May 07, 2018

Syria’s Memes of Survival

Mariam Sleiman


On April 13, the world paused, briefly, as U.S. President Donald Trump ordered and executed an attack on the Syrian regime’s military bases in retaliation for its reported use of chemical weapons in Douma on April 7. The American attack, theatrical at best, dominated the airwaves with a very predictable narrative, one that revolved around the continued elision and obfuscation of Syrian life and the complete absence of any mention or discussion of the historical and contextual backdrop that led to this moment.

Of course, Syrians themselves were largely absent from these conversations. Indeed, while there has been an outpouring of Syrian perspectives about the conflict, through writing, art, and music — including the comprehensive online archive Creative Memory of the Syrian Revolution, and several books such as Syria Speaks or Dancing in Damascus— much of this output has remained marginalized and difficult to find unless you know what to look for.  Even when Syrians have been given a chance to speak, there has been an uneasiness to their inclusion. As British Syrian writer and researcher Razan Saffour put it in an op-ed  in the Middle East Eye on the Trump Attack, “it is difficult to articulate just how disheartening it is to know that you won’t be taken seriously because you’re already viewed as either a victim or an opinionated activist.” The Syrian today is, in short, a flattened multiplicity, invoked and listened to only as a rhetorical object for peddling various dogmatic narratives.


There is, however, one easily accessible and an unmediated form of expression on Syria that allows Syrians to truly speak for themselves: the meme. Meme culture, though ephemeral and transient, provides a key window into how Syrians create meaning as a community. A stroll through anything between the niche but biting Weldi Maher (My Son Maher) or the more mainstream Salabina offers insight into an alternative form of meaning making, one that does not funnel Syrians into the limiting role of victim but rather shows them actively engaging with the unraveling of Syria in creative, innovative, and even humorous ways. 

The particular durability of these memes as alternative narratives extends beyond their wide availability. Memes are not only cheap, ephemeral Internet jokes ping ponging between platforms. They constitute a space in which people think through political, social, and cultural challenges. The imaginative collaging, remixing, and repurposing of existing media to document and comment on society creates new cultures and new meanings. They also often defy explanation because of the unique intelligence and familiarity they demand. When it comes to Syrians meme –  like this one before Trump’s attack, this one during Trump’s attack, and this one after Trump’s attack – they often invoke a referential landscape that includes Arabic television shows, movies, music, and pan Arab politics, all of which determine who gets the joke and who does not. Only those intimately embedded within the inner workings of Syrian culture will understand the layers of the meme and the joke behind it.

That of course is why they resonate. Memes presume a community and help sustain that togetherness. When the world has tumbled into incomprehensibility, memes have a way of combining references in hyper specific ways to create high threshold jokes that can lend –  if not clarify – a sense of collective possibility and joy. In a public imagination that has limited the role of Syrian voices to victims or activists, memes, fleeting as they are, lend a different kind of poetry to the discourse. In those memes a surreal, dark, but potent hope remains

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