In rubble of Aleppo souk, tablecloth shop makes solitary comeback

Delicately embroidered shawls and bright tarps are on display in Shawash's partly restored storefront, the only colours visible in a sea of smashed concrete and debris-laden roads. (AFP)
Updated 25 December 2017
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In rubble of Aleppo souk, tablecloth shop makes solitary comeback

ALEPPO: It used to be one of the most vibrant marketplaces in the Syrian city of Aleppo, but today, the bombed-out streets of Khan Al-Harir are home to a solitary shop selling tablecloths.
Mohammad Shawash’s partly restored storefront stands amid a sea of smashed concrete and debris-laden roads.
The 62-year-old with a snow-white beard and glasses decided to return to the historic souk five months ago to reopen the shop he had managed for years.
“I cried when I first came back. I found total destruction all around me. The stores were destroyed, the streets covered in rubble and rocks, and the buildings collapsed,” he told AFP.
“So I repaired it myself, to prove to the whole world that Aleppo’s Old City still has a soul.”
Khan Al-Harir, or the Silk Market, lies in the celebrated Old City of central Aleppo, a UNESCO world heritage site.
Its historic covered market was the largest in the world, with some 4,000 shops and 40 caravanserais in a labyrinth of alleyways selling everything from home ware to artisanal products.
For four years, the Old City was on the front line of battles between government troops in the city’s west and rebels in the east.
But a blistering, Russian-backed offensive saw Syria’s army retake swathes of the country, and in December 2016 the government declared it was once more in control of the whole of Aleppo.

Shopkeepers return

Much of the Old City remains scarred by fighting, but part of the Souk Al-Jumruk marketplace reopened last month. Other shopkeepers have slowly begun returning to assess the damage.
Shawash, a native of Khan Al-Harir, was one of them.
“I was raised here and I used to open my shop from 7:00am until late at night. I knew everyone around me,” he said.
“The streets were full of passers-by, stalls, restaurants and people selling clothes, carpets and furniture. But now there is no one.”
When he returned earlier this year to check on his shop, he found a wall had collapsed, the goods were either gone or burned, and the streets were eerily empty.
“It’s not just about losing money or stock. I lost my neighbors, I lost my people, I lost myself.”
For a week, Shawash piled bricks, cement, and stone in a small wheelbarrow and navigated it through the ravaged streets to repair his shop by hand.
“I would arrive completely exhausted, because the streets are narrow and there was rubble everywhere, which meant cars couldn’t get through,” he said.
He has since resumed his daily ritual, laying out multicolored plastic tablecloths and mats for display, many of them still wrapped in protective plastic.
Shawash then sits down on a plastic chair and waits for customers, his prayer beads in hand. For hours no one stops, so he packs up his goods, locks the metal door, and heads home.
With a dearth of customers, he said he was barely making enough “to buy a falafel sandwich.”
“Before the war, I used to sell between 50,000 and 70,000 pounds ($1,000 and $1,500, depending on the exchange rate) worth of goods,” he said.
Shawash insisted Aleppo’s young people must return to rebuild their city.
“Aleppo is the symbol of civilization,” he said. “I’m proud to be the first one to reopen my shop in this souk, but I hope that life returns to the market.”


‘Atlas of Beauty’: A Romanian photographer captures images of female beauty that defy every stereotype

Updated 16 July 2018
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‘Atlas of Beauty’: A Romanian photographer captures images of female beauty that defy every stereotype

  • Since 2013, Mihaela Noroc has photographed over 2,000 women in more than 50 countries, listening to their stories and learning about their lives.
  • For Noroc, beauty is diversity. She believes each one of the “shining stars” in her book radiates dignity, strength and beauty. 

JEDDAH: We live in a world where female beauty standards vary but are all socially and culturally constructed. The Romanian photographer Mihaela Noroc traveled that world with her camera and backpack, photographing women in their everyday surroundings and listening to their stories. The result is the “Atlas of Beauty.”

Since 2013, Noroc has photographed over 2,000 women in more than 50 countries, listening to their stories and learning about their lives.

“I noticed that there is a lot of pressure on women to look and behave a certain way,” she told Arab News.

“In some environments, it’s the pressure to look attractive. In others, on the contrary, it’s the pressure to look modest. But every woman should be free to explore her own beauty without feeling any pressure from marketing campaigns, trends or social norms.”

For Noroc, beauty is diversity. She believes each one of the “shining stars” in her book radiates dignity, strength and beauty. 

During her five-year odyssey, there have been tremendous ups and downs. Yet, with each country, Noroc never failed to tell the story of the woman in her photographs. Some countries were deemed dangerous — but she traveled there anyway. 

“In Afghanistan, I traveled in a remote area called Wakhan Corridor. The fighting was very close, condemning this place to total isolation,” she said. “People were living like their ancestors lived hundreds of years ago, so photography was a miracle for them. They were incredibly happy to see themselves in photos and I was invited to every home to photograph each member of the family.” 

Visiting North Korea, Noroc was accompanied by local guides as she walked the streets to get a glimpse of women in their daily routines as if nothing was out of the norm. 

“There is a lot of pressure on women to look a certain way, so sometimes it’s a struggle to be yourself, to make yourself accepted as you are. But I hope this project will encourage more women and men to follow their own path, to explore their own beauty without feeling constrained.”

Traveling as a backpacker introduced Noroc to all kinds of environments. She has captured beauty in Brazilian favelas, in an Iranian mosque, on the Tibetan plateau, in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, the Amazon rainforest, upscale neighborhoods of Paris, downtown New York and more. 

She focuses on photographing the environment around the women, and prefers to photograph their natural faces, without a lot of makeup.

Noroc also makes sure that she chats with her subjects while the photographs are being taken — she is an excellent conversationalist. 

Woman shopping at a market in Nampan, Myanmar.

“Many of the women I photograph are in front of a professional camera for the first time. This isn’t bad at all because they are more authentic. For even more authenticity, I always use natural light. Through my camera, I try to dive into their eyes and explore what’s inside.”

Each image is raw, colorful, delicate, intimate, striking and empowering. A Jordanian Bedouin grandmother sits with her children and grandchildren in the background, the woman’s deep wrinkles revealing her desert life living off the land.

Another image shows the resilience in the striking green eyes of a Syrian refugee with her two daughters in a camp in Greece. In Jodhpur, India, a young woman heads to the market in a vibrant fuchsia outfit and silver jewelry. 

“There is much love, beauty and compassion in the world and I see it with my own eyes. Yet a few sources of hate and intolerance can ruin all this. Many times, the victims of intolerance are women, and while on the road, I hear many heartbreaking stories,” she said.

Gauri, an Indian from Kolkata, India, sells splendid flower garlands at a Hindu temple. Female “bomberas” (firewomen) in Mexico City. Sisters Olga and Anya, street performers from Odessa, Ukraine. Eleonora, a ballerina from St. Petersburg, at one of the most prestigious dance schools in the world. A Mayan descendant in Guatemala donning a colorful dress and posing in her village. These are just some of the stories in the “Atlas of Beauty,” yet the journey is continuing since there are no limits to beauty in this world. 

“For me, beauty is diversity and it can teach us to be more tolerant. We are all very different, but through this project, I want to show that we are all part of the same family. We should create paths between us, not boundaries,” said Noroc.