Some of the most influential cultural figures in the world were due to gather in Damascus next month to discuss the importance of cultural heritage. The director general of Unesco, the director of the Louvre and the head of the British Museum were all planning to address the inaugural Cultural Landscapes Forum, organised by Syria’s first lady, Asma al-Assad. But following a week of protests in Syria, in which at least 60 people have been killed, the forum has been postponed. Perhaps though, it should never have been organised in the first place.
Syria is going on a bit of a PR drive, with its photogenic British-born first lady, Asma al-Assad, as its lynchpin. A fawning profile in the March issue of American Vogue was to be followed by the forum, which Mrs al-Assad was due to host. With an invite list that included the arts and culture correspondents at most international newspapers, magazines, radio and television channels, the event’s organisers clearly hoped that the forum would create more positive coverage of Syria and its first couple.
Yet while Syria’s cultural heritage is undisputed, there was an odd paradox in celebrating culture in a country ruled by such an oppressive regime. Syria is where emergency laws have been in place since 1963. Public gatherings and the free movement of individuals are restricted. Media censorship is legalised. How can culture thrive in such an autocratic country?
It is a question that the British Museum, the Louvre and Unesco seemed unwilling to discuss, even once the regime started killing its own people. None of those invited to the forum say they have had second thoughts but similar links between venerable western institutions and dictators have caused controversy. Howard Davies, director of the London School of Economics (LSE), chose to resign last month after the university’s links with the Gaddafi regime became politically unacceptable.
Whether links with the Assad regime prove to be as toxic remains to be seen. Assad is due to address the Syrian people later today and is expected to unveil a series of reforms. He will hope that his attempts to mollify dissent are more successful than those by Hosni Mubarak and Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.
The forum’s future is unclear. Attempts to get hold of officials at the Syrian ministry of culture were unsuccessful. The man who answered the phone at the ministry said no one was available to talk about the forum because it was a “special holiday in Syria”. What he meant was that civil servants had been ordered to attend a rally in Damascus in support of President Assad.