The arty Syrian diaspora breaks new ground in Berlin with its own magazine, A Syrious Look.
Syria is trending. Berlin had its Syrian dinners, a Syrian Expat Philharmonic Orchestra, a Syrian Mobile Film Festival, a Damascus in exile pop-up exhibition. And now, it has a Syrian magazine – in English. Its three founders share one ambition: to bring us “the perspective of the displaced observer”. A Syrious Look debuted with 90 sharply designed pages highlighting the talents of the exiled Damascus creative set. At the launch on November 30, an attractive gang celebrated in a Mitte co-working space: guys with deep, intense eyes and stylish girls with great hair. Never has Syria looked sexier!
“We are sexy!” jokes co-founder Ziad Adwan. “But know what? Many of us were sexy long before.” Before the war and refugee crisis brought them into a different type of limelight, he means. A globe-trotting “theatre maker” who has lived and worked in London, Dubai and Munich, he was one of those lucky 5000 hand-picked by Germany in 2013 for a three-star residence status as a member of the “Syrian cultural elite”. Adwan married the Syrian-German choreographer Mey Zeifan in Berlin in October 2015. That’s where his long-time friend, the poet Mohammad Abou Laban, and Berlin publisher Mario Münster first met. A couple of months later, the three were drawing up plans for a magazine over beers. By spring, thanks to a €8000 grant from the Metro Group, the trio was throwing itself into an editorial adventure that was to last seven months and involve all of their many artist and writer friends.
The result reads like a who’s who of the Syrian cultural diaspora in Berlin: from filmmakers like Talal Derki (of the award-winning 2013 documentary Return to Homs), to actor Ayad Mjid Agha (now in the Gorki Theater ensemble) and cartoonist/musician Salam Al Hassan. Syrious also contains what might be the last interview with the Sadak Jalal Al Azm, the prominent specialist on Kant and Islam and inveterate supporter of freedom of expression who died in Berlin on December 11 at the age of 82.
Are they exiles? Refugees? “We’re tourists!” laughs Adwan, indicating that Berlin was a choice for himself and Laban, as it has been for so many expats from the so-called first world, or Münster who moved here from Hessen 16 years ago. But if Berlin has become “the place to be” for Syrian artists, it’s not only because of the city’s hyped appeal. Merkel’s Syrian-centric welcome policy has naturally extended to globe-trotting artists like illustrator and animation film artist Sulafa Hijazi, who swapped her student visa for refugee status as a “practical decision”, as she explained in Syrious’ interview with the trio and Syrian female filmmaker Liwaa Yazji (who also happens to be Laban’s wife). Of course it means that she can’t go back, unlike Yazji, who freely travels to visit her family in Damascus. “I know I’m privileged. Or let me use the word ‘lucky’,” says the 39-year-old. The 10-page conversation offers a rare insight in the lives of those Syrians who left voluntarily and travel across Europe, the US and the Middle East to stage their plays, show their films and exhibit their art. A far cry from your average Syrian refugee struggling in Berlin’s gyms or Tempohomes. They do, however, share the same trauma of war, never lurking far in the shadows of their own ‘lucky’ lives as evidenced in their artistic endeavours.
The magazine is sleek and well-designed: “I could see some were expecting typical ‘refugee stories’, and were surprised to see something… ‘better’,” says Münster. Sharp and alluring, for sure. A bit incestuous, too – but that’s the arts scene in Berlin, isn’t it? Why should the Syrian one be any different?