For nearly four months, images of bombs, destruction and death in Ukraine have shocked the world. As a result, the Assad regime’s war in Syria – now in its 11th year – has seemingly faded into the background and out of the headlines. Yet photos and videos of bombed-out Syrian cities and destroyed cultural sites by so-called Islamic State militants, which have permeated the media for the past decade, have made a lasting impression.
Today, an exhibition at the Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum in Cologne attempts to bring a different image of Syria to the forefront of minds. “Syria — Against Forgetting” tells the story of a very different Syria — a Syria with vibrant daily life, a rich artistic history, and the peaceful coexistence of people from different cultures and religions.
The exhibition also focuses on the religious traditions of Syria
“The main goal is not to talk about the war,” says archaeologist Jabbar Abdullah, who curated the exhibit. In recent years, media coverage has focused exclusively on the horrors that have taken place, he says, but his homeland is much more than that. “We want to show a different Syria and give Syrians a positive memory of their homeland.”
The exhibition includes historical artifacts from the earliest eras of mankind, which are on loan from other German collections. There is also the art of calligraphy and a space where visitors can learn about the different dialects and styles of traditional clothing in Damascus, Aleppo and Raqqa.
Visitors to the exhibition can also learn about religion in Syria. Particular attention is paid to Judaism, which, Abdullah points out, has a long tradition in Syria. “Unfortunately, Judaism was not allowed to be a main topic for decades,” he says. Pogroms against Jews took place in Syria in 1947, and many Jews left the country in the early 1990s. Today, the only synagogue in the country is in Damascus.
The long history of Judaism in Syria is an important part of a new exhibition in Cologne
Student during the Arab Spring
Abdullah, now 32, grew up near Raqqa. He was studying at Aleppo University when the Arab Spring reached Syria and the regime bloodily suppressed student protests. In 2013, he fled to Egypt, later earning his master’s degree in Alexandria. “Europe was not on my mind at the time,” he says.
Archaeologist Jabbar Abdullah curated the exhibition in Cologne
But after the military coup, the security situation in the country deteriorated rapidly. Abdullah traveled to Turkey and then to Bulgaria, where he stayed for a year until arriving in Cologne in 2014. He wrote about his experiences in the book “Raqqa am Rhein” (Raqqa on the Rhine), published in 2020.
Adapt to a new reality
Abdullah has many fond memories of life in Syria before the violence began. “I started doing excavations in my village when I was a child,” he says. He associates this happy childhood with big dreams and a bright future in his native country. Yet, that did not happen. “All of a sudden you find yourself living in a new social system,” he says.
Adapting to German life and integrating into society was a given for Abdullah, but even after eight years in Germany, some customs still seem foreign to him. “At birthdays, everyone gets up or sits down in small groups; in Syria, everyone sits around a big table,” he notes.
The ancient city of Palmyra in Syria, visible as a cork model above, was almost completely destroyed by the militant group ISIS
Attacks on culture
The title of the exhibition, “Against Oblivion”, highlights how the constant images of Syria’s horror and destruction have made people forget what the country looked like before the war – and also what many Westerners knew little about Syria before the war. A similar realization is currently occurring with regard to the conflict in Ukraine.
Between 2015 and 2017, terrorist militias from the so-called Islamic State destroyed the UNESCO World Heritage Site in the ancient city of Palmyra, including the Roman-built Tetrapyl and Temple of Baal; today, Russian missiles are targeting Ukrainian cultural sites. Just as cultural heritage is destroyed, so are the memories of history and tradition.
“We must save the young generation”
Abdullah has since acquired German citizenship. He says that a few years ago he wanted to return to his native country when the war ended to help rebuild the country. Not much remains of these plans.
“We are hopeless,” he said. He does not believe that the Assad regime’s regime will end. The political influences on the country, currently threatened by another conflict with Turkey, are too strong.
Abdullah says it is important to help from outside, for initiatives to build schools and kindergartens to ensure children can get an education. “We have to save this young generation because they will be very important for Syria in 20 years,” he said.
He is “very concerned” that the situation in his homeland will continue to fade from international political attention as the war in Ukraine continues. And if he approves of Germany’s support for Ukrainian refugees, he nevertheless perceives worrying elements in it.
“It’s great what Germany is doing for Ukrainians fleeing the war,” Abdullah said, highlighting how Ukrainian refugees get help with bureaucracy, quick access to work and language lessons. and are often housed in apartments instead of collective shelters. .
But, he points out, such scenarios rarely existed for Syrian and other refugees who arrived in 2015. Differentiation is dangerous, says Abdullah: “If aid only applies to certain groups, I don’t I don’t feel like I belong.
The exhibition “Syria — Against Forgetting”, at the Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum, is visible until September 11, 2022.
This article was translated from German by Sarah Hucal.