Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Ideas

Institute of Contemporary Arts: Debate on ‘The Trouble with Counter Culture’, July 24th 6:45 pm

Using history as its guide, the debate will assess the place of counter-culture in society today; does it exist, and if so, in what form? Using empirical evidence from previous cultural movements such as the Beats and Punks, the conversation will explore the relationship between subcultures and counter-cultural movements. Invited speakers include Dan Hancox, a Guardian writer who specialises in youth culture, music and politics, and Simon Warner, whose latest book looks at the links between the US Beat writers and subsequent rock artists from Bob Dylan to Patti Smith and Kurt Cobain.

Film

Haifaa Al Mansour’s ‘Wadjda’, in cinemas nationwide

Not only is Wadjda the first film ever to have been entirely filmed within Saudi Arabia, it is also a product of the country’s first female director, Haifaa Al Mansour. Wadjda is the story of a vivacious young girl whose only desire is to ride her bike around her town with the boy who lives next door. However, the religious restrictions and societal pressures placed on women living in Saudi Arabia makes navigating this most simple of pleasures, a particularly complex task. Critics have said that while much of Wadjda is “very funny”, the picture also allows viewers to “get an acute sense of the little everyday frustrations and burdens that Saudi women have to shoulder”. Writing for the New Statesman, Steve Yates called Wadjdapowerful” and said that despite its “clear political intent…Wadjda is a very human film.”

Art

Flowers Gallery, Kingsland Road, E2: ‘Stranger – An Exhibition of Self-portraits’, 5th July – 31st August

The Stranger exhibition sheds light on the significance of self-portraiture and is testament to the artistic and aesthetic breadth of the field, given the huge variety of interpretations seen in each artist’s different approach to self-representation. Each work displays the intimate and disparate relationships the artists have with themselves and the canvas. In works that have been completed over the past year, Tom Phillips’ Doppelganger depicts a long figure accompanied by his other self, whereas Ishbel Myerscough panits her body as obscured by her young daughter, representing their unity. The freedom the topic bestows upon the artists makes for an incredibly diverse and inventive collection.

Exhibition

Somerset House: Miles Aldridge’s ‘I Only Want You To Love Me’, 10th July – 29th September

Although Aldridge is first and foremost a fashion photographer, his work has both political and social undertones, often portraying women intensely bored with their glamorous but monotonous domestic lives. Within his photographs, Aldridge saturates colour to the point of fluorescence, which contrasts heavily with the grey-blonde locks and porcelain faces of his models. This striking contrast and the models’ vacant expressions are used to portray the idea that living in stereotypical domestic bliss and committing oneself to brazen, high-fashion consumerism are not sufficient tools for achieving happiness. Every photograph in I Only Want You To Love Me is heavily constructed, precisely posed and entirely premeditated helping to further the feeling of boredom present in the women’s lives. The exhibition contains large prints of Aldridge’s photography from throughout his career as well as previously unpublished material. It also features some of the story-boards, artwork, Polaroid photos, and magazine cuttings he has used to develop his ideas. With critics calling I Only Want You to Love Me an “exhilarating adventure” and “eerily glamorous”, it is not to be missed.

Dance

The Lowry Theatre, Manchester, M50: An evening with the National Youth Dance Company and talent from the Lowry’s CAT programme, Sunday 21st July 2013 at 19:30, Tickets from £6.00.

Under a new initiative funded by the Arts Council England and the Department for Education, a cast of 30 dancers aged 16-19 perform work specially commissioned by NYDC’s Guest Artistic Director, Jasmin Vardimon, winner of the 2013 International Theatre Institute Award for Excellence in Dance. The evening promises to reflect the youthful, vibrant spirit of the dancers involved combined with Vardimon’s renowned and unique style of physical theatre.

The Trouble with Counter Culture at the ICA: Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols screams into a microphone.
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Inside Syria's unending siege, civilians, not soldiers, are the victims

In Aleppo, civilian strife is just another tool of war.

Maria is a young mother who lives in Aleppo. She missed her opportunity to flee when the Syrian-Turkish border was closed to all but the seriously injured in early 2015. With her two children – Fadi, aged five, and Sama, aged nine – she stayed in the city.

Maria’s husband was killed by a barrel bomb that fell on their neighbourhood in 2014. After that, she took the children and moved in with her husband’s family. Her married brother-in-law asked her to be his second wife. She accepted the offer for the sake of security. This year he, too, was killed when a bomb fell on his shop.

Speaking to her on Skype, I referred to Aleppo as a city under siege and she quickly corrected me. “The city is not under siege,” she said. “We are human beings under siege.” Maria clearly felt offended by my words. She moved the conversation on to the images of a young Syrian boy, sitting in an ambulance, which have appeared on newspaper front pages around the world – a symbol of the human suffering in Aleppo. “What can I say? His silence and shock reflected all the pain of Syrians.”

Tearfully, she described her living conditions. “There are two widows, with three children, who live all together with our old mother-in-law. The good people around us try to give us food and clothing.”

She added: “Before, I used to cook a big meal for me and my family-in-law every day. My late husband was well off.” The children don’t go to school but they get some lessons at home – Maria used to work as an Arabic language teacher at a high school in the city.

The household’s other widow, Safaa, joined our conversation. “Since the first day of Eid ul-Fitr [the festival that marks the end of Ramadan, this year on 6 July], the siege began in Aleppo. There was no food or water. Children cried and could not sleep because of hunger.”

Safaa made food from pulses that she had managed to save, particularly lentils. As the area around the city is rich in olives and well known for producing za’atar herbs, the extended family depended on reserves of these for nutrition. “Al-za’atar al-akhdar [a dish of the herb, olive oil and a few other basic ingredients] has saved the reputation of Aleppo and its people,” Safaa joked, and both women laughed.

Then, suddenly, the Skype connection was lost and they both disappeared.

Another Aleppo native to whom I spoke, Ayham, described his desperation as he finished his engineering degree before fleeing Syria. “I am my mother’s only son, so I didn’t want to do military service, and I left, as I felt so insecure,” he told me. He had been living in Shahbaa, a neighbourhood controlled by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, while completing one application after another to study abroad. Eventually he was successful and he has now made it to a university in Europe.

Ayham’s parents were pushing him to leave because they knew that he was part of an underground anti-Assad protest movement. “There are two Aleppos,” he explained. “One is free and the other is controlled by Assad’s regime. Both are very unsafe . . . Living hungry was easier than living under threat.”

There are roughly two million people in the city, most of them women and children. Since the second day of the siege, there have been no fruit or vegetables available and only a few bakeries are producing bread. Compounding the starvation, the bombing has been intense, hitting hospitals, ambulances, blood banks and the Syrian Civil Defence base. Assad’s regime is targeting vital resources for civilians.
Even after rebel forces, in co-operation with the Islamist faction Jaish al-Fateh, managed partly to break the siege and open a new road into the south of the city through the Ramoussa area, they could not bring in enough food. The little that made it inside immediately sent prices soaring. Civilians could not use this road to escape – jets were targeting the routes in and out.

The eastern areas of Aleppo, which are still under the opposition’s control, are also still without aid, because of how risky it is to get there. All the talk coming out of the city today is about decisive battles between Assad’s forces and the rebels in the southern quarters. Civilians put the recent air strikes down to these conflicts – it has long been believed that when the regime loses ground, it intensifies its bombing as revenge, and to send a message to those who continue to resist.

People in Aleppo and the north-eastern territories of Syria are suffering and dying. They have no other choice. It seems that both Isis and the Assad regime are trying as hard as they can to destroy Syrian civilians, whether through direct attacks or by gradual starvation.

There is little information available, as both sides attempt to prevent the media from documenting life under siege. Isis accuses journalists of being agents of Assad, while the regime portrays reporters as terrorists. Pro-Assad social media accounts have alleged that Mahmoud Raslan, who took the footage of the boy in the ambulance, has links with terrorism. The same channels have yet to say much about Raslan’s subject – Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old whom he showed, bloodied and stunned, after the boy was pulled from the rubble caused by multiple air strikes. Omran’s ten-year-old brother, Ali, has since died from injuries sustained in another attack.

After four hours, I heard back from Maria. She apologised for losing the connection and asked me not to worry about her. “All of us are fine. We did not die yet,” she said. Her daughter, Sama, has not been to school since last year, she told me, and now studies only Arabic poetry. They have no books, so she depends on the verses that Maria knows by heart. Sama misses her school and her friends, and though she remembers their faces she has forgotten their names.

Maria has made a doll for her out of scraps of fabric and they call it Salwa. Together, they sing Syrian folk songs for the doll, in particular one that goes: “Hey Salwa, why are you crying? I need a friend.” Maria is resigned. As she says, “We are back in the Stone Age.” 

K S is a Syrian journalist, based in Sweden since 2014

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser