• Omar Imady

SPLASH: the intricate art of weaponizing fiction

The Splash (1966) by British artist David Hockney, shown during a photo call ahead of its auction at Sotheby's in London ( AFP via Getty Images )

Yevgeny Prigozhin, a fascinating Russian figure known as ‘Putin’s cook’, and an important ‘investor’ in Syria’s oil industry, recently prepared a new and surprising dish. On April 15, columnists at his Federal News Agency (FNA) suddenly announced that they had discovered that what was long regarded as Western propaganda was in fact true: the Syrian regime is indeed corrupt. This exquisite new dish, however, was far more than a mere accusation of corruption. It had a brilliantly crafted artistic twist:

Асад купил своей жене картину за 23 млн фунтов на аукционе в Лондоне (Assad bought his wife a painting for 23 million pounds at auction in London)

СМИ: Президент Сирии Асад купил жене картину Дэвида Хокни за десятки миллионов фунтов (Media: Syrian President Assad bought his wife a David Hockney painting for tens of millions of pounds)

Асад купил на Sotheby’s картину за 30 млн долларов для своей жены (Assad bought a $30 million painting at Sotheby’s for his wife)

As documented in The Art Newspaper, a well-established authority in the art world, it was, in fact, the Californian media magnate, David Geffen, who had purchased the artwork, The Splash; one of a trio that includes A Little Splash and A Bigger Splash. The Art Newspaper’s article found the whole story linking the purchase with the Syrian president ‘curious’ inasmuch as it was ‘spurious’.

How fascinating! For once, the Syrian regime was facing the same type of media campaigns it had long perfected: weaponized fiction. Various theories, insightful, and mutually reinforcing, on why and how this story was fabricated have since surfaced: (i) the President’s uncle, Muhammad Makhluf, who now lives in Moscow along with at least one of his sons, shared this story with Russian sources; (ii) the story is yet another manifestation of the apparent economic feud between the president’s wife and Rami Makhluf, the president’s cousin and arguably the wealthiest businessman in Syria; (iii) the story reflects Russia’s impatience with the Syrian president’s unwillingness to arrive at any meaningful agreement with the opposition, which would in turn allow the Russians to declare victory and close this file.

The weaponization of fiction is a sophisticated process that uses very real fragments to compose its fictional tapestry, and seeks to flirt with our base psychological impulses by invoking the very things we fear or hate. To be effective, the process not only requires real fragments, but works best when a powerful patron is willing to adopt it. This explains why opposition-fiction, though not lacking when it comes to real fragments, never managed to reach the circulation level of regime-fiction. Though everyone who is anyone is in the business of weaponizing fiction, the grand prize to date — suspending our knowledge of the tragic consequences for a few seconds — must go to whoever it was who came up with the idea that Iraq possessed enough weapons of mass destruction to pose a strategic threat to the world.

Being a historian, and detective at heart, I could not let go of how The Splash story could have been invented in the first place. I was primarily consumed with the ‘real’ fragments that lent themselves to such a process. Of the many advantages of being confined to home, and fasting long Ramadan days is the hours one can spend researching strange, and often meaningless topics; in this case, the ‘curious’ relationship between David Hockney and the Syrian regime. Shortly before sunset, when it was finally time for me to break my fast, I succeed in collecting enough scattered fragments to construct my own fictional account that explains, or rather invents, this relationship. 

Fragment 1

The original news item (February 11, 2020) on the purchase of The Splash made it clear that it was “bought by an unknown buyer”.

Fragment 2

The president’s wife has a very specific taste in art, and emails that are part of the Syria Files — a collection of more than two million emails from Syrian political figures and ministries and from various Western companies, published by Wikileaks —  show her to have been interested in Ornithop Callicore IV by Nick Jeffrey, a young artist based in Battersea who produces three-dimensional pieces of butterflies.

Fragment 3

David Hockney appears in 11 emails in the Syria Files. One of the emails is dated January 4, 2012 and was sent by The Interview People to shorufat@moc.gov.sy at the Ministry of Culture.

Fragment 4

The late Patrick Seale, author of Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East, a biography of Bashar al-Asad’s late father, was in fact an art dealer and “ran a London gallery dealing in, among other things, David Hockney and Henry Moore limited-edition prints in the 1980s.”

Fragment 5

David Hockney had a connection, via David Plante, with Claudia Roden, the well known British cookbook writer, whose grandfather was the Chief Rabbi in Aleppo (Becoming a Londoner: A Diary by David Plante, p. 244).

Fragment 6

Brooke Allen, author of the The Other Side of the Mirror: An American Travels through Syria, notes that she made a connection between scenery in the north of Syria and landscapes painted by David Hockney of his native Yorkshire (p. 131).

Not bad for a few hours of research. Next comes the arduous task of putting these fragments together:

It must have all started with Seale who, on one of his many visits to Damascus, shared his admiration of David Hockney with the Asad family. We may even postulate that he presented Asad Senior with one of Hockney’s artworks as a gift to thank him for all the long hours he spent sharing his stories with him. Seale is charismatic, and a fetish for anything Hockney is implanted in Asad’s children. During Bashar’s sojourn in London, he meets Hockney and invites him to visit Syria. At first hesitant, Hockney is reassured by his friend Claudia Roden. He subsequently visits Syria in secret and is fascinated by its landscapes, which explains why some of his paintings resemble fields in the Syrian north. And finally, well aware of his wife’s admiration of fine art, the Syrian president decides to buy The Splash for his wife as a gift to celebrate her full recovery from her latest ordeal, and then uses his connections to invent a story that identifies David Geffen as the real buyer. Voila!

I remind my readers that the story I just shared is a fictional account. Ironically, however, it is no less fictional that than many stories produced during the last nine years, including the one that advanced the idea that the inhabitants of the Ghuta had used chemical weapons against their own villages in August 2013; the ingenious creation of the idea of sex-jihad; and the depiction of all those who protest against the regime as agents of a foreign conspiracy. 

In his first speech after the Syrian Uprising (March 30, 2011), President Asad summarised the art of weaponizing fiction:

“The fact is that they follow the principle of lying. Repeat your lie until they believe you. So, they eventually believe their own lie and fall in the trap.

Who, one wonders, is in the trap now?

*/Dr. Omar Imady was born in Damascus. He is presently a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Syrian Studies at the University of St Andrews.


The views & information contained in these posts & articles are strictly those of their authors who are solely responsible for their accuracy and should not be regarded as representing the Centre for Syrian Studies or the University of St Andrews.


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