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.”


Up-and-coming online content creator Nadir Nahdi is giving a voice to third-culture millennials

Online content creator Nadir Nahdi. (Supplied)
Updated 11 December 2018
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Up-and-coming online content creator Nadir Nahdi is giving a voice to third-culture millennials

  • Young, handsome and filled with the vitality of life, Nahdi is a content creator on a mission
  • Nahdi is a self-taught one-man-show

DUBAI: “The young diaspora are searching for what makes them whole and want to un-derstand who they are,” says Nadir Nahdi on the phone from Jakarta. He has just finished filming “Finding Nenek,” a documentary about the Indonesian grandmother he never met.

Young, handsome and filled with the vitality of life, Nahdi is a content creator on a mission: to reclaim misrepresented narratives, to reset the conversations around marginalized communities, and to travel the world seeking meaningful aesthetics. He is part of a third-culture generation that, faced with a hostile polit-ical environment in the West, is seeking answers elsewhere.

“For me, growing up in a British context in which I was always made to feel like this wasn’t my home — through passive aggressive questions like ‘Where are you from?’ or from the mainstream media always alienating people from my community — I always thought that there was a place outside of Britain that would feel more like home. Indonesia, because of my heritage, was one of them.

“But traveling through it and learning and discovering things here, I learned that I’m not Indonesian either, even though it’s a huge part of who I am. I’m stuck in this difficult place of not being Western enough for the West, not Eastern enough for the East, but I’m something entirely new. I’m part and parcel of a generation of young people who don’t see boundaries and borders in the same traditional way. We don’t belong anywhere, but we belong everywhere. A lot of people find those themes and emotions quite relatable.”

Nahdi first burst onto the social media scene in 2014 with his “Happy British Muslims” parody of Pharrell Williams’ “Happy,” which “accidentally went viral,” hit 2.4 million views, and caught the attention of YouTube’s Creators for Change program, a global initiative that shines a spotlight on inspirational crea-tors and for which Nahdi is now an ambassador.

“Overnight it went crazy and I got press interviews, universities wanted to do ac-ademic reports, and it was just madness,” recalls Nahdi. “It was total pandemo-nium and I was like, ‘Oh my God! You can create videos online and connect with people through shared sentiment.’ And that was really insane to me. So I left my job and I decided to go to Berlin and practice and learn from other crea-tive outlets. Then after two years I started my own thing.”

That thing is BENI, a storytelling platform that aims to turn social influence into ‘substance, inspiration and adventure.’ It is, says Nahdi, “a creative platform for anyone trying to imagine a world beyond the labels enforced upon them.”

Launched just over two years ago, it kicked off with “The A-Z of BENI,” a five-minute rallying call to YouTubers, students, musicians, artists and athletes across the world who refuse to be defined by others. Millennials, essentially, who share Nahdi’s vision of an open, collaborative, accepting world.

His is a multicultural, multi-religious universe devoid of superficiality and bigotry. One where this British Muslim’s Yemeni, Kenyan, Pakistani and Indonesian roots can flourish, and where personal and introspective storytelling is em-braced.

“People are connecting through sincerity and personality,” says Nahdi. “The whole YouTube scene is authentic voices from real people. They’re not curated BBC media faces that have been trained to speak a certain way. YouTube rep-resents an opportunity for people to be very real and very vulnerable about their insecurities, about things that they might be going through. And as a result they craft really strong relationships with their audiences.

“For me, this kind of stuff is so important — the ability to own my own narrative and build stories within that kind of prism. I want people to see someone like me, or a girl wearing hijab, as noble. If you flood this space with incredible stories that are relatable and very human, and you don’t play on what makes people different, instead you play on the human emotions that connect us, then those become so normal to see. And that’s the endgame for me. Seeing someone who’s different from us and not thinking anything of it. It’s just part and parcel of this eclectic world that we live in.”

Unusually in a social media world obsessed with brevity, Nahdi has embraced longer-form storytelling. His films, or vlogumentaries, sometimes run past the 20-minute mark and confront issues such as race, identity, mental health and toxic masculinity. Now he is rolling out “In My Personal Space,” a series of candid conversations with celebrities about uncomfortable issues.

“The reason I started a YouTube channel was because YouTube allowed me to present myself in a way that felt organic to me,” he says. “There was Channel 4 or BBC telling me ‘Ok, we don’t like this idea, maybe you should think about do-ing it this way.’ (But on YouTube) I could literally come up with an idea today, post it tonight, and by tomorrow it could have a million views. And that really em-powered me to make the stories that I felt should be told about my people.”

Remarkably Nahdi is a self-taught one-man-show. He shoots, edits, interviews, and possesses a seemingly boundless drive to create content. In terms of reach, however, he’s yet to hit the big time. His social media following is modest com-pared with others, with 29,326 on YouTube and 39,670 on Instagram. Still, it’s enough, when combined with BENI’s online store, to make a living through branded content.

“It’s a life I’ve always wanted to live, but it’s a very stressful and intense and chaotic lifestyle as well,” he admits. “So it’s not for everyone. You have to work super-hard, but you also reap amazing rewards and you get to go to incredible places and meet incredible people.”

Places such as Berlin and Kuala Lumpur, Lebanon and Dubai; people such as Emine Palabiyik, the queen of Berlin’s underground hip-hop dance scene, Mashrou’ Leila’s lead singer Hamed Sinno, and Amani Al-Khatahtbeh, the American founder of MuslimGirl.com.

“I’m connected to people who are very different from me because there’s a common currency, there’s a common understanding,” says Nahdi. “And as a re-sult of this squeezed place that I occupy, I like to think people like me don’t see the world in the kind of arbitrary, binary ways that many people do. I’ve really learned that it’s a privilege, it’s a blessing to feel like you belong to the whole world.”