Archiving the Revolt and the War

Axis 1. “Archiving the Revolt and the War: Memorial, Political and Historical Issues”

“Archiving the Internet: Creating Tools for Collection, Analysis and Protection”

Never has a previous revolt or conflict been so much documented by its own protagonists. Since March 15, 2011, to circumvent the media embargo imposed by the regime, hundreds of thousands of videos began to be uploaded on YouTube by protesters, activists and fighters: fragments of demonstrations, funerals, creative protest actions, scenes of repression or bombing, collections of testimonies, declarations of defection of soldiers or formation of new brigades, homage to martyrs, confessions, battles, etc. Growing on the margin of established frameworks of media production, these forms of vernacular audiovisual communication (Tom Sherman, 2008) have proved to be invaluable resources. First of all, because they give access to situations “from within.” As traces of the events, they also reveal how these events where told, displayed and experienced. Mostly anonymous documents, however, these flawed and random accounts have been rendered invisible by the mass effect, as well as by the hypervisibility of other videos directly addressed to the media, such as the production of the Islamic State organization from 2014 onwards. This asymmetry is also about archiving: while the videos of the dominant jihadist groups are kept on such websites as Archive.org or Jihadology.net, anonymous videos of protesters and fighters coming directly from the revolt are particularly volatile: they can disappear from YouTube at any moment. These documents are the fragments of an alternative living memory of the revolt and the conflict, whose archiving and preservation is now most urgent. It is from this same observation that a collection of digital archives of the revolt in Tunisia has just been publicized by the National Archives of Tunisia (Le Monde, 14/03/2017). By closely combining technical and scientific skills, this axis approaches this unique digital material from two perspectives: as a source to enrich the various research subjects developed in this program, as an subject of reflection on the uses of videos and social media in the narrating events and in crafting a vernacular memory (Hess, 2007). Backed by the contributions of Digital Studies (Murthy 2008; Pastinelli 2011; Latzko-Toth 2013), this reflection will require implementing new tools for harvesting, indexing, analysis, storing and distributing. With the logistical and technical support and expertise of the Audiovisual Department of the BNF chaired by Alain Carou, we plan to build “corpus of researchers” based on the work carried out in this program. On the other hand, and thanks to the experience of Jean-Christophe Peyssard, head of Digital Humanities at Ifpo Beirut, and always in collaboration with the BNF, our goal is to design collection and archiving tools to lay the groundwork for composing further collections for future uses (scientific, legal, memorial, artistic). These collections will revolve around the different moments and events of the revolt and the conflict, in space and time: for example, protest actions (demonstrations, creative performances, home-based women sit-ins, etc.) sorted by neighborhoods, dates or, second example, the armed organizations in the case of videos of defection, formation of brigades and battles. This approach to actions, places and temporality should allow for a precise and detailed mapping of the rhythm of the mobilizations, their coordination, the transformation into an armed struggle, the sectarianization of the conflict, and the introduction of new combatant actors to the scene, and other data that may feed the atlas (see Axis 4). This identification will also tackle the words and their evolution over the events, in relation with the development of a dynamic dictionary of the revolt and the conflict (see Axis 2). This project of collection and protection will be accompanied by a reflection on the issues of memory, identity and politics that play out deep within these sources and their archiving process.

“Archiving Past Revolts”

In connection with this first part dealing with audiovisual archives of the Syrian conflict, our team will work on documenting two important historical moments to which the actors of the revolt and the ongoing war have repeatedly referred to as ones defining the nature of their engagement. These are, first, the 1920 revolt against the French Mandate, which was led by the Druze leader Sultan Al-Atrash in the Jabal al-Arab region (south of the country) and second, the massacre of Hama in 1982 perpetrated by special units of the Hafez Al-Assad regime. These two moments correspond to two periods of clashes and social and political reconfigurations that are crucial for understanding Syria’s contemporary history.

The Archives of the Mandate in France and Great Britain

Several members of our team (A. Poujeau, B. James, N. Al-Zahre) will conduct an investigation on the archives available in France (at the Ministry of Defense in Vincennes and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Nantes) and in Great Britain on Syria and historical Kurdistan of the Mandate Period (1917-1947). Our research resumes a previous work on the archives of the Ministry of Defense undertaken by Ifpo, which took the form of, first, digitizing the sub-series GH4H of the documents of the French military presence in the Levant between 1916 and 1940 and uploading them online to the website Mémoire des hommes du ministère de la Défense[1] and, second, a collective work on these documents led by Nadine Méouchy (Ifpo Beirut). The latter will be invited to join our team. Our interest in these largely underutilized archives stems from the need to return to this major episode in Syrian history in the twentieth century, in which the uprising against the French led by Sultan Al-Atrash is often presented as the “first revolt” of Syrians. Many actors involved in the current events have referred to this historical moment to explain the nature of their engagement against the political authority. We will return to the multiple dynamics at work in 1920, whether familial, sectarian or political; local or national, which continue to shape regional and lineage memories, as well as Syrian historiography.

1979-1982: First Popular Uprisings Against the Assad Regime

February 1982: The Hafez Al-Assad regime quells an insurgency that began in 1979. Hama, the hotbed of the uprising and the fourth largest city in the country, is massively destroyed by intensive bombing, then gets besieged and starved until it is finally taken over by special units of the Syrian army. The crackdown is not only unprecedented, but also indiscriminate: it targets every Hamawi whatever their age, sex or religion. Out of a population of 250,000, the death toll is estimated at 30,000. The brutality of this punishment creates a considerable stir and several protests that were quick to be pacified: a rigid code of silence befalls a fully subdued Syrian society, locked up on by a “domestication enterprise” particularly demonstrated by the reinforcement of a very dense network of mukhabarat (agents of intelligence services). Any inappropriate word or gesture could provoke an immediate and often violent crackdown from their part. For thirty years to come, the tragedy of Hama will continue to act as the specter of an overlooked but indelible trauma muzzling dissenting voices (Quiades, 2009; Benkorich, 2012). The story of this event, which is crucial for grasping the dynamics at work today, has yet to be written. Until the outbreak of the revolution in 2011, it had been a taboo subject which researchers rarely dared to investigate[2]. First and foremost, the question of the nature of the uprising that broke out in 1979 and how it unfolded remains to be answered. If the insurgency against the Baathist regime is commonly attributed to the Muslim Brotherhood, it is in fact much wider circles of society (left-wing parties and professional associations) that were involved and likewise harshly repressed. Furthermore, when we mention the city of Hama, we often forget that the violence of the regime has also affected villages and towns in Aleppo and Homs; and while it is the year of 1982 that is commonly recalled, massacres of smaller scales had actually begun in 1980 (200 people murdered in the medium-sized city of Jisr al-Shughur in March 1980, systematic liquidation of the “masterminds” of the professional associations in April 1980, execution of 500 to 1000 prisoners in Tadmor Prison at the dawn of 27 June 1980, etc.).

In order to write a precise history of this moment of reference, we have a few sources (Amnesty International reports[3], Michel Seurat sound archives digitized and currently being cataloged at the MMSH). We will work to complement them by conducting interviews with direct witnesses of the events currently living in exile, and by proceeding to a systematic tracking of documents (photographs, recorded interviews, etc.) scattered among families or preserved by the rare journalists who investigated the events in the early 1980s (Fisk, 1990).

[1] http://www.memoiredeshommes.sga.defense.gouv.fr/fr/article.php?laref=821&titre=presentation-du-contenu

[2] Michel Seurat is one of the few researchers to have attempted a description of the 1979-1982 uprising that he published in 1983, under his pseudonym Gérard Michaud, with revealing details of the ban then weighed on the subject: Olivier Carré and Gérard Michaud (1983).

[3]  Amnesty International, Syria: An Amnesty International Briefing , London, 1983, Amnesty International, Report from Amnesty International to the Government of the Syrian Arab Republic, 1983.