Saydnaya and Saydnaya: Public Testimony, Affect, and the Relationship between the Visual and the Aural / Tom Abi Samra

Screengrab of the interactive documentary developed by AI, FA, and Abu Hamdan. Source: Screengrab of saydnaya.amnesty.org

Screengrab of the interactive documentary developed by AI, FA, and Abu Hamdan. Source: Screengrab of saydnaya.amnesty.org

I am occupied here with the relationship between the aural and auditory, on the one hand, and the visual on the other. I attend to the paradox that “despite the heavy bias toward the eye, the overwhelming cultural tendency has been to fetishize ‘the voice’ as the location and medium of expression for the human being.”1 What can the auditory do that sight cannot? Can the aural, for instance, testify? To answer these questions, I consider Amnesty International’s and Forensic Architecture’s interactive online documentary that came out of a collaboration with Jordanian-British artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan: Saydnaya: Inside a Syrian Torture Prison (2017). I examine how the documentary invites us to let go of binaries—body/mind, visual/aural, text/image, and even private/public and how Abu Hamdan’s work introduces us to a web of interconnected affects, feelings, and realities (however mediated they might be) that demands from us that we account for, and reckon with, the messiness and violence of the world around us.2

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Saydnaya is a high-security prison run by the Bashar al-Assad regime, known for its maltreatment of detainees even before the start of the Syrian Civil War (2011–). But with the start of the war, it has become a place where anti-government dissenters are imprisoned—some 30 kilometers away from the capital Damascus—and tortured, without access to any legal counsel, and sometimes without trial or knowledge of accusations against them.3

Saydnaya, the online interactive documentary, attempts to visually reconstruct the prison’s architecture through former detainees’ oral accounts of their experiences. It is co-produced by Amnesty International (AI) and Forensic Architecture (FA), with Abu Hamdan serving as “acoustic investigator,” interviewing the detainees himself. “Using a technique of ‘echo profiling’, sound artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan was able to determine the size of cells, stairwells and corridors by playing different reverberations and asking witnesses to match them with sounds they remembered hearing in the prison.”4 On a dedicated website Amnesty International developed an interactive documentary to browse FA’s and Abu Hamdan’s reconstruction of the Saydnaya prison, with hyperlinks to interviews with and personal stories of the former detainees they interviewed.5

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In the opening pages of Sonic Intimacy, Dominic Pettman eloquently summarizes the current discourse on sound as secondary vis-à-vis the visual. “Practitioners of sound studies,” he writes,

never tire of lamenting the fact that the world has become a scopophilic place and that vision is the royal register of both understanding and action. (After all, Martin Heidegger named the decisive historical shift into modernity as “the age of the world picture” and not “the age of the world composition.”)6

In addition, Pettman links the act of hearing to that of sensing a vibration, i.e., of feeling; as such, the sense of touch—feeling—bridges between the visual, which seems to be more traditionally associated with the tangible, and the aural. Extrapolating from Pettman’s argument, there seems to be space to think of the aural, as well as visual and textual, in conjunction with affect, which, subsequently, provides access to new understandings of art. Exploring the somatic realm that Abu Hamdan’s work invokes is especially relevant because it attempts to recount experiences of trauma, physical torture, and other forms of humiliation and harm that that point  to the never fully available or conscious body and mind, as the detainees are blindfolded, not allowed to speak, starved, dehydrated. In such circumstances, exploring what is beyond the utterance as such is necessary; in other words, thinking affectively through these objects has political, ethical, and even legal stakes.

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“The whisper maps the threshold of audibility. The border between whisper and speech, between sound and silence, is the border between life and death.”7

In “Welcome Party,” one of the short “episodes” of the interactive documentary, one of the former detainees recounts how prisoners are welcomed to the prison. Describing the sounds that resulted from the torture (the hitting) as “something he’s never heard before,” one of the survivors of Saydnaya uses the phrase “reverberating [or oscillating] sound [ṣawt mutamawwij].”8 In other words, for him, the sound of torture—whatever that is—does not reverberate outside of Saydnaya in the way it did there. The use of the word mutamawwij, thus, is worth unpacking, for it unveils and invokes a series of rich, interconnected meanings that shed light on the situation in Saydnaya. This is especially important given that he uses this expression to describe the detainees’ so-called welcome into the prison. It is the inauguration of their axis of reference, their epistemological framework for understanding and navigating Saydnaya’s horrors.

Screengrab from “Welcome Party” episode. Source: Screengrab of saydnaya.amnesty.org.

If the welcome scene delineates a set of rules to be followed by the prisoners by Saydnaya, then to understand Saydnaya ourselves, we must take cues from the former prisoners themselves, hence my emphasis on close reading and philology. Etymologically, the word mutamawwij connotes unsettlement, confusion, and agitation. In Lisān al-ʿArab (Tongue of the Arabs), the lexicographer Ibn Manẓūr writes of the root “m–w–j” (of which the term mutamawwij derives):

mawj [noun, sing. mawja; waves]: water that rises over water […]

tamawwaja [verb, past tense]: the waves are disturbed or agitated [iḍṭarabat amwājuhu] […]

muʾūju [noun]: the oscillation of the kneecap [muʿūju al-dāghiṣa]; muʾūju al-silʿa: oscillation [of the kneecap] between skin and bone […]

He is said to yamūju if he is agitated and confused

He who is maʾūjun [adjective]: surging [perhaps angry/unsettled] […]

Ibn Aʿrābī says, “One yamūju [verb, present tense] if he is unsettled/agitated and confused/indecisive ”


Thaʿlab once recited: “Every sober [one] is an agitated [maʾūjā] drunk”

[Grammatically, mutamawwij is an adjective derived of the noun mawj and the verb tamawwaja, both defined above.]9

Moreover, in a modern sense, the word mawja is also used to mean wave or frequency—of sound, of a radio channel, of a walkie-talkie, and so on.

What is of particular interest to me is the idea that tamawwaja is described as the unsettling of that which is already in motion, already unsettled—“waves.” It is as if there is a double disturbance, a palimpsest of disturbances, much like the idea of water rising over itself, as if attempting to overcome, or eject, itself from itself. From this root, moreover, one can derive words that mean “confused,” “unsettled,” and other words to that effect. As the verb yamūju denotes, the many words derived from “m–w–j” bring together states of confusion and agitation—notions that are inherently ambivalent and even perhaps incompatible. This cloudiness of thought runs parallel to the idea that there is something beyond hermeneutics, beyond utterance and coherence, beyond coherent utterance—an unstable state. Furthermore, given the modern use of the word mawja—frequency, which borrows from the second meaning of mawj (agitation, rather than confusion)—and given the context of Saydnaya in which emphasis on what cannot be said and seen, these feelings of cloudiness, haze, and obstruction are inherently connected to a feeling of modern surveillance, anxiety, and policing. As such, at the limits of linguistic expression—at the limits, or contours, of the former detainee’s testimony—we uncover a web of interconnected meanings that nuance our understanding of (and perhaps allow for empathy toward) the kind of mental trauma the prisoners went (and still go) through, by publicly staging the archive of prisoners’ accounts of trauma. The documentary, in its heteroglossia and interactive nature, becomes a sort of chaotic playground, showing us what the former detainees themselves want us to seeṣawt mutamawwij, chaos, uncertainty, agitation.

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The interactive documentary, in its various snippets or episodes, not only shows us the chaos of the prison, but also the chaos, the haziness—in a word, the affective relations—that undergird the construction of the model itself through retelling and testifying, which sheds light in a direct manner on the limits of language. In recounting their experiences in the prison, as the videos show, the former prisoners are interrupted by Abu Hamdan or members of the investigative team who ask for clarification, for aural reenactments, for feedback on the accuracy of the 3D model they are constructing in vestigium. In doing so, the former detainees’ interlocuters push them to the limits of language, into the realm of the somatic, which allows them to come to terms with their trauma.10 But what is equally interesting for my discussion here is technology’s ability to mediate these affects. Rather than solely publishing reports and making art, the collaborators choose to document the documentary process—a sort of meta-documentary process—which renders this interactive documentary a sort of public, affective archive the mediates former prisoners’ reenactments, their coming to terms with their traumas. As such, this meta-documentary becomes a public testimony to be reckoned with—at once a physical and psychological event to think through. But for whom? As a public testimony on the internet, a public archive in both English and Arabic, it is for everyone: it is a call to action, an invitation for a collective reenactment of the former prisoners’ traumas. And ultimately, in this public archival reenactment, mind/body, visual/aural, and word/image, binaries collapse, making way for a sensory, affective public engagement with the horrors of Saydnaya. Therefore, the meta-documentary technique adopted by the documentary makers mimics the effects of this ṣawt mutamawwij: it radiates, amplifies, the effects of modern policing—anxiety, torture, surveillance—and in so doing unmakes these same policing techniques through the public staging of that archive, i.e., through public testimony.

For example, in an episode called “‘Fear Starts in the Afternoon,’” Anas Hamado, a former detainee, recounts to members of the AI and FA teams how in the afternoon, during food distribution, fear escalates amongst prisoners because any noise they make will result in a beating. He then continues to discuss ways in which detainees would communicate amongst one another. “So if I want to speak to my friend I would nudge him and whisper: ‘Hey, how are you doing? What do you need? What happened with you?’” He is then interrupted by an AI investigator, “That’s loud!” This prompts him to mimic the actual volume at which he spoke, “No, softer – like this!” Another investigator in the room then asks, “Can you show us the tone of the whispering?” Hamado then proceeds to demonstrate the whisper.11

Similarly, in an episode entitled “‘One Drop of Water,’” Samer al Ahmed and Jamal Abdou recount a time when water ran out for three days. Due to dehydration, they became prone to hallucinations and hysteria. Eventually, when water again became available, they heard it dripping from the pipes, but they thought it was a fiction of their imagination. Al Ahmed then proceeds to mimic the dripping of the water with this mouth by clicking his tongue. “At first we thought we were still hallucinating, that the sound wasn’t real. I swear, I cannot describe that sound. The moment we heard it, everyone started crying from the bottom of their souls, like a child who was robbed from the thing he loves most.”12

In both of the episodes described above, speech points to its limits, to its inability to convey the complete picture (even our language and metaphors fail us—it’s not just about the visual), hence necessitating that which is beyond language to express the reality that the prisoners went through. In the first example, we are directed to oral performance as a means of affective communication—in fact, a performance in the J.L. Austinian sense, for this performance generates the archive, i.e., the architectural model that is shown to world. Moreover, as the interviewers push Hamado to reenact the whispering, and make this reenactment public, they invite the public to witness Hamado’s coming to terms with his trauma. In using words to point to the limits of words, the former detainees and their interlocuters direct us—the world—to the realm of trauma, pain, and affect, imploring us to negotiate the mawj—in its web of meanings—that the detainees themselves experienced.

In the second episode, al Ahmed describes his feeling to that of a “child robbed from the thing he loves most.” By making this parallelism, al Ahmed collapses the mind/body boundary by establishing a symbiotic relationship between, on the one hand, the appearance of water after its absence and a child being robbed of what it loves most—both external stimuli—to, on the other hand, his mental state of hallucination and hysteria as a result of his dehydration.

That said, this transformation of an interview between former detainees, AI, and FA to public testimony via its publication in documentary form pushes the limits the role of testimony. In documentary form and on the internet, the world becomes the courtroom, the bearer of the testimonies—and by extension, affects—and as a result, the world also becomes the judge. Abu Hamdan’s work and the documentary allow for a sort of affective transference from former detainees to the world; the interactive documentary, in turn, become public, affective sites to be accessed, and judged, by the world.

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I conclude this essay with some general thoughts about publics in the digital age. In “Postscript on the Societies of Control,” Gilles Deleuze articulates a shift from the Foucauldian “environments of enclosure” to “societies of control.” “Enclosures are molds, distinct castings, but controls are a modulation, like a self-deforming cast that will continuously change from one moment to the other, or like a sieve whose mesh will transmute from point to point.”13 This is Deleuze’s expression of a certain anxiety vis-à-vis the digital age: more than ever are governments and multinationals able to monitor “dividuals” (rather than individuals) and conform their exploitation of these dividuals based on their actions. While this may be too obvious for us in 2020, this was an almost prophetic essay for 1992.

Harking back to Saydnaya as a humanitarian crisis, many of these prisoners found their way there because of their political dissent, which is much more trackable in the digital age. In a way, Saydnaya is a case-in-point for Deleuze’s anxiety about modern policing. However, what about Saydnaya, as an aesthetic and political project? Could we not say that the interactive documentary makes use of this society of control’s tools, deconstructing the medium through which modern policing takes place? That is, could we not say that the internet, which is ostensibly a site for modern surveillance and policing, has been mobilized against these forces of oppression, through the staging of affect and the dissolution of binaries? This is the equivocality of the internet, and of digital public spheres. In their ability to encompass all media—videos, sounds, gestures, animations, recordings—they become ever more powerful tools of monitoring, tracking, and policing. However, due to this wide net that the internet casts, it can also serve as an affective archive that mediates trauma, reenactments, and performances. In other words, the internet, like the detainees, oscillates—tamūju—between policing and reparative public archive.


  1. Dominic Pettman, Sonic Intimacy: Voice, Species, Technics (Or, How to Listen to the World) (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2017), 4.
  2. This argument borrows from Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003). In her introduction, she aligns herself with the project of deconstruction in that she “wants to address aspects of experience and reality that do not present themselves in propositional or even in verbal form alongside others that do, rather than submit to the apparent common sense that requires a strict separation between the two and usually implies an ontological privileging of the former.”

    However, she argues against “revers[ing] those priorities by subsuming nonverbal aspects of reality firmly under the aegis of the linguistic. I assume that the line between words and things or between linguistic and nonlinguistic phenomena is endlessly changing, permeable, and entirely unsusceptible to any definitive articulation.”

    In that way, the project of this essay is similar to Sedgwick’s. While one cannot deny the primacy of language—and writing more specifically—as that that is tangible and valuable/valued, it is equally important to attend to language’s cues in its pointing to the nonlinguistic—to postures, (re)enactments, and performances.

  3. See https://saydnaya.amnesty.org/en/saydnaya.html.
  4. Oliver Wainwright, “’The Worst Place on Earth’: Inside Assad’s Brutal Saydnaya Prison,” The Guardian, August 17, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/aug/18/saydnaya-prison-syria-assad-amnesty-reconstruction.
  5. It is worth noting that a lot of the content found in the documentary, particularly the interviews, also make their way to a two-part installation that Abu Hamdan develops in relation to his work on the AI and FA project; and although many of the arguments in this essay are applicable to Abu Hamdan’s independent art practice, a discussion of Abu Hamdan’s work is beyond the scope of this essay.
  6. Pettman, 2.
  7. Lawrence Abu Hamdan, “Saydnaya (the missing 19db),” (SoundCloud, 2016), 7:00–7:15. https://soundcloud.com/mor-charpentier/saydnaya-the-missing-19db-2016.
  8. “Welcome Party” in Amnesty International and Forensic Architecture, “Saydnaya: Inside a Syrian Torture Prison,” Amnesty International, 2016, accessed May 15, 2020, https://saydnaya.amnesty.org/.
  9. “m–w–j” in Ibn Manẓūr, Lisān al-ʿArab [Tongue of the Arabs].  Available at https://www.almaany.com/. My translation.
  10. Here, I am thinking of Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, trans. James Strachey (New York: Liveright, 1961), esp. 1–22. In this work, Freud, in short, argues that reenacting trauma is a means of coming to terms with it.
  11. “‘Fear Starts in the Afternoon’” in Amnesty International and Forensic Architecture.
  12. “‘One Drop of Water’” in Amnesty International and Forensic Architecture.
  13. Gilles Deleuze, “Postscript on the Societies of Control,” October 59 (1992): 4.