AMMAN — Artists across the Middle East and beyond have demanded that Syria free painter and illustrator Youssef Abdelke, who has long defied state control by depicting the horrors of dictatorship and refused to flee his country's civil war.
Syrian security forces arrested 62-year-old Abdelke and two colleagues last week after he signed a declaration calling for the departure of President Bashar al-Assad, joining thousands of peaceful activists rounded up since an uprising erupted nearly two-and-a-half years ago.
Abdelke is one of the most prominent among a generation of Syrian artists attracting international attention during a wider renaissance of Middle Eastern art. Uprisings across the Arab world have boosted interest in the themes of repression and social turmoil which he has explored for decades.
"One cannot but deplore and condemn the arrest of Youssef Abdelke and his two comrades. This mentality, which treats the holder of an opinion as a criminal, has damaged Arab humanity and culture," Adonis, a fellow Syrian who is the Arab world's leading modernist poet, told Reuters.
Among the 70 signatories to the declaration, Abdelke was one of only two not in exile or in hiding in Syria, where 100,000 people have been killed in the civil war that grew from a military crackdown on protests against Assad's rule.
Silver-haired and pony-tailed, Abdelke has himself campaigned for decades for the release of political prisoners. He rejected the option of living permanently in the West, saying that if your home is on fire, you stay to put out the flames.
Abdelke's most famous work is a 1989-1995 series of etchings of Arab military rulers, depicting vainglorious generals surrounded by squalor.
He spent two years in jail as a political prisoner under Hafez al-Assad, Bashar's father, and returned to Damascus eight years ago from exile in France to work at his studio in an old courtyard house.
He was arrested last Thursday near the Mediterranean town of Tartous, his wife Hala Abdallah said. He was detained along with two members of the centrist National Coordination Assembly for Democratic Change, a group formed after the uprising which advocates peaceful political transition.
Their detention follows the arrest last September of another member of the group, Adelaziz al-Khair, who had already spent 13 years as a political prisoner. Khair, a physician and a member of Assad's minority Alawite sect, has not been heard of since.
During the revolt Abdelke said the incarceration of peaceful campaigners showed what he called the nobility of the uprising.
Asked why her husband had not tried to flee the country as Assad's crackdown on the non-violent opposition intensified, Abdallah said: "Youssef had made a decision to resist having to leave Syria again."
"He refused to seek French citizenship when he was in France," she told Reuters. "He used to say that if someone sees a fire in his house he will try to extinguish it, not run away."
The declaration Abdeleke signed said Assad and his top lieutenants had to leave power for a political solution that preserves Syria as a whole. "The corrupt tyrannical system which controlled the fate of Syria for the last 40 years solely bears responsibility for the tragic events the country is living through. The salvation of Syria lies in the downfall of the regime with its all of symbols," it said.
'Spirit of the homeland'
Since Abdelke was seized, more than 700 writers, artists, actors, academics and journalists from the Middle East and beyond have signed a petition demanding his release. "Stop imprisoning the spirit of the homeland," it said.
Leading Iraqi artist Serwan Baran, who also signed the petition, said: "Youssef Abdelke is a seminal figure. The Syrian regime cannot be allowed to arrest these symbols."
Lebanese painter Ayman Baalbaki, a top name among a younger generation of Arab artists, paid tribute to Abdelke. "He has influenced my generation and the generation that preceded me, not just through his art, but also his stubbornness in his defense of liberty and loyalty to his ideas," Baalbaki said.
Abdelke was also imprisoned from 1978 to 1980 and lived in France for 24 years before returning home. In the last few years, he had been banned from travelling.
His 2005 charcoal drawing, "Elegy to the 1970s generation" referred to leftist Syrian national figures, writers and artists who came of age in the decade and were later crushed. In it, Abdelke portrayed a giant severed forearm with a clenched fist signifying defiance in face of repression.
Among his first pieces on the revolt was "Martyr from Deraa," a large charcoal work showing the body of a young demonstrator dressed in a long-sleeved shirt and lying on his back while bleeding from a bullet wound to his forehead.
Another work depicted a butterfly facing a knife lodged in a surface, an apparent symbol of the peaceful nature of the revolt before Assad's crackdown provoked an armed insurgency.