Painting a Vision of Freedom
How an imprisoned artist used her skills as a form of resistance.
By Nora al-Shaalan
After Sama graduated from the faculty of fine arts at the Damascus university, she used her training as a mean to express the demands of the Syrian revolution.
Originally from Hama, Sama, now 30, travelled across Syria to draw banners, design posters and produce drawings of freedom supporting peaceful resistance.
She soon came to the attention of the authorities.
“I prepared some designs demanding that the detainees be freed,” she said. “Their suffering was my cause and main focus, perhaps because I felt that I would be among them someday.”
Indeed, on the evening of September 22, 2015, Sama was arrested by the military security branch in Damascus. They ambushed her, using a close friend who had been arrested a few weeks before as a decoy to lure her to her favourite cafe.
“The worst thing that can happen to a person is using the people closest to them to ambush them,” she explained. “There was no need for this childish, dramatic plot to ambush me and entice me to my usual coffee shop to arrest me. I never hid in the first place.”
Like all detainees, Sama was subjected to physical and mental torture. The security soldiers had various methods to put pressure on those who participated in “terrorist acts,” as they described them.
“On the first night in the security branch, they made us sleep in the torture room so that we could hear the screams of other prisoners being tortured all night,” Sama said. “In the morning, they took my friend so as to lure and arrest another wanted friend. I was alone with one of the interrogators; he asked me to paint an embodiment of hatred.
“I didn’t respond to him at first, I didn’t have the strength to draw after that terrifying night. I felt like my blood was frozen in my veins. But he threatened me, so I drew. I drew an old man with strong features and a wrinkled face, with a toothless mouth and distorted nose. He looked sinister and terrifying. He held a small bird in his hand and was squeezing it,” Sama continued.
The interrogator didn’t hide his admiration for Sama’s hasty sketch. He took the paper to show his colleagues who examined it before turning their gaze on Sama.
One said, “Do you mean we are the evil ones and you are the birds? We don’t have a problem with that; we’re glad that you’re the weak bird crushed in our hands.”
Nora, 33, is a former cellmate of Sama who spent two months with her in prison.
“The cell [where we were held] wasn’t for her just a small room where women were imprisoned, she saw in it a whole society in all its different shades and differences. She gave voice to our minds and hearts. She showed characteristics that were unimaginable in prison, like patience, wisdom and boldness,” Nora recalled.
“She was a mother, a daughter and a sister [to us]. She played the role of a teacher, a student, an ignorant and a wise woman, a reckless and a rebellious woman. She never allowed herself to surrender and collapse and she became a source for us to draw strength from. If she had collapsed, we would have all collapsed.”
To keep herself going, Sama transformed everything in the cell into pieces of art. She made dolls from dirty blankets and strings and bracelets and other accessories from the pits of the olives they were given for breakfast.
“The cell turned into a workshop to produce these simple pieces of art,” Sama said. “It was a great support for our resilience. I refused to collapse, because my belief in the legitimate rights of us, the Syrians, inspired me with strength and prevented me from giving up.”
After two months of detention, Sama was transferred to the women’s section of the notorious Adra prison. There, she continued drawing, creating portraits and documenting the stories of some of the women who shared her dormitory. She also drew sketches of life inside the large prison.
She was later allowed to leave Adra, only to be taken directly to another security branch where she was jailed for another four months.
Sama finally left Syria, terrified of facing future security crackdowns. But even in exile, she continues to document the stories and from memory draw the detainees who shared the bitter experience of prison with her.
“Leaving my country has really broken me,” Sama said, adding, “I always feel guilty because I went and left them behind. So I paint them, and feel that we are still together.”
About the author:
Nora, 31, is a graduate of the department of journalism and information at the university of Damascus. She was arrested in 2015 on charges of aiding militants and was with Sama in the same cell in one of the security branches.