New Haven-based Syrian architect recreates the streets of Damascus during war in tiny form, with the living and dead side by side.
In New Haven, Connecticut, an inconspicuous art studio has become a gateway to Syria.
Jutting out from its walls are miniature facades of the old neighbourhoods of Damascus, its pointed archways and ornate gold-painted doors, its washing lines strewn with shreds of “aghabbani”, traditional silk cloth embroidered with gold and silver threads.
Then there are its blackened apartments blasted open with shrapnel revealing a single chair sitting in the rubble. Here the living and the dead, the past and the present are juxtaposed side by side, whispering of nostalgia for the Syria of old.
The studio belongs to Mohamed Hafez, a Syrian-American artist and architect.
Taken by the everyday features of Syria decimated by the civil war, which began in 2011, Hafez straddles two worlds.
He is both a corporate architect designing skyscrapers, and an artist recreating visceral dioramas of his homeland.
Hafez gestures to a wall of shelves crammed with wires, dried flowers, wood, and an assortment of junk to the eyes of any visitors. “That wall of shelves contains the ingredients of the day,” he says.
Miniature car models are a regular feature in some of these streetscapes.
“Similar to Cuba where we see a lot of old cars, in Syria we have old Soviet cars. Peugeots, Renos, Mercedes and BMWs are a very big part of the Syrian fabric. Generations have grown up around these cars.
“The fabric I use in my laundry lines, called aghabanni, comes from Syria. In my last trip before the war, I asked a textile merchant to give me some of his scrap fabrics. Each little piece is attached somehow to a nostalgic memory of something.”
‘If you can’t go home, maybe you could recreate home’
Hafez grew up in Saudi Arabia where his father practiced as a physician. His work stemmed from homesickness and depression when he arrived in the United States to study architecture at Penn State University in Iowa on a single-entry visa in 2003.
“I was in the middle of corn-fields in the dead of winter with nothing to do. I couldn’t go home because my student visa was stamped as a single-entry only. One night, I collected scrap materials used for architectural models, anything from basswood, to plaster, to plastic, to styrene.
“I had this pile of what people might consider garbage, and I started toying around with it. Nine hours passed by, I looked at the clock and it was about three in the morning when I just finished modelling a little façade from old Damascus. That caused a little bulb to turn on in my brain. It taught me that if you can’t go home, maybe you could recreate home.”
“The Muslim travel ban that we all know of today existed many years ago.”
Hafez is not referring to US President Donald Trump’s ban, but the controversial visa tracking programme – NSEERS (National Security Entry-Exit Registration System).
Implemented by the Bush administration following the September 11 attacks, the programme required non-citizen male visa holders aged 16 or older to register their fingerprints and their photographs. They were also subject to interrogation and had to regularly report to immigration officers.
Of the 25 nations mandated to register, all but one was a Muslim-majority country. Hafez’s single-entry visa meant he could not return to Syria without risking being readmitted back into the US.
It wasn’t until 2011, following the start of the Arab Spring, that Hafez finally returned. He had been asked to pitch a project in neighbouring Lebanon for an architectural firm.
The visa reissuing process, which should have only taken a few weeks, dragged on for nearly two months, but Hafez relished the opportunity to live in the chaos of Damascus.
“I was so thirsty for Syrian culture, I was in heaven,” Hafez says. “Damascus is considered the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. It has architectural elements that are biblical, Islamic, Greek, Roman, all side by side. As a Western educated architect, I was just blown away with the amount of heritage on the ground.
“I would jump into taxi cabs, coffee shops, and record the conversations. I would go to the courtyard of the Omayyad Mosque where you could hear children running, pigeons flying, and the recitation of the Quran overlapping a call to prayer. All I did every day was walk around old Damascus, recording everyday life with my phone.”
Civil war in miniatures
Shortly after he returned to the United States, the Syrian civil war began.
The shock paralysed Hafez’s creativity for two years, but once again, emotional trauma became a wellspring for his creativity. What began as a cathartic way to remember home with nostalgia resulted in a complex project, rooted in the destruction caused by the war.
“When I’m building these things, especially the war pieces, I can’t tell you I’m 100 percent consciously there,” he says.
The smoke of burning incense curls up towards a collage of photographs of Syrian men, women and children from before and after the war, scattered across the walls.
“I start with looking at a lot of dramatic photos of the destruction, of people that have passed away. I dim the lights, I play acoustic Syrian music, and I burn a lot of bakhour and incense. It doesn’t take me too long before I have built a very nostalgic and sad emotional state and I am in this cloud that is no longer in New Haven.
“With all these embodied emotions and sadness that I have inside of me, I take it immediately and start building. None of these pieces are designed before-hand. They are designed and built on the spot.”
The voice of Syrian musician Hamza Shakkur and the scent of strong Arabian coffee fill the air of the studio.
Were it not for the snow drifting down outside, this art studio could well resemble a bustling cafe in Damascus.
Tackling anti-immigration sentiment through art
In what has become an increasingly anti-immigration and anti-Muslim landscape in the United States, Hafez’s work has taken on new resonance as a vehicle for dialogue about immigration.
Explaining the responsibility he feels as a Syrian-American contemporary artist, he says: “My artwork has put me in places and situations where I was the first and only Muslim people ever interacted with. I don’t design work to cater to my echo-chambers. I am trying to reach out to the opposite mind-set. How do you do that if you get introduced as an Arab-Syrian artist called Mohamed? You are immediately faced with judgement. Hearts and ears will be shut against you. This is where the art has to do its work. I let the work engage people on an emotional level, and so I learned to speak with my mouth shut.
“In this day and age where we have a Muslim travel ban, it is very important to tell people that we must not allow history to repeat itself. These laws are not abstract laws that just get written in paper. Such laws affect real people’s lives.”
His most recent work, Baggage Series, tells the narrative of the refugee crisis, of the physical and psychological trauma experienced by families forced to flee their homeland.
Sitting inside antique suitcases are miniatures depicting what migrants may have left behind, from ornate Victorian interiors to little shoes abandoned in rubble.
Hafez knows only too well the effect of the refugee crisis; his own sister, also an architect, fled Syria for Sweden.
“There’s a perception that immigrants and refugees have no established lives. What I’m trying to do is to say that these houses held established lives, they held stories in them, and they supported many families who had dreams and aspirations.”