Syrian-American hip hop artist Omar Offendum, Portland State University student Dana Ghazi, and PSU instructor in Conflict Resolution Tom Hastings came together to address methods of nonviolent resistance in Syria. The focal point of the event was the screening of documentary The Suffering Grasses, directed by Iara Lee. The screening was followed by a panel discussion and a Q&A session with the audience. Offendum concluded the event with an acapela performance of a number of tracks from his recent album, SyrianamericanA (2011).
PSU student Dana Ghazi, a Syrian from Damascus, was the driving force behind an event that brought together an array of participants and co-sponsors. The organizers' efforts were rewarded with a packed house drawing broadly from both the student body and the wider Portland community.
The event opened with introductory comments from the panel and the screening of Iara Lee's film The Suffering Grasses, a documentary which aims to give voice to those most affected by recent violence in Syria and explore methods of nonviolent resistance through the humanity of those civilians who have been killed, abused, and displaced. The film provided an intimate look into the daily lives of the hundreds of thousands of Syrians living under seige or displaced to refugee camps.
A post-film panel discussion gave more detail and highlighted the complexities of the situation in Syria. Ghazi described the current chaos, dire economic conditions, and operation of multiple armed gangs and abductions for ransom. Offendum added that the situation was worsening as bread lines were being targeted by bombs and refugee camps struggle to maintain adequate conditions for growing numbers. Offendum emphasized that despite these tragedies, however, it is still an 'amazing time to be Syrian', as some areas outside of the jurisdiction of the Assad regime feel genuinely liberated.
Hastings gave an overview of theories of nonviolence, underlining a number of recent effective, peaceful movements. He cited a study in which fifty of sixty-seven regime changes were found to be nonviolent. In another 2008 study that examined 328 attempts at regime change over the past century, 53% of nonviolent movements were found to be successful in comparison with only 26% of violent movements. Hastings pointed out that former violent tendancies as a means to change do not mean humans are programmed that way - a next evolutionary step, he asserted, is to realize the efficacy of mass, participatory nonviolence.
Hastings also spoke about a difficult dynamic in which the international community must consider victims 'worthy' in order to take action. Part of the benefit of adhering to nonviolence is that it makes the resistance immune from allegations of escalating or perpetuating the conflict. Recent events in Syria have been widely dismissed as violence-on-violence. In contrast, the film and speakers exposed the audience to images and evidence of nonviolent resistance that are not emphasized by mainstream media coverage of Syria.
Ensuing discussion included debate of whether the model of South Africa pointed to a need for an iconic figure to mobilize nonviolent measures, the conflict between Syrians' calling for Assad's blood and striving for nonviolence, and the question of how Syrians will rebuild together despite the faultlines of loyalty. Ghazi offered that both pro-Assad and pro-revolutionary Syrians are suffering equally and that commonality will one day facilitate their coming together to rebuild the country. Offendum mentioned the historic diversity of the Middle East and the blend of cultures with which he himself was raised - including Kurdish and Turkish heritage - in order to stress the importance of solidarity. A question regarding extremists who exploit the situation for their own power gain was met with Offendum's reply that the secular extremists of the Assad regime far outnumber the religious extremists, and that it was they who opened the door to the current situation. Ghazi asserted that Syrians are aware of the dangers of various extremisms and now openly speak against such agendas. Additional questions touched on censorship, the role of Israel in aggravating and destabalizing the region, conflict between Sunni and Shia, and how the Syrian art and music community has been affected by the violence.
Omar Offendum performed a number of songs, including one piece in which he provided his own translation of a famous poem about Damascus by the Syrian poet Nizar Qabani. He concluded the event by signing copies of his recent album.
Rapporteur's summary prepared by Sara Swetzoff.
Dana Ghazi is an MA candidate at Portland State University.
Omar Offendum is a Syrian-American Hip-Hop artist who was born in Saudi Arabia, raised in Washington DC and currently resides in Los Angeles. He has been featured on several major news outlets, toured the world to promote his ground-breaking music, helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for various humanitarian relief organizations, lectured at a number of prestigious academic institutions, and most recently been involved in creating several critically-acclaimed songs about the popular democratic uprisings throughout the Middle East & North Africa. He is currently at work on several new projects while touring to promote his 2012 solo release SyrianamericanA.
Tom Hastings teaches in the Portland State University Conflict Resolution MA/MS program. He also directs PeaceVoice, a program of the Oregon Peace Institute. His books include: Hundred thoughts on nonviolence (in press); The lessons of nonviolence (2006); Power (2005), Nonviolent response to terrorism (2004); Meek ain't weak: Nonviolent power and people of color (2002); and Ecology of war and peace: Counting costs of conflict (2000).
Omar Offendum recommended a number of charities and projects that are assisting Syrian civilians:
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The event was free and open to the public and co-sponsored by the Portland State University Students United for Nonviolence, the Portland State University Arab Persian Student Organization, Americans United for Palestinian Human Rights, and Mercy Corps.
The Middle East Studies Center at Portland State University promotes understanding of the people, cultures, languages and religions of the Middle East. As a National Resource Center for Middle East Studies under the U.S. Department of Education’s Title VI program, the Center serves as a resource on issues pertaining to the Middle East through activities that reach students and scholars, as well as businesses, educators, and the media. The Middle East Studies Center supports academic conferences, workshops, cultural events, lectures, and a resource library.