"This Organization Is Rescuing Artists and Scholars from Syria and Iraq." That was the headline that I stumbled upon in my daily arts newsletter I get emailed. It seemed problematic with only a title for context, but I read it out of curiosity of its content and its potential shortcomings.
Upon reading, this article particularly stuck out to me in its melding of both progressive and regressive modes of discussing war and its human impacts. When reporting on war and the destruction it causes, cultural carnage is often overlooked, but when addressed is usually described in the literal material culture that is stolen or left in ruins–much like this article about the destruction of all of Syria's UNESCO World Heritage sites. However, culture is an ephemeral entity as well, existing in traditions, aesthetic styles, and value systems within individuals in war-torn areas. There is something to be said for wanting to preserve these unique perspectives, especially when looking towards Syria’s (and, in this article, Iraq’s) future. Artists under dictatorships are unable to have a full range of expression in their work, as political art becomes dangerous if it questions the status quo, so giving artists a safe haven, of sorts, overseas to continue to make these works outside of the actual site of conflict is a new take on the refugee story we’ve grown so accustomed to hearing.
It is especially notable when considering the insurmountable task that will be rebuilding Syria physically and culturally in the distant future (although some work is being done in local democracies now); while many of the refugees that are currently being resettled will never return to their homeland, the artists discussed in this piece have a unique incentive to continue creating material culture elsewhere so they can eventually return and help in this process of reconstruction. This provides a counter-narrative to those we usually hear about refugees who, thanks to the likes of Donald Trump in the U.S., have been characterized as dangerous to our own culture, as opposed to living in diaspora, in between our culture and their own.
However, this article frames these subversive narratives of keeping a peoples’ cultural essence alive throughout the war in the very common language of the white man’s burden. The author mysticizes the region in her description of its cultural significance, creating a very distinct Other that should be examined in a pseudoscientific sort of way, if only due to its extreme and indeterminable difference from us. The work being done by the Institute of International Education’s Scholar Rescue Fund is characterized as the work of a savior. In other words, their work is important, necessary even, but is discussed in a style that is palatable and familiar to a Western audience: a lesser people need saving, and we’re the only ones who can do it. In all, it complicates the notion of who a refugee is and what their past histories and future goals are, but addresses this in a rather normative Western framework.