Certain cities seem to conjure up a wealth of images at the mere mentioning of their names. Damascus, just like Paris and Venice, is such a place. Hardly any other place seems to be so embedded in a web of stories and legends as the Syrian capital. As one of the world’s oldest cities, also associated with the Prophet Muhammad, Damascus has provided residents and visitors with fresh water wells, lush gardens, a refined lifestyle and a rich tradition of handicraft. Damascus has been the subject of poets and writers, representing a fantasy, an object of desire and an eternal enigma. In the words of Mahmoud Darwish: “Oh! The impossible…is to name you, Sham!”
This ideal image of the city is also the one invoked by the tourist industry and by an entire literary genre as well, carried by a nostalgic longing for the “treasures of Old Damascus,” as the title of Siham Tergeman’s childhood memoirs so clearly describe. The English title of this book, “Daughter of Damascus,” seems very dry in comparison and hardly carries the special attraction these tales continue to have for the public. This heritage could easily lead young artists to avoid the subject altogether for fear of feeding one cliché or the other. But while Damascus is not the most burning topic for young artists in Syria, some have taken up the challenge and presented their own image of their hometown in works that are refreshingly clean of any nostalgia, showing surprising new sides of this heavily inscribed piece of land.
The alienating effects of the urban setting are central in the projects of the photographer Maher Salma. His series “One Kilometer” is an investigation of the structures and means that function to separate people rather than bring them closer to one another, where each individual is locked up in a confined space, sealed off by artificial barriers and isolated from other human beings. Salma’s scarcely populated views of deserted urban spaces appear desolate, dark and even hostile, and they seem to bring us closer to the cityscapes of Zakariya Tamer’s short stories, which serve as nightmare-like settings for his stories about oppression and the dehumanizing effects of arbitrary power. Maher Salma presents a study of separation strategies that leaves the spectator with a feeling of intense discomfort, and stands in stark contrast to the comforting views of traditional architecture that are habitually associated with Damascus.
Another investigation of the gap separating reality and ideology is the experimental short documentary film Before Vanishing (2005) by Joude Gorani. The filmmaker embarks on a trip following the Barada river from beginning to end and chronicles the people and communities living alongside and with the river. Starting at a school lesson where young children learn about the benefits of the river, known for its cleanness and refreshing qualities that offer “fertility, beauty and pure and delicious water” to the people of the city, we follow this famed stream and its sad fate due to pollution and general neglect. The contemporary appearance of the river seems very far from its history as the Barada of today is on the verge of drying out altogether. Gorani’s cinematography is sensitive and subtle, almost like a succession of still images. Beautiful and un-dramatic at the same time, the film shows the reality behind the poetic images. As the title states, it can be read as a last homage to the Barada before it vanishes forever.
Also contrasting ideal and reality is Hazem Alhamwi’s video installation “Damascus.” In a succession of images, starting with the serenity of greenery, gardens, water and singing birds, the spectator is soon drawn into an increasingly strange and disturbing universe where colours and structures change and appear increasingly twisted. Alhamwi presents a different Damascus, a place where appearances may mislead, where idyllic elements at times appear, only to be silenced by haunting distortions, leaving no room for rest.
By relying purely on the visual strength of his imagery and keeping any narrative element out of his work, Alhamwi separates the city of Damascus from the haze of legends surrounding its name. This re-location, which can be felt as an act of breaking free from the historical burden of endlessly repeated stories, allows the spectator to get closer to the essence of the city. It is an image that still holds much of the magic present in former representations, but at the same time it carries a warning not to be carried away by our all too nostalgic dreaming.
Through different means, these pieces all invite the spectator to look beyond the superficial images of the city, to see the contradictions of its representation as an ideal on the one hand and its present-day, yet darker, reality on the other. Damascus is no different from other large urban conglomerates throughout the world, where pollution, overpopulation and gentrification remain very high. At times, the ideological distance between the imaginary city of Damascus and 21st century reality seems overwhelming. The three artists undertake a process of analyzing and deconstructing the narratives and legends surrounding the city, and thus offer a fresh view of it. In their works, Damascus is no longer the enigmatic city of the past legends that seemed almost too beautiful to be real. Instead, we are offered a more truthful image of the contemporary city with all its conflicts and contradictions, an image that might disappoint those longing for the “good old days,” but actually an image that is so much more alive than the stagnant fantasy of earlier representations.
Charlotte Bank – Independent curator, researcher and writer living and working between Berlin and Damascus.