Thinking Together is a discourse format dedicated to exploring the phenomenon of time in its socio-political, philosophical and artistic dimensions. It provides a space for transdisciplinary exchange, collective learning and unlearning. Freely accessible, the project is a contact zone between audiences, festival artists and international guests. Journalist and writer Amber Grünhäuser visits this year’s edition of the discourse format at MaerzMusik – Festival for Time Issues and gives an insight into her personal impressions on our blog.

“When Time is All You Have Left” is a space of thoughtful exchange, learning and analysis, but most importantly of feeling together as humans. This inclusive reading circle with Rana Issa, Yassin al-Haj Saleh, Sonja Mejcher-Atassi and Sami Khatib is a place to openly discuss the radical shift in temporalities of the contemporary Syrian experience and talk of how to narrate the experience, while exploring acts of reclaiming agency amid tragedy and monstrosity.

At the very heart is a major temporal shift from the familiar but oppressive dictatorship of the Assad dynasty, determined to “live in the forever”, to the time that begins in March 2011 when people took to the streets in peaceful, pro-democracy demonstrations following public outrage over the torture of a group of teenagers who wrote that the people want an end to the regime on the walls of their school. Brutal crackdowns by the Syrian army on the protests spiralled into civil war and then quickly descended into a complex conflict involving local and foreign actors with their own regional and political agendas. As tensions and grievances between different internal (and external) groups from the past feed back into the present, the effects of colonialism and four decades of brutal repression at the hands of the Assad dynasty among other factors boil over. Many say it has its roots in the French and British mandates drawn up after World War One.

In this time since March 2011 the country has been out of the full control of the Assad regime but besieged by it and its supporting apparatus. In order to enforce this notion of “forever rule” the Assad regime appears willing to slaughter the nation, its people by any means at its disposal, including chemical warfare, the targeting and obliteration of civilian infrastructure and withholding aid to those in desperate need.

We discuss the human toll of eight years of this war, where human rights abuses can be attributed to all armed groups in the conflict. The mass violence, mass destruction and resulting mass displacement of Syrians inside and outside Syria through mass migration has led to temporalities of trauma, estrangement and the insecurity of living in the continual temporary, at home or abroad, with no endpoint in sight.  Syrians today, no matter where they may find themselves, inhabit this time.

We talk about how to communicate the human perspective of this crisis. How does one articulate the overwhelming saturation of horrors and injustices without end?  Especially when you are living among it and just when you think it couldn’t get any worse redlines are crossed repeatedly with increasing extremity and barbarity. How do you communicate the visceral experience that shakes your core, shreds your internal reserves and leaves you speechless and wondering how to proceed in the present, let alone how to communicate it for public record? Everyday life must go on and does, however far removed from the everyday once lived. This new life is one under siege, under constant threat of death and where access to aid and basic human amenities have been strangled. How do you process this let alone narrate the experience? Sometimes language fails and you have no words. Is it a case that language needs to catch up? Is it still too raw? Are you too focused on dealing with the present?

In his statement “Literature can wait; the revolution cannot wait.” Khaled Khalife wonders if literature is frivolous when individual and collective survival is at stake. He wishes that he could be a physical force that could protect his people and prevent another unnecessary death. When death surrounds, is it a time to write or act or both? Can you ever capture the essence of the experience or merely describe it and draw attention to it? And what of those scarred by the trauma who left and now occupy a different continual temporary in tents in refugee camps or trying to navigate a new language, work and social structures as refugees and the exiled in a foreign land. Now on the outside looking in, how can they meaningfully engage with the war and discourse when they too are grappling with the challenges of the new everyday and continual temporary?

Syria has long been shrouded in the silence of fear fanned by decades of a brutal and repressive regime. Before the revolution people could not challenge or speak out against the regime without the fear of extreme reprisals, like death, torture, jail, interrogation or being forced into hiding. The Syrian Uprising set in motion the reclaiming of agency long denied – although one should add the war has taken its toll on this too and fear still remains, however, agency is far from being stamped out.

At some stage the “how to narrate” gives way to the need and urgency to break the silence and create public discourse. To overcome the horror, the silence and above all to provide an alternative narrative to that orchestrated by state-run media or shown in the international mass media coverage with its saturation of distant horrors, and to offer the contemporary Syrian perspective from a very human standpoint. Through storytelling, “the ability to exchange experiences” (Walter Benjamin), and narration, artistic intervention, literature, prose, film, social media clips, non-violent acts of civil disobedience, humour and ingenuity Syrians reclaim their agency, visibility and the ethical control of their story.

We hear of the actions from the early days of the revolution, of the time when activists turned the water in the fountains red and it took one week for the government to replace it. Then there are the Ping Pong balls with the words “freedom” written on them that rained down the streets of the city forcing armed soldiers to scramble to contain the bouncing balls of “freedom”. These non-violent actions provide strength to the people and instil hope for change. As the war progressed social media platforms have been used to provide instant storytelling and also to spread propaganda. “We Are Coming to Slaughter You” is a video by Bidayyat for Audiovisual Arts, made in Beruit in response to two viral videos that show children from opposing factions being used to propagate sectarian hate through songs, which include the taunt “ We are coming to slaughter you,” one in retaliation to the first. Bidayyat uses black comedy to highlight the insanity of this spiraling rhetoric (and use of children), making the point that wishing death on someone/your foe/different religious groups is akin to wishing “Death to the human race” and “Death to humanity”. One member of the group is seen wielding a massive cartoon-like soft toy knife.

There is a place for black comedy and sarcasm as too one for personal reflection, literary prose, essays and analysis. We read together the prose of three female human rights activists spanning three different generations: Samera al-Khalil, Razan Zeitouneh (both of whom were abducted in 2013 along with two others shortly after releasing a critical report citing human rights abuses by all armed groups in Syria, there whereabouts are still unknown) and Marcell Shehwaro. Their prose, spoken with different voices, humanizes the contemporary Syrian experience through everyday scenes, references to loved ones, glimpses of the life before, the fractured caught between, the horror of the present and their wrath, told through a relatable human presence. Their words strike deep and we have to fight to keep our composure. We are moved. The crisis we struggle to comprehend is given an orientation point, a human one and it is powerful.

We thank the voices so rich and diverse who risk so much to narrate this experience to ensure the human toll is spoken out loud, visible and cannot be denied or easily dismissed, and who provide strength and hope for change. Let us move beyond the idea of simply showing solidarity, which is a loaded concept. We agreed that it is essential to create spaces where we can talk together, think together and be human together and go from there. Public discourse is imperative as is collective action. We hope for meaningful change to the Syrian crisis soon. Thank you for the exchange.