How Raqqa, once the Syrian capital of Daesh’s caliphate, reclaimed its Arab cultural pride

Special Mural on the wall of Raqqa’s Culture and Art Center, showcasing traditional dress of Raqqa’s various ethnic groups. (AN Photo/Ali Ali)
Mural on the wall of Raqqa’s Culture and Art Center, showcasing traditional dress of Raqqa’s various ethnic groups. (AN Photo/Ali Ali)
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Updated 20 February 2023

How Raqqa, once the Syrian capital of Daesh’s caliphate, reclaimed its Arab cultural pride

How Raqqa, once the Syrian capital of Daesh’s caliphate, reclaimed its Arab cultural pride
  • Resilient local population reviving ravaged heritage and preserving musical tradition
  • Equestrian scene slowly recovering in what once a major center for horse racing

RAQQA, Syria: It has been five years since the Syrian Democratic Forces hoisted their flag in the main square in Raqqa, which, for four years, had been the capital of Daesh. The streets and squares of Raqqa had witnessed horrendous atrocities — beatings, torture, beheadings, and other unspeakable acts.

Global media, which watched the operation to liberate the city with bated breath, almost immediately packed up and fled once Raqqa was freed from the terror group, leaving the people alone again in the rubble of their once great city.

But among the ruins, cultural flowers are in bloom. Groups of writers, artists, and intellectuals are making every effort to restore Raqqa’s culture, despite the black mark left by Daesh.

The area around Raqqa has been inhabited since the third millennium B.C. It gained a reputation when the Abbasid caliph Harun Al-Rashid, himself a lover of culture and tradition, chose the city as the site for his imperial residence in 796 A.D.

Though the city has been destroyed six times over its long history, many of its centuries-old historic sites remain as a testament to its importance.

When Daesh stormed into Raqqa in 2014 and declared the city its capital, the local artistic and cultural community were immediately gripped by fear.

“When the armed groups came, our group dissolved. We couldn’t sing or do anything. It got to the point where Daesh arrested me twice,” traditional singer Melek Muhammad Al-Saleh told Arab News.

“The militants said I was committing blasphemy. They said it was haram, that it was the work of Satan,” he said with a quizzical look.

The newly-restored statue of Caliph Harun Al-Rashid, one of the forefathers of Raqqa. (AN Photo/Ali Ali)

Then, speaking more seriously, Al-Saleh added: “They came to destroy and eliminate our culture. They destroyed our museum. They broke and destroyed all our antiquities.

“They were sent to eliminate the history of this city and country, because they have no history themselves; they have no opinions or goals. Their only goal was destruction.”

Al-Saleh had a distinguished career as a traditional singer spanning decades. After returning to his native Raqqa from Aleppo in the 1990s, he established a seven-member musical group called Njoom. The group travelled not only within Raqqa governorate, but all over Syria, performing at weddings and cultural festivals.

When Daesh came, the city’s proud culture and heritage came under attack. All cultural centers became departments for Daesh’s various bureaus. They seized musical instruments from people’s homes and destroyed them. They destroyed cassettes, CDs and televisions. Weddings, formerly jovial affairs in Raqqa complete with music and dancing, became silent and solemn.

Daesh interrogated Al-Saleh, saying that he had “forgotten God,” and threatened to behead him. The group was shocked, though, to find that Al-Saleh was a pious Muslim who knew a lot about the Islamic faith. “I was with them for 12 hours. I had religious discussions with them. My faith was strong, and theirs was not. They were wrong,” he said.

He continued: “They were shocked; they asked me how a singer could know so many things about religion, because they said singers were infidels. They asked me to become a judge for them.”

Al-Saleh refused to work for the group and was eventually released. He continued to sing, but in secret — his group’s musical concerts were held inside private homes at night, usually with a guard standing outside on the lookout for Daesh patrols.

As Raqqa rebuilt itself, the new Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria’s cultural departments began searching the city for its remaining artists. Al-Saleh was made a member of the Artists’ Union, and proudly showed his union ID card.

Equestrian and horse owner Amer Medad with one of his Arabian horses. (AN Photo/Ali Ali)

All the members of his old musical group have either passed away or left the country, so he has started a new group with 11 members. Additionally, he is teaching his son the rudiments of traditional Raqqa music, “so that the new generation will not forget our traditions.

“For the past four or five years, we have been making all efforts to bring our culture back to what it was, or make it even better. It will take a lot of time, though,” he said.

Daesh were just as angry with the free expression of the written word as they were with traditional music. Mohamed Bashir Al-Ani, a poet from Deir Ezzor, was executed along with his son for “blasphemy.” Many writers were forced to flee, including the Raqqawi writer Fawziya Al-Marai.

“I saw my city totally destroyed and felt that my head would explode. Everything was in ruins,” Al-Marai told Arab News, recalling her return to Raqqa after living in Turkey during the Daesh occupation.

“Not just the city was destroyed. Everything inside of me was destroyed,” she said. “I lost everything that was beautiful in these ruins.”

Al-Marai, 74, is a prolific writer, having penned over 10 books of poetry and short stories since she began writing in the late 1990s.

Most of her writings were inspired by the traditions of Raqqa, particularly the dress and folklore of Arab women, and by the Euphrates River. She attended literary festivals several times a year, meeting famous Syrian poets such as Nizar Qabbani and Raqqawi native Abdal Salam Al-Ujayli.

When Daesh attacked, “I fled. If I had stayed, they would have killed me. They were searching for me by name,” Al-Marai said.

The unveiling of the statue of Harun Al-Rashid, which was previously destroyed by Daesh, in one of Raqqa's parks. (AN Photo/Ali Ali)

Her books, which she referred to as her children, were all burned by the terror group. “I had 25-50 copies of every book, and when I came back, none of them were left,” she said.

It was not just her books that were destroyed — the entire intellectual community she spent decades building was gone. “None of my friends were left. They all fled and became refugees in Europe,” she said.

Al-Marai was determined to help rebuild the culture of her beloved city. Having become an adviser to the Autonomous Administration’s Art and Culture Department, she now holds regular literary salons in the city’s fushat hiwar, or conversation space, to read and discuss literature.

“Now we are organizing festivals and training sessions for our youth on how to write stories and poetry. We celebrate them and always have activities to return our culture to the way it was before. We are always taking the chance to inform the youth that the future lies with them,” she said.

Shahla Al-Ujayli, a niece of Abdal Salam Al-Ujayli, has carried on her uncle’s literary tradition by writing several books, including one in which the protagonist joins one of Raqqa’s most famous cultural pastimes — horse racing.

For over a thousand years, Raqqa was famous for its equestrian heritage. The unique Arabian breed of horses were used as means of work, transportation, and eventually, as status symbols.

“The horse was a symbol of the family. If a family had a horse, it was known that they were wealthy. Then it became a cultural tradition, passed down from grandparents to parents to children,” Ammer Medad, a horse owner, told Arab News.

Medad estimates that though there were once between three and four thousand original Arabian horses in Raqqa, the current number is around only 400.

An artist paints in the Raqqa Culture and Art Center. (AN Photo/Ali Ali)

He recalls that in 1983, the first facility for horse racing in Raqqa was created. A makeshift facility in a local landowner’s garden, it measured about just 1,000 square meters in size. A local man from a famous equestrian family donated 10 horses to help create the first equestrian club.

The club began to train and eventually started to compete on the national level. They were the poorest team from all Syrian governorates, having only their horses. The riders trained in the desert rather than a regulation-grade racetrack. As they did not even have separate uniforms, they were forced to share a single uniform with one another.

Despite this, however, Raqqa’s riders always took bronze, silver, or gold in the competitions. Their skill was so unmatched that according to Medad, it caught the attention of Basil Assad, the late brother of current Syrian president Bashar Assad, who himself was an equestrian champion.

Basil funded the construction of a racetrack and horse facilities in Raqqa, which was completed in 1989. The team competed in races across the Arab world, including Qatar, Jordan, and Egypt. Though eventually the popularity of horse racing waned, it was still very much a part of the local traditional culture. All of this changed when Daesh came to the city.

Daesh destroyed the racetrack and littered it with landmines. They used the Raqqa facilities as a holding ground for 4,000 stolen horses, according to a local track worker. “They stole the horses for themselves. They even used them for food,” Medad said. He recalled an incident during which a Daesh militant approached a friend of his, intending to buy a horse to eat.

Author Fawziya Al-Marai, 74, holds an old photo of herself, with a photo of the late Syrian poet Abd Al-Salam Al-Ujayli in the background. (AN Photo/Ali Ali)

Medad asked why the militant would purchase such a beautiful horse just to eat it.

“Daesh militants rebuked me, saying that I could not forbid what God had allowed, and said that I must come to their court. I ran away for 15 days, at which point, the militant who wanted to take me to court had been killed and I could finally return home.”

Five years on, the racetrack has been cleared of Daesh landmines, and the facility has been 50 percent rebuilt, according to Medad. The track has already held one local festival, and plans on holding one at the national level, the first such race in Raqqa since Daesh took the city, in mid-October.

The statue of Raqqa’s cultural forefather Harun Al-Rashid, which had been destroyed by Daesh, was replaced in front of a crowd of onlookers in early September, symbolizing the city’s slow but inexorable return to its roots.


Mohammed Bin Rashid Library launches ‘A World Reads’ initiative

Mohammed Bin Rashid Library launches ‘A World Reads’ initiative
Updated 9 sec ago

Mohammed Bin Rashid Library launches ‘A World Reads’ initiative

Mohammed Bin Rashid Library launches ‘A World Reads’ initiative
  • Project in line with MBRL’s aim to ignite passion for knowledge in future generations
  • Board member Al-Mazrooei: ‘Reading and knowledge initiatives key for individuals to improve quality of life’

DUBAI: The Mohammed Bin Rashid Library has launched the “A World Reads” initiative, in conjunction with UAE Reading Month, to support and enrich libraries, reported Emirates News Agency on Friday.
The initiative is said to have been launched in collaboration with local publishers, special-publication institutions, and a select group of authors and writers to develop school libraries, readers clubs, cafes and government departments.
“A World Reads” comes in line with MBRL’s efforts, vision, and strategy to ignite a passion for knowledge among future generations, said board member Dr. Mohamed Salem Al-Mazrooei.
“It will considerably encourage similar community initiatives and volunteers to support such endeavors, while playing a major role in strengthening partnership between donors and local partners to achieve this vision,” he said.
“Reading and knowledge initiatives are key for individuals to improve their quality of life, enhance their intellectual and learning competencies, and enable them to better communicate and interact with their communities,” added Al-Mazrooei, who stressed that such initiatives should be encouraged in appreciation of their significance as key contributors to building well-educated and developed societies.
The initiative strives to support and enrich school libraries with a valuable and diverse collection of Arabic and English books for children and adults
“A World Reads” also provides support for students participating in the Arab Reading Challenge Award, along with enriching and developing library collections in federal and local government departments, private institutions, universities and colleges.
A unique collection of books in Arabic, English and Braille will be offered to children, young people, adults, people of determination and visually impaired people integrated into education.
MBRL calls upon local publishers, relative public institutions and entities with special publications, writers, and other parties to participate in the initiative, by donating and sharing their unused publications and books.

Abraham Accords prove no such thing as ‘permanent enemies,’ says former Trump adviser Kushner

Abraham Accords prove no such thing as ‘permanent enemies,’ says former Trump adviser Kushner
Updated 18 min 59 sec ago

Abraham Accords prove no such thing as ‘permanent enemies,’ says former Trump adviser Kushner

Abraham Accords prove no such thing as ‘permanent enemies,’ says former Trump adviser Kushner
  • Historic peace deals were hugely important for Middle East stability, Jared Kushner tells FII Priority conference

MIAMI: The US-brokered Abraham Accords signed in 2020 between Israel and several Arab neighbors under then-president Donald Trump have shown that there is “no such thing as permanent enemies,” Jared Kushner said on Friday.

Speaking at the FII Priority conference in Miami, the former senior Trump adviser said the peace deals were hugely important for the stability of the Middle East.

He also said they marked a return to close ties and coexistence between Christians, Muslims and Jews in the region before the Second World War, adding: “It’s a beginning of the return to that time.”

Under the accords, Israel normalized relations with the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco, and has since garnered a closer human connection between their populations, with “Arabs and Muslims now able to say nice things about Israel and Jews,” according to Kushner.

He continued: “It just shows there’s no such thing as permanent enemies, and there’s no such thing as permanent alliances, and that anything is truly possible.”

Speaking about why he made sure Trump’s first foreign visit in 2017 after he became president was to the Middle East, Kushner said it made sense considering that the fight against Daesh was a pressing issue at the time and a priority for Trump.

He also highlighted the chaos in the region at the time, citing the rise of Daesh’s caliphate, Iran’s destabilizing behavior and funding of Hamas and Hezbollah, the Syrian civil war, and crises in Libya and Yemen, saying the previous George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations had “really made a big mess” in the Middle East.

“A lot of the traditional people we were working with were saying, ‘let’s go to Canada or Mexico and kiss a baby,’ and do some, you know, worthless thing,” Kushner said.

During that visit, Trump visited Saudi Arabia, and Kushner told the conference how impressed he was with the Kingdom’s Vision 2030, launched under King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The Saudi leadership was as keen as the US administration at the time to focus on shared ambitions and goals, rather than any differences, he said.

Kushner added he could see that the king and crown prince were fully focused on making “big transformations” in the Kingdom, but “traditionalist” policy-planning officials in the US told him the changes would not come to fruition.

“And me having no (political) experience, if somebody’s telling you they want to change, and if we agree with the change, let’s give them a shot to try to do it,” he said. “And so we worked very hard on the trip, and the deliverables from it were truly historic.”

Aside from important economic and security deals signed during the visit to Saudi Arabia, the opening of a center to combat extremism in the country was an outcome of which Kushner is particularly proud.

He highlighted the counterterror financing center, which gave access to US officials to the Middle East’s banking system and allowed the partners to “really fight money that was going to bad actors.”

Tunisia introduces water quota system due to severe drought

Tunisia introduces water quota system due to severe drought
Updated 31 March 2023

Tunisia introduces water quota system due to severe drought

Tunisia introduces water quota system due to severe drought
  • Tunisia recorded drop in dam capacity due to rain scarcity
  • Agriculture ministry banned use of potable water to wash cars, water green areas, clean streets and public places

TUNIS: Tunisia on Friday introduced a quota system for potable water and banned its use in agriculture until Sept. 30 in response to a severe drought that has hit the country, the agriculture ministry said.
Tunisia, which is suffering a fourth straight year of serious drought, recorded a drop in its dam capacity to around 1 billion cubic meters, or 30 percent of the maximum, due to a scarcity of rain from September 2022 to mid-March 2023, senior agriculture ministry official Hamadi Habib said.
The agriculture ministry also banned the use of potable water to wash cars, water green areas and clean streets and public places. Violators face a fine and imprisonment for a period of between six days to six months, according to the Water Law.
Residents said that Tunisian authorities have for the last two weeks been cutting off drinking water at night in some areas of the capital and other cities in a bid to cut consumption, a move that has sparked widespread anger. The government declined to comment on the claim.
The new decision threatens to fuel social tension in a country whose people suffer from poor public services, high inflation and a weak economy.
The Sidi Salem Dam in the north of the country, a key provider of drinking water to several regions, has declined to only 16 percent of its maximum capacity of 580 million cubic meters, official figures showed.
Tunisia’s grain harvest will be “disastrous,” with the drought-hit crop declining to 200,000-250,000 tons this year from 750,000 tons in 2022, senior farmers union official Mohamed Rjaibia told Reuters on Thursday.

At least 14 workers dead in gold mine collapse in Sudan

At least 14 workers dead in gold mine collapse in Sudan
Updated 31 March 2023

At least 14 workers dead in gold mine collapse in Sudan

At least 14 workers dead in gold mine collapse in Sudan
  • The workers died after the roof of the Jebel Al-Ahmar gold mine collapsed
  • Many other miners still missing

KHARTOUM, Sudan: At least 14 workers are dead after a gold mine collapsed in northern Sudan, state mining authorities said Friday.
According to the state-run news agency, SUNA, the fatal collapse happened after one of the hillsides that surround the Jebel Al-Ahmar gold mine — situated near the Egyptian border — gave way Thursday afternoon.
Many other miners are still missing among the rubble, it said.
Witnesses cited by SUNA said the workers were searching inside mining wells for gold using heavy machinery which caused the collapse.
Several of the bodies, mostly of young men, have been recovered from the site and search efforts are ongoing, SUNA said.
A security source cited by the state agency said workers are feared to be trapped beneath the mine’s groundwater. Few further details were given.
Collapses are common in Sudan’s gold mines, where safety standards and maintenance are poor.
In 2021, 31 people were killed after a defunct gold mine collapsed in West Kordofan province.
Sudan is a major gold producer with various mines scattered across the country.

Adviser killed in Israeli attack on Syria Iran’s Revolutionary Guard say

Adviser killed in Israeli attack on Syria Iran’s Revolutionary Guard say
Updated 31 March 2023

Adviser killed in Israeli attack on Syria Iran’s Revolutionary Guard say

Adviser killed in Israeli attack on Syria Iran’s Revolutionary Guard say
  • There was no immediate statement from Israel, which usually declines to comment on reports of strikes in Syria

DAMASCUS: Iran’s Revolutionary Guard said in a statement that one of their military advisers was killed in an Israeli attack on the Syrian capital Damascus on Friday, Iranian media reported.
“The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has announced the martyrdom of guardsman Milad Haydari, one of the IRGC’s military advisers and officers, in the criminal attack of the Zionust regime on the outskirts of Damascus at dawn today,” the media quoted an IRGC statement.

Israel carried out an air strike near the Syrian capital early Friday, Syrian state media reported, the second attack near Damascus in the last two days.
Reuters witnesses heard at least three big explosions over the city overnight.
Citing a military source, state media reported that Israel fired “sprays of missiles” just after midnight.
“Syrian air defenses intercepted the missiles and shot down a number of them,” the source said, saying the aggression caused some material damage. There were no details about casualties.
The source said the attack hit “a site in the Damascus countryside” but did not provide further details.
There was no immediate statement from Israel, which usually declines to comment on reports of strikes in Syria.
Israel has for years been carrying out attacks against what it has described as Iran-linked targets in Syria, where Tehran’s influence has grown since it began supporting President Bashar Assad in the civil war that began in 2011.
Iranian-backed groups, including Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and Iraqi paramilitary groups have entrenched positions around the capital and in the country’s north, east and south.
There have been at least six strikes in March alone, according to a tally by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based war monitor with sources on the ground.
Two soldiers were wounded in an Israeli missile attack near Damascus on Thursday, Syrian state media reported.