Short historical outline of national cultural policy (♥)
The Ministry of Culture of the Syrian Arab Republic was established in 1958 when Syria and Egypt were united. Since then, public cultural policies have not changed greatly in approach because the legal and administrative regulations on cultural activities have not been altered. Nevertheless, there is a slow transformation at governmental level regarding the changed priorities and openness to the world. The more or less independent local sectors and international organizations are important instruments in pushing forward these changes.
The relatively new Decision Support Directorate, which is not part of the MOC and reports directly to the Prime Minister, conducted a study which assessed the progress achieved in realizing the strategies of the Five-Year Plan (2006-2010). This plan included new strategies, based on a new vision, to raise the level of culture by encouraging and supporting the cultural NGOs and involving the private sector. The report called for a number of reforms at the level of policies, laws and decrees, which gave cultural institutions more freedom of action , freedom in decision making, and freedom regarding new projects and institutions using relatively new methods and mechanisms. This movement is counterbalanced, however, by the unweakened power of the Minister of Culture and the MOC’s resistance to relinquishing control over cultural activities. Sections and subsections have been set up to oversee the activities of independent performing artists (hands, and musical and theatrical companies), based on the notion that the Ministry of Culture should supervise and “support” all cultural initiatives and activities. Institutions in the independent civil society sector aim to involve the Ministry of Culture as a partner in their activities, so that they benefit from all the associated facilities. In contrast to the static government sector with its heavy structure, there is a mobile civil sector, with flexible structures, based on modern concepts in cultural management, resulting in the emergence of new cultural professions such as cultural manager, marketer, promoter, etc.
National cultural policy objectives
Official culture in Syria is oriented towards Pan-Arabism and considered to be a tool for developing Pan-Arab awareness. ‘The idea that there is one culture and that Syrian cultural products are gratuite (free) is central to this. The following objectives are pursued:
- popularize knowledge and culture, present Arab culture and disseminate its message;
- develop Pan-Arab awareness and help citizens to improve their social standing, boost their morale and strengthen their sense of responsibility, and motivate them to cooperate, make sacrifices and intensify efforts to serve their country and humanity;
- facilitate the means of popular culture;
- contact foreign cultural institutions and benefit from their activities;
- implement bilateral cultural agreements;
- hold conferences, organize festivals and competitions, offer prizes and encourage the establishment of cultural societies;
- revive the traditional Arab heritage in the fields of science, literature and research;
- discover the archaeological and historical heritage;
- establish archaeological, historical and traditional museums;
- encourage literature and the arts.
Main cultural policy issues and priorities
The current 10th FYP (2006-2010) has 3 general objectives:
- watch over and promote Syrian cultural heritage — tangible and intangible, as well as traditional arts — as one of the key sectors in cultural policy;
- develop the Syrian cultural product and create the necessary environment for a cultural movement to develop, taking into consideration that culture and knowledge are investment sectors;
- adopt the “culture for everyone” approach, spread the culture of dialogue, introduce the Arab culture to the world and disseminate its message.
Cultural policy model
The dominant model in Syria is the socialist model: the state plays a fundamental role in patronizing culture through a network of institutions which cover all aspects of cultural life. Senior officials directly supervise cultural activities, often taking initiatives themselves to create work opportunities. Although the state is the main player in the public sector, it is no longer the only player. Civil society and the private sector have emerged, bringing about new forms of production. This is resulting in a parallel approach which could be called the patronage model. Legislation, regulations and work procedures are slowly changing, resulting in a change in the role of governmental cultural organizations.
International cultural policy and cooperation
The Directorate of Cultural Relations of the Ministry of Culture supervises the composition and guidance of artistic delegations and cultural scholarships abroad. It initiates Cultural Weeks, programmes, film screenings, exhibitions and theatre performances at home’ for invited foreign artists and intellectuals. In addition the Directorate coordinates contacts with international organizations, such as the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) (1), the European Union,12 the Islamic Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (ISESCO) (2), UNESCO, UNICEF and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). There is no clear policy regarding cultural cooperation with other Arab countries, but Syria is a founding member of the Arab League, officially the League of Arab States (1945) (3), and cooperates in the Arab League Educational Cultural and Scientific Organization (ALESCO) (4).
The Directorate of Cultural Relations oversees the Syrian cultural centres abroad (Brazil, France, Spain and Yemen). These centres are associated with Syrian embassies which are supervised by the Cultural Management Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The cultural centres are responsible for disseminating Syrian culture, consolidating cultural cooperation and introducing Arab culture by organizing seminars, lectures, Arab language courses, exhibitions and film screenings.
The work of the foreign cultural centres and organizations in Syria can be divided into 2 types: activities designed according to the programmes, goals and policies of these centres, approved by the Directorate of Cultural Relations of the Ministry of Culture based on its regulations, and activities, and activities resulting from bilateral cultural agreements. Some of the centres design their programmes on the basis of the cultural policy agenda of their home country, such as the German cultural centre (Damascus). Others adopt policies parallel to the Syrian cultural policy, such as the Spanish cultural centre, introducing programmes that are less directly related to the home country and closer to the Syrian public and artists. Bulgaria, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Russia, Spain, the United Kingdom and United States of America have cultural centres in Syria. Part of the work of the Directorate of Cultural Relations is to draft the regulations on the organization of these centres’ activities. Most of them offer language courses and cultural activities related to the home culture. In addition, some do archaeological research (France and Italy) or adopt a policy of cultural dialogue, exchanging ideas, and capacity building in the field of cultural management (e.g. the United Kingdom).
A Presidential Decree is issued for each bilateral cultural agreement, for example, Decree No 281 (2004) on the cultural agreement with Qatar. Cultural agreements are also endorsed by the Prime Minister and the Minister of Culture. A treaty between Syria and Italy was signed (2007) on the development of the National Museum (Damascus), the Aleppo Museum, the rehabilitation of the Idleb Museum and the establishment of a database of the museum objects.
Some agreements are signed directly with foreign cultural organizations, such as the cooperation agreement between the Ministry’s General Directorate for Antiquities and Museums and Musée du Louvre, France (2008), encouraging professional excavations. The agreement is valid for 5 years and renewable by collateral agreement. Another example is the Nahnou -Together Project (2005-2007), launched by the British Council in Syria, in cooperation with Tate Britain (United Kingdom) and the Adham Ismael Centre for Plastic Arts of the Ministry of Culture (1959, Damascus).
This presents young people from both countries in a visual dialogue. The project entered its second stage in 2008 and involves artists, teachers and arts educators. New is the contribution of the National Gallery of Fine Arts (1980, Amman, Jordan). The Ministry of Culture is responsible for the implementation of all cultural agreements, under the supervision of the Cultural Management Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Some agreements involve several ministries, such as the Ministries of Education, of Higher Education and of Culture in the case of the bilateral agreement with Mexico on a cultural and educational programme 2007-2010.
International cultural relations tend to be incidental and occasional, and restricted to the presentation of the ‘official’ culture of Syria and the partner country. They are not based on local needs, or cultural research and exchange, and lack a strategic vision.
For more on
Copyright and other legal provisions in the cultural field see…
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Aga Khan Development Network (zoos.) “Syria: Integrated Development in Syria.” Available at: http://www.akdn.org/publications/2005_syria_development.pdf
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- AKDN is a group of development agencies with mandates that include a variety of programmes, from architect ure to the revitalization of historic cities, from environment to education and the promotion of private-sector enterprises. See also the subsection “Archaeology and built heritage”.
- ISESCO (1979, Rabat, Morocco) aims to strengthen, promote and consolidate cooperation between its member states and works within the framework of Islamic values and deals.
- The Arab league is a regional organi.mt ion of Arab states in North and Northeast Africa and Southwest Asia. It was formed in Cairo in March 1945 with 6 members: Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Trans:ordan (later renamed _Jordan). Yemen joined in May 1945. The purpose of the League is to =oster Arab cooperation and unity.
- The primary aim of ALESCO (1976, Thais, Tunisia) is the coordination and promotion of various educational, cultural and scientific activities in the Arab region.
[♥] From: Syria by Reem Al Khatib and Rana Yazaji published in ‘Cultural Policies in Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, Syria and Tunisia. An introduction’, Cultural Resource/European Cultural Foundation, Bookmanstudies, 2010, 181-186.