Monday September 25, 2017

Saving Syria: Keeping war-torn culture alive

The face of a statue lies on the ground at the destroyed museum in the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra last year.  Jihadists view the UNESCO-listed site's magnificent ruins as idolatrous.

The face of a statue lies on the ground at the destroyed museum in the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra last year. Jihadists view the UNESCO-listed site's magnificent ruins as idolatrous. (JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images)

Listen to Full Episode 53:59

Destruction and displacement -- that's the story of Syria today. Paul Kennedy talks with three Syrians who believe in other Syrias, with stories about love, and laughter, and the smells of jasmine and tarragon. Maamoun Abdulkarim risks his life rescuing stolen ancient artefacts. Ghada Alatrash translates the work of poets still coping with life in Syria. And journalist Alia Malek writes about the history of Syria through the story of her family. Each talks about the responsibility they feel toward saving the Syria they know, and their fears that those stories might soon disappear. **This episode originally aired March 24, 2017.


The war in Syria is still very much a reality despite having fallen out of the news cycle. The flow of refugees fleeing Syria has slowed to a mere trickle. So there's a sense that all is calm, and possibly even improving, inside the country. But millions of Syrians remain displaced and living in precarious conditions. When life is desperate, art, poetry and culture are far down the list of concerns for most people. However, many Syrians feel that it is precisely art and poetry and treasures from the past that will keep Syrians anchored to their homeland and their culture.

Guests in this episode:

Maamoun Abdulkarim, Director General of Antiquities and Museums, Government of Syria:

"I didn't sleep for more than a few hours in the days before the occupation of ISIS. I appealed to the international community. I appealed to all the armies in the world from the U.S. to Japan including Russia and European. I appealed to the Syrian army -- the official army and the opposition army. I appealed because for me it was a cultural battle to save this civilization. It's not political. We can have different views in politics but to save a civilization like Palmyra, it was necessary to be together. Unfortunately we lost Palmyra on 21st May, 2015."

Maamoun Abdulkarim was in Toronto as part of an exhibition of ancient Syrian art and artefacts at The Aga Khan Museum. Special thanks to the Aga Khan Museum for their help in arranging this interview.

Ghada Alatrash, Syrian-Canadian writer and translator, PhD student, University of Calgary:

"Before the war began, I would recite a poem that spoke about Damascus by Nizar (Qabbani) and when I would have an invitation to recite poetry I would recite something like this: 'I cannot write about Damascus without feeling the Jasmine climbing on my fingers. And I cannot utter its name without tasting the juice of apricots, pomegranates, mulberry, and quince. And I'm not able to remember it without feeling a thousand doves perched on the wall of my memory and another one thousand flying. I am haunted by Damascus even while I do not reside in it. Its ancestors are buried within me. Its neighbourhoods intersect on my body. Damascus is not a copy image of Paradise. It is Paradise. It is not a draft of the poem. It is the poem.'" 

​Alia Malek, Syrian-American lawyer and journalist, author of The Home That Was Our Country:

"Syria's a place that for so long has been dominated by men and especially for the last 40 years -- one man and now his son. And, yet, Syria was a place of the feminine for me. It was a place that was dominated, in all my memories, particularly by my grandmother and the world that she curated around her which included a lot of powerful men but also a lot of women. She had an empathy, I think, for people who had been marginalized by some of the strict social mores of the country. She, herself, was one of two sisters in a family with six brothers and the women in the family did not have the same advantages as their brothers. And I think she had bristled against those limitations and that's why she had spent her life, in Damascus, facilitating access to power for people who, like her, had been marginalized in other ways."

Further reading:

  • The Home That Was Our Country by Alia Malek, published by Nation Books, 2017.
  • Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War by Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami, published by Pluto Press, 2015.
  • Aftermath: Following The Bloodshed of America's in the Muslim World by Nir Rosen, published by Nation Books, 2010.
  • Rania Abouzeid's reporting for The New Yorker

Web Extra |  Watch Aya Mhana's music video


**This episode was produced by Naheed Mustafa.