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

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.”

‘It might be our destiny to have Syria only in our imagination’

Syrian band Tanjaret Daghet (which means ‘pressure cooker’ in Arabic).
Updated 19 April 2018

‘It might be our destiny to have Syria only in our imagination’

  • Syrian artists-in-exile discuss their absence from their homeland and its impact on their work
  • For many exiled Syrian artists, their work is an expression of grief

DUBAI: “Being away from Syria is difficult,” young poet Maysan Nasser said. “Seven years later, it still feels like a phantom limb. It feels like the echo of white noise that is reverberating louder by the day.”

Nasser, a Beirut Poetry Slam champion, was talking separation: The idea that the loss of Syria is like an amputation. After seven years, she is still looking for answers to questions of home and belonging.

The first time I saw Nasser perform was last year during Zena El Khalil’s ‘Sacred Catastrophe: Healing Lebanon,’ a “40-day intervention” designed to permanently kick open the doors of Beit Beirut, a museum to the memory of the city in Sodeco. Her performance was raw and emotive.

The second time was in the basement of Riwaq Beirut, a coffee shop, cultural center and bar all rolled into one. She was addressing a small but appreciative young crowd and looked nervous. It was just a few weeks after she had launched the open-mic night ‘Sidewalk Beirut’ and the anxiety and jitters remained. In reality they shouldn’t. The crowd loves her.

“In this enforced distance from Syria, such communities have become my anchors,” she admitted. Yet her work, although deeply personal — sometimes painfully so — never directly discusses Syria or her home city of Damascus.

“I believe the distance of separation was the birth of my work,” she said. “It was in this distance that I was able to reconsider who I am, what my relationship to my family is like, what my relationship to my body is. I believe my poems to be attempts at understanding myself and my surroundings, but also my past.

“So when I speak about my mother and my relationship to her, I am also considering my mother’s past and the traditions she has internalized and passed on to me, which inevitably cast light on a time and place in Syria, and which inevitably expose my own connections and roots — or lack of, at times. This separation, in a sense, has coincided with a coming of age.”

At the same time as Nasser was hosting her early edition of Sidewalk Beirut, a mile or so away at The Colony in Karantina Zeid Hamdan, a pioneer of Lebanon’s underground music scene, was preparing to perform at Sofar Sounds. The venue —hidden up three flights of stairs in the Dagher Building — was little more than two empty rooms and an adjacent terrace. With him were the Syrian band Tanjaret Daghet (which means ‘pressure cooker’ in Arabic).

Hamdan has been performing with the trio since they left Damascus in 2011. Theirs is an energetic, sometimes harsh, alternative-rock sound, although that is changing. Their soon-to-be-released new album, “Human Reverie,” is as much about electronica as it is guitars and vocals.

“This pressure we’re living is kind of unique,” said Tarek Khuluki, the band’s guitarist and sometime vocalist. “You see people who are nagging about it or who are trying to use this pressure as a tool to escape the reality we’re living in, which can lead to unbalanced results. At the same time, you see people who are making the best they can with the little amount of nothing that they have. All they want is to see their ideas manifest themselves in art or in any other shape. 

“Psychologically, we’ve learned not to think too much and not to play the role of victims, but to focus on our own language, which is music.”

It’s hard to discern whether the war in Syria has had a direct impact on Tanjaret Daghet’s work, or whether the wider woes of the Arab world are partially responsible for their sound and lyrics. They sing of political oppression and societal pressure, the absence of feeling and the loss of voice.

“We do not live the state of war in the real sense of the word,” says Khaled Omran, the band’s lead singer and bassist. “What we’re living is a kind of internal war, which has arisen from our instincts as humans. It’s our right to express ourselves through art and music because it’s more humanistic, and this has allowed us to meet several artists and to exchange expertise. Who knows, maybe if we had stayed in Syria, none of that would have happened.” 

Outside of Beirut, up in the mountains of Aley, a series of old Ottoman stables have been converted into a residence for Syrian artists. Since it was first opened by Raghad Mardini in May 2012, Art Residence Aley has hosted numerous artists, including Iman Hasbani and Anas Homsi. Both now live in Berlin. Beirut, for some, is only transitory. 

“It has given me a wider vision of the world,” says the artist and film director Hazem Alhamwi of his own exile in Berlin. “Maybe it’s more painful, but it’s more real. It is training for how to change pain into creative energy. Since 2014 I have been painting a collection I call ‘Homeland in the Imagination’. It might be our destiny to have Syria only in our imagination.”

Alhamwi is best known for “From My Syrian Room,” a documentary in which, through art and conversation, he attempts to understand how Syrians have learned to live with the distress and anxiety caused by war. It was while editing the film in France in 2013 that he realized he could not return to Syria, he said.

“I feel tired,” he told Arab News. “I feel as if I have one leg here — where I have to integrate, and want to — and the other leg in Syria, where I cannot stop being interested in what is happening. My family, my friends and my memories are still there. On the other hand, I feel like I am discovering another kind of violence, moving from living under a military dictatorship to the dictatorship of money. It’s a smooth violence written on smooth paper and put into a clean envelope. I feel myself in the stomach of the capitalist machine.”

For many exiled Syrian artists, their work is an expression of grief; a way to portray an overwhelming sense of loss. For others, those expressions are more subtle.

“We watch so many lies on TV, that it looks like art could be the only honest witness to modern times,” said Alhamwi, whose next film, produced by Zeina Zahreddine and Florian Schewe, will examine issues of identity. “Even many people’s facial expressions are not real. But good art is not only a mirror of the artist, but also of the spirit of the time they live in; or it’s at least the result of this reaction (of) the artist (to) the era.

“Art always tries to get people to pay more attention and not to repeat the same mistakes, but to learn from them instead. In wars, where the feelings of people are ignored and all the focus is on weapons, killing, fire and iron, art protects people’s real memory, away from any agenda or propaganda. It is this complicated memory that reflects the events, the emotions and the point of view of the artist. That is why art is needed in war as a special documentation. To tell the stories of people who didn’t get involved, because of position or fate,” he continued. “Art is a way for artists to survive in a world controlled by violence.”