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  • Making Sense of the Arab World Aesthetically
  • Oliver Leaman
Dissident Syria: Making Oppositional Arts Official, by miriam cooke. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007, 196 pp., paper.
Modern Arab Art: Formation of Arab Aesthetics, by Nada M. Shabout, Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2007, 203 pp., cloth.

These are two very different books, but they both raise significant aesthetic issues that they do little to resolve. The fact that they are well directed on the main targets they select makes them useful, however, and we are now getting closer to an understanding of what an Arab aesthetics and art might be. Neither author tackles this topic with the necessary degree of concentration and we shall see what sorts of arguments might work here and what have up to now made little progress.

Art in Syria

Admirers of the work of miriam cooke, of whom I am one, will on the whole be disappointed with her book here. It is slim not only in size but in the range of ideas it considers. It reads more like a travelogue of her period in Syria, a comparatively short period, which seems to have culminated in a meeting of local authors replete with the sorts of problems that are so familiar to those of us who work in the Middle East. But readers really get very little idea of the cultural atmosphere of Syria toward the end of the last century, apart from the experiences of artists who have had difficulties with the regime. We are offered little understanding of what ordinary culture in Syria was, and is, and how the dissident work fits into the picture. The most interesting section was on women’s writing in Syria, but even here we are offered little information on the nature of this work, how it is received, what it tries to do, and so on, which is a shame since the very rich modern output of Syrian culture is worth describing, warts and all. We need to remind ourselves that even in conditions of great repression, ordinary cultural life does go on in countries like Syria, and if we are to understand dissident culture, it should be related to what the state at least regards as the norm. [End Page 109]

Cooke is accurate on the nature of the Asad regime, both under the father and the son, and the very determined steps it has made and continues to make to control cultural life in Syria. On occasion she obviously felt that she had been so critical of Syria that some balance needed to be imported, and so she then writes of the nastiness of the Bush regime in the United States. I am afraid, however, she does not succeed in identifying the two societies. Whatever can be said about the America of George W. Bush, it is very far indeed from the Syria of the Asads. One sensitive aspect that she picks up occasionally only to drop like a hot potato is the relationship between Syria and the rest of the Arab world, which is a cultural as well as political topic, and visitors to Syrian artists will be aware of their frequently expressed attitude that Syria is far more than just what is today the Syrian Arab Republic, at least culturally speaking.

What Is Arab Art?

One of the successes of the modern Arab world is the way that many countries have succeeded in making their citizens feel very much citizens of their countries. This may sound like a strange thing to say, but these countries are often quite recent institutions, artificially created by colonial authorities now long gone and the successes and failures of local military and political campaigns. They exist within a land mass where individuals on the whole share both linguistic and religious characteristics. Yet now many Syrians do distinguish themselves quite strictly from nationals of other Arab countries, and while they are prepared to think about an Arab culture in general, many of cooke’s respondents clearly do think of themselves primarily as national artists. This comes out quite nicely in the book by Shabout, and in particular in the two main artists she discusses, Shakir Hasan al-Said...


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