Finding refuge from censorship... in Syria

Syria is usually associated with repression of freedom of expression. Yet, to outspoken Palestinian painter and writer Mahmoud Shahin, whose books have been banned in several Arab countries, it is a safe haven. MENASSAT met with the charismatic figure in Damascus.
Mahmoud Shahin. © Menassat

DAMASCUS, October 6, 2008 (MENASSAT) – On display in the window of Mahmoud Shahin's tiny atelier in the old town of Damascus is a mix of abstract paintings, article clips, and an enlarged photo of the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish.

Shahin is a well-known Palestinian poet and painter whose controversial work has found an unlikely home in the Syrian capital. While his paintings are racy enough – "I just love women," he says –  it is his words that have gotten him into trouble with censors all over the Arab world.

According to the artist, several Arab countries have banned his books, including Morocco, Egypt, and even Lebanon, which is known as the most liberal of the Arab countries. He also recalls an Arab printing house in Germany refusing to print one of his books.

"People have a different picture of Syria," he admits. "But they forget that the Syrian government is secular. I can do my work here without any problems."

Inside the shop, which is jam-packed with paintings, brushes and coffee pots, Shahin assumes his usual position on a rickety wooden chair, cigarette in hand, getting ready to paint another of his striking portraits, which often depict veiled women with surreal female forms. 

Born in Jerusalem in 1946, Shahin left his home country during the Israeli occupation in the late 1960s and went on to live in Jordan and Egypt where he briefly studied journalism.

In the early 70s, Shahin started his literary career, writing books as well as poems.

But he is highly critical of some of his early work, referring to it as "those stupid poems on Palestine I wrote."

A member of the PLO, Shahin moved to Damascus in 1971 to work for the organization.

"Everyone was coming to Syria and Lebanon at the time. I moved to Damascus and ended up staying here," he says.

A tourist attraction

More than thirty years later, Shahin has published a number of books and has more than 6,000 paintings on display around the world.

Today, tourists and friends pop by his store for a look at his latest paintings, or to read parts of his books that are crammed into a makeshift bookshelf, or simply to have a cup of strong Turkish coffee.

But if his life seems relaxed these days, the road has been rocky for Shahin, who likes to voice his controversial opinions on religion and society in his writings.

In the 1990s, he completed the book "Satanic Temptations: Party With the Devil," a compilation of poems and writings in which Shahin depicts the devil as a spiritual human being.

"I described the devil as a nice person... and in my book he is a human who believes in religion. A different kind of religion, that is."

Not surprisingly, the book caused an uproar and attracted the wrath of religious institutions around the Arab world once it was printed, which was more than ten years after its completion.

"It took a while to find a publisher," Shahin says while proudly holding up a copy of Satanic Temptations with a cover showing the devil as a red-headed, long-haired woman. 

Who then finally decided to print Shahin’s controversial piece of literary work? The Syrian publishing house Ninawa.

Both Satanic Temptations and his previous epic, "Lukeman, the King," have since been translated into German.

For all the tolerance he has experienced in Syria, Shahin admits that things would probably be different if he was a political writer.

"I don't write about politics," he says.

Constantly faced with publishing bans and the difficulty of finding a publisher, Shahin decided at the age of 51 to switch to painting as his preferred way to express his views and thoughts.

"Since I couldn't express myself in writing, I switched to painting since there is little censorship on the visual arts. I locked myself up in my apartment for nine months until I learned how to paint. The only time I left my house was when I needed to buy new colors and oil. That was in 1995,” he recalls.

Today, Shahin's paintings can be found on exhibit in several countries, including Germany, Syria, Egypt, and France.

Asked about his inspiration, Shahin answers chuckling that he "paints without thinking."

"It's easier to express yourself through painting. It's the complete opposite of writing. I hardly write anymore. If I do, it's something short."