STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Next, we're going to meet a man whose photographs have thrust him into a confrontation with the government of Syria. Issa Touma is the man behind an increasingly well-known photography festival in the ancient city of Aleppo. Touma's festival has become such an event in Syria that it draws thousands of people. But authorities often object to his pictures, which have included such taboo subjects as naked women. Officials have tried to stop his festival and shut his gallery. Now some of his photos are on display in this country. NPR's Wade Goodwyn reports.
WADE GOODWYN reporting:
As he sits at a table in the back room of a Houston gallery, Issa Touma doesn't look like a particularly courageous man, but it becomes clear in the first few minutes of conversation that he's intensely alive on the planet Earth and he loves his country.
Mr. ISSA TOUMA (Artist): Syria; it's really incredible. If you move from one area to the other, you can see completely different life. You can go to the Armenian area or Kurdish or mixed Arab area and you can see five different kind life.
GOODWYN: Those lives are on display on the gallery walls through Touma's photos and those of 16 other Arab photographers. When he's told that Americans don't exactly see his country as a shining beacon of Middle East hope, Touma laughs and nods his head. He says that Syrians suffer from the same kind of international image problems that Americans now suffer. Touma asks that the Syrian people not be confused with the government that rules them.
Mr. TOUMA: This is our problem. And actually, I think it's all an intellectual problem.
GOODWYN: The Syrian government is not particularly fond of Touma's choice of subjects. Take, for example, Touma's pictures of a prominent Sufi festival. The Sufis were a mystical reform movement in the 13th century and stood against the corrupt empires of Damascus and Baghdad. Today, the Sufis are increasingly marginalized. Wendy Watriss is the curator of FotoFest, Houston's own biannual photography exhibition. Watriss says that Touma documents a part of the Arab world that is dying.
Ms. WENDY WATRISS (Curator, FotoFest): He's interested in capturing the life of the people; in this case, the Sufis. There's another group of pictures that he's done of an old town in the east part of Syria that's brought forth many traditional and very good musicians, and that's a town that's disappearing now.
GOODWYN: Watriss moves down a row of Touma's black and white photographs. The faces of the older men are inscribed with dignity and pride as they look down into Touma's camera. Watriss steps up to a photo of two men embracing as they meet at the festival. Touma captures a quiet intensity in the men's eyes.
Ms. WATRISS: This is an important photograph, because I think that one of the things that we forget in the violence and the media imagery that we see coming forth from war and conflict in Palestine and Iraq is that there are very close relationships between men and family, between friends and fellow believers. And it's something that we don't find so much in our society--or, if we do, we don't talk about it very much.
GOODWYN: Photographer Issa Touma comes from one of the world's most ancient cities, Aleppo. Aleppo is in the desert hill country of northern Syria, far from the central authority in Damascus. This independence has helped nurture Touma's work. It's also drawn the attention of Ba'ath Party officials who've tried to take over the festival. When Touma ignored them and said he would do the festival his way, party officials reacted.
Mr. TOUMA: In the last festival, they cut the electricity in the opening day, and we did our lectures during the candlelight. It was so romantic. They put some security in the way to say to the people, `The festival is shut down. Don't go.'
GOODWYN: Despite the security forces' best attempts to divert the public, an estimated 10,000 people attended from around the world. Touma is using his photography to try to crowbar open Syrian cultural and intellectual life. And Touma is not without allies, especially in Aleppo.
Mr. TOUMA: I have big public, yeah. And, also, I think a lot of politician, they help from under the table.
GOODWYN: In order to be independent, Touma must play a dicey game of chicken with the Ba'ath Party. He makes it clear that he has no interest in politics and that he does not oppose the party's rule. He just doesn't want them to rule his photography exhibitions. And Touma won't give an inch on that point. His festival has become such an event in Syria that even though party officials disapprove, they still come to see. Two years ago, his exhibition included pictures of naked women, taboo material in much of the Arab world.
Mr. TOUMA: It was, like, very, like, sexual pictures and they ask me only to put it down when the minister of the culture she will come, and I didn't do it. And what happened to the minister of the culture? I think nothing, you know.
GOODWYN: Touma says that he's tried to explain to party officials that what he's doing is good for Syria and good for the Ba'ath Party's reputation, too, but he says they can't believe it. As punishment for his defiance, last year the government closed Touma's gallery in Aleppo. Edward Djerejian is the former US ambassador to Syria and Israel.
Mr. EDWARD DJEREJIAN (Former US Ambassador to Syria and Israel): I think it's this classic syndrome when you have the guardians of any regime, especially in the intelligence services. They become aware of, perhaps, the success of an enterprise like Touma's. They start putting on the brakes. It's the--it is the condition of these artists.
GOODWYN: Djerejian says his favorite Touma photograph shows the ancient stone buildings of Aleppo shot from just above the rooftops. Everywhere you can see thousands of concave satellite dishes pointed toward the sky, like calves at a teat greedily drinking in the outside world.
Mr. DJEREJIAN: There's a very political, social, cultural context to all of this photography, this groping for freedom of expression and a cultural renaissance and the current suffering of the people in the Middle East.
GOODWYN: When the Ba'ath Party closed Touma's gallery last year, to everyone's astonishment, Touma took the government to court. No doubt to the government's surprise, the Aleppo court ruled that the closure of Touma's gallery was illegal and allowed him to re-open. Touma says the court's decision is a victory for all Syrians and proof that an artist can work freely in his country; that is, if the artist is willing to stare down the Ba'ath Party.
Mr. TOUMA: I love my country. I hate the idea to someone push me out.
GOODWYN: Issa Touma is planning his biggest photography festival ever in Aleppo in the fall of next year. In this country, the photographs by Touma and more than a dozen Arabs is called Nazar. In Arabic, it means seeing. Wade Goodwyn, NPR News.
INSKEEP: And you can see Syria through the lens of Issa Touma by going to our Web site, npr.org.
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
RENEE MONTAGNE (Host): And I'm Renee Montagne.