Syrian cultural work in Turkey: the marginalization continues – Part I


Louai Barakat/Zuma Press/Press Association Images. All rights reserved. May 15, 2017 – The Alasalah is a group of Syrian youth and Syrian artists interested in reviving traditional Arab artistic tradition, with particular focus on Syrian heritage. They are involved in poetry, acting, music, song and dance. Louai Barakat/Zuma Press/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.Since the Syrian revolution, cultural
activity has been of ​​great political importance. Decades of political deprivation
and the lack of means for political work in Syria led those interested in
public affairs to find their ways into various types of cultural work as a
means of having potential political impact.

Even when cultural actors in pre-revolutionary
Syria didn’t directly seek to give political or social weight to their cultural
work, that burden was placed on them in one way or another. This
pre-revolutionary cultural work was distinct because it was to attribute its responsibility
to different parties; either to the state and its various supervisory bodies,
or to members of opposition parties that saw it as the only available platform
for political resistance. Therefore, the product was evaluated based on its political

It seems that the dialectic of
pre-revolutionary Syria continues to provide valid analysis of the current
Syrian cultural scene, despite all the geographical changes to Syria within its
various spheres of power, as well as analysis of the millions of Syrians spread
out to several countries abroad. This dialectic can help us understand the
reality of Syrian cultural work today.

Despite the changes in the circumstances of
its productivity, the level of politicization of such Syrian cultural activity hasn’t
changed much, nor has the continued marginalization of groups of Syrians who
had already been culturally marginalized for years before the revolution,
although the reasons differ in part.

This particularly applies to Turkey, home
to the largest population of Syrian refugees in the world. In the absence of any
political bodies that could represent Syrians in Turkey to the authorities and local
communities, Syrian cultural work plays a key role as the only form of political
expression available to them.

Despite all the changes accrued, Syrian
cultural work continues to carry the burden of political responsibility,
working in parallel with – or on its side-lines, as we will try to clarify in
this article.

as a working space

After the waves of Arab uprisings, and the violent state crackdowns that ensued, many Arab cultural and political
actors moved to settle in Turkey, particularly Syrians. Until late 2015, Turkey
had adopted an open-door policy with regards to citizens of the Arab Spring
countries; many Syrians settled in the country that had created a new space
for their political and cultural work.

It is a known fact that the Turkish
government embraced many Syrian opposition parties such as the Syrian Coalition
of Revolutionary and Opposition Forces and the Syrian Interim Government, among
others, in addition to some Syrian civil society organizations in various
Turkish cities, which have recently been experiencing a severe crackdown by the
Turkish government.

In addition to these political
institutions, many new and different Syrian cultural institutions and projects
were founded in Turkey, and these can be divided into two main forms.

The first is the content creation platforms, such as radio stations, websites, news agencies and research centres,
whose content is often produced for Syrians within their country, as is the
case with radio channels, or for Syrian expats, as is the case for other platforms.

These Syrian content platforms may be
produced by Syrian residents of Turkey, but their audiences are mostly residing
in other countries; and thus, these platforms work in isolation from the local
Syrian refugee communities, which are geographically dispersed among different
Turkish cities.

The second type of Syrian cultural work is
represented in cultural centres and initiatives that directly target Syrians on
Turkish soil, whether through entirely Syrian educational initiatives, or
through initiatives and projects targeting the Turkish community in an attempt
at assimilation with the community. These differences have created noticeable
disparities between the different projects, initiatives and centres.

of Syrian Turkey

According to Turkish government figures,
nearly three million Syrians live in Turkey, most of whom are concentrated in
the provinces of Sanliurfa in the south, and Istanbul in the west, which together
have the largest Syrian populations at over 400,000 refugees each, followed by
Adana, Mersin, Bursa and Gaziantep, each of which hosts hundreds of thousands
of Syrians.

The Syrian expat population is generally dispersed
among the cities south-west of Turkey, which are closest to the Syrian border, and there are often some pre-existing social and family ties between both
sides of the border. The proportion of Syrians is also high in the cities of
the Turkish west, near the Turkish economic center, but their proportion decreases in the central Anatolian region, excluding the south-eastern cities near Syria.

From the southern region closest to Syria
to the west looking onto the European Union, Syrians face – without exception –
perpetual social isolation.

More than four years after the beginning of
the Syrian exodus to Turkey, a sharp disconnect remains between the Syrian and
Turkish communities. This is due to several factors: the language barrier, the
negative stance of Turkish opposition parties towards the presence of Syrian
refugees, and the Turkish government’s neglect of their integration process.

In the absence of effective Syrian
political representation, Syrian cultural work in Turkey has a large share of
the responsibility for integrating Syrians into Turkish society, or at least for
creating cultural dialogue that represents them.

The various Syrian cultural platforms bear
and express this responsibility, and often this burden
has been placed on them, by the isolated, tired and needy Syrian community desperate for any kind of organized support at an educational or even recreational level.

The curse
of marginalization

In terms of the culture of
pre-revolutionary Syria, which is constantly being criticised in reviews today,
there has always been severe criticism of the Syrian state’s centralised
cultural policies, where all cultural support is concentrated in city centres,
especially the capital, while marginalizing the outskirts in general; from the
capital’s own countryside to the eastern region, which has been severely
neglected by the government’s development policies.

However, in taking an overview of Syrian
cultural work in Turkey today, one would find that this exact imbalance between
the centres and outskirts continues with the Syrians of Turkey.

So, while official statistics show similar
numbers of Syrians in Sanliurfa in the south and Istanbul in the west, the number
and varieties of cultural work benefitting Syrian refugees are notably
disparate when comparing both areas.

What makes the situation even grimmer is
the fact that most Syrians in Sanliurfa are refugees from western Syria, an
already culturally marginalised province – and so it seems that this curse of
marginalisation haunts them, even when the political variables and countries

Furthermore, the forced transition of Syrians into Turkish life has difficulties that
aren’t dissimilar to the sense of marginalization that many of them have become
accustomed to – and continue to face – in their homeland.

In the second part of the article, we will
elaborate in detail on the nature of cultural work targeting Syrians in Turkey,
in terms of the work’s geographical distribution and its political and
ideological tendencies. Furthermore, we will examine the tools of
marginalization used against the Syrian communities in Turkey.

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