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An interview with Fares Helou

Translated by: Madeline Edwards

Fares Helou is among the most famous cinematic names from Syria. Television viewers have long known him for his role in Syrian (and now French) series, while civil society activists have come to know him for his public arts initiatives. Helou organized Syria’s first independent sculpture conference in his hometown of Mashta Helou near the Syrian coast in 2006, and later the country’s first international painting forum in 2008. For Helou, the scope of the forums went beyond art alone.

Rather, “they were human rights activities of an artistic and cultural nature,” Helou says. “They stemmed from our decades-old feelings of lost citizenship and our desire to reawaken and re-root these feelings within ourselves.”

Helou subsequently founded the Boustan Society for Culture and Arts in early 2011. The organization would serve as a workshop space for Syrian creatives. However, as the revolution and war broke out later that same year, Helou was forced to go into hiding due to his activism. Eventually, he left Syria for France. There, he founded Najoon (“Survivors” in Arabic), an organization meant to combat impunity and “lay the foundations for a new Syrian society,” Helou says.

The organization’s name is apt—to Helou, activists and other civil society and arts figures like him are survivors above anything else. “Today, we are the ones carrying the conversation on rights and freedoms. We still find that collectively describing ourselves as Syrian survivors of detention is the most credible expression of our situation”

Over the course of several months, SyriaUntold’s Dellair Youssef spoke with Fares Helou via email about arts, culture, politics, human rights and Helou’s own memories of political uprising. This conversation, originally conducted in Arabic, has been lightly edited for flow.

A while ago, I watched the film A Polite Evening (1999), starring you and directed by Bassam Kousa. I’ve been saddened, or rather disappointed, that we lost you as an actor, as life, the revolution and politics took you away from the arts. You’re also among the most famous Syrian actors to have taken a stand against Assad. You lost your home, your work and your life and were forced to hide and then flee with your family abroad to France. Do you miss acting and the arts? How is life for you now, after having spent most of your life before the revolution as an actor?

After the revolution started, there were long interruptions in my artistic work, as I refused to participate in any projects with Syrian artists who accepted the regime. There was also a massive shortage of dramatic texts amid the greatest human tragedy since World War II.

I’ve been lucky to work on the great French series Le Bureau des Legends in the role of a security and economic official and cousin of Bashar al-Assad. The script was written with great care and with accurate, studied information—unlike the random way in which most Arabic scripts are written, especially the Syrian ones, which all rely on omitting and avoiding the roots of the Syrian tragedy. Instead, in the best cases, they stick to images and results of the war.

In addition, I’ve participated in an operatic work in one of the most important opera houses in Paris. The work was philosophical and related to Sufism. Other than that, I took part in a number of films, but these projects did not satisfy my strong desire to embody the purely credible, creative glimpses of this past decade of our lives.

I will never be able to return to what I was before, especially as the defining characteristic of today’s artwork is the avoidance, concealment and invisibility of facts. This is not unique to Arabic-language media, which is noted for working within certain rules and in coordination with security forces.

In one part of the series Spotlight, your character leads the “Revolution of the Extras.” It is not the only politically driven role you’ve played. You also founded the International Sculpture Forum in your hometown Mashta al-Helou as a kind of resistance to dictatorship through art. Can you talk more about this type of resistance? How did you feel in the years leading up to the revolution, while carrying out these kinds of political activities? What is the difference between what you were doing then and what you’re doing now?

Political activities? I don’t think that’s what they were. Rather, they were human rights activities of an artistic and cultural nature. They stemmed from our decades-old feelings of lost citizenship and our desire to reawaken and re-root these feelings within ourselves. I started this kind of civil activity in 2006 and continued until the outbreak of the Syrian revolution in 2011. These activities were of a purely artistic nature to avoid provoking the fears of the authorities, and they were able to leave a positive impact on society even as they caused deep shock from false accusations—accusations that Assad’s authorities tried to spread and root in our souls and the souls of young women and men in Syrian society. They sowed suspicion and doubt over anyone involved in volunteer work in Syria, considering them to be mercenaries of various parties (if they weren’t affiliated with any of the regime’s influential parties), or seeing them as failures and dreamers.

At the time, we were able to stir interest in large segments of civil society who had been afraid of any initiative.

One of the times I encountered tyranny during these activities was when I wrote a dedication text for the first International Painting Forum in Syria in 2008: “To everyone who taught us to love freedom, art and the other.” The result of this dedication was a complete media blackout! At the time I wrote it off as an oversight because we were naive about the degree to which the authorities were terrified of these words.

In the years preceding the Syrian revolution, religious extremism grew under the supervision of the Syrian intelligence services as a strategic maneuver to support the continued control of the ruling family. The Assad family had begun to lose its political pretext (the Palestinian cause) for governing the Syrian people since the international community pushed it to attend the Madrid Conference. The Syrian Baath Party found itself in a dangerous existential predicament, and so religious extremism had to be nurtured and managed, as it could take the now vacant place of the lost enemy, especially as this danger [of extremism] is well-known by the West, so the need for continuation of the ruling family would become an international necessity.

My anger has been deep, calm and inspired. I took the initiative to revive whatever we can for a society that appears clinically dead and bereft of any sense of belonging. I organized artistic and cultural events that could attract society’s curiosity and interest and stir a social pot that had grown stagnant.

In my own hometown, I found latent yet promising capabilities to launch such an initiative. So I started with establishing an artistic and cultural event that was alien to the regional culture, the first International Sculpture Forum in Mashta al-Helou, in 2006. I and my relatives who lived abroad provided most of the funding for the event, and I featured realistic sculptural styles with the aim of appealing to general visual tastes in the first stage. We also opened a children’s club to teach the artistic principles of sculpture.

The following year, in 2007, I held the International Sculpture Forum in Mashta al-Helou again, with even more accompanying activities. There was a book fair that lasted 80 days in which we sold one million Syrian liras’ worth of books (which at the time was equal to about $20,000), in addition to large workshops to teach children drawing, sculpture, mosaic art and photography. Their work was displayed in public squares and streets in three towns.

Then in 2008, I organized the International Painting Forum, which included expatriate artists, both Syrian and non-Syrian, despite attempted theft of the project by the Ministry of Expatriates. The ministry had promised to fund the forum, but then withdrew at the last minute with the excuse that it had not managed to secure the necessary funds. Their aim was to remove me from the project and instead implement it with artists affiliated with the authorities. However, I decided to circumvent them by self-funding the event with the help of friends, and I was able to hold the forum in the National Museum in Damascus. The forum garnered a lot of engagement. I earned the honor, as a Syrian citizen, of organizing the first international painting forum in Syria despite there being decades-old government institutions already in place that were tasked with implementing events like this.

In addition, I attended a number of Syrian arts and culture events, then began work to establish the Boustan Society for Culture and Arts. It would be an arts and culture workshop that contained an open-air cinema and two spaces for exhibitions and small events, as well as a larger hall for training. The society would be an outlet for talented young artists who had been deprived of opportunities by the ruling authority. I finished setting everything up in early 2011.

Today is a completely different situation. We have made great strides in awareness, maturity and discovery, especially after the traumatic experience we’ve gone through on all political, cultural, social, artistic and moral levels after the outbreak of the Syrian revolution.

In Rami Farah’s film A Comedian in a Syrian Tragedy, the camera follows you everywhere, and the viewer feels the weight of its presence. The image is difficult and the story—though personal—touches on aspects of many Syrians’ lives. How did you feel when you first saw the film following production?

I think it’s the first and last film in my life in which I don't perform as an actor.

Every time I watch it, the film takes me on a voyage through my personal memories and reminds me of the ones I’ve forgotten, always in an involuntary manner that alerts me that I am in a new world. It is a distant world, one that I reached after facing unseen barrel bombs.

The film always makes me feel heartbreak, amazement, pain and pride all at the same time. I cannot watch it as merely a spectator. I myself am the film.

Let’s discuss some of your political activities. Perhaps most notable was your founding of Najoon, which you refuse to classify as either a nonprofit or a charity. Can you tell us more about the organization and its goals?

You see it as a political activity, but I see it as existential. Najoon is an initiative that I launched with other Syrian artists, writers, media workers and rights workers to lay the foundations for a new Syrian society. The members of this society would raise [awareness of] their causes and possess the capabilities and energy to engage in projects to draw the outlines of our nascent new identity, an identity centered on rationality, justice and peace. We also hoped to build a solid memory for our descendants about Syrians who survived detainment.

There is no doubt that we Syrians have experienced the existential question—Who are we today?—especially after our social rupture and scattering across all corners of the globe. In our search for the answer, we found that all the existing descriptions for our new situation fall short. You cannot, for example, simply call yourself a Syrian. This will not distinguish you from the fighter, who is also Syrian. And it is insufficient to call yourself a revolutionary because the unjust parties to the conflict have seized this term and emptied it of its meaning.

You also cannot call yourself a dissident, because this means that your battle with the ruling authority includes your recognition of it even as it is condemned and sought after by the international judiciary. And you cannot refer to yourself as a Syrian refugee, as this may lump you with the many refugees who are simply searching for a chance at life, without clarifying your [political] stance.

Today, we are the ones carrying the conversation on rights and freedoms. We still find that collectively describing ourselves as Syrian survivors of detention is the most credible expression of our situation, especially as this self-definition is not limited to those of us who entered detention and just happened to leave with our lives. Rather, this definition also extends to those who evaded—and still evade—detention, as well as all those who were too scared to openly participate in the revolution for fear of arrest.

Our existential crisis is moral more than political. It is a fight against the culture of impunity on all sides—by individuals, organizations and states, a fight waged through all human rights, media, cultural and artistic means to build a modern and free society free of dependence and subjugation.

Our tireless pursuit is to leave behind this miserable quagmire and become equals and participants in the societies that we build.

In short, we are moving towards forming a new, modern Syrian society that can support a sense of belonging and in which we can work, a society that can serve as the soil for cultivating diverse intellectual movements, all of which are united by noble human values—especially justice.

What does exile mean for you? What does France give you that you could not obtain in Syria, and vice versa? What things do you miss about Syria that you cannot find in France? Here I’m not talking about food or customs, but rather feelings, emotions, relationships and freedoms. And finally, has your relationship with your wife and daughters changed since coming to France?

For me, it is safety, not exile. I have never felt alienated, as I’m surrounded by good friends, all of whom are survivors who carry on the discourse of freedom and human rights. I have the ability to travel to any country, where I can find Syrian survivors ready to receive me. We can think and do everything that was forbidden to us in Assad’s Syria, and we have ample opportunity to establish something beautiful and vital for those who come after us—especially as Syrian survivors living in Europe have a space for expression that is rare for those living in countries of the miserable east.

My relationship with my wife and my daughters has changed greatly. I discovered within my wife impressive abilities that I didn’t recognize in Syria. At the same time, my two daughters matured quickly, entered the workforce and now no longer live with us.

Their success reminds me of the heavy restrictions holding back the ambitions of young Syrian women and men who are living under the yoke of all the de facto authorities in Syria.

Finally, what are your dreams? Literally: when you sleep, what do you dream about? I’ve spoken before with many Syrians who have all told me they dream the same things. At the same time, the Egyptian novelist Ahmad El Fakharani told me in an interview that he uses his dreams in his writing.

My dreams are the same as my work projects. In reality, I’ve never dreamt about memories, whether personal or public. For me, my dreams are all the things I picture or imagine, thoughts or musings about Syria, our new identity, forming a new society, ridding ourselves of ugliness, or corruption and hate speech, and so on.

These are my dreams, and the dreams of the creative youth of the growing network of survivors. They are my world.

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