Abounaddara is an anonymous collective of Syrian filmmakers that emerged at the onset of the civil uprising that led to the Syrian Civil War. Abounaddara—Arabic for “man with glasses”—produces one short video portrait every week and posts it on the Internet, showing individual Syrians on all sides of the conflict and providing an immediate and alternative image of Syrian society. Working in a state of emergency, the collective’s members are all volunteers and anonymous.
The Syrians who are fighting their state are indefensible. Too bearded to be trusted, fratricidal on top of that, they are defying the laws of geopolitics in the Middle East, and could very well provoke World War III. Syrians, then, must not be defended.
But what can be done faced with the spectacle of indignity streamed almost live from Syria since 2011? This spectacle is unprecedented. Never before in history has a crime against humanity been filmed day by day, turned into a spectacle with the cooperation of both victims and executioners, broadcast by the big television networks and streamed on social media, intercut with ad breaks, consumed by the general public, and commodified by the art market.
At the time of Auschwitz, only God was supposed to see what happened in the showers. It was only after the liberation of the camps that accredited filmmakers could capture evidence of the crimes, which were recognized as such by the legal authorities. Those images, however, were considered unbearable, even in the eyes of the Nazi war criminals who were offered a special screening at the Nuremberg Trials: One began to sob uncontrollably; another covered his eyes with a trembling hand.
The same goes for the villagers neighboring the camps, who always defended themselves by saying they had not seen what was happening despite the stench of corpses permeating the bodies of the living. By doing so they followed the decree that one must not watch another die and do nothing to help. Even God will face questioning for watching on as the spectacle of the death of his creatures depicted as subhumans unfolded. Humanity would assume its responsibilities by recognizing a new legal axiom: the inherent dignity of all members of the human family.
Consecrated by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the principle presumes that a human must not be treated as a means, but rather as an end in herself or himself. So a head of state who gasses his fellow citizens, treating them like germs and terrorists, is therefore a criminal against humanity.
But Syria’s head of state has done all of this without being treated as such. Rather, he is presented as a gentleman, defending his views to the world’s major media organizations, while his victims are presented as individuals deprived of dignity, confused with religious communities or hordes of refugees. Not only are we representing the criminal through the figure of that banal man revealed in the trial of Adolf Eichmann, but we are also representing his victims as fundamentalists raging through an exotic Warsaw Ghetto.
And all it took to reach this point was allowing events to follow their course. The experts continued to represent Syrian society using the good old categories inherited from the 19th century, even while that same society was in the midst of a demographic transformation, just like the rest of the Arab world. And the media continued to represent Syrians through the prism of geopolitics, religion, or exoticism, while those same Syrians were protesting in the streets shouting their commitment to common humanity.
Still today journalists from all over the world flock to Damascus when invited to interview Bashar al-Assad, despite the fact that he ordered a media blackout on the country in 2011, and has since imposed his point of view while pretending to fight fundamentalists. Syrian society itself remains deprived of the possibility to produce its own image independently of those same media organizations that either relay the criminal and his PR advisers’ storytelling, or enclose Syrians within the binary of victim and killer, which incites either voyeurism or compassion.
Therefore, it is difficult to see Syrians as full members of the human family. As a matter of fact, it has become hard to imagine any civil society in Syria at all, preyed upon as the country is by a criminal state armed by Russia, while the US president and Nobel Peace Prize laureate declares from the lofty heights of the UN that “if we are honest, we understand that no external power is going to be able to force different religious communities or ethnic communities to coexist for long.”
In other words, Syrians are caught in a double bind: They are indefensible because they are represented without dignity, and the spectacle of their indignity imposes itself as evidence of that. Then what can be done, dear human family, confronted with this spectacle that gives credence to Dostoyevsky, for whom man is scum; he grows accustomed to everything?