Keeping Refugees’ Hope in Art

By Ali Akbaba (Arabic Translator and Cultural Mediator) and Zeynep Şahin Mencütek (SRII-Global Cooperation Center/University of Duisburg)

During my fieldwork in Şanlıurfa for the RESPOND Project in the summer of 2018, I consistently heard that Syrians’ arrival to the city has contributed to the revitalization of the artistic and cultural landscape of this ancient city. There are now new reading circles, exhibitions and literature magazine, Arabic courses have been flourishing in the city with the contribution of Syrian refugee artists and their interactions with the locals. I had a chance to visit several exhibitions. Despite the attention on the importance of integration issues in the city due to the increasing resource-sharing based tensions between locals and Syrian refuges, this cultural and artistic dimension has received scant attention. Considering the potentiality of art and cultural activities to prevent tensions and conflicts, it seems important to give a glance to this neglected dimension. 

One of the aims of RESPOND is to give voice to refugees themselves. This blog entry would like to give a voice to the story of Taha Al Taha who is a folklore historian, trover and museum founder from Syria who had to flee in from the fighting in Raqqa to the border city Şanlıurfa a few years ago. Mr. Al Taha’s story was shared by cultural mediator and translator Ali Akbaba who  built a close relationship with him. The following interview was conducted with Mr. Al Taha to learn about his artistic activities in Syria and Turkey. The interview also tells us about memory, trauma, space, culture, refugees’ efforts to challenge prejudices, and many other issues touching on the experience of displacement.

Mr. Al Taha is growing flowers in the old shoes. He said that “if flowers even grow in these old shoes, it means there is still hope for me”

Mr. Al Taha is growing flowers in the old shoes. He said that “if flowers even grow in these old shoes, it means there is still hope for me”

Interviewer: Could you please introduce yourself?

Mr. Al Taha: I was born in Raqqa. I am married with four kids. I live alone in this small room.  I am a folklore historian, I was doing research on culture and popular folklore. I had turned my humble house into a museum in Raqqa with my own resources.  In this museum, I was organizing publicizing activity for an artist each year. All exhibitions and art activities held in a given year were dedicated to  a chosen artist. In this way, the museum was honouring the artists from all over the world. In the museum, we were also organizing poetry and drawing competitions. I became a known person in Europe and the Arab World in these organizations. 

 Interviewer: How did your interest in art started?

Mr. Al Taha: I am an environmentalist person. Plants, nature, environment, and historical buildings always took my attention. While I was a kid, I was bringing old coins and old things to the house. My mother was getting angry at me. In the course of time, this interest turned into a hobby, then I improved it. 

Interviewer: How were your artistic activities in the museum benefiting Syria?

Mr. Al Taha: Artists from Europe and Arab World was learning about the culture and art activities of Syria. We were also contributing by partially giving an opportunity for the exhibition of European cultural world in Raqqa. The museum which I established in Raqqa turned into a door opening to the European and Arab cultural/artistic world.

Interviewer: When did you come to Turkey?

Mr.  Al Taha:  I had to come to Turkey two years ago. The tragedy experienced in Syria can neither be fully  explained by words nor written by pens. War planes dropped bombs over us without differentiating children, women, old people, men, pro-Assad, anti-Assad, noone. The planes were like spilling out death with the dropping of bombs. Raqqa fell to the ISID in 2014. The ISID severely damage the museums in Raqqa. It claimed that the museum contradicts the Islamic idea. This is a trauma for me. ISID demolished my most valuable thing, the museum.   Under these conditions, I had to take a decision of hijra (referring to migration in Arabic and Islamic teachings) by leaving my home and museum which I loved a lot, more than myself.

Interviewer: Can you  please tell us about your artistic activities in Şanlıurfa?

Mr.  Al Taha:  Here, to build an archive, I am collecting old newspapers, magazines, and books published in Arabic in Urfa. People think that I am insane. In fact, I collect these old documents not to get crazy under these conditions. Moreover, I am writing the biographies of local artists if I could access the art work of Syrian or local artists of Urfa such as paintings and photos. In order to introduce Urfa to Syrians, we took photos of Urfa’s historical mosques, streets, churches, and old bazaars with Syrian photographers. I collect them for displaying in my house[1] here.

Mr. Al Taha shows his collected old books in the house to Mr. Akbaba.

Mr. Al Taha shows his collected old books in the house to Mr. Akbaba.

Interviewer: Why do continue your artistic activities here?

Mr. Al Taha:  First of all, there are prejudices about Syrians. It is commonly thought that Syrians are people in need who ask for bread and a package of food. Syrians are symbolized as children who sell a handkerchief on the streets or those who are beggars in mosques. I do not claim that Syrians do not do such things. But, there are some Syrians who are still interested in the art and cultural activities even under such difficult conditions. Second, the activities in which I conducted in Raqqa were the outcomes of 50 years of laborious efforts.  The collection activities here are healing my pains and are lessening my sufferings. These collections are the most important things for me. Believe me, I can remain hungry, but I cannot survive without art.  

Interviewer: Does any visitor come to see your collections?

Mr. Al Taha:  I have started this work from a stretch. I am doing it to revitalize the cultural ties between two cities and communities. Every painter who makes a beautiful portrait wants it to be displayed and seen by others. I also want everyone, every person I meet here, to see my work. I hope your interview may help to receive attention of Turkish authorities and art-lovers to my works.  I almost collect these pieces of work from garbage and put them together as an art-work. I really want my efforts to succeed.

Mr. Al Taha collects newspaper articles for writing biographies in one of his house room.

Mr. Al Taha collects newspaper articles for writing biographies in one of his house room.

Interviewer: Are there any similarities between Raqqa and Urfa?

Mr. Al Taha:  This geography is a kin geography. Raqqa is the city where I was born and lived. I know Urfa very well. I wrote five books about Urfa. There are great similarities between their historical buildings and plants. Urfa and Raqqa are like twins. I can give an example to reinforce my argument. In 1736, Rıdvan Pasha was the governor of both Urfa and Raqqa. I have been studying on the cultural similarities and differences of these two cities.

Interviewer: In your journey with art, who were your mentors and supporters?

Mr. Al Taha:  I can tell that nature, plants, historical buildings, the city of Raqqa are my mentors. There is no artists who are not inspired from his own land and breathed air. This is natural. People are the children of their own society. Every artists carry on the imprints of their own society.

I never forget the words of my mother who was saying, “are you insane, why do you collect these documents having no monetary value”. To give a response to her, I wrote a book in 1980 and it was published. Then, I wrote the biography of Abdüsselam El Uceyli who was a famous Syrian and Arabic author of stories and novels. This biography book turned into a well-known book in the Arab world.

Interviewer: You have mentioned about nature as your inspiration. What are the first things came to your mind about Raqqa regarding its nature

Mr. Al Taha:  The first thing is the Euphrates. The symbol of  Raqqa is this river. Poems are written, pictures are drawn for it. When I was there, we make cultural camps on the banks of Euphrates with environmentalist colleagues. If there is no nature, there is no city.

 Interviewer: You had a life full of art. Do you aim at continuing this under these difficult conditions?

Mr. Al Taha:  I have an accumulation of knowledge and experience of 50 years. My museum had source documents in different dialects. When the state museum was established in Raqqa in 1981, I donated all these documents. I then kept the archive of some newspapers for 25 years. In the art and literature field, I collected biographies of 1000 people. I have also studies in some other fields too.

Interviewer: Do you feel like a foreigner in Turkey? 

Mr. Al Taha:  As I said before, it is possible to claim that there are very few things making Urfa and Raqqa different cities. They in fact look like each other. I put emphasis on the cultural and folkloric unity between the two cities. Syrian and Turkish artists act as cultural bridges. The cultural-artistic activities which I have been trying to do should be led by the state institutions rather than people like me. I wish these can take the attention of people having more resources. My resources are very limited. I expect that institutions support those pursuing cultural activities. In particular, Metropolitan Municipality, District Municipalities and the Provincial Branch of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism support these kinds of activities.

Interviewer: As a last question, I want to ask you whether you miss Syria? 

The water of Euphrates. Is it possible that a lover will forget the loved one? I have never forgot it. I am deeply missing Syria and Raqqa. Our tears are in fact our blood. We will be valuable only with our homeland (watan).

Interviewer: Do you want to add something?

Mr. Al Taha:  I am making a call to the public, please challenge the negative presumptions about Syrians, we want journalists to contribute to correcting prejudices. You make a mistake if you believe Syrians only need food and water and beg for it. Syrians also make studies of poetry, painting, and literature. We kindly ask Turkish authorities to support Syrian refugees (muhacir) who create art with limited resources. I also deliver my gratitude and love to Urfa people who opened their doors and their hearts to us.

Interviewer: Thank you for sharing your great experience with us.

This photo has been recently taken to inform Mr. Al Taha about publishing his interview on RESPOND’s blog. He wants us to share it with his daughter who lives in Germany as a refugee.

This photo has been recently taken to inform Mr. Al Taha about publishing his interview on RESPOND’s blog. He wants us to share it with his daughter who lives in Germany as a refugee.

[1] Interviewer told that as he is the relative of a rich local family in Urfa, this family gave an old house for his use. He himself turned this old house and its barn into a museum. He displays these collected documents in the rooms of this house.  As it was used to house livestock before his moving,  it still smells of animals. He gets his meal from  the soup kitchen in the mosque every evening.