MY DEAR AUDIENCE, STAY AWAKE. I’M DREAMING.
The Syrian Dreams Project collects dreams from Syria and uses them to create an art piece about the real and the surreal.
What happens when we dream? I know that science has answers. But what happens when I dream? Am I escaping? Imagining? Reordering my memory? Is dreaming a creative way to narrate the meaning of our reality?
My imagination was blocked in the two years that preceded the Syrian revolution in March 2011. I did not know what to work on. Syria was too real.
In those two years, I remember having dreams that confused my mind for a whole day. I normally write down my dreams, and I have kept up this habit for years, but the dreams I had in those two years were unusual to me. What brought Marilyn Monroe to walk down a street in Damascus in my dream?
Then demonstrations broke out in Syria.
My interest in the worlds of dreams intensified during the Syrian revolution. I started a Facebook page called “Syrian Dreams (Tell me what you dreamt last night).” In the beginning, it was another social media page with a provocative undertone. What would happen, for instance, if someone dreamed of being in a demonstration cursing Bashar Al-Assad? Would the secret police arrest the dreamer? Would they accuse the dreamer of dreaming?
Actually, the page in 2011 was full of jokes and light humor. People were sharing their dreams and making fun of them. The page gradually became a documentation of dreams. Perhaps it would have not been there if the revolution had not taken place. Actually, most of the dreams were related to the revolution, or interpreted within the same realities of demonstrations, arrest, torture, and triumph.
Surprisingly, many people’s dreams shared certain elements: most of the 2011 dreams had water in them, for instance. The reality of Syria intensified. People were dying on the streets. At the time, dreams were a collection of floating fantasies that never sank into reality. We were not escaping reality; the secret police could capture us in our dreams, too. The brain wanted to conserve its massive collection of fantasies, symbols, and pictures. The brain can do that. Our imagination teaches us how to prepare for reality.
They say that children dream of being chased by wild animals, and as a result they become aware of the mechanism of dealing with danger. Even the muscles become ready to react instantly when reality suddenly occurs. I wonder if the 2011 dreams, the ones about water and floating, were teaching us this readiness to escape war and the secret police.
Apart from two dreams — the first about people using the language of tanks to speak, and the second about the dreamer being naked and used as a baseball — no dreams were posted on the page in 2012. I went back to my diaries and found out that I had not written about any significant dreams. My partner, who was in Syria in 2012, recalls that he used to dream of what he did during the day. Nothing significant; reality and dreams were in a loop, as if life were on pause. In 2012, protests turned to war in Syria, the ultimate battle between everything and nothing. Nothing was certain in late 2011 and 2012. People were driven to make quick choices. Being one second late could cost a life. It was a seesaw between individual and collective choices. We did not understand our reality, and perhaps this why we did not dream a lot in 2012: we were already living in surreality. We did not want to see the war coming, even in our dreams.
In 2013, people went back to posting their dreams on the page, and the dreams regained their funny and bizarre images. In 2013, an international war was declared in Syria. That was when the regime used chemical weapons in the suburbs of Damascus, killing 1300 people, and it is when we started to hear of Daesh (ISIS). It was certain: this is war, and we cannot escape this reality.
I had this curiosity to know what other Syrians were dreaming. The archive grew more and more. Through the assistance of many Syrian activists, we used other techniques to collect dreams: cameras, WhatsApp, personal interviews. We gathered dreams from Syrians detainees, refugees in camps, regime soldiers imprisoned by the opposition, orphaned children, middle-class people, rebels and their wives, and so on
Those dreams came to be an answer to my personal and professional blockage. I was blocked before the revolution and I was paralysed in its first two years. What to do? How to express myself? The initial question is, what to express and what to say? Movement, dance, and choreography are my profession. My domain is the body and its language(s). People in Syria were dancing as a challenge to death. There are armed militias that shoot demonstrators, but the demonstrators go to squares, demonstrate, dance, and sometimes die. The dead thought of being dead before they died: a body goes to its own execution. Demonstrators go and demonstrate and dance, and sadly, many die.
There is a pleasure in this collective protest, and certainly there is another sort of pleasure generated from the act of dancing. But these dances have something special. Many demonstrators speak of an addiction to demonstrations, an addiction to adrenaline, to euphoria. Demonstrating is somewhere between life and death — a dreamlike activity. Of course no one can know what these demonstrators are talking about. You have to be there to really know and feel that sense of challenging death every week, and then every day.
Who said that sleeping is a rehearsal of death? Do dead people dream? Do they visit us in our dreams? I could not join a demonstration. I did not want to get into this challenge to death. I didn’t want the secret police to harm my body and traumatize my dreams.
I became an anti-everything choreographer (of course I became anti-everything: all forces and ideologies in this world, including the UN, were systemically killing Syrians). Dreams became my shelter. Later, I learned a lot about lucid dreaming, how to change our dreams and overcome our fears in the dream world. I contacted dreams research centers and read theories about dreams. We might share dreams’ basic fear, but we can do something about it. We can manipulate it, instead of letting it manipulate us.
Dreams came to answer many of my questions. If I cannot get into the reality of challenging death in a demonstration, I can, to some extent, share the impressions and the adrenaline of the demonstrators’ dreams. Therefore, we (Tanween Theatre Company) decided to use these dreams as inspirations in artistic projects. We made two short movies (Cocoon and News Dreamers) and a theatrical trilogy (Destruction for Beginners I, II, and Reloaded). These projects are still going on, and the dreams are open for other artists from different nationalities to use as inspiration in their projects, too.
It is argued that applause in theatre is similar to a wake-up call. We did not receive loud applause for our theatrical trilogy. People’s personal responses were very warm and engaged and they expressed interest in the project. Reactions to the play were very detailed. I never asked about the applause; partly because I didn’t want to sound like I was fishing for compliments, and partly because I didn’t want to hear answers like, “We felt so guilty during your play that it feels awkward to applaud.” But sometimes we do not want to be applauded. Destruction for Beginners I, II, and Reloaded were kind of an invitation for the audience to not wake us up. Don’t applaud! Just watch our dreams; we will speak about them later.
Praise for A Syrious Look
„À Berlin, les artistes syriens retrouvent le goût de la création“, Le Figaro
“Berlins wild charmes make it first for Syrian artists.“, The Local
„Ernst und Syrisch“
„Berlin, nouvelle capitale des artistes syriens en exil“
A SYRIOUS LOOK in the Media
Deutsche Welle Online
TNR Television (Turkey)
Publico Magazin (Portugal)