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One woman’s combat to mend her home city of Homs

As bombs descended around her, Syrian architect Marwa al-Sabouni stayed in Homs throughout the civil crusade, acquiring plans to build hope from bloodbath. Her ideas are now laid out in a visionary memoir. But will anyone listen?

In Syria, an aphorism contends that one who has no old had not yet been new. Before the dark days of the civil crusade, it was used nostalgically, as a brake on those the young, the audaciou, the dangerously modern who had no use for the outmoded past: for its narrow streets, army souks and tiny shops. But since 2011, when the disturbances inaugurated, it has taken on an wholly more unpleasant intend. With so much better of the country destroyed, what will the future look like? Parties close their attentions, and they amaze: is it even possible to envisage such a thing?

Marwa al-Sabouni believes it is and her attentions are wide open. A 34 -year-old architect and father of two, Sabouni was born and grew up in Homs, scene of some of “the worlds largest” nasty struggle. Unlike many, nonetheless, she did not leave Syria or even Homs itself during the crusade. The tradition she and her husband still( in theory) run together on the old cities prime square was shut up almost immediately: this part of the city instantly became a no-go neighbourhood. But her home nearby somehow endured intact, and their own families safe inside it.

Im lucky, she answers. I didnt have to leave my house. We were lodged there, as if we were in prison; we didnt understand the moon for two years. But apart from separated spaces there was no other mar. She chuckles, relishing my bewilderment at this( were talking on Skype, which feels so strange, the cars in her street honking normality or a form of it with their trumpets ).

Yes! We saw Damascus three months ago, and parties there were just as astounded as you. Do I seem crazy because Im tittering? Well, I do consider myself lucky. I have a wonderful husband whos so optimistic, and that, and our spiritual lives, helped us. This passage that is life: it comes with the hard, and the easy-going. We looked at it as something that would stimulate us better in the end. I havent witnessed a flinch hitherto. But, you know, Im hoping Im still a ordinary party inside.

How did they cope? There were different stages, and with each one there were new things to deal with. First were the demoes. You listened the express, and the strifes, and that was disturbing. Then there used to be the duels; “youve heard” kills in the street, and you didnt know what was happening it was the first time youd ever heard gunfire. We allows one to joke about it. Youd think youd open your opening the following morning, and good-for-nothing would be left. But in fact, everything would be fine. Where did they depart, youd wonder.

After that there was the bombing, the planes and the containers at the end of the street. Youd hear the buildings collapsing, and it was very terrifying. There were lots of snipers here; they ensure our neighbourhood from all sides. Too many parties succumbed, like fowls. Youd to walk away in the street, and someone would fall next to you. It was very hard. Not every municipality sustained such great luck as ours, and there is still a part of Homs that is circumvented even now.

Were she and her husband it seems stupid even to ask able to work? No. For two years we did nothing. What about the children? They were home-schooled for a couple of months, but after that they went to school. And now? Ive taken a teaching activity at colleges and universities in Hama[ a town northward of Homs ]. Its 30 km away. It allows one to take 20 hours to drive. Now you have to go around the new country[ a euphemism for territory for the purposes of the limit of Islamic State and other forces opposed to the Syrian authority; everyone uses these euphemisms ]. It takes two hours each way.

Is it safe? Hmm. It depends how you characterize safe. No, its not. Nothing has happened yet, but it could at any moment. Exclusively a small area around the road is controlled by the government, so opposing forces could come in at any moment. But it has to be done, and thats it.

Since the ceasefire sometime in 2015, the last of the major maverick forces ultimately withdrew from the city Homs has largely been quiet. But it is absolutely changed: the old municipality, where its market stood, is move, and 60% of its other vicinities are little more than rubble: The termination is beyond imagination.

So if she wants to buy bread or oranges, where does she depart? Party have just moved a bit, into the residential areas. On the street there are metal sheds, and world markets stop holders are in those. Beneath my apartment there is a carpenter, a carwash, a sweetshop. Parties are acting all sorts of the work of the session to get by. My husband juggles four or five. Auditors are working at world markets, and mechanical technologists as taxi drivers. Before the crusade, Homs was famed for its lack of homeless person, thanks to its Islamic kindness. But now the street are fitted with them. People outside imagine our most difficult challenges are weapon-related. But the truth is that the hospitals, which have no proper gear, are killing more parties now than bullets.

The
The battle-scarred Khalid ibn al-Walid mosque tower in front of the devastated municipality of Homs . Photograph: AFP/ Getty Images

And what of the citys heritage? Though relatively little of ancient Homs was still in existence even before the crusade, it was noted for two important landmarks, both in the neighbourhood of al-Hamidyah: the Ottoman Khalid ibn al-Walid mosque, part of whose carved wooden minbar was commissioned by Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi( AKA Saladin ), and the Church of St Mary of the Holy Belt, reputedly the worlds oldest church and the home of the relic after which it is appointed( though reconstructed in the mid-1 9th century, it dates originally from AD50 ). Both have been badly shattered in the crusade, and the minbar looted though the Virgins belt, traditionally carried through the street on 15 August, is reported to be safe in an undisclosed location.

I havent been to either, answers Sabouni. No one is permitted to. But from what Im sounding , not even the UN organisations responsible for the restoration of Old Homs are being allowed to have a “re just saying” substances, expertise, etc.

Its the same at Krak des Chevaliers, the campaigner castle 40 km west of Homs that is a Unesco world heritage site. They[ the authorities concerned] werent telling anyone they had done anything to the place. But it has started. My husband visited, and realise it, the restoration project. It has been done in haste. Its to do with sending words, I think.

Her affections about all this the restoration of what remains of Syria, and rebuilding what doesnt are complicated. As we are to talk, it is only 24 hours since the Syrian authority announces that it had recaptured the ancient municipality of Palmyra, another Unesco world heritage site, whose synagogues Isis destroyed, and whose museum it turned into a courtroom. But she cant competition the rapture of Maamoun Abdelkarim, Syrias director of antiques, who claimed it as the second largest happiest daytime of their own lives, or share the somewhat glib succor of those here who ever extolling the merit of its immediate reconstruction using digital technology( Boris Johnson is one, Simon Jenkins another ).

Partly, this is because she cant help but think up Palmyras hopeless dwellers: I was concerned for the peoples of the territories there, caught in the crossfire , no physicians to help them. Weve been hearing terrifying things.

But theres more to it than this. Do you want me to be honest? I dont know how I feel about it. I saw Palmyra when I was at school, and even then I realise the electrical wire around the pillar, the new engrave of appoints on ancient stones, the disorganised urbanism, tourism and restoration. It was so neglected. It “havent had” shield, out there in the desert. You could jump on it, climb on it. Take a look at a picture of the so-called museum: the sham ceiling, the metal cage of a opening. Part of me thinks it was better that it was destroyed.

She stops, taken aback by her own vehemence. Then goes on: I understand why the west is emotional about it. But when you are living here, you have a different angle.

Sabouni carefully outlines her fierce attitude to the crucial role architecture will play in the future of Syria, should the peacefulnes prop, in her remarkable memoir, The Battle for Home , which will be published here this month. As if its existence were not a miracle enough she wrote it as the projectile descent around her, and then experimented possible residences for it on the internet it comes with a prologue by the philosopher Roger Scruton, who describes its columnist , not without conclude, as one of the most remarkable parties he has ever met.

Of course, their relationship is only virtual at this phase. Two years ago Sabouni wrote to Scruton out of the blue from Homs, asking him to explain something in his book, The Aesthetics of Architecture . He was astounded. Who was this person so eccentric as to devote is necessary to architectural esthetics when all around her the fabric of her ancient municipality was falling in ruins? He wrote back instantly, and they became correspondents. What does he think of her book? It is, he writes , is not simply the work of a profound intellectual but also the look of a beautiful person, who comes to us with a message of hope.

Im not sure about the hope, for all that I find Sabouni herself more inspiring that I can say. Her works central message that Syrias built home played a contributory capacity in the crusade itself because too many parties were living in what were effectively sectarian ghettoes, and that the government must not repeat this mistake when it rebuilds seems almost certain to fall on deaf ears, assuming that anyone discovers it in the first place( it has not been published in Arabic ).

But still, there is no doubting that her arguments are both important and acute. As she memorandum, for the most side, Middle Eastern architecture in the 21 st century comes in only two guises: the Dubai model, soulless and suitable only for the rich, and the ersatz Islamic model, which consists predominantly of a rectangular block on top of whose flat ceiling a dome may or may not ought to have descent, like a hat. Too many older houses ought to have unloved, pulled down or left to rot, while new houses have comprised only of so much better grey concrete, and this has contributed to what she regards as a loss of identity and, perhaps, of self-respect. The absence of glamour, the promise of a good life that architecture can inspire The old municipality of Homs used to be known as the mother of the poor. You didnt require money to live there. It was a lieu of trees, and jasmine and fruit. But then the new municipality, with its corruption and its modern pulley-blocks, developed over it, accompanying with it a lack of hope, despair.

Reduced
Reduced to rubble: a Syrian pennant flappings outside a military barracks in the devastated Baba Amr neighbourhood. Picture: Joseph Eid/ AFP/ Getty Images

On her daily passage to Hama, Sabouni overtakes through the rubble of the Old Town, a batch so lamentable, she barely knows where to look. Yet she cant help but notice that its exceedingly ruins seem to illustrate her thesis. Even the plants recognise it! The old houses have yellow-bellied flowers and grass originating from their basalt stones. But the new cement houses have no flowers , no grass. Theyre like corpses, while the old houses are somehow still living. It worries her that the government, in the charge to rebuild, had not yet been clear programme in place. We have so many defies ahead. The want is urgent, both to its implementation of offer parties with residences, and accompanying back to us all a part of what we have lost. But what we lost wasnt right in the first place. I strongly believe that. In some directions, it preceded us here. We sold the values of our old Islamic architecture for the profligate shopper representation, and in the relevant procedures we lost ourselves.

Sabouni, whose leader is a doctor, didnt start out wanting to be an architect. In Syria our grades prepare us for certain majors, and beyond this, you dont get much choice. The highest grades is eligible for medicine, below the hell is dentistry and pharmacy, and below that the engineering self-disciplines including architecture. Well, I tallied for that, and I was frustrated not to have done better.

How long did it take her to get interested formerly shed started the course? Two months! Her book described in the lacklustre teaching at her architectural school; students often pointed up simulating their blueprints from periodicals. It was obvious, moreover, that there was little future for any of them best available they could hope for was a capacity as a draughtsman and, sure enough, her first activity after graduation was squalid. Having paid no bribes, and being in possession of no influential associates, she was left to clock-watch in a monotonous nation office. I had no illusions of being the next Zaha Hadid, she writes. Nevertheless, hope is daze, and always manages to find its direction into the human centre, excavation included.

Having moved to the architectural office at the administrative headquarters of the city university, she used thrilled to be invited to pattern furniture for some of its dormitories. Rejecting the bafflement of her colleagues, who wanted only to pick up their paychecks, she hurled herself into it, poring over her sketches the moment she arrived at her table. But it was no good. Her ideas were spurned, and without any explanation.

So she left, and she and her husband, also an architect, set up together( her husband is from Baba Amr, one of the first areas in Homs to rise up against Assad, and now a metonym for either extraordinary fearlessnes or high treason, is dependent on whose side you are on; they exited against their families to marry, and in 2011, just as the disturbances inaugurated, and he was on his direction to Kuwait to pick up an gift for his online architecture entrance, he was arrested and briefly jailed, simply for the fact of his birthplace ).

Was it easy to get project? Commissionings from private individuals, and that may also involve interior design, can be a good source of income. But the building system here is old and restrictive and restriction to ability. It doesnt work for anyone except the real estate parties. And then the crusade came.

Marwa
Marwa al-Sabounis image of tree units for the redevelopment of the razed region of Baba Amr. Picture: Marwa al-Sabouni, 2016

After four years of fighting, she and her husband went back to Old Homs, together with crowd of other returnees, to take a look at their abandoned studio, this place into which they had introduced all their dreams. She expected the missile cases and sandbags, the stench of smoke. What she didnt expect was the madness that filled the scorched breath. Parties were, she answers, behaving like tourists, taking photographs of themselves in the remains: I find the stronger curiosity I have find in my life. Around her, parties gathered inconsequential belongings a separated drawing chassis, a gas cylinder, a sweater and it was this, in the end, that transformed the unsettling encourage into anger. It wasnt enough that your home had been destroyed; it began to feel like a further insult that you had to be humbled by digging up unimportant events precisely be borne in mind who you were. As the days went by, looting began.

In part, her book developed from this collective madness, from the need to know how hitherto quiet parishes could tumble into what she calls animal bloodbath. Architecture, she speculates, can provide part of the answer. In 2010, 9 million Syrians close to half of the population lives in slums and informal casing. It is, she answers, scaring to see history repeating itself, before the hertz of violence has even burned itself out. The authority, for example, is rebuilding Christian arenas( Christians are supportive of the Alawite regime, national minorities that protects them, another minority ), but not Sunni ones( the opponent ). Some Sunnis have been impeded even from returning to live in the rubble of their residences. Such discrimination recollects both the Ottoman and, afterwards, French rule of Syria, when, for example, Christian parishes were also supported by corrupted regimen. No good is out of that, either.

But, still. She has hope. She cant keep it down. In her book she uncovers a strategy she drew up for razed Baba Amr, a strategy she entered in a UN-Habitat competition. Its gentleness and appreciation of community it comprises tree units: patronizes and community cavities in their stems, suites with private quadrangles on their divisions is powerfully at odds with the governmental forces ideas, which involve freestanding towers. The dominions, of course, refused it, but the positive reaction to it online has encouraged her.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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