Treasure in a ruined city: the Syrians searching for their memories in Homs

“My grandparent’s house reminded me of Ali Baba’s story – entering a cave to find treasures.” 

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Homs is the third largest city in Syria, after Aleppo and Damascus. Known historically as Emesa, the locals called it the “Home of Peace” (in Arabic: Dar Al-Salam) or the “City of Black Stones”. Contested, brutalised, scarred, divided, and several times partially besieged, Homs has been reshaped throughout the war. 

For everyday citizens, this meant the destruction of the familiar. Today, as the conflict approaches its eighth year, and after multiple sieges in Homs, some locals are returning to the city. They are coming in search of lost memory, in search of pieces of histories they created in places they called once “home”.

Dana Matouk is a Syrian architect who is currently doing her PhD in Poland. She returned to visit Homs in 2017, and more recently in August 2018. Matouk says that ordinary “memory objects” found in her ruined grandparent’s house are as priceless to her as treasures. “Entering my grandparent’s house reminded me of Ali Baba’s story – entering a cave to find treasures,” she says. “I could see treasures scattered everywhere.”

In wartime, traces of past experiences, no matter how small, become objects of memory. Matouk admits that others would see her ruined grandparent’s house differently: “For a normal person who is not attached to this house, one would see ruins and trash.” But it was not the case for her. “I was in love with every piece left of furniture, every book, every pencil I found and every photo. Even those bullets in the walls meant the world to me.” She collected a whole bag of the bullets. The house had been repeatedly looted and stolen, so to Matouk everything that remained was precious. The bullets were part of the story of the house, evidence of the pain caused, and a history that should not be forgotten.

The deliberate destruction of cultural heritage in Syria, such as the damage done to the Roman city of Palmyra, as well as the Great Mosque of Aleppo, has caused international outrage and sparked talks, seminars, workshops and conferences on how to protect heritage at the time of war. But what is often overlooked is the mass destruction of everyday buildings, such as local shops, hospitals and souks – and, more significantly, the destruction of “home”.

The book Domicide: The Global Destruction of Home (Porteous & Smith, 2003) describes the emotional impact of destroying homes: “The wilful destruction of a loved home can thus be one of the deepest wounds to one’s identify and self-esteem, for both of these props to sanity reside in part in objects and structures that we cherish.” Today, hundreds of thousands of Syrians have had their homes ruined; millions have been forcibly displaced.

The destruction of material culture in Syria has damaged parts of our memories, identity and culture. Our heritage, the achievements of our ancestors, the places that we inhabited, and the memories that we created in these places – the war has damaged all these markers of where we came from.

This is why during the war in Syria, memory becomes critical. Some have started to talk of a “memory boom”, as Syrians revisit their life before the war and reflect on the loss they have endured. They do this to sustain their identity and perhaps to reconstruct it – of course, without neglecting the experience of the war. Memory is becoming a consolation to many Syrians, a place of refuge, especially for those who lost their beloved ones and who had their cherished places destroyed.

When I asked the Syrians I interviewed for my research about their memory of the pre-war life, they did not mention Palmyra or the Great Mosque of Aleppo. Rather, they remembered ordinary spaces and places in their cities. The walks they had in Al-Kharab Street, which connects the original city of Homs with the more modern extension, “New Homs”. Some Syrians remembered the art classes they undertook at the Sobhi Shoaib Art Centre, a place that brought together Homsis with a passion for art from different areas in the city. Others recalled their local shops, such as Krish, which used to be one of the most popular takeaway sandwiches shops in Homs (the shop was replaced by a different store during the war).

Collective remembrance is not only critical in conserving knowledge from the past, but also as a foundation to imagine and envision the future of the destroyed Syrian cities and countryside.

Nadia Atassi, an architect studying for her masters in architectural design at Al-Baath University in Homs, says the reconstruction in Homs ought not to try to whitewash the past. When asked how she imagines the future, she recites a famous proverb, “The one who has no past has no present”. According to Atassi, the reconstruction of the Syrian cities should be built on their past. However, she also suggests that rebuilding is an opportunity to rethink some aspects of the city. “I understand that rebuilding shops, cafes and restaurants can bring life to Homs,” she says. But before that, “why don’t we build a large public library and open its doors for people to read?” I understood, recalling my own visits to the local culture centre’s library before the war. Reading was not very popular in the city, and I would never see people reading in the park, or on the bus – so different from what I see every day in London.

The built environment, Atassi says, can help to foster peace. “The rebuilding of Homs should start by rebuilding the society,” she says. “We must rebuild minds before rebuilding buildings.”

Cities are collective memories – when they are reshaped by wars and conflicts, we reminisce about their streets, their people, their shops, souks, their noise, sounds and smells. When they are in crises, wounded and contested, we feel their pain as if it is ours; even when we are miles away from them.

The Syrian diaspora today, in the UK and elsewhere, retreats to our memories. Visiting the homes of Syrians in Europe feels like travelling back to Syria. Suddenly I find myself surrounded by paintings of Damascus, handmade mosaic illustrations of traditional courtyard houses, and photos of Syria’s Unesco heritage sites. I suddenly find myself eating Syrian food, and drinking Syrian coffee and smelling the fragrance of home. Sometimes I’ve been overwhelmed by the Damascene furniture my hosts imported years before the war. It suddenly feels like coming back home – as if home is flooding back to me, even here in London, where I currently live.

Inside Syria, Dana Matouk is finding sanctuary in old, ordinary objects. “Finding my old painting under the ruins of my uncle’s bedroom walls – not even scratched – was a beautiful miracle,” she says. “I couldn’t believe my eyes, too many emotions came to me at the same time. I was happy, sad, surprised and grateful! I felt like the ten-year-old again who drew the painting.”

Her grandparents’ house is being renovated. “The painting is here in my bedroom [in Homs] safe and sound; ready to be gifted again to my uncle and to be hang on that wall again,” says Matouk, who has since returned to Poland to continue her studies. 

I can’t wait to see Matouk’s painting on the wall – where the memory of the old life mingles with the new memories being created. And that Syrians, wherever they are, find some place to call “home” again.

Ammar Azzouz is an architect and an analyst for Arup. He grew up in Homs and now lives in London.