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Story | Education
26 October 2020

In their own words: Mythopoeia – why we need to extensively document the Syrian exodus


The Sound of Silence by Syrian Artist Houmam Al Sayed

Two GU-Q students share their thoughts on the importance of a centralized archive of the Syrian exodus that will serve as the basis of a Syrian Mythopoeia

The Syrian people have gone through the most violent, painful, and destructive decade in their national history. Searching for hope, we can find the secrets to national resurgence in the experiences of other once struggling peoples. From Scotland to Palestine, Syrians have a wealth of knowledge to borrow from.

Long before these events, Scotland was facing a similar problem. Several expensive wars left the country in financial and physical ruins. In spite of the recovery, the highlands of Scotland were widely viewed as ‘negligible’ territory. Scotland’s hills and mountains made travel difficult for the now esoteric carriages and horses of transportation, as well as limiting one’s sight, as a mountain gets in the way of all that is behind it. Tourists went to France; taking their carriage to open fields and plains, they enjoyed fruits and wine. This negative perception was hindering Scotland’s resurgence and debilitating its culture.

In 1760 John Macpherson published Fragments of Ancient Poetry a collection of poems supposedly compiled by a blind Scottish Bard named Ossian – who’s blindness is akin to Homer – telling the story of ‘Fingal,’ his line, and their fall. It was a line of mighty Scottish warriors, who’s feats in battle are reflected in their environment. Their swords are like lightning, their bodies as the mountains, they are the hills and the grass, their emotional tempests the tempest of Scotland. With these characters came an exploration of the environment which they seemed to embody in the work, the highlands became another stopping point in the quest for what will later be known as the Sublime.

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Sir James Guthrie, A Hind’s Daughter, 1883 – one of the earliest works commemorating the rural Scottish life.

John Duncan, RIders of the Sidhe, 1911, an early example of a painting depicting Gaelic mythology, largely influenced by Macpherson.

It was later revealed that Macpherson had lied. The texts were largely fabricated. But the highland warrior lives on, Fingal continues to be a heroic mythical figure of Gaelic peoples, and Scotland still attracts nature tourism. Macpherson introduced a mythology. And he introduced it as a recognizable primary source. This process of characterization through relayed experience is what we will call Mythopoeia, or myth making.

Of course Macpherson’s representation, as any representation, is prone to criticism.

On the other side of the Golan plateau, an exodus of a similar magnitude to the Syrian exodus took place in the mid-twentieth century. Facing an active policy of ethnic cleansing and genocide by Zionist forces, close to a million Palestinians fled their villages, towns, and cities in the period 1947-1949 – nearly two thirds of all Palestinians. Few were allowed to return.

However, Palestinian identity has not only survived but also thrived. Upon realizing the settler-colonial aggression that they were facing, Palestinians and their allies made sure to preserve their identity in stories, pictures, title deeds, maps, academic work, important documentation of the history and reality on the ground, artwork, and – perhaps most notably – relics and artefacts. These acts of preservation have not only preserved Palestinian identity, they helped create a new mythology that the children of diaspora – born far from their land – could grasp. The preservation also helped protect Palestinian communities from further erasure and raised global awareness about what is going on in Palestine, allowing others to connect to the struggle, experience, and cause through a seemingly direct view into it.

Palestinian artist Suleiman Mansour’s The Carrier of Hardships, mythologizing the pain of Palestinian refugees.

Reimagining the national mythology after the Nakba was a major step in the resurgence of Palestinian identity. Displaying a coherent narrative to the world, especially using primary sources, helped change people’s perspectives on Palestine. Paintings and short stories are also valuable to the next generation These stories and images present characters that are as inexorably tied to the geography of Palestine as the mythological animal-like lightning-wielding, heroes of Ossian depicted by Macpherson. Not only do they allow complete outsiders to appreciate a lost link to geography in the touristic manner exemplified by Macpherson, they give the diaspora Palestinians that seeming remembrance of a connection to the land.

It is much easier to document the accounts of exile today, thanks to major improvements in speech-to-text technologies and other forms of assistive tools. Unlike the Palestinian experience – or the Scottish one from the 1700s – the preservation of the pre-civil war Syrian identity does not have to be a grueling endeavor. It is not absurd to imagine noting down the stories of every single person currently staying in the Zaatari and Azraq refugee camps. All 150,000 of them. We could even go further and welcome submissions in the form of artworks and artefacts from Syria.

PLATFORM – 28.594283, 69.170006 (2014) by Syrian Artist Waseem Marzouki.

Documenting the exodus in stories, pictures, relics, and art has tremendous cultural, legal, and academic value. It can even help with repatriation efforts by proving everyone's connection to the land. But most importantly, such a centralized archive of the Syrian exodus will serve as the basis of a Syrian Mythopoeia. One that the next generation of Syrians born in exile can grasp at.

Ahmad Freihat and Mohammad Abu Hawash
Ahmad is a graduate of the University of Edinburgh holding an MaHons in English Literature. He is aspiring towards pursuing his interests of Comparative Aesthetics critically.
Mohammad is a graduate of Georgetown University in Qatar, Mohammad is an aspiring social scientist with interests in history, political economy, and Arabic poetry. He is currently pursuing a master's degree in public administration.

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