One Syrian teenager’s quest to rebuild Aleppo

“We don’t want to preserve Aleppo as this theatre of war. We want to bring out the essence of the city.”

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When Mohammed Kteish was 13, he would walk on to his rooftop in Aleppo each day to spot which buildings had been destroyed. Using paper and glue, he made models of what he could no longer see, incorporating bits of debris he found – spent bullet casings, bomb shells – to recreate the city where he had grown up.

In early 2015 Mohammed’s neighbour, an award-winning journalist called Waad al-Kateab, put him in touch with a UK-based film-maker, Alex Pearson. The film-maker helped the family escape Syria via the well-trodden refugee trail to south-east Turkey, and organised an exhibition for Mohammed’s project – which had been abandoned in the family garage as the situation in Aleppo deteriorated. With initial funding from Pearson, the models – and elements of other cities – were then recreated in a virtual reality (VR) film, Future Aleppo.

“In the future, I want to be an architect,” says Mohammed, who is now 16 and living in Turkey with his family. “This project has been the beginning of fulfilling those dreams.” The latest version of Future Aleppo is a combination of augmented reality and VR: users walk through Mohammed’s paper city wearing a headset, which allows them to interact with it virtually as well as physically.

They can throw a virtual paper plane; wherever it lands, new buildings blossom like origami. Conductive ink, incorporated with the help of Mohammed’s electrician father, helps embed sounds from their family in the models: the city becomes a vessel for the stories of those who lived there.

When Mohammed’s younger sister tried out Future Aleppo, she was bouncing off the walls. “It was the first time she’d been outside of a conflict zone,” says Pearson. “It made us think we should be using it for children who have grown up in and around conflict zones. We don’t want to preserve Aleppo as this theatre of war. We want to bring out the essence of the city.”

A central tenet of psychogeography – the study of how geographical environment influences the mind or behaviour – is that the places where we live are imbued with the souls and memories of their inhabitants. As Future Aleppo users reconstruct the city alongside Mohammed, they can draw on their personal histories, crossing boundaries that wouldn’t be possible in reality and incorporating memories from their own lives. Yet this technology is positioned uneasily as a burgeoning new media form. It typically relies on video game systems and expensive hardware, which are out of reach for many.

Funding for Future Aleppo has been sporadic. Recent support from the Opec Fund for International Development enabled Pearson and Mohammed to take the exhibition to a camp in Kahramanmaras, Turkey, where Google Cardboard headsets – allowing ordinary smartphones to be transformed into VR devices – have become a valuable commodity. Mohammed now hopes to secure a special visa to visit Vienna, where Future Aleppo will be part of a VR exhibition.

VR has been described as an empathy-generating machine. Yet Future Aleppo’s model – providing people who have endured the unimaginable with a sense of agency – has resonated from container camps in Turkey to documentary festivals in Sheffield precisely because it defies easy categorisation.

“It’s all produced by people themselves – not by some kind of auteur,” says Pearson. He and Mohammed are now working on a similar project, Khan Sheikhoun, with survivors of chemical attacks in Idlib, Syria. They hope that a final funding grant will enable them to make Future Aleppo accessible to anyone with a smartphone and an internet connection.

Years of instability have stymied Mohammed’s academic opportunities. But he is crowdfunding for a tutor and hopes to improve his English sufficiently to apply to a United World College. His ultimate ambition is to attend architecture school.

The apocalyptic violence that Syria has faced since 2011 endures, with no sense of an ending. Yet Mohammed remains resolute in his desire to one day return to Aleppo and rebuild the city for real. 

Sanjana Varghese was previously a Wellcome scholar at the New Statesman. She writes about science and technology. 

This article appears in the 27 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Corbyn ultimatum