When I was invited to take part in a workshop on »Chronicles of Work,« the first idea that came to me was to write about the experience of working under circumstances that strip work of its productive value and transform it into an instrument of enslavement and domination. This has happened frequently throughout history, with work being one of the favorite values dictators use to harness the workforce in constructing a repressive state. Until the day I left Damascus, the following statement could still be found on the walls there: «The working hand is the mightiest hand in the Baathist State.« This phrase has been one of the elder Assad’s famous quotes ever since he seized power 40 years ago. Of course the worker’s hand was not actually the powerful one; the punching fist was always the mightiest hand in the Baathist state. But it was crucial that people be anaesthetized with words like these in order to motivate them to work silently, without so much as a whimper of complaint.
My second thought on the subject concerns a problem that has long dogged those engaged in creative affairs. How can you accomplish purely creative work without the specter of your need to make a living looming up in front of you? This question is not really tied to a specific era, even though it is true that cultural work has evolved in such a way as to make the creative process less difficult in some societies – these days it is possible to be employed in jobs that neither stray too far from the cultural concern of a writer nor necessarily exhaust his or her creative imagination, such as working in cultural research institutions, in academia, or as an editor in a publishing house. Unfortunately, this seemingly ideal solution is not on offer in the same form in all societies.
Let’s look at the two issues together, and see how writers were able to carve out a living from absurd press work in the shadow of a despotic regime that stripped all and any work of its original value, subsuming it into the mass of authority so that work became both part of the tyranny and utterly devoted to it. As part of this process, commercial arts’ work no longer served its original creative values in any way, with standards slipping and quality getting so degraded in the quest to maintain the work’s authoritarian function that it was no longer worth paying any serious attention to at all.
When I began my university studies, I found a job in a local tabloid newspaper and discovered that my role consisted in making up exciting crime stories for the newspaper, as well as writing horoscopes, a detective series about the life of a spy, and of course letters from readers. I was 19 years old, and I thought that this was normal. In a context with fixed work standards or quality-control mechanisms, all of these acts would be considered clear press crimes (»terrorizing the community,« for example). After that job I moved on to the student union newspaper, where I worked on conducting and writing up opinion polls. It turned out that here, like in my first workplace, my veteran colleagues had become accustomed to dreaming up the results of these supposed surveys. The reports considered the best were those that included a crude tribute to the government, such as an imaginary interview with an exchange student from China or Australia in which the student confirmed that »Syria is a beautiful country and its people are hospitable and generous.«
I then moved on to work in television, in the cultural section, an area not widely liked by television staff, because they saw it as boring and pointless – most of them were more interested in working for the drama department, where the staff was allowed to meet actors, or the politics department, which people took more seriously and treated as if it had more relevance. This broad disinterest in our work meant that it was not even subject to censorship or control; the station’s director was more concerned with making sure no one dared to cross lines in the politics department, and overseeing how the technical department dealt with the actors according to their opinions on the production company he ran alongside the channel. This basically meant that I could broadcast whatever I wanted in the cultural bulletin and the »new publications« program I used to prepare. I could have easily invented a completely fictional character – or one with a friend’s name – and broadcast news of their publications and the international awards they had won at literary festivals. (This is the seed idea for a novel I may write at some point.)
So how did it all end? In March of 2011, a popular revolution erupted in Syria. I was still working at an official television station belonging to the Syrian government. We were following the news on the foreign news agencies, which showed bound prisoners being trampled on by men from the security forces. Right behind us the newsreader on the official channel came on the air for the news bulletin and said that these images were fabricated, and that the effects of torture on the detainees’ bodies as shown in international media photos were all done with makeup. At that point I resigned from the station. It wasn’t fun anymore, and I was no longer just an anaesthetized person. There was hope that the era of degradation and deceit was coming to an end: it was as if our eyes had suddenly been opened. When human beings are not valued, their presence at work is not treated as having any value, either, unless they are being employed to build and support authoritarian governments – and so they do not feel productive. Three years ago, the hope and the consciousness awoke in us to ensure that all of this must change.
Translated from the Arabic by Alice Guthrie.
First published in 2014 in the publication Chronicles of Work.