The Naked Walls of Damascus

Acclaimed Syrian poet, author and screenwriter, the multiple award-winning Khaled Khalifa writes a poignant elegy to Damascus and its artists.

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View of old Damascus and Omayyad Mosque

The opening in January of this year of a retrospective exhibition dedicated to the prominent Palestinian artist Mustafa Al-Hallaj felt like a bizarre occasion within the routine daily life of Damascus over the last 10 years. The country is in a state of unmatched rampant chaos and never-ending crisis across all aspects of our lives. Belonging as they do to a totally different era, Al-Hallaj’s etchings were, in fact, a perfect fit. 

During my long commute to George Kamel Gallery in the Al-Mazzeh neighbourhood of Damascus, I found myself thinking of the late Al-Hallaj. I spent years with his black and white paintings and etchings; for over 12 years they were my guardian angels back when they covered the walls of the Journalists Club. I spent a quarter of my days there, a period during which I wrote most of my novels and television scripts.

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Opening of Mustafa Al Hallaj's exhibition at George Kamel Gallery. Courtesy of George Kamel Gallery, Damascus

I still remember feeling quite lucky that I could keep writing in this simple place serving the best coffee in Damascus and decorated with more than 30 works by one of the Arab world’s most prominent artistic figures. Back in 2007 or 2008, however, the paintings suddenly disappeared, and the walls were left stark naked. Apologetically, I was told by the staff that paintings were handed back to owners. Since then, the Journalists Club has lost half of its beauty and I have lost half of my passion to it. The changes that happened after 2012 were enough to wipe out the rest of that passion, as the place became one of absolute havoc, pretty much like most Syrian cities.

I almost feel that any visual art exhibition in recent years has felt like an exceptional happening. The same small number of people who have remained in Damascus stroll around the paintings for a few minutes and exchange news afterwards. Any cultural activity has turned into a legitimate opportunity to meet those who did not flee the country. Around the galleries trying to recover, bitterness roams. Everything, however, is clear. War is omnipresent; in people’s movements, in their lips moving slowly. It is a situation that cannot be ignored. Silence is haunting these galleries doing everything they can to avoid an outright death.

Artist Issam Darwish undertook the same initiative by organising a retrospective exhibition from the gallery’s collection of paintings by a number of ‘pioneer’ artists: Fateh Moudarres, Mahmoud Jalal, Nassir Shoura, Edward Shahda, Abdalla Mourad and others. The exhibition was more of an outcry for those still hanging onto their city. It was rather like a group of female friends showcasing their age-old wedding dresses, seeking the opportunity to divulge everything about love – before inevitable death. 

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Opening at Ishtar Gallery. Courtesy of Ishtar Gallery, Damascus

Only a handful of exhibitions are held, but there are promises of different activities next year. Mustafa Ali has organised a few exhibitions, and Samer Kozah has hosted several group exhibitions – including one dedicated to young sculptors – trying to keep the torch of his gallery alight.        

However, a scattered few activities do not count for a visual arts movement. Despite military operations around Damascus having come to an end, clearing the accumulating dust in galleries needs the war to stop, which has not yet been the case. Harsher still is what young artists have been going through, especially fine arts students silently graduating over the last 10 years, as if going through mourning rites, without noisy celebrations, and without any anticipation of the most prominent graduate of the year, who would immediately earn his/her place among the masters.    

Soon, the alumni of the 10th consecutive year will graduate, either to live in oblivion or emigrate in search of warmth as life here has become insufferable and freezing. Moreover, the country as a whole has metamorphosed into an immense cemetery in which the most optimistic of people, like me, have lost any hope of a recovery soon. There is no place for these young artists to exhibit their paintings, let alone clients interested in acquiring works, even if only in exchange for the cost of the paint. 

Syrians, in the first place, have sold more than half of their belongings and smuggled the rest to their new exiles. Despite the tragedy, there are plenty of funny anecdotes about selling and smuggling paintings in times of war. Many homes have been completely ransacked, except for books and paintings which have survived on semi-ruined walls in houses missing roofs and windows. People joke about the fact that thieves and thugs have no appreciation whatsoever of a painting by Safwan Dahoul, Hammoud Chantout, Louay Kayyali or Abdalla Mourad. What would standalone paintings be for when everything else is gone and the cities and the country are demolished? Nothing.  

Only a handful of exhibitions are held, but there are promises of different activities next year. Mustafa Ali has organised a few exhibitions, and Samer Kozah has hosted several group exhibitions – including one dedicated to young sculptors – trying to keep the torch of his gallery alight.        

However, a scattered few activities do not count for a visual arts movement. Despite military operations around Damascus having come to an end, clearing the accumulating dust in galleries needs the war to stop, which has not yet been the case. Harsher still is what young artists have been going through, especially fine arts students silently graduating over the last 10 years, as if going through mourning rites, without noisy celebrations, and without any anticipation of the most prominent graduate of the year, who would immediately earn his/her place among the masters.    

Soon, the alumni of the 10th consecutive year will graduate, either to live in oblivion or emigrate in search of warmth as life here has become insufferable and freezing. Moreover, the country as a whole has metamorphosed into an immense cemetery in which the most optimistic of people, like me, have lost any hope of a recovery soon. There is no place for these young artists to exhibit their paintings, let alone clients interested in acquiring works, even if only in exchange for the cost of the paint. 

Syrians, in the first place, have sold more than half of their belongings and smuggled the rest to their new exiles. Despite the tragedy, there are plenty of funny anecdotes about selling and smuggling paintings in times of war. Many homes have been completely ransacked, except for books and paintings which have survived on semi-ruined walls in houses missing roofs and windows. People joke about the fact that thieves and thugs have no appreciation whatsoever of a painting by Safwan Dahoul, Hammoud Chantout, Louay Kayyali or Abdalla Mourad. What would standalone paintings be for when everything else is gone and the cities and the country are demolished? Nothing.  

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Studio of artist Fadi Yazigi. Courtesy of the artist

I search for answers while I look for my remaining friends. I walk, heading to the studio of my lifetime friend Fadi Yazigi. As he opens the grand door overlooking the courtyard, I get the feeling that everything is fine. I wander around the messy studio, reassuring myself that Fadi continues working unabated. Stacked paintings, sculptures, motifs, studies and new corners full of work are everywhere. The cramped space is teeming with items. Fadi, however, is no longer the same. He has become more pained, more receptive to loss, and alone with his angels flying in a closed sky. 

On a different day, I continue my way to the studio of my friend Youssef Abdelke. I look closely at his flowers and his never-ending projects. Yousef still enjoys that great passion for adventure. I reach the studio of the prominent artist Abdalla Mourad, who is waiting a miracle that will never come to pass. His shy smile and his innate powerful creativity bring big hope to me. I study Fadi Abdalla Mourad’s (1) paintings each and every time I go there. Fadi’s presence is so overwhelming, so much so that for the first time in my life I grasp the meaning of eternal presence. Yes, Fadi’s memory will stay dear in our hearts and his paintings will last forever. 

I think about my friends the painters, and exchange news with them of those who have emigrated. They speak to me in an uncertain way about their forthcoming exhibitions. Shows have become sporadic, they start with dusting the gallery, then everything comes to a halt again. We all know these are breathing exercises before holding the very last breath.   

I search for answers while I look for my remaining friends. I walk, heading to the studio of my lifetime friend Fadi Yazigi. As he opens the grand door overlooking the courtyard, I get the feeling that everything is fine. I wander around the messy studio, reassuring myself that Fadi continues working unabated. Stacked paintings, sculptures, motifs, studies and new corners full of work are everywhere. The cramped space is teeming with items. Fadi, however, is no longer the same. He has become more pained, more receptive to loss, and alone with his angels flying in a closed sky. 

On a different day, I continue my way to the studio of my friend Youssef Abdelke. I look closely at his flowers and his never-ending projects. Yousef still enjoys that great passion for adventure. I reach the studio of the prominent artist Abdalla Mourad, who is waiting a miracle that will never come to pass. His shy smile and his innate powerful creativity bring big hope to me. I study Fadi Abdalla Mourad’s (1) paintings each and every time I go there. Fadi’s presence is so overwhelming, so much so that for the first time in my life I grasp the meaning of eternal presence. Yes, Fadi’s memory will stay dear in our hearts and his paintings will last forever. 

I think about my friends the painters, and exchange news with them of those who have emigrated. They speak to me in an uncertain way about their forthcoming exhibitions. Shows have become sporadic, they start with dusting the gallery, then everything comes to a halt again. We all know these are breathing exercises before holding the very last breath.   

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Damascene art galleries are covered with dust all over and everyone asks the same question: What is a painting for in times of war? I continue my tour, checking out all intermittent activities, trying not miss any. I am literally looking for chance encounters with old friends I lost during the war and in places away from the capital, in small cities that were cultural centres in which young artists keep drawing.     

The Al-Dalba Forum in the town of Mashta Al-Helou is still popular among artists and the public. The same applies to the cities of Salamiyah and Masyaf. In the latter, the studio of Samer Esmaeel attracts students and young people who gather there to draw and paint. Samer wanders around them calmly and making use of his long experience in teaching. Likewise, in Homs, Latakia, and in the rest of the Syrian cities where art galleries are trying to survive there are artists striving to avoid their paint drying out. In the long wait for the master paintings of the war that will one day defeat it and turn it into a mere memory, I too, I try not to lose hope.