‘cultural activities’ in the Syrian context, at least in the official discourse, while religious actions can be a meeting point for the symbolic and material production as Williams described them.
In other words, the Syrian religious activities in Turkey, organized by Islamic-oriented cultural institutions, can be considered as a ‘material production’ representing the symbolic values that Syrians refugees have.
In the Turkish context, we will use a broader definition for Syrian culture; in which some of the religious (Islamic) institutional activities will be included in the body of the Syrian cultural work since it is also representing Syrians in the Turkish society, thus it should be taken into account when mapping the Syrian cultural work in Turkey.
Moreover, our definition of Syrian cultural work will only include the institutional initiatives, and not the individual ones since they are not sustainable and less effective, which makes it harder to analyze them and draw conclusions out of them.
Syrian Cultural Presence in Turkey
During the political rapprochement period between Damascus and Ankara in the last decade, Syrian official discourse emerged in which Syrian-Turkish cultural relations were praised, in contradiction with the previous years when the relation between the two was not positive. Furthermore, some procedures were taken by Syria in order to strengthen the representation of its culture in Turkey, and vice versa.
Around that time, the Syrian government opened a Syrian cultural center in Istanbul, and several cultural events were organized. The last one, named ‘The Syrian Cultural Days in Turkey’ on March 28, 2011, was attended by the Syrian Minister of Culture Riad Esmat.
Retrospectively, we can now comprehend that the Syrian cultural representation pre-2011 in Turkey was not completely arbitrary or isolated from the exchanged political messages between Ankara and Damascus. The Syrian choreographer and manager of the Enana dance group declared in a press conference before the beginning of the ‘Syrian Cultural Days in Turkey’ that the choice of the dance ‘ضيفة خاتون Khatoon’s Guest’ to be part of the event was determined after long discussions with the Syrian Minister of Culture (Enana opening the Syrian cultural week in Turkey, 2011). It was chosen because it emphasizes the civil role of the Arabic woman through shedding light on a praised Syrian queen, and especially because the story events take place in Aleppo, which is considered as a bridging city between Turkey and Syria.
However, and despite the letters that the dance group manager and the Minister of Culture tried to deliver, it seems today that there is no remnants of the cultural investment which the Syrian regime tried to make in last decade, as the Syrian representation in Turkey will gradually change starting from March 2011 towards the current Syrian cultural representation associated with changing political and economic factors.
In April 2011, the first group of Syrian refugees crossed the borders from Idlib towards the Turkish province of Hatay, and on June 8th the Turkish government announced that the number of Syrian refugees in Turkey has reached 500, and the former Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Ahmet Davutoğlu announced that his government is ready to host those refugees hoping that there will be no such need (Pidd, 2011).
The number of registered Syrian refugees in Turkey is now around 3,606,737 according to the UNHCR (2019), and it is changing daily due to different factors including the continuous border crossing actions, despite how dangerous it is since that border is closed since 2016. Furthermore, many Syrians are on a daily basis migrating to Europe either ‘illegally’ or through UN immigration programs. The main point is that the number of Syrians in Turkey has radically changed comparing to pre-2011.
Despite the large number of Syrians in Turkey today, it is hard to know the specific time in which they, as individuals and in the form of institutions, have started establishing long-term projects in Turkey.
Furthermore, it is important to comprehend the different circumstances in the Turkish cities where the Syrian refugees have settled. For instance, Istanbul as the economic capital of Turkey, was the place where many commercial Syrian projects were launched, while the southern cities like Gaziantep have hosted, from early stages, a large number of the Syrian civil society and aid foundations.
In late 2013, Baytnasyria was established in Gaziantep as the first Syrian cultural center in Turkey. Similarly, Hamisch (Syria’s cultural house in Istanbul in English Margin) was inaugurated after around three months on March 2014, alongside with the establishment of many other Islamic associations, meanwhile, there are still many Turkish cities that do not have any Syrian cultural structure.
The Cases Under Examination
Due to the large number of Syrian cultural initiatives in Turkey (currently around 20), it might be hard to choose samples that can represent all of them as well as possible political tendencies. Therefore, we will choose the study samples according to the following three different factors, which might help us to make a less arbitrary selection:
1- The nature of the cultural activities created by the institution.
2-The relation between the institution and the Syrian community in Turkey.
3-The political orientation of the institution.
Baytnasyria in Gaziantep is one of the oldest Syrian cultural initiatives in Turkey, and its events are regularly visited by the Syrian residents of Gaziantep. Moreover, it is a politically-active cultural center where a myriad of politically-oriented events take place.
Likewise, Arthere Istanbul is one of the oldest Syrian cultural initiatives in Turkey. Being active since 2014, its focus lies on artistic and cultural projects that can shed light on the situation of the work of such Syrian centers operating in Istanbul and other Turkish cities.
Himma association is an explicit example for Islamic-oriented Syrian cultural associations in Istanbul and other Turkish cities. Its activities are shared with a large number of Syrians in Turkey, and its Syrian Islamic ideology is contradicting with the other liberal democratic centers. As we seek to have a broader insight into the complete Syrian cultural scene in Turkey, we incorporate with its two aspects i.e. the Islamic, and the secular ones.
Notable is also that the Syrian cultural initiatives in Turkey are working under different titles, such as institution, association, cultural platform, or cultural space. The terms in this paper are used depending on how each initiative has chosen to define or register itself in Turkey, and not depending on our own understanding for each of the terms.
Since the arrival of the first Syrian refugees to Turkey, the city of Gaziantep hosted the largest number of Syrian refugees, as well as numerous Syrian and international non-governmental organizations. This southern Turkish city which is very close to the Syrian border (less than one hour away by car) was a significant base for the charitable and journalistic work aiming to provide humanitarian aid as well as producing content for the audiences living in northern Syrian territories which rebelled against the Assad regime.
Baytnasyria was established in 2013 in this context, with financial support from Denmark. According to its website, it is run independently by Syrian professionals, and its focus lies on active citizenship and creative involvement (Baytnasyria, 2015).
Since its foundation, Baytnasyria has organized a wide range of different cultural events, from poetry readings and concerts to movie screenings and art exhibitions, as well as political meetings and civil society workshops. Additionally, in late 2017, the center started to arrange joint Syrian-Turkish cultural activities in collaboration with Turkish cultural institutions or other social clubs in Gaziantep, with the aim of ‘integrating’ Syrian youth into the Turkish society. The Brotherhood Football League in Gaziantep is one of such cultural events established to foster integration between Syrian and Turkish youth, as described on Baytnasyria’s Facebook page (2017b):
“In order to integrate Turkish and Syrian youth and promote brotherhood Misk Organization in cooperation with Baytnasyria, we are pleased to invite you to join the Brotherhood Football League in Gaziantep”.
Baytnasyria has become a platform for Syrian civil society inside and outside the country as it offers an open space for Syrians to meet, mingle, attend lectures, and get involved. Its founders emphasize that they are “convening people and creating networks among civil society as well as with donors” (Baytnasyria, 2015). They claim that through cultural practice, they create a “fertile environment for young artists to grow and flourish” (Baytnasyria, 2015).
Although Baytnasyria has embarked on organizing some events with the aim of refugee integration, its efforts turn out to be inadequate as the overwhelming majority of its events is still conducted in Arabic, with a focus on Syrians in Gaziantep, and less focus on the question of integration, even though the return of refugees back to Syria is not on the horizon yet.
Like the majority1 of Syrian civil society organizations, Baytnasyria has received its funds from a European source from Denmark. However, unlike some other Syrian cultural institutions, it clarifies its funding source, one can argue that the Danish funding is the reason behind the stated role of the civil society by the center, not only in its activities in Gaziantep, but also with the projects that it supports inside Syria. This type of funding was very common and probably aiming to shape the Syrian post-Assad regime state, when the expectations of its fall were higher in 2013 and the following years.
The reason why Baytnasyria fell short in organizing an adequate number of events aiming at refugee integration is that the institution, in its initial years, largely focused on the ‘future Syria’ rather than the current situation in Turkey. However, the developments on the battlefield in Syria which took place in late 2017 implied a military victory for the Assad regime which meant that Syrians will not be able to go back to their homes in the near future. This constituted a turning point for Baytnasyria to focus on events that could bridge the Syrian and the Turkish society.
Its funding source did not only attract the attention of Syrian audiences, but also of Turkish media. In this vein, Baytnasyria was subject to accusations directed by Yeni Şafak newspaper for facilitating ‘European supported terrorism’ (Bilgen, 2017). As a response to that assertion, Baytnasyria (2017a) published a statement in three different languages to deny the accusations made by the journal.
Baytnasyria clearly states that it “promotes an inclusive and democratic future for all Syrians.” This vision is reflected in the activities organized by the center as well as its firm political opposition against the Assad regime. Many opponent intellectuals and politicians have been hosted in the framework of its various events. Furthermore, the center has signed many petitions in response to political developments in Syria.
From this angle, Baytnasyria differs from other Syrian cultural platforms in Turkey, with its ‘institutional self-awareness’, i.e. by participating as an institution in Syrian political debates, on the basis of supporting democratic and liberal values (Syrian and International NGOs, 2019).
In addition to the above mentioned, the center emphasizes a secular Syrian-oriented identity, compared to many other centers who explicitly adopt an Islamic-oriented one:
“Baytnasyria is a leading institution fostering the Syrian civil society movement. It promotes an inclusive and democratic future for all Syrians, thus laying the foundation for long-term stability across the country” (Baytnasyria, 2015).
In December 2014, Arthere Istanbul was founded by the Syrian artist Omar Berakdar in collaboration with other artists from Syria, Turkey as well as France. The creators of the center defined it as “a space where artists can work and exhibit their work, but also support themselves by running a café and organising workshops, screenings and performances, it also includes an art management programs, residency, represent artists, and art related activities” (Arthere, 2014).
According to its Facebook page, Arthere has organized and hosted around 70 events since 2014 which varied from art exhibitions, music concerts, movie nights, artistic workshops to theatre events. Moreover, Arthere cafe has been always open to artists, journalists, activists, and hosted many collaborations and discussions, especially between Syrian and Turkish artists but also international ones.
Even though Arthere’s website does not provide information on whether the center has received any grants when it was established. However, it affirms the reception of grants in 2016 and in 2018 from in the framework of the ‘Fil Manfa’ (in exile) Program, which focused on the basic needs of artists in exile to enable them to develop their art and continue their artistic practice and development. The program was defined as a ‘solidarity programme run by the Roberto Cimetta Fund’, and Arthere Istanbul is the host organization in Turkey. Moreover, it states that Roberto Cimetta Foundation is not ‘a humanitarian organisation’, however, they have witnessed over the years how the current conflicts have made life extremely precarious for many artists who were living and working in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Palestine and they are in contact with many international organizations dedicated to the support and/or protection of artists in danger (Arthere, 2017).
Unlike Baytnasyria, Arthere depends on a self-funding policy through the earnings of its cafe, in addition to the occasional grants that it receives from organizations like the Roberto Cimetta Foundation. Furthermore, these art-oriented grants seek to support artists in exile instead of civil society projects.
In the description on its website, Arthere emphasizes that the center is “away from war and political rivalries”. This stands in contrast to the overwhelming majority of Syrian cultural centers in Turkey, which employ the narrative of the Syrian revolution, war and tragedy in their vision, mission and statement.
Since any form of political activity was banned and highly censored in Syria, many non-governmental cultural platforms showed apolitical tendencies by distancing themselves from politics in pre-2011 Syria. Likewise, by not touching upon any form of political rivalry or contestation, Arthere demonstrates the same ‘distancing policy’.
In this sense, the work of Arhere can be understood as an extended form of the Syrian cultural work in the pre-2011 period. However, the political value of this apolitical work might be different in the Turkish context, especially in regards to policies and attitudes regarding refugees. That is because, in Turkey as well as in other refuge countries, the discourse against Syrian refugees is dominated by terms like backwardness and cultural underdevelopment to label Syrian refugees (Alp, 2018, p. 33). The support to the Syrian professional artists’ work might help in repelling such a discourse, especially given that the Turkish art scene is mostly lead by the Turkish opponents, rather than the leading political power, who does not usually adopt an aggressive discourse regarding the question of Syrian refugees in Turkey. Therefore, it might be more effective for Syrian cultural centers to make “alliances” and to work closely with the circles of the opponents2, in order to create a broader acceptance for Syrian refugees in Turkey.
Established in 2012 as an initiative from “active young people” in order to start a “institutional youth work,” Himma Association is one of the Islamic-oriented Syrian associations operating in Turkey (Himma, n.d.). Initiating its activities in Istanbul, it later on opened more offices in other Turkish cities as well. Today, Himma Association has more than 750 members, and beyond 60 active teams working in different fields and specializations. Moreover, it collaborates with other associations operating in Turkey and in Syria.
Despite the fact that Himma Association does not define itself as a cultural center or a platform, its tasks include cultural activities. It has divided its working spheres into four: cultural development, education and training, social development and women and children sectors.
To date, the activities organized by Himma Association consist of Quran reading competitions, sport activities, daily meetings between teachers and young people, as well as a large number of ‘women-only’ activities.
Unlike the other two centers, Himma Association’s cultural activities focus on culture in its social broader meaning, thus not only on the aspects of art, but also on those of ‘the society’, namely the Muslim society, and, in particular, the Syrian refugees in Turkey.
Furthermore, it is noteworthy that the Association invests a decent amount of effort in young people, which implies the association’s vision: investing in young generations for an imagined (I don’t think this is the right word for expressing what you wanted to express here) future. However, it does not organize activities aiming at refugee integration, unlike some other Islamic associations like Hikmet Association, that try to target some parts of the Turkish society with Arabic teaching or Quranic courses.
As many other similar Syrian Islamic associations, Himma Association does not declare the source of its funding. Neither its website nor its active social media platforms mention how the activities and events are funded, which can be seen as a lack of transparency of an association organizing a myriad of events.
The possible funding source of the association might come from charity money, which is highly common among Syrian Islamic associations.3 Yet, it is hard to truly know the source of the funding for such activities without clear data provided by the association itself.
The “Values, Message, and Motto” section on Himma Association’s website gives the impression that it has a neutral political stance with no Islamic tendencies. According to the website, its vision is to have “active youth who builds the homeland and preserve the values”, its message is “building a Syrian generation who can take his responsibilities towards his country” and its slogan is termed a ‘Syrian Youth Association’.
In contrast to its stated vision, the overwhelming number of activities organized by Himma Association are Islamic-oriented. This Islamic orientation does not only affect the Syrians who directly participate in these activities, but it also plays a role in creating a collective image for Syrians in Turkey.
The institutional Syrian cultural work in Turkey is operating amidst an unsettled atmosphere, where the majority of Syrians don't have steady future plans regarding their settlement in Turkey, since the majority of them do not have secured legal status in Turkey and while their existence in Turkey is a frequent topic for political debates for different political parties.
In the midst of this atmosphere, and taking into consideration the war experience that the Syrians left behind them in their homeland, the Syrian cultural institutions are mostly operating within a pattern characterized by, more or less, the same cultural cleavages observed in Syria before 2011, specifically regarding the variables examined in this paper i.e. funding and political tendency.
Whilst the Islamic cultural platforms work on a grassroots level, the non-Islamic Syrian cultural platforms operate on a more elitist one, targeting artists and cultural audiences, and people who are interested in politics and public debates, with less focus on the average Syrian refugee in Turkey. The Islamic platforms, in contrast, target young people in schools, university students, housewives, and a broader range of social classes among the refugee community.
In other words, the Islamic cultural associations target people's daily needs, like education services and religious activities, while the non-Islamic associations focus more on what can be considered as ‘elitist’ activities in the case of the Syrian refugees in Turkey. The mixture of charity work and cultural impact practiced by the Islamic oriented centers is helping them to target a broader range of Syrians in Turkey.
This division between Islamic-popular and secular-elites cultural work reflects the cultural working atmosphere in Syria pre-2011, with one major difference which is the explicit political involvement by Baytnasyria and other centers.
Through their work, the Syrian cultural workers in Turkey make two products, the first one being the cultural product consumed by their own audiences, and the second one being their own image in the Turkish society. This “double production” process extends the borders of the cultural work, from the field of symbolic and abstract products, to that of politics, since the popular acceptance of Syrians in Turkey is highly affected by their cultural ‘behaviour’.
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2 For example, but not limited to the Republican People's Party (CHP), or the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP).