KAFRANBEL, Syria — The Syrian revolution's heart -- not yet ravished by the regime or Islamist extremists -- beats on in the northern town of Kafranbel, where a group of dedicated activists has captured the world's attention through witty posters and banners that reflect the state of the revolt since spring 2011. And even as the Syrian narrative has increasingly focused on the extremists or an international plan to dismantle the Assad regime's chemical stockpiles, the artists of Kafranbel have been engaged in their own struggle -- to win back the support of residents of their own town.
The 40-year-old Raed Faris and his partner, 33-year-old Ahmad Jalal, are the creative duo behind the banners. Faris -- a tall man with a booming laugh -- writes the banners, while Jalal, quiet and shy, draws the cartoons. Together, they spend their time brainstorming, researching, and connecting with others on how to display Syria's tragedy to the world.
The banners express sophisticated geopolitical analysis in the simplest of forms. They are often inspired by iconic pop culture references: Faris and Jalal have used a Pink Floyd album cover, the Titanic movie poster, and even The Lord of the Rings to describe what is happening in Syria. No side in the crisis was spared -- not the Syrian regime and its allies, not the Western powers and the United Nations, not the exiled Syrian opposition, and not even the radical jihadists who eventually came to live among the activists.
Kafranbel's messages traveled the world. A large collection of the posters and banners was smuggled out of Syria to protect them from being destroyed, and they were displayed as exhibitions across the United States and Europe. One poignant banner -- carried in front of the White House last spring on the second anniversary of the revolution -- adapted and adopted Martin Luther King Jr.'s timeless words: "I have a dream, let freedom ring from Kafranbel."
Banners like this one -- along with the famous response to the Boston Marathon bombing -- drove home the universal and historic nature of the Syrian struggle. Kafranbel's artists consistently made these connections to show that Syria's war was not an event isolated by time or geography.
What made Kafranbel's messages unique was their relentless insistence to reach out to the world. The banners expressed empathy and solidarity: "You are not alone; we suffer with you." But another message was always embedded: "Do not leave us alone. Do not forget about us."
But the world read the banners, and did nothing. Eventually, Kafranbel -- and by extension, Syria -- were disappointed by their global audience.
Recently, Kafranbel has gone beyond banners to something more sophisticated: "The Syrian Revolution in 3 Minutes" is the latest video produced by the town's activists. It's an elaborate production set on a rocky hill. The activists are dressed up as cavemen, complete with bushy wigs and brown sacks wrapped around their waists. Each group's affiliation is marked by flags: the Syrian people, the regime, the international community, a fat Arab sheikh in a white robe, and an American in a bright red, curly wig.
A large group comes out of the cave to protest. They don't use words, but gesture angrily and lift a single banner drawn on a dirt-brown, ripped parchment. The regime cavemen attack with rifles. They set off a bomb. The people fall to the ground in a heap of dead bodies.
The Arab, the American, and the United Nations stand to the side watching, doing nothing.
The people emerge from the cave to protest once more. The regime men spray them. They are gassed. They die. The American bystander "tsks" in disapproval and takes away the bright yellow canister of chemicals from the regime cavemen.
The people emerge from the cave to protest for a final time. They yell and gesture. They are bombed again. They die. The regime men look timidly toward the three figures, who give a thumbs-up in approval, overlooking the heap of bodies. The message is clear: It's only the chemical attacks that the world cares about, not the dead Syrians.
And what exactly is on this threatening poster lifted by the protesters in Stone Age Kafranbel? It shows a drawing of a cave, its opening blocked with bars. But a single bird escapes, flying away to freedom.