"The Walls Got Their Freedom Before We Did!"

Tarek Alghorani was imprisoned in 2005 in Syria for blogging and was released right before the protests began. He became an important voice in organizing imagery as a means of protest. He is now in Tunisia where he has worked for the Centre de Tunis pour la Liberté de la Presse. He is no less an important analytic voice on street art all over the Middle East and the words below are his, first published at Istituto Euromediterraneo del Nord Ovest:

Graffiti: "We wish to detain" in the meaning of "We want prisoners"

The people want the fall of the regime

High walls, insulating walls, as in a prison, have complicated the life within from the times when the the geo-political boundaries of the Arab world were defined.   
Imaginary walls erected by repressive regimes in the minds of the people. And the actual walls, solid concrete on the sides of the streets of every city, so that they remain in dead silence.   
Walls who want to hide the scenes of arbitrary arrests, torture and countless other human rights violations. The only written words on them before the revolution were exaltations of the President and the regime. Occasionally there were also writing inciting to religious pilgrimage, or commercial advertisements, slogans for football fans and a few declarations of love. In Syria, the revolution began after that some young people had graffiti written on the walls , "The people want the fall of the regime" (in Arabic al-nizam al-Sha'b yuridu isqat, ndt ) For this they were arrested and tortured by Syrian security forces and any attempt to free them was in vain. They began their protests, the regime confronted them with grim violence: many protesters were killed.

A graffti call to close the shops and strike  

The art of graffiti

Graffiti is understood here as a means to create a voice of the marginalized and the poor, a way to imprint the slogans of the protesters on the walls. And not least an attempt to occupy the public space that had until then been monopolized by the regime 
At first it was a simple repetition of revolutionary slogans written on the walls with spray cans. From here was born the term Spray Man, a name which can be traced back to the comics Place of Light, written by "Adnan Zira", who is currently in prison. The series tells of a man who looks like Super Man, but instead of using force, he is writing on the walls with his pot of paint or with the spray can to fight corruption and injustice. 
After the start of the revolution each city or region drawn into by the revolution spray men and women have become synonymous with "people who write on the walls so fast," rapid and spontaneous in areas controlled by the regime or during the demonstrations. The symbol of Spray Man is now represented by the names of people who were arrested, such as Ahmad al-Khaniji, or of those killed, such as Muhammad Ratib al-Namar of Homs.  

A spray woman: "Revolution Life"

There are also spray women; among them Fatin Duma of Rajab, a village near Damascus, who has been in prison since December 26, 2011.

A young man and woman from Zabadani near Damascus

The battle of the walls

Since the beginning of the revolution a man on his own or security forces, militias paid by the regime, can be seen with black paint to erase the graffiti art on the walls, or they overwrite it with new pro-regime slogans, not failing to threaten or promise the "killing of anyone who dares carry out the revolution". The phrase most widespread in all regions is "al-Assad or burn the country". 
In response to this repression a new term was born: Man painting. They are, usually, groups that operate during the night drawing the emblem of independence, which has become a symbol of the revolution. These people cover long surfaces of walls, often more than ten meters, in order to prevent the work to be easily deleted. The reaction of the militia to the scheme was to destroy the walls. This is what happened to the walls of the cemetery of the Amu Darya.

Before to the left and the after, the reaction of the militia

The revolution of the walls

The revolution of the walls represents the return of colour, breaking the monotony of the grey. The walls of the streets belong to the community without any exception: They belong to everyone. 
The campaign Graffiti of Freedom began at the beginning of April 2012. The aim was to encourage creativity by bringing art into the protest, using art against violence. We began by making stencils, the preparation and use of which were the same as the campaign slogan: "Imprint", "make a mark", and also "spread "and "spray".  

Preparing the paper for a stencil on "Syria / Revolution /Freedom"

By using the internet and the social networks, we then spread these already designed models, along with a video that explained the whole process: Choose an image, imprint it on a sheet of paper, cut out the image and then spray it on the wall. The campaign has seen tremendous success. Not only through the Syrians in their own parts of the country, but also numerous graffiti artists all over the world have joined us to support the campaign, drawing on the walls of the city - such as in Tunisia, Egypt, Spain, The United States, France and in Sweden. In Lebanon the participants were arrested. A demonstration was organized demanding their release, raising the slogan of the campaign: "spread", "imprint" , "make a mark", "spray", "graffiti is not a crime". 
In Syria, many regions took part in the campaign, such as Darya, Kafr Sousa, al-Qadam, Barzeh, Rakn al-Din, Jaramana, Mashru' Damar, al-Hamah, al-Zabadani, al-Midan in Damascus and other municipalities, then reaching other governorates such as those of Darʽa and Homs. Even individual Syrians, independently, have participated using stencils to manifest their protest.

Graffiti in the port of Daraa: "A salute to the freedom of the media" 

Graffiti tell and denounce

The content of the graffiti has certain themes: Freedom, human rights, woman, the call to strike, pictures of martyrs, Syrian leaders at the time of independence, satirical images of the regime and of the Bashar al-Assad, requests for the release of prisoners, the repudiation of division and sectarianism and, finally, the demands to end the civil war.  
Since the beginning of the revolution, the regime has applied a strict control on the sale of paint and spray cans, so that any person who wishes to buy must be identified and his personal data are recorded. To overcome this obstacle, we have developed instructional videos on how to fabricate self-spray containers of coke or carbonated beverages, or taking advantage of the air pressure caused by the movement of motorcycles on the street.  

Graffiti in the port of Aleppo: As seen from the top:
At the top: The martyr, filmmaker "Basel Shehadeh" of a Syrian christian family returned to Syria to document the revolution. He trained the protesters in film technique. He was killed in sniper fire. The Catholic Church banned a memorial of his death for a year.
Below in red paint: "Meshaal" of Kurdish origin, had been working to reconcile Arabs and Kurds during the revolution, was murdered by the system.
In black paint the child martyr Hamza al-Khatib from the city of Daraa. Children were killed during the protests at the beginning of the revolution and the system stated he was killed because he was a military intending to rape women...
At the bottom: Sectarian bullet in the face of the revolution.

The most widespread graffiti motifs are those with images of the martyrs in their own region of origin, in order to preserve his memory. This is what happened in the Barzeh district of Damascus. I talked with one of the participants in the campaign in this place, Aghid Karim, who was killed on December 12, 2012 during the funeral of a martyr, when the regime's troops opened fire on the crowds. Aghid said to me: "our only weapons against the regime are the camera and the spray can". And he decided to take part in the campaign after seeing the stencil with the image of another martyr, Ghyath Matar. Ghyath was among the most important anti-war activists of Damascus. He offered flowers and water to the troops of the army! He was arrested and died under torture. 

"The Barzeh Martyrs"

The arrests and killings represent the greatest danger and the biggest problem graffiti activists are exposed to. Nur Zahra Hatim, 23, known as the man of graffiti in the region of Kafr Sousa, was arrested because of what he wrote on the walls. Two months after his release, he was killed on April 29, 2012 in the region of Darya, the main center of the peace movement in Syria. His funeral was a major event. All along the procession to the cemetery was painted graffiti for freedom and images of the martyr as a gesture of defiance.

A stenciled paper used as a banner in a demonstration in Damascus.
The women cover their faces to avoid recognition and arrest.

Saraqab: The home of graffiti

Saraqab is a city in northern Syria near the Turkish border and no longer under the authority of the regime since mid-2012. The walls of Saraqab celebrate the poems of the poets, the memories of the martyrs and the days of the revolution. And while the Syrians in the other cities were intent on writing signs and raise them in the demonstrations, three boys found their long  desire on the walls of houses Saraqab, coloring them with lettering and designs without having to fear that were deleted by the forces the regime. 
Ra'id Razaq, a militant of this city, remember how drawing on a wall could a first be a big risk, because of the control exercised by the regime and the presence of snipers on the roofs of buildings. So, he chose a popular poem and wrote it across a wall. Nothing happened. He wrote another, inviting his two friends Sumar and Iyas to join him. They formed as a group, whose members take turns in the composition of expressions, drawing them in and painting them. 
Iyas Qaadouni has said: "All our walls became free since color paid them a visit in March 2012. They got their freedom before we did!" Sumar Kanjun added: "We wanted to draw the wound of the people on the walls, so that no one forgets. A wound can become a distant memory, but painted on a wall it will continue to burn and ache". 
This small town has become the home of graffiti art. Its walls are decorated with dozens of posters, drawn with charcoal, paint or chalk. And all posters carry a message to the world about the Syrian issue: "Spectators ... are missing in the silence". 
The revolution, thanks to the expressive power of graffiti, to the extent possible has changed the perception of the dictator that had till then been etched in the collective memory. That image that captures the common space, the personal sphere and creativity. It seems to have fallen never to return: No one, in fact, at least until now, has been able to take possession of that image.

Text and Photos courtesy of Tarek Alghorani - Thank you, Tarek!

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