Dima Al Kalaji
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The Smell of Dictatorship

The smell of uniforms in the rain, the knot of the pioneer neckerchief. We artistically investigated the interconnections between the Syrian and GDR dictatorships using research methods.

What does dictatorship smell like? What does it leave in us? How does it represent itself on the city map, how is it inscribed in the streets, libraries, everyday objects, archives and bodies? During a joint visit by the Syrian author Dima Albitar Kalaji and the author Annett Gröschner, who grew up in East Germany, to the Stasi Museum in Berlin in 2018, both became aware of how resonant their memories of experiences under the dictatorship are – despite their age difference and despite the geographical and political differences of both systems.

The smell of uniforms in the rain, the knot of the pioneer neckerchief. The fear of being summoned to an office. Dreams of dictatorship. In this project, Dima Albitar Kalaji and Annett Gröschner artistically investigated the interconnections between the Syrian and GDR dictatorships using research methods. To do this, they searched through archives and held conversations with Syrian and German contemporary witnesses who lived in both systems.

The inscription of the dictatorships in everyday life and in the body was at the forefront of the investigation. After all, the bodies did not disappear into the archives after 1989,  and they do not disappear into scientific research. They continue to react to this day – and surprisingly, despite the differences between the Syrian and East German systems, they often react very similarly. This project aimed to explore these similarities. Their haptic, olfactory, psychic, emotional foundations as well as their connection to concrete interconnections of the political systems. The exchange of intelligence services, but also of students, experts, diplomats or lovers between Syria and the GDR.

The project has documented the results of the research in interviews, photos, condensed stories, essays and a podcast on the website Geruch der Diktatur. The website includes a map of senses, marking the geographical and sensory locations of the dictatorship experiences where connections are made.

„The Smell of Dictatorship. Parallels and interconnections between the experience of dictatorship in the GDR and in Syria“ was a project of WIR MACHEN DAS in 2021, funded by the Federal Foundation for the Reappraisal of the SED Dictatorship.