The arts return to northern Syria’s former militant bastion

Members of a traditional music and dance group perform at the first cultural centre to open after Daesh rule ended in the Syrian city of Raqqa on May 1. (AFP)
Updated 12 May 2019

The arts return to northern Syria’s former militant bastion

  • Cultural and entertainment activities banned under Daesh flourish after group flees
  • Before Daesh arrived, the city had more than 20 cultural centers, the largest housing 60,000 books

RAQQA: More than a year after Daesh fled, Syrian boys and girls are finally back on stage — bobbing to the rhythm of drums in the northern city of Raqqa.

At the first cultural center to open since the militants’ draconian rule ended, sunlight floods into the brand new library, while books line shelves along a wall that still smells of wet paint.

After almost four years under Daesh, which banned music and the arts, US-backed forces expelled the last militants from Raqqa in October 2017. But it has taken a bit of time to resuscitate cultural life.

“I can’t describe how happy I am,” said Fawzia Al-Sheikh at the center’s opening earlier this month, in the still largely devastated city.

“After all this destruction, and no arts or culture, we finally have a center where we can listen to song and poetry again,” the Raqqa resident added.

In the Raqqa Center for Arts and Culture’s brightly lit gallery, paintings hang beside charcoal drawings, near sculptures of human figures.

In the concert hall, Malak Al-Yatim stepped off stage after performing — exhilarated to finally be able to sing in public again.

“I feel like a bird sweeping through the spring sky,” he said.

Yatim added that Daesh smashed his instruments and banned him from singing.

“We were like nightingales in a cage,” he lamented.

“If we did anything, they’d chop off our head or whip us.”

Daesh overran Raqqa in 2014, making the city its de facto Syrian capital.

Before Daesh arrived, the city had more than 20 cultural centers, the largest housing 60,000 books. But the extremists forced all these facilities to close, burning and destroying books and paintings.

But in the new center’s library, hundreds of volumes that survived the extremists adorn shelves.

“These books you can see — we saved them from the ruins,” said Ziad Al-Hamad, the center’s director. During Daesh rule, “residents hid them wherever they could,” added the 62-year-old, dressed neatly in a brown V-neck jumper over a stripy white shirt.

“When the city was liberated, they gave them back to us,” added Hamad, who also sits on the city council’s culture and antiquities commission.

The Kurdish-led and US backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) expelled Daesh from the village of Baghouz, its last scrap of Syrian territory, in late March.

While the militants have continued to claim deadly attacks in areas controlled by the SDF — including Raqqa — local artists have returned to their easels.

In the cultural center’s gallery, painter Amal Al-Attar has work on display after returning from exile in Beirut.

Among her works is a painting of a white boat adrift on an ocean, and another of a home on the shoreline.

“It’s like a re-birth,” the 37-year-old said of the center’s opening, sunglasses perched atop her dark shoulder-length hair.

Attar used to run a studio for artists, but when Daesh overran the city they told her art was forbidden.

She left 50 works behind when she fled to neighboring Lebanon.

Daesh “burned them,” she said.

“I can’t forget what happened back then, but this cultural center will give us a new drive,” she said.

What We Are Reading Today: The River Ki by Sawako Ariyoshi

Updated 18 min 31 sec ago

What We Are Reading Today: The River Ki by Sawako Ariyoshi

The River Ki, short and swift and broad like most Japanese rivers, flows into the sea not far south of Osaka. On its journey seaward, it passes through countryside that has long been at the heart of the Japanese tradition. 

The River Ki dominates the lives of the people who live in its fertile valley and imparts a vital strength to the three women, mother, daughter and granddaughter, around whom this novel is built.

It provides them with the courage to cope, in their different ways, with the unprecedented changes that occurred in Japan between the last years of the last century and the middle of this century.

Sawako Ariyoshi, one of Japan’s most successful modern novelists, describes this social and cultural revolution largely through the eyes of Hana, a woman with the vision and integrity to understand the inevitability of the death of the traditional order in Japan, says a review published on

Ariyoshi writes with a love for detail bound to a broader understanding of the importance of the geographical and biological forces that mold her characters — and the result is a story that flows with all the vitality of The River Ki itself.