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When home is Homs

Planning and housing as agents of war and peace

“Everybody has lived this war”, writes Marwa Al-Sabouni at the beginning of her remarkable book, ‘The Battle for Home – the memoir of a Syrian architect’, which details in a singular voice how this once tolerant and beautiful country in the Middle East rapidly descended into murderous chaos after the Arab Uprisings in 2011.

Al-Sabouni offers a unique perspective on the “nightmare of animal carnage” that Syria has endured by documenting her life as both a citizen and working architect in her home town of Homs. She examines how unthinking architecture and unscrupulous urban planning contributed to the catastrophic collapse of many communities, and asks what role these professions can play in healing deep sectarian wounds in the future. Homs is Syria’s third largest city, with a pre-war population similar to Greater Dublin’s, and it is here Al-Sabouni runs her private architectural studio. Even as the ‘Arab Spring’ descended into civil war in Syria, and grew savage, Al-Sabouni refused to leave, choosing to remain in the city with her husband and two young children. She details living under such conditions: subsistence with a symphony of bombs in the background (“every roaring sound, every stench of burning”) while she questions how corruption, cronyism, and thickheaded bureaucracy – all deeply embedded in Syrian society long before the war – helped fan the flames of her smouldering city.

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“Buildings do not lie to us: they tell the truth without taking sides”, she asserts, lamenting how a diminished sense of place and social cohesion were significant drivers in the disintegration of Homs. Once famous for its temperate environment and jasmine-scented breezes, Homs’s idyllic terrain was polluted long before the war by wrongheaded, grubby industrial planning.

Although it is estimated that sixty per cent of cities like Homs have been destroyed in the conflict, a housing problem predated the urban dilapidation of city warfare. According to the 2010 Census, unmet demand for homes stood at 1.5million units, while nine million people (approximately fifty per cent of the total population) was living in slums and informal housing, despite 23 per cent of housing units being registered as vacant.

According to al-Sabouni, most citizens are desperate for a place to call their own, but it is an almost impossible dream in their society due to crooked officialdom.

In the past, Syrians would willingly work themselves to death just to afford a property; now death comes to their door as a consequence of a proxy war, which leaves little left to strive for anyway.

Al-Sabouni deplores how it was the governor and mayoral offices that decided the shape of the city, not architects nor planners. Nonetheless, the city still possesses some remarkable architectural gems – the Ottoman mosque of Khalid Ibn Al-Walid, with its typical feature of Islamic architecture in the Levant Alablaq (black and white stripes). The mosque contained the priceless minbar – pulpit – ordered by the great Muslim leader Saladin, though it has been looted in the conflict. The city is also home to the Church of St Mary of the Holy Belt, supposedly the oldest church ever built in AD 59 (though rebuilt in 1852). The church reputedly houses the relic from which it takes its name: the belt of the Virgin Mary, now at a secret location for safety. Homs is also the site of the historic castle Krak des Chevaliers, a UNESCO world heritage spot which was held by the Knights Hospiteller during the 12/13th century Crusades. With these buildings, it is easy to understand how Syria was known as the palimpsest of civilisation; that Christian bells and the Muslim calls to prayers often rang through the streets at the same time, though Al-Sabouni notes “neither mosque nor church made a display of its importance”.

The smoke has dissipated somewhat in Syria since the ceasefire late last year and there are some slivers of optimism for a diplomatic solution to the conflict. After two years of being unable to complete any work, Al-Sabouni now teaches at a University in Hama, a nearby city to Homs. She still holds on to a fierce anger, saying in a recent interview: “too many people died, like birds. You’d be walking in the street and someone would fall next too you”.

The book contains some disputable points (she rejects socialism yet wants similar houses for both the rich and poor; she blames urban zoning more than religion for sectarian division and hatred; Al-Sabouni’s outlook is certainly conservative, with a small ‘c’). However, with a PhD in Islamic Architecture, she adumbrates incisive insights on the built environment. She rightly rejects the default modern mindset for Middle Eastern countries, where it seems design choice must be either starchitect-led hubris that has no meaning and ostensibly dropped from the sky (especially found in the Gulf states), or cliched, pseudo-Islamic buildings. Confusion on what constitutes traditional Islamic architecture and how modernism has fed into the Arab inferiority complex is a particularly strong theme of the book.

Marwa Al-Sabouni’s 34-year-old eyes have seen sights most of us will never encounter, and she writes deeply on how the destruction of a home can relate to the destruction of one’s soul (how would we react to losing everything?). But her message is still one of hope, and at the end of this small jewel of a book it is easy to agree with the philosopher Roger Scruton (who has written the foreword) that Al-Sabouni is a profound thinker and “one of the most remarkable people I have never met”.

Now, who will listen to her? The UN and local NGOs trying to fix things in Syria while the ceasefire holds might be wise to listen. If her outlook is not quite doveish considering everything she has witnessed, then Al-Sabouni’s book is best seen as an olive branch.

Review by Niall McGarrigle