In Syria’s Yarmuk, artists paint amid the ruins

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Artist Hinaya Kibabi paints in the Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp on the southern outskirts of the capital Damascus on August 15, 2018. (AFP)
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Artist Abdallah al-Harith, 21, paints in the Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp on the southern outskirts of the capital Damascus on August 15, 2018. (AFP)
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Artists paint in the Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp on the southern outskirts of the capital Damascus on August 15, 2018. (AFP)
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Artist Abdallah al-Harith, 21, paints in the Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp on the southern outskirts of the capital Damascus on August 15, 2018. (AFP)
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An artist paints in the Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp on the southern outskirts of the capital Damascus on August 15, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 24 August 2018

In Syria’s Yarmuk, artists paint amid the ruins

  • Around 140,000 residents fled clashes between the regime and rebels in 2012, leaving the rest to face severe food shortages under government encirclement
  • Set up in 1957 to house Palestinian refugees, over the decades it became a crowded district that was eventually swallowed up by Damascus

YARMUK, Syria: Not far from his destroyed home in Syria’s Yarmuk camp for Palestinian refugees, 21-year-old Abdallah Al-Harith dabs bright red paint onto a canvas standing amid the grey ruins.
Last week, he was among 12 young artists to set up their easels in the once-crowded camp turned Damascus suburb, now largely abandoned after seven years of civil war.
Equipped with paint brushes and pencils, they set out to translate suffering into art in a neighborhood ravaged by years of bombardment and siege.
“We’re bringing back life to a dark place,” said Harith, who fled Yarmuk several years ago, but returned after the regime ousted Daesh group jihadists in May.
“I had such a lump in my throat when I first came back to the camp. At first I couldn’t draw anything,” said the fine arts student.
“But then I realized that any glimpse of life amid all this death was a victory,” he said, gesturing toward the battered buildings around him.
He and his peers stood sweeping paint across their canvases while the gentle melody of an oud — a Middle Eastern lute — was broadcast across the smashed concrete. Harith painted an image of a small boy emerging from the ground, holding a bright red apple.
“It’s supposed to represent new life,” Harith said.
“I actually saw something like this once: children with apples playing again on what had been fighting ground.”
Before the war, Yarmuk was home to around 160,000 people, the United Nations says.
Set up in 1957 to house Palestinian refugees, over the decades it became a crowded district that was eventually swallowed up by Damascus.
But today it lies almost abandoned. Around 140,000 residents fled clashes between the regime and rebels in 2012, leaving the rest to face severe food shortages under government encirclement. In 2014, a harrowing photograph of gaunt-looking residents massing between ravaged buildings to receive handouts caused global outrage.
Earlier this year, fighting between loyalists and jihadists displaced most of the remaining residents, according to the United Nations’ agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA.
President Bashar Assad’s troops retook control in May, ousting IS fighters from their last urban stronghold on the outskirts of the capital.
In late May, UNRWA said an immediate return of residents was unlikely due to extensive damage to key infrastructure such as the water and power networks.
Visiting the camp last month, UNRWA commissioner-general Pierre Krahenbuhl said he had rarely seen such damage.
“The scale of the destruction in Yarmuk compares to very little else that I have seen in many years of humanitarian work in conflict zones,” he said.
On Saturday, the work of the young artists was displayed at the entrance of the Yarmuk camp, with a small crowd making the trip to see it.
Painter Hinaya Kebabi depicted a young boy with a missing eye, holding up a drawing of another eye to conceal his wound, the 22-year-old explained.
“One day, I hope people will come back here to color, not rubble,” she said.
One painting depicted streams of red running down a dark building.
In another, an emaciated man was curled up naked in the foetal position.
After the images were shared online, several Internet users slammed the project as provocative.
“The camp is neither romantic nor a place for drawing,” 28-year-old Abeer Abassiyeh said, as most former residents remain unable to return to their homes.
But Mohammed Jalbout, one of the organizers who hails from the Palestinian camp, defended the project.
“We all have homes here. I haven’t been back to mine or been able to inspect it,” he said.
But, he said, “at least through art, we’re trying to breathe a little life back into this place.”


‘My quest’: Priyanka Chopra brings Bollywood to Toronto

Updated 14 September 2019

‘My quest’: Priyanka Chopra brings Bollywood to Toronto

  • Priyanka Chopra was the first Indian actress to lead a primetime US series
  • ‘The Sky is Pink is Chopra’s first Hindi-language film in three year

TORONTO: No Indian star has made a bigger splash in Hollywood than Priyanka Chopra — and the “Baywatch” actress said she is on a quest to shatter myths about Bollywood, including its approach to sex.
Chopra was the first Indian actress to lead a primetime US series with FBI thriller “Quantico,” and cemented her global celebrity status by marrying pop singer Nick Jonas last December.
That star power secured a glitzy, red-carpet slot at Toronto’s film festival for “The Sky is Pink,” Chopra’s first Hindi-language film in three years. It is the only Asian film on the prestigious gala lineup at North America’s biggest movie festival.
“People get surprised when they see ‘The Sky is Pink’ and they’re like, ‘this is not a Bollywood movie.’ Bollywood is not a genre!” Chopra said ahead of the premiere Friday.
“It really is my quest to educate people in that.”
Directed by Shonali Bose, “The Sky is Pink” tells the tragic true story of Aisha Chaudhary, an inspirational Delhi teenager whose life was cut short by a rare genetic disorder.
Chaudhary delivered a TED talk and wrote a book on her battle before her death in 2015 at the age of 18. But the film focuses on her parents, exploring how their marriage and love — and even their sex life — survived the loss of two children.
Until recently kissing was rarely shown in films made by conservative Bollywood, better known abroad for its colorful musical numbers and fairytale romantic plots.
“I don’t think we haven’t spoken about sexuality in Indian films — we do,” said Chopra, 37. “I think sexuality is spoken about in many different ways in Indian cinema.”
“It’s culturally sensitive, yes,” she added. “India is an amalgamation of modernity and tradition. And this film is made by a modern Indian. So hence, you see what her language is. This is true to who she is.”
Bose, whose own marriage ended after she lost her son, was approached by Chaudhary’s parents to make the film.
Chaudhary had been a fervent fan of the director’s work, and never fulfilled her “dying wish” to see Bose’s previous film “Margarita With A Straw.”
Bose said she was moved by the request but chose to focus on the parents after learning of their “amazing” love story and care for their child.
“They wanted the film to be about their heroic dying teenage girl, and I don’t feel she would’ve wanted to be on a pedestal — actually she was really cool and humble,” she said.
Chopra, who does not have children, said she drew on others’ experiences, including Bose’s, to play Chaudhary’s mother Aditi.
But there is plenty of Chopra in the role too. At one point her character is described as “the ‘almost’ Miss India.” Chopra herself was crowned Miss World in 2000.
As beauty pageants led to acting, Chopra, who attended school in the US, said she held onto her global outlook.
Also a singer, Chopra has released songs with US chart-toppers including Pitbull and The Chainsmokers.
“It’s a genuine quest of mine to be able to cross-pollinate cultures, and to be able to take Indian cinema to the globe as much as I can,” she said, adding: “It’s not the language that’s the barrier — it is the fear of the unknown.”
Movie-mad India has the largest film industry in the world in terms of the number produced — up to 2,000 every year in more than 20 languages, according to industry data.
Bollywood star Akshay Kumar regularly appears in Forbes’ annual list of the world’s top 10 highest-paid actors.
In recent years Bollywood’s influence has spread in North America, thanks to a growing, affluent South Asian diaspora — and a smattering of Western converts.
But while other Bollywood actors and actresses have landed high-profile roles in the US, such as Deepika Padukone in 2017’s “XXX: Return of Xander Cage,” none are as recognizable as Chopra.
“I really hope that there’s so many more entertainers from India that get the opportunity and push themselves toward global entertainment,” said Chopra.
“The world of entertainment is so global now,” she added. “With streaming coming in everyone from anywhere can watch anything.”