How Syrians are saving their cultural heritage and what “Citizen Science” has to do with it

August 18, 2022

By: Kenda Al Zaim, Head of Solutions Mapping, UNDP Accelerator lab Syria

“This group is devoted to Deir ez-Zor, to preserving the history and cultural heritage of Euphrates and Al Jazeera”

This is how a group on Facebook is described by its Syrian creators. The group, Deir ez-Zor Heritage, is one of countless others that were created on different social media platforms with the aim of reviving and preserving Syrian cultural heritage as well as facilitating communities’ self-documentation. More than ever, thanks to social media, people are able to share indigenous knowledge, social practices, oral rituals, and traditional crafting skills they inherited from their ancestors. By creating these groups and accounts, Syrians are trying to pass on this inherited knowledge to the next generation through sharing old photographs, audio recordings of folklore songs, childhood lullabies, and videos of traditional handcrafts and skills.

I have always been fascinated and intrigued by the content of these platforms, but it has never occurred to me that they could be more than just virtual spaces to express the feeling of nostalgia and longing to the peaceful past, especially after the crises that displaced millions internally and externally. My views were transformed when I started looking at these platforms through the lens of a solutions mapper who is searching for local digital solutions that address the challenge of curating and preserving the fragile Syrian intangible heritage. Now, I am able to see the significant role these platforms and these content creators play in saving our culture and protecting it from being lost into oblivion!

“There was a need to protect the human face of the city, the memories, the traditions, and the rituals that I knew will disappear because of war destruction. And even if rebuilt, homes will be different, and the architecture will change… Since former residents no longer live there many traditions and even dishes will disappear if we are not reminded of them” said Lamis Aljasem – founder of See my Raqqa account which was created after the destructive battel of Raqqa that started in October 2017 .

Syria has always been known for being a diverse and multicultural country, with ruins dating back to the pre-historic era. Moreover, Syria used to be and still is a home for multi-ethnic and multi-confessional societies. With this diversity comes a rich and vibrant intangible cultural heritage that was reflected on the country’s social and economic activities. Unfortunately, due to the still ongoing crisis since 2011, Syrian heritage (tangible & intangible) was severely and almost irreversibly damaged; the impact on intangible heritage has been most severe because of its fragility and dependance on voluntarily efforts of holders of traditions and living expressions to pass it from generation to generation. The crisis has had an adverse impact on the wellbeing of these heritage holders, forcing them to be displaced internally and externally. Consequently, the intergenerational transmission process that dates back thousands of years has been disrupted, with direct and indirect consequences on cultural diversity, social cohesion, and peaceful dialogue among Syrian communities as well as on economic activities.

Innovative and inclusive platforms

The minute I started searching, I was surprised by the sheer number of Syrian platforms and groups created on social media dedicated to cultural heritage! I came across more than 200 pages, mostly on Facebook and Instagram, which are the most used apps in Syria. They cover each of the 14 Syrian governates; there are accounts created for cities within a governorate, villages, and even small neighborhoods.

In addition to being informative, these platforms can be described as interactive, inclusive and in many cases entertaining. They are open to all Syrians inviting them to participate and share stories through direct messaging or commenting, as long as they respect the group’s rules and instructions. Followers, who can reach up to 50k, are coming from all walks of life representing different Syrian communities and different age groups. This diversity allowed for a diversification in content; followers are sharing written posts of rituals and customary practices, videos featuring the custodians of our living & oral heritage, and stories of real and fictional heroes from the past. On a similar note, content creators have also gone a step further to introducing new innovative ways to present and pass our cultural intangible heritage beautifully to younger generations.

“What motivated me to create this account was my fear of losing our intangible heritage because of the war and the forced displacement of Deir Ez Zor city residents … There is a young generation who were raised in the times of war, and who did not get the chance to live in Deir Ez Zor, their city of origin, to create memories and learn about their traditions and cultures ” Explained Mohamed Ziab the creator of Deirgraph account on Instagram.

Mohamed created the “Deirgraph” Instagram account in 2019, targeting a young audience from Deir Ez-Zor, especially those who did not get the chance to live there. The name of the account is derived from the city name, Deir Ez-Zor, and the word “graphics”. In his posts, Mohamed uses pop art and modern graphic designs to introduce forgotten Deir Ez-Zori traditions, childhood games, local expressions in “Deiri” slang, songs, and tasty “Deiri” cuisine. He also employs viral memes to drive better engagement with youth. With this innovative approach, Mohamed is making Deirgraph content more appealing and interesting to the younger generation who have been deprived of the opportunity of experiencing their own cultural heritage firsthand.  

Where does content come from?

Interestingly, most of the accounts and groups depend heavily on inputs coming from their followers to create content. They rely on materials shared with them, by current and former residents of the selected city or village, such as images, videos, texts, and audio recordings. This approach, of opening the platforms to public participation, is allowing for an inclusive space where Syrians all over the world can participate in the curation process. However, it is not an easy task to go through all of the shared materials as it requires continuous information validation through “an extensive research, constant fact checking and consultations with the locals” as explained by Lamis the founder of the “See my Raqqa” account. Furthermore, not all content creators are willing to put in the efforts required to validate the incoming data, which of course jeopardizes the credibility of content. Clearly, these account founders and their followers are not heritage experts; they are just people who cherish their own cultural legacy and are enthusiastic about transferring it to others to ensure its survival, regardless of how they are sharing it.

On the other hand, even if they are not experts, that does not render their contributions worthless. Many fields of science, nowadays, depend on citizen-generated data and crowdsourcing in their scientific research. Citizen data is widely used in studies of biodiversity, monitoring water and air pollution, and even monitoring the progress towards achieving the sustainable development goals. Heritage is included among sciences that recognize the potential of “Citizen Science” and open the gates to the broader community to participate, co-create, and generate and analyze data. Therefore, the collective knowledge coming from these groups presents a great opportunity for future heritage projects and research. For example, a public digital platform could be founded where all these scattered efforts could be unified. This would allow for collaboration between heritage enthusiasts and heritage experts to validate and verify crowdsourced data using scientific approaches. This should provide a more credible, reliable platform.

Heritage for peace

In a nutshell, national and international experts, sustainable development professionals and researchers should pay attention to this rising trend in social media that is bringing people together in a peaceful manner. The abundance of untapped data should not be wasted, as it constitutes a living digital archive that is accessible to, and representative of, all Syrian communities.

Through these accounts, Syrians are sending a clear message that reviving and protecting their intangible cultural heritage is as an essential component of their communities’ wellbeing and resilience as any other social or economic components! This is not a random expression of nostalgia; these groups are a representation of local efforts that should be valued and harnessed, for they have the potential to play a critical role in not only documenting and recreating our damaged inherited identity, but also in achieving the longed-for peace and social cohesion.