Syrian seeds planted in dust of Domiz inspire stunning garden at Chelsea Flower Show

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Tom Massey (second right) is a landscape and garden designer. He designed the Lemon Tree Trust garden for the Chelsea Flower Show based on the refugees’ garden. (Dirk-Jan Visser)
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A view of the Lemon Tree Trust garden designed by Tom Massey and sponsored by the Lemon Tree Trust at RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2018. (Neil Hepworth)
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Avine in her garden at Domiz camp. The Domiz camp, situated near Duhok in Kurdish Iraq, is a refugee camp for Syrian Refugees. (Dirk-Jan Visser)
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A girl at Domiz camp holds a plant. (Tom Massey)
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A view of the Lemon Tree Trust Garden designed by Tom Massey and sponsored by the Lemon Tree Trust at RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2018. (Neil Hepworth)
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Children water their plants at Domiz camp. (Tom Massey)
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Refugees at Domiz camp. (Tom Massey)
Updated 24 May 2018

Syrian seeds planted in dust of Domiz inspire stunning garden at Chelsea Flower Show

  • About 26,000 refugees live in the Domiz refugee camp.
  • Judges awarded the Lemon Tree Trust garden a silver-gilt medal, the second highest award at the show.

LONDON: Main Avenue at the Chelsea Flower Show in London is ordinarily reserved for showpieces by Britain’s leading horticulturalists, but this year Syrian gardeners from Domiz refugee camp in Iraq are the inspiration behind one of the most prominent displays.
Crowds clustering around the Lemon Tree Trust Garden on Member Day at the celebrated event this week are told that the space is designed to raise awareness about the reality of life in the camps, where despite the squalor and suffering, people still take pride in their surroundings.
“It’s really powerful, the human spirit and the will to thrive even in really difficult situations,” said the garden’s designer Tom Massey.
Most of those living in Domiz, north of Mosul, are Syrians who have been arriving since 2012. Six years on, as temporary structures in Iraq’s largest refugee camp take on a more permanent form, hundreds of gardens have sprung up across the space. Some people have even sold their land in Syria and invested the money into their homes here.
“Gardening is a way to put down roots when people decide they are going to stay longer,” Massey explained.
He told Arab News that at first glance the sea of beige buildings crowded across a barren plain in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq resembled every other refugee camp in the region. But stepping out of the car at Domiz, near the Syrian and Turkish borders, he witnessed how plants were transforming the bleak surroundings.
“It’s incredibly hot and dusty, but as soon as you move into a garden space, you’re transported,” said Massey, who worked with gardeners in the camp to develop ideas for the showpiece.
The Lemon Tree Trust is a UK-based aid organization that has been working at refugee camps across northern Iraq for the last three years.
Massey, a former animator who retrained as a garden designer, was struck by the “resilience, determination, ingenuity and dedication” conveyed in each tiny green space he saw.
Pomegranate, rose and citrus trees flourish throughout the 710-square mile Domiz camp and in other camps nearby, bringing bursts of color to the backdrop of canvas and concrete. Even a six-foot space between a door and a garden gate made from an old UN tent will have been used to plant flowers and grow vegetables in ingenious ways.
“You read stories about the resilience and strength of the human spirit in the camps, but I didn’t expect the creativity that can flourish when people have so little,” said Alfonso Montiel, who also works with the Lemon Tree Trust.
In Aveen Ismael’s garden at Domiz, the back wall is adorned with old wellington boots painted and planted with flowers, while a closer inspection of her herbaceous border reveals old footballs refashioned as plant pots.
“Syria is green, but here it was like a desert until we started growing plants and trees,” she said. “Creating a garden was a way for us to heal and remind us of home.”
The 35-year-old, who was forced to flee Damascus in 2012, has become a local team leader for the Lemon Tree Trust, organizing gardening competitions and encouraging more residents to take part. Interest has grown from around 50 participants in 2016 to the almost 1,000 entrants across the five refugee camps who were involved this year.
In the gardens across Domiz there is a sense of community that is akin to the sociable atmosphere on a London allotment, said Massey, who plans to develop more spaces for the neighborly feeling to flourish by creating public outdoor gardens in the camp where people can come together and “share their passions.”
Montiel believes the draw of the gardens is down to the “need we all have to see beauty and be around nature.” At Domiz camp, he said “extreme beauty and extreme suffering exist side by side” in the generosity and hope that people demonstrate despite the destitution of their situation.
For many, tending their gardens is a way of passing the time and pushing back against the stillness of camp life. Everyone relates differently, whether it is a means of earning a living, easing the boredom or an attempt to capture a semblance of home.
One woman Montiel met there showed him pictures of the rose she tended in Syria, a cutting from which is now growing outside her house in Domiz. Other gardeners in the camp brought seeds with them from Syria when they fled, or asked friends and relatives to send a “piece of home.”
At the Chelsea Flower Show, horticulture enthusiasts described to Arab News the affinity they felt with the Syrian gardeners of Domiz.
“This kind of garden here tells a story about what this means to refugees and to people in London, and the experiences they have to go through to grow their own,” said giant vegetable specialist Kevin Fortey.
The refined lines and ornamental elegance of the London showpiece puts a polish on the make-shift gardens that inspired it, but the materials and arrangements displayed here reflect the creativity that thrives in the green spaces of Domiz.
Massey made use of concrete, timber and steel, materials frequently featured in the camps, which are “quite daring at the Chelsea Flower Show,” he said.
At the center of the display, a 50-year-old lemon tree showcases the origins of the project, while a wall-hung herb and vegetable garden represents the tin cans and halved plastic bottles used to grow food in the camp.
Surprisingly, the majority of plants in Domiz are grown for purely ornamental purposes rather than to supplement limited food supplies. “It’s interesting that in a situation of absolute desperation, having lost everything, people pay attention to feeding the soul, in some cases more than the stomach,” said Montiel.
It’s a detail he shared with Queen Elizabeth when she attended the Chelsea Flower Show on Monday, the first in a stream of dignitaries to tour the garden before it opened on Tuesday, including British Prime Minister Theresa May.
Unlike most guests, they were granted access to the sanctuary behind the barrier, where the clamour of the crowds gives way to the sound of water lapping over the sides of a star-shaped fountain as latticed wood screens shield the show from view.
There they were able to experience some of the solace and tranquility nature can offer people, even in times of war.

Postcards release sophomore album ‘The Good Soldier’

Postcards is Lebanon’s dream-pop, indie-folk and slowcore pioneers. (Supplied)
Updated 23 January 2020

Postcards release sophomore album ‘The Good Soldier’

  • Frontwoman Julia Sabra discusses the Lebanese indie band’s new record and their growing popularit

BEIRUT: “I feel this album is more angry than sad,” says Julia Sabra, singer and guitarist in Postcards — Lebanon’s dream-pop, indie-folk and slowcore pioneers. She’s nursing a fruit juice on a rainy Beirut morning in December at a local coffeeshop, as she discusses her band’s sophomore studio album, “The Good Solider.” The air is thick with introspection and atmosphere.

Incidentally, atmosphere is exactly what Sabra and her two bandmates — guitarist Marwan Tohme and drummer Pascal Semerdjian — do best. Since their founding in 2013, Postcards have established themselves as one of their country’s most exciting indie exports. Their unique, shoegaze-colored sound, a small army of fervently committed fans, and the fact that they sing in English in a region where the most commercially viable acts are of the Arabic pop variety, all make their ascent to prominence even more intriguing.

Sabra is soft-spoken and eloquent, much like the vocal lines she delivers with vulnerability, discreet composure and tempestuous emotion. 2018’s folksy “I’ll Be Here in the Morning” was recorded when there were still four band members. They amicably parted ways with bassist Rany Bechara shortly after the release of the debut album, which the singer says tightened the dynamic between the three remaining members. “Weirdly, the less people you have, the more powerful the sound is; so, now it’s less about intricacy, and more about the atmosphere you create,” she explains.

One of the most immediately noticeable aspects of the Postcards sound is that you could easily assume they’re from somewhere in the American Midwest. (Supplied)

“The first album was a trial of something new for all of us, and we felt very comfortable with it,” Sabra says of the first LP, on the back of which they scored a record deal and performances at both local and international festivals, as well as tours in Jordan, Dubai, the UK, France, Portugal, Italy and Germany, and opening spots for indie luminaries Beirut, and Angus and Julia Stone.

“The second album took everything a step further and we were able to explore more,” she continues. “We didn’t consciously set out to make it different from the first one... we just follow the music, really. ‘The Good Soldier’ is a natural continuation of our sound.”

One of the most immediately noticeable aspects of the Postcards sound is that you could easily assume they’re from somewhere in the American Midwest. “I feel like we express ourselves in a different language,” Sabra explains. “Our music is not specifically linked to our region. We live here, we speak Arabic to each other and our friends and families; yes, everything we sing about and feel comes from our environment, but it’s pretty complicated... those dynamics when it comes to language. It’s something I think about every day.

Since their founding in 2013, Postcards have established themselves as one of their country’s most exciting indie exports. (Supplied)

“We live in a tiny country, play a niche type of music, sing in English,” Sabra continues. “But it’s not like we’re in denial about where we’re from, or like we look down on Oriental/Arabic music or something silly like that,” she states, with a slight bit of apprehension at the notion. “I feel like the West, with all its multitudes, is allowed to be so many things — why can’t it be the same with us?” In other words, artists from the Middle East are not born of a cultural monolith.

“Abroad, there’s a system: you check out a band, listen to their music and you just go and see them,” she says of her band’s international touring experience. “It’s cool to travel there and see people show up; we ask some of them ‘How did you know about the show?’ ‘Oh, well,’ they say, ‘I’ve just listened to your music!’ It’s real simple.”

Back home, it’s all been a little different. “In Lebanon, it used to be a social thing. You don’t always go to a gig to listen to music, but to hang out... the whole indie bands thing was trendy. However, in the past couple of years, a small but extremely devoted audience has emerged,” she says with bright-eyed reverence for the faithful. “Now there’s a real fanbase of people who listen to the albums and who follow you — even if it’s 200 people at a gig, they really want to be there and hear the music.”

Postcards played a jam-packed release show on January 3 at Beirut’s iconic Metro Al Madina theater. (Supplied)

Like all the other releases in the Postcards catalog, “The Good Solider” was produced by one of Lebanon’s most prolific musical mainstays, Fadi Tabbal, for whom Sabra has a lot of respect. “Fadi is the key,” she says of the Tunefork Studios producer. “He makes people aware of what’s special about their artistic identity, the sonic universes and soundscapes... he’s a perfect mentor, because he pushes you to do your best.”

Tabbal has supported Postcards from the beginning, and now both manages the band and handles their live sound. “It helps that he’s also an artist... an encyclopedia of music, a living version of the Oblique Strategies”, Sabra says, comparing Tabbal to the Brian Eno/Peter Schmidt-created cult card set featuring unconventional, ‘think-outside-the-box’ creative cues.

Sabra does not understate the progression that the band’s second album represents: “It’s a step up for us, working together closely, delving deeper into everything, taking more risks. We’re more aware of what we’re doing. It’s our baby. A very important, emotional statement.” Her compelling vocals navigate the delay-drenched sonic expanses of Tohme’s guitars and bass lines, and the hypnotic whirlwind of Semerdjian’s beats and percussion, all enveloped by entrancing synths and ambient passages.

Like all the other releases in the Postcards catalog, “The Good Solider” was produced by one of Lebanon’s most prolific musical mainstays, Fadi Tabbal, for whom Sabra has a lot of respect. (Supplied)

Both the anger and the melancholy that Sabra used to define “The Good Solider” are on full display on opener “Dead End”, where dramatic, searing guitars emerge intermittently in the chorus out of the aural sea of solitude crafted by the atmospheric instrumentation and Sabra’s lyrics. The title track is the link between the two halves of the album: “That song is sort of the thesis of the album — it’s a synth-y folk song, and the big theme is the realization that things that we believe in and that we were taught to believe are crumbling down.

“The good solider is the person who’s willing to consider letting go of a life where you live according to what’s expected of you — marriage, kids, and all that,” she continues. “Maybe there’s a way to get past this intrinsic patriarchal thing that’s so deeply engrained in us. So, ‘The Good Solider’ is about making your own way, while realizing that it all needs a lot of work and commitment, the kind that not everyone is necessarily cut out for.”

In the context of the turmoil that often seems like a near-permanent fixture of life in Lebanon, Sabra says, “We don’t have any other way to process our lives and what happens to us and how we think and feel. Making music is a bit of a self-involved, but very therapeutic, exercise, and it’s also a representation of who we are at this certain point in time — as both people and artists.”

For now, though, Postcards are just gearing up for what comes next. They played a jam-packed release show on January 3 at Beirut’s iconic Metro Al Madina theater. “We have a bunch of tours coming up; March, June, August and fall... taking over the world, basically,” she smiles, only half-jokingly. “We’re just happy the album’s been set free into the world. From here on, it takes a different meaning – it’s no longer just ours.”