An Artist's Story Of The Arab Spring

Upheaval in countries like Egypt and Syria is often discussed in political terms, but how do artists see it? Guest host Celeste Headlee talks about arts and the Arab Spring with Egyptian-American poet Yahia Lababidi and Syrian-American doctor Dr. Zaher Sahloul.

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CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

Well, that's a look at the political turmoil in Egypt, but how does a poet see it? Painters, musicians, writers, and poets have all used art to deal with and document this conflict for centuries, and the Arab Spring has been no different. And while art is being used to express what's happening, it's also being used to heal. So let's now hear two artistic perspectives on both Egypt and Syria.

Now living in America, poet Yahia Lababidi uses his words to try to provide insight into what's happening in his homeland of Egypt. And Dr. Zaher Sahloul is a practicing critical care specialist. He's also president of the Syrian American Medical Society. That's a U.S.-based group that's been providing medical support inside Syria and to Syrian refugees outside the country. He's seen how their art therapy programs are helping children. They both join me now to explain. Welcome back to the program.

ZAHER SAHLOUL: Good to be here.

YAHIA LABABIDI: Thank you for having us.

HEADLEE: Yahia, let me begin with you. As you watch these events in Egypt from a distance now, what effect has that had on your poetry?

LABABIDI: Personally, I'm stunned. I am trying to recognize the Egypt I left around seven years ago, and to send out something that I think is meaningful and, in some way, perhaps uplifting.

HEADLEE: But how does it change your choice of words? When you're speaking to people who are, of course, in conflict - perhaps in fear - how does that change the way that you write?

LABABIDI: Without sounding too pretentious, I don't believe that a poet owns themselves. I don't think that we can create at will. So, I try, in my prose, to address issues of the day, which is easier to do because that's thought and that's practical and that's detail oriented. And in the poetry, when I can, when it's been digested, I try to send out something which, again, reminds us of the goals of our revolution, which I see now as being entirely abandoned.

HEADLEE: And, Doctor Sahloul, I'm wondering - I mean, you're somebody who deals with practical realities, sometimes grim realities, on a daily basis - what kind of art or even poetry, to you, gets at the heart of what's really happening in Syria?

SAHLOUL: We use art therapy, which is a known form of psychotherapy, especially in dealing with children who are traumatized because of the conflict. And we have a group of psychotherapists who are doing group therapy in Jordan among Syrian refugees. There is an estimated 1 million Syrian children who are refugees, many of them have traumatized when they fled their houses, when they witnessed the people who were killed among their family members, when they witnessed torture and detention, unfortunately. It's very difficult for them to express themselves by words.

So, we are using painting and drawing as a way for them to express themselves. You would be amazed to see the changes in their expression and their art. So, initially, when we have these group therapies, they will draw tanks and blood, people who are dying. And with time, that will change to reflect their current reality. So they will draw gardens and houses and clouds. So, with time, that art is healing themselves and they will be able more to express what they are feeling with art and also with words.

HEADLEE: So, Yahia, you can probably understand what that's like - the catharsis one feels when you get these out.

LABABIDI: Yes, yes.

HEADLEE: Is it of concern if you can't stop writing about violence?

LABABIDI: I do agree that art is therapy in the sense of it reminds us, also, of our larger allegiances to one another, to life. I mean, if the poet has a role it is not to instruct because people don't need instruction, but they need reminders. And these reminders are to provide vision, if possible. And I think this is what poetry, at its finest, can do.

HEADLEE: I wonder, Dr. Sahloul, for these children especially - an estimated 2 million Syrians have fled that country, half of them are kids - would there be a benefit in maybe steering them towards escapist art? Steering them towards things that maybe give them at least an illusion of a normal childhood. Telling them, draw a painting of a blossoming flower?

SAHLOUL: Well, I think the idea of art therapy is to let them express what they are feeling themselves. And without directing them to escapist therapy, you know, type of art, they will change their attitude and their perspective with time. But they have to express it. Many times, these children have post-traumatic stress disorders. I mean, every child I have met in Turkey or Jordan have been traumatized. And they're not able to say what they are feeling. So, by letting them freely expressing themselves - you just give them a piece of paper and crayons - they will be able to change their perspective and that type of healing works very well with children and other vulnerable populations.

HEADLEE: Yahia, you've just published your volume of poems, "Barely There." It includes this one called "Egypt," which, I understand, is the last poem in the collection. Would you read it for us?

LABABIDI: Yes, ma'am. So this was written in August around the time of the massacre in Rabaa, and also the accompanying, horrendous church burnings. So, I'm not blaming either the military or the Muslim Brotherhood. But it was written at this time, and also reflecting on the last couple of years of madness unraveling. "Egypt. You are the deep fissure in my sleep, that hard reality underneath a stack of soft cushioning illusions. Self-exiled, even after all these years, I remain your ever-adoring captive. I register as inner tremors - across oceans and continents - the flap of your giant wing, struggling to be free. And I know I shall not rest until your glorious metamorphosis is complete."

HEADLEE: That's a very hopeful poem.

LABABIDI: You have to hope. This is - if you take the whole Mubarak era, it's 30 years - a hiccup in a civilization that is thousand - millennia of years old. I don't recognize what is happening now. This is growing pains, labor pains, whatever you want to call it. But, this is - this too shall pass. I hope.

HEADLEE: Well, interesting - I mean, your art itself and your view of history is completely influenced by the fact that you grew up near pyramids reminding you of how ancient your culture is.

LABABIDI: It's unmissable. I mean, if you do have a sense of history, and if you do have this continuity, you look at what is happening and you say they have forgotten their ancient wisdom. They've forgotten their modern wit. They've forgotten who they are. If we can do anything, as journalists, as moral watchdogs, as poets - it's to say this is beneath you. These are not the goals of the revolution. This is not the dignity revolution. This is not unity. This is not freedom.

This is more of what you, you know, revolted against. We have the military now, which look very much to me like what we revolted against - police brutality and oppression. That was the whole point of our revolution. I think reminders are what these poems can do.

HEADLEE: Dr. Sahloul, we've spoken to you on this program before about the situation in Syria. Your family still lives in Homs, I understand. Some of them are displaced from their homes. How do you personally deal with the trauma that, not only your family, but you yourself are going through? Does it help you to, I guess, create art or to read other people's poems - read what other people are writing?

SAHLOUL: I do. I mean, I agree that art is a form of expression that provides hope to people, and the future right now in Syria and other areas in the Middle East unfortunately looks very bleak. But I tend to listen to music sometimes. There's a very famous artist in Syria who wrote several songs. And songs in Syria is used as a way of expression, resilience and resistance to what's happening. Humor, by the way, also in Syria, is used effectively by several populations who are under siege in the city of Homs, my city, and Kafr Nabl.

These two cities are known to use humor and sarcasm - a way to express themselves and to criticize their reality. My way in dealing with the situation is by providing help to people who are in need. Going to Syria and Turkey and Jordan every few months to connect with the people who are, you know, fleeing Syria because of the oppression helps me knowing that I am doing something helpful. And, even though that my family in Syria is under siege and I cannot see them, but at least I'm doing something to help other people.

HEADLEE: Dr. Zaher Sahloul is a practicing critical care specialist, president of the Syrian American Medical Society. That's a U.S.-based group that works both in Syria and with refugees outside of Syria. We caught up with him in Chicago. And Yahia Lababidi is a poet. His book of short poems, "Barely There," is out now and he was kind enough to come to our studio here in Washington. Thank you both so much.

SAHLOUL: Thank you.

LABABIDI: Thanks again for having us.

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