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Syria's Leading Sculptor Keeps Creating In A Time Of Destruction

Nov 4, 2016
Originally published on November 7, 2016 6:50 pm

In the stone courtyard of a lovingly — if quirkily — restored 500-year-old house in the Old City of Damascus, a ginger-bearded man in a baseball cap opens his arms to another set of visitors.

"Hi," says Syria's most successful sculptor, Mustafa Ali. "This is my place."

Tourists may be avoiding Damascus, thanks to more than five years of war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced millions more. But Ali's artists' retreat, a combination gallery, performance space and fun-house, is nearly always busy.

On a recent afternoon, a rock band practices its version of Queen's "Somebody to Love," the guitar solo mingling with the call to prayer from a nearby mosque.

Ali has been an important part of the revival of the Old City's Jewish Quarter. The country's Jewish population has dwindled to a few dozen. He shows visitors his office, which used to be a private synagogue. Arches made of stone cut 1,200 years ago support walls covered with contemporary art and photography.

Ali's sculptures are everywhere — works in bronze, wood, marble and other materials. Mannequins are piled in a heap, some spattered with fake blood — not a comment on the war, but a nod to Halloween. The basement, carved out of Roman-era stone, features a bar and performance room.

Ali studied in Italy, but says his biggest influence was Palmyra — the Syrian UNESCO World Heritage site that was badly damaged by Islamic State extremists. He says he still remembers how moved he was by the ancient city, especially the magnificent half-mile long necropolis known as the Valley of the Tombs.

"It was for me, my influence," he says. "Why? Because, you know, I believe in eternity. When I see the tomb like this, the good relation between the Earth and the sky, I said people of Palmyra, they know how to live in life and they know how to be eternity in the second life."

Ali says he's a man of art, not politics, and he didn't join anti-government demonstrations when the Syrian conflict began in 2011. But as the uprising and the brutal government crackdown turned increasingly violent, Ali did become part of the story, to his cost.

His main warehouse, where he kept raw materials and some valuable finished works, was in the Damascus suburb of Ghoutta, a rebel stronghold. He says one day, three rebels came to the warehouse and found one of his assistants there.

"They catch my carpenter, they said, 'Where is Mustafa Ali?'" he recounts. "He said, 'He's not here, no.' They destroy everything. And if I was there, they want to cut my head."

Later, he adds that not everything was destroyed, though some of the artworks were stolen, presumably to be sold.

After that, themes of helplessness and destruction began to appear in Ali's work. He points to one of his wooden sculptures from this period: a human face divided vertically down the middle. The two halves don't line up properly.

"This face, it was 2013," he says. "Like the Syrian face, because, you know, we kill — brother kills his brother."

It's possible the attack on Ali's warehouse played some role in his decision not to support the Syrian uprising. But he says even early on, when many of his friends thought there was still hope for a peaceful pro-democracy movement, he was convinced Islamists would take over. He remembers his reply when a friend asked him in 2011 to join the demonstrations.

"I'm secular. I can't go with you to do revolution in front of the mosque," he recounts. "Revolution, it's avant-garde, it's not behind. And mosque is behind. This is my opinion from the beginning."

It's also his opinion, or perhaps his hope, that art can bring change. So he's kept his artists' retreat open throughout the conflict. Young painters, actors, dancers and musicians come to his door looking for a place to create in a time of destruction.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

NPR's Peter Kenyon recently visited Syria. He was one of the few foreign journalists to be invited by the government to report on the country's ongoing conflict. In the historic heart of Damascus, he met one of Syria's most famous artists, someone who's created a creative oasis in the middle of civil war.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: The narrow alleys of the old city of Damascus are not filled with tourists admiring the historic churches and gorgeous traditional architecture. The nearly six-year conflict that's killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced millions more has seen to that.

But turn a corner in what's still called the Jewish quarter, though at most only a few dozen Jews remain in Damascus. You'll stumble on an unexpected find - a refuge for young artists to hone their skills and to celebrate modern secular life.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KENYON: Inside the courtyard of the sculptor Mustafa Ali's beautifully restored 500 year old stone house, the call to prayer from a nearby mosque competes with a rock band practicing a version of Queen's "Somebody To Love." Ali's sculptures are everywhere - figures in bronze, wood and other materials along with the work of other Syrian artists.

An energetic, ginger-bearded 60-year-old in a baseball cap, Ali seems at home in this artists' retreat he's created - part gallery, part performance space and part funhouse. He says his biggest artistic influence was Palmyra, the Syrian UNESCO Heritage site that was partly destroyed by Islamic State militants last year. He says he still remembers how moved he was by the ancient city, especially the magnificent half-mile-long necropolis known as the Valley of the Tombs.

MUSTAFA ALI: It was, for me, my influence. Why - because, you know, I believe in eternity. I say, people of Palmyra - they know how to live in life, and they know how to be eternity in the second life.

KENYON: Ali says he believes in art, not politics, and he didn't join anti-government demonstrations in 2011. But as the uprising and brutal government crackdown turned increasingly violent, Ali did become part of the story to his cost.

His main warehouse where he kept raw materials and some valuable finished works was in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, a rebel stronghold. Ali says one day, three rebels came to the warehouse and found one of his assistants there.

ALI: They catch my carpenter. They say, where is Mustafa Ali? He said, he's not here. No, they destroyed everything. And if I was there, they want to cut my head.

KENYON: Later he explains some of the artworks were stolen, not destroyed, probably to be sold. After that, themes of helplessness and destruction began to appear in his work. One of his wooden sculptures from this period shows a human face split vertically down the middle, and the two halves no longer align.

ALI: This face - it was 2013 - like Syrian face because, you know, we kill - brother kill his brother.

KENYON: It's possible that the attack on Ali's warehouse played a role in his decision to not support the Syrian uprising, but he says even early on when many of his friends thought there was still hope for a peaceful pro-democracy movement, he was convinced Islamists would take over. When a friend asked him in 2011 to join the demonstrations, Ali says this was his reply.

ALI: I'm secular. I can't go with you to do a revolution in front of the mosque. Revolution - it's avant-garde. It's not behind. A mosque is behind. This is my opinion from the beginning.

KENYON: It's also his opinion or perhaps his hope that art can cause change. So he's kept his artists' retreat open throughout the conflict, and young painters, dancers, actors and musicians come to his door to create in a time of destruction. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Damascus. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.