Signatures are flying to free Youssef Abdelke, an imprisoned Syrian artist. Along with his wife’s private email petition, a Facebook campaign started by Arab and International Artists and Intellectuals has gained upwards of 1,200 supporters. Its mission: “We, Arab and International artists and intellectuals, call upon the Syrian authorities to free the internationally renowned Syrian artist Youssef Abdelke immediately. Our eyes remain open watching your attempts to suppress creative souls, until the day comes when you realize that art and creativity are enlightenment.”
Hours before his arrest, Abdelke had signed a petition that averred (here’s where Chrome’s translate option comes in handy) “support to the forces of the revolution who advocate the establishment of a pluralistic democracy” and “desire for a peaceful solution to stop the bloodshed and to preserve national unity and territorial integrity, which involves the departure of Bashar al-Assad and pillars of his regime.” [Emphasis mine.]
Syria makes no claims to freedom of speech, and Abdelke knew what he was doing. As his wife wrote, “[He] was keen to stay in Damascus in recent years, despite the difficulties of daily life and the dangers of surviving under a regime with an unlimited capacity for violence.” Some even think that the attention given this not-wholly-surprising arrest is misplaced. Syrian photographer Jaber Alazmeh, who has worked with Abdelke, told the Daily Star, “Demanding the release of Youssef Abdelke should not take more importance than the demand to free any other detainee. This would be the point of view of Youssef himself.”
Unfortunately, there is nothing especially novel about arresting an artist for speaking out against a dictatorship, even in the twenty-first century. Abdelke is coming from a strong tradition of Ai Weiweis, Pussy Riots, and, most recently, Mehmet Güleryüzs. Damascus arrested many artists in the Damascus Spring of 2000 and Abdelke himself has been arrested before, in 1978.
As Salah Barakat, a friend of Abdelke’s, reminded the Daily Star in another article, though, the arrest still hits hard. “We wanted to make sure to tell him that we feel [for] him, and we try as much as we can to convey the message that an artist and a person who uses art and literature as a way of expression should not be censored or incarcerated because of his ideas. This is somebody who believes so much in Syria that he refused any other nationality, and the first minute he was able to come back he came back. This is nationalism, this is belief in his own culture, and we wanted to stand by him.”