From the fourth floor of an apartment block dwarfed by skyscrapers in Istanbul’s dense business district, an Arabic radio station broadcasts news, cultural programmes and music around the clock. Its work is challenging for two reasons: technically, because it must maintain its 24-hour broadcast to some of the most violent and unpredictable areas of the Middle East; and socially, because it seeks to give Syrians a way of reconnecting with a community that has been scattered around the world.
Radio Sout Raya’s executive producer is Ali Safar, a writer, poet and critic who was programmes director at a Syrian television channel before he and his family joined the millions of Syrian refugees fleeing to Turkey in 2013. The station’s audience of displaced Syrians stretches across Turkey, Syria and Jordan. While Safar is based in Istanbul, his wife and teenage daughter live, for now, in the south-eastern Turkish city of Gaziantep near the Syrian border.
The International Rescue Committee estimates that there are more Syrian refugees in Istanbul – some 366,000 – than the rest of Europe put together. (There are more than 2.5m in Turkey.) Even for the lucky few who have settled into full-time education or employment, spaces for socialising and creativity, both amongst themselves and with their new hosts, are scarce. Culture is often seen as something to consider once basic needs are met, but the integration and mental well-being it can provide are no last-minute luxuries.
“As the war goes on, heritage, shared values and identities are forgotten,” Safar says. “Culture has the power to remind us that we are all still Syrians, and that means we can always come back together.” As well as Syrian music, local news and practical advice on living in Turkey, the station has shows dedicated to history, and dramas about displacement and exile.
Safar is working in other media too. His short story, “A Black Cloud in a Leaden White Sky”, was published in “Syria Speaks” (2014), an anthology of work by Syrian writers and artists. Compiled by Malu Halasa, Zaher Omareen and Nawara Mahfoud under extraordinary constraints – 17 of the 35 pieces were submitted from inside Syria – it won an English PEN award. It provides a snapshot of Syrian literary production since the start of the civil war.
Safar’s contribution is an autobiographical prose-poem. It tells of the slow transformation of ordinary life in Damascus into one punctuated by the sound of shelling and queues at immigration. “During the Syrian revolution, I began getting frequent warnings from the regime because of my TV job. It got to the point where I feared incarceration. I began writing my daily thoughts and experiences, and sending them in files disguised as viruses to my friends in Jordan.” One of those friends published them in Amman.
Like many of the displaced middle-class, Safar reads an array of Syrian journals and magazines, many of which have followed their readership to Turkey and beyond. One is the weekly Souriatna (Our Syria), an independent newspaper that began in 2011 in Damascus, and is now published in Turkey and distributed in Syria and to surrounding countries with high refugee populations. With sections spanning news, politics and culture, it offers a platform for public opinion, a creative outlet and a source of information about the war. The subjects in its latest edition ranged from military developments in the besieged city of Aleppo to the Syrian films screened at this year’s International Arab Film Festival in Tunisia.
But Syrians in the diaspora are not only addressing their own countrymen. Samer el Kadir was a publisher of children’s books in Damascus before fleeing the war. He has been living in Istanbul with his family since 2013. In the summer of 2015 he set up a bookstore and café called Pages. Located in Istanbul’s ancient district of Fatih next to the historic Chora Museum – a thousand-year-old building that was once a church and then a mosque – Pages sells Arabic, Turkish, English and French titles, welcoming Syrians and Turks alike. A homely mix of library, kitchen and working space, it hosts reading groups, exhibitions and design workshops.
Another organisation, Arthere, was initially founded as a gallery for displaced Syrian artists. It has now grown into a non-profit organisation for Syrians and Turks which represents painters and photographers, and has open-mic nights and film screenings. Recent events have included a film season called “Unauthorised”, showing Syrian movies from both before and during the war by directors whose work is illegal in their own country, and a concert by a duo called Ihtimanska, who play classical Turkish music. As at Samer el Kadir’s bookshop, at Arthere Syrians can reconnect with the place they’ve left behind. Turks, meanwhile, can get to know the culture of their new neighbours.