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The World | COLUMN ONE

Art of the Impolitic in Syria

A curator defies official restrictions with popular international exhibits. His boldness seems just enough to keep him out of jail.

August 03, 2004|Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writer

ALEPPO, Syria — He's not wealthy or famous, a man of high education or rare breeding. Nor does he make much of a rebel. Yet here he is, a reluctant political operative deep into a declared "war" against Syria's Baath Party.

A harried photographer and curator, Issa Touma is the son of an Arabic language teacher bewildered by his exploits and a homemaker who laughs and then weeps at them. She fears Touma's audacity will get him arrested.

Touma, a 40-year-old Armenian Syrian who has never married, has pushed his homeland further than most people thought Syria could go. He has ignored orders from both the ruling Baath Party and the Culture Ministry commanding him to halt all unauthorized activities.

He has continued to throw some of the biggest and most ambitious international art festivals this country has seen. He has also endured years of investigations, interrogations and run-ins with government officials. He undertakes this political work with a weary resignation shot with flashes of spiteful defiance.

"I enjoy the victory -- yeah, I enjoy that. If you do something well, you aren't going to enjoy it? Of course you are," said Touma, a dapper, bustling man with a balding pate, round spectacles and a serious air. "But the victory only brings more problems. And in the end, this is not what I want. What I want is to do my photos. Only that."

This is not another tale of a human rights activist, journalist or fledgling political candidate tossed into an Arab jail. You will not hear Touma utter the word "reform," and politics leave him cold.

But it is a story about authoritarian rule and the improbable politicians it can create. Touma is a rare success story in a land where underdogs are traditionally crushed. He doesn't fret over nationalism or Iraq; in conversation, his talk careens from pigeon trainers to fat men to Antigone.

"I know people would love to say it was Issa against the Baath Party, and in reality it was like that," he said. "But the politics I did the last two years, it was only to survive."

Touma calls his gallery Le Pont, "The Bridge" in French, and adorns its walls with all things scandalous -- pieces by Jewish artists, portraits of nude men and women, videotaped performance art verging on the pornographic -- none of it submitted to government censors for approval. His festivals lure artists from around the world to spill American jazz and African drums and Sufi dance into the chalky alleyways of this industrial town in the northern hills.

"I hate people when they're like rabbits. Scared people, I can't even look at them," he said. "I know my work can help my country so much. If you haven't visited Syria, you don't know what is Syria. And I know the culture is stronger than any gun."

Touma sponsors two major festivals a year, the International Photography Gathering and the Women's Art Festival. In between, he holds a smattering of smaller shows and oversees his gallery, a squat space at the edge of the railroad tracks, where freight trains scream in the heat of the afternoon.

"He is so outspoken and so critical of the party but still gets everything done. In the end, he gets what he wants, and he's very reliable," said a Western ambassador who has worked with Touma and who, like many diplomats in the region, spoke on condition of anonymity. "That means it is in some way possible to do artwork critical of the regime and stay out of jail. He's a good advertisement for the government."

Until recently, that is. Last month, with 27 artists heading to Syria from 17 countries, Touma abruptly called off the International Photography Gathering, a multinational human rights exhibition, with just three days to spare. The Culture Ministry, Touma said, had agreed to pay more than $1,000 in printing and advertising costs, only to renege at the last minute.

So Touma called off the show, embarrassing just about everybody involved. He said he was strapped for cash and, moreover, sick of papering over the government's interferences. A festival without printed catalogs to display the work would be unacceptable, he said. He held his ground even when the government changed its mind and offered to pay after all. In the end, Touma plucked the show out of Syria and rescheduled it for this month in the mountains of Lebanon.

"I haven't slept in three days for working on this," he said. "I am too tired. The problem now is too much."

Syria is not known for brooking rebellion, and so it's something of a mystery -- even to Touma himself -- why he hasn't been sentenced to prison. Pressed on the question, he goes quiet for a minute. Then he spreads his hands, raises his brows above his glasses and grimaces. He doesn't know.

"For seven years, I've been waiting every night," he said. "I never went to a meeting of human rights. I never did political work. I never said anything against the Baath Party. I'm not against the government. I know they're waiting for that word. As soon as I talk against the government, they put you in jail."

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