A year into the Syrian uprising, and with thousands killed, some Syrians find a way to produce arts and culture in support of the country's freedom and livelihood.
Issa Touma, rebellious Syrian artist, photographer and curator speaks to Ahram Online. Touma is the founder and director of one of Syria's most acclaimed and interesting art organisations 'Le Pont' established in Aleppo in 1996.
"Aleppo where I am situated is indeed affected by the Syrian struggle but still it remains calm; we suffer from electricity shortages very often as it is cut almost five hours a day," Touma explains.
"But this is not a reason to stop work especially when it comes to art. People need culture to produce a sense of being and change," Touma tells Ahram Online back in 8 March after a day without electricity due to the on-ground battles between the Syrian regime and revolutionaries.
"If we, the intellectuals, stop working, fanatics of the country will have an open space to do their evil," Touma tells Ahram Online.
Touma is critical both of the regime and Western policy towards it. Following the violence in Syria, the entire country came to a complete stop as determined by the West, he said. "Are they punishing the government or the public?" Touma asks cynically and rhetorically.
"I am like all other Syrians for the change, but also our lives must go on…We should not under any condition stop working, especially in the cultural sector," he says.
According to this Syrian photographer, Syrians have lost faith in the regime, of course, and the opposition too. In his view however "The opposition too is acting very unprofessionally." Today, as Touma sees it, Syrians struggle alone, fighting on all sides for their freedom and sovereignty.
There were Syrians who believed that Bashar Al-Assad's regime had presided over a growth in freedom and cultural development, supporting film and television productions in particular. Touma believes that old system controlled everything and adds that the regime supported the artists selectively "to guarantee loyalty to the regime and used them as a means to control the masses."
"Art cannot be developed from the top down but the other way around: from the bottom up. "The system was opening doors to the chosen artists while gaving hard time to the others," Touma adds. "This was all wrong."
Over the past ten years, the government sought to attract "big names" in terms of cultural organisations and museums in a bid to put Syria on the world map of art. These big names, Touma says, did not support any initiatives to that contributed to the development of the arts scene as a whole. Rather, "they only supported the system."
The artists supported by the regime "do not speak in the 21st century art languages but are tied to those of the 1950s," Touma say.
"The problem with the Arab world is control… Every ruler seeks to control the artists and intellectuals to secure his reign," Touma states.
Despite Touma's belief in the weak presence of the arts scene during the Assad regime, he remains hopeful that the Syrian revolution that has been building for the past year will benefit his homeland.
"Syria is not Egypt and a drastic change of the system today is not an option when the majority of Syrians still remain silent... We need to change the system gradually to guarantee development of the nation and its arts and culture," Touma believes.
"Last year's experience will help us all. The Syrian government will eventually realise the need to refresh the entire system and think about new and serious methods to develop the country and its society, a society that wears many masks which need to be removed, especially the mask of religion," he says.
Back in March, Touma had planned to hold Syria's International Photography Festival; but as violence in the country continued to escalate, he postponed the event to next September and is determined that this time it will go ahead.
"This year is unique for Syria and the country's political problems mean greater attention for the festival in Aleppo the second largest city in Syria," he tells Ahram Online.
"We have already received 288 applications from all around the world, mostly from the West… the majority are eager to come see the situation in Syria for themselves," Touma says. The festival will feature a collection of artistic works from over 25 countries.
Furthermore, Touma is having another photography exhibition on 7 and 8 April at the St. Vartan Armenian Cathedral in Manhattan. Following the exhibition, along with other international artists, Touma will be conducting a number of photography workshops under the title Mokhayam Al-Fan (Art Camps), aiming at discovering and encouraging new talents to combat oppression.