This is the fourth installment of a series reflecting on the Syria we knew and the Syrians we befriended in the years we travelled to the country before the Civil War. Parts one and two were on the Storyteller Abu Shady and Jazz Duo Rasha Rizk and Ghazwan Zerkli.
The Old City of Damascus had never been as alive as it was when we were last there in 2009. I remember our first trip to the Syrian capital in 1999. The old quarter was dimly lit and deathly quiet after dark. We could stroll the labyrinthine lanes at night and not see a soul. Damascenes retired early and there was little to do. I could count the number of restaurants, cafés and bars on two hands.
I remember making our way through the empty streets of the Old City to the restaurant Elissar and being astonished at the scene inside. Outside, the streets may have been deserted, but the enchanting courtyard within was crammed with tables of Damascene diners.
There was everyone from well-dressed middle-aged couples leisurely feasting on the fine Syrian cuisine while puffing on aromatic sheesha pipes to a big rowdy table of diplomats emptying bottle after bottle of Lebanese red as they tucked into mountains of mixed grilled meats. I’ll never forget the fairy lights, the trickling fountain, and hearing Farid Al Atrash for the first time. That was our introduction to Damascus.
A decade later and every medieval stone building in the Old City that wasn’t a shop was a coffee house, restaurant, boutique hotel, or art gallery. We stepped out of the tranquil courtyard of our beautiful little hotel Beit Al Mamlouka – an exquisite 17th century house in the Christian Quarter near Bab Touma that May Mamarbachi, who had a PhD in Islamic architecture, spent three years meticulously restoring – straight into one of the Old City’s busiest alleyways.
Not far away in the Jewish Quarter, things were a little quieter. However, one man, an artist, was changing that. He’d taken it upon himself to be responsible for the rejuvenation of the ramshackle district, and we interviewed him in late 2010. This is a slightly different version of the story we had published on Mustafa Ali.
Sculptor Mustafa Ali
Mustafa Ali is hardly the kind of person you expect to see on a Power 100 list. A diminutive, ginger-bearded man with a generous smile and twinkling eyes, Syria’s greatest sculptor is known for his big heart and considerable hospitality, as much as he’s renowned for his bronze sculptures. Arabian Business magazine named him one of the Arab world’s most influential cultural figures – two years running.
The country’s most beloved and most successful artist in Syria and abroad, Mustafa Ali has been a key player in transforming the almost abandoned Jewish Quarter from a dilapidated area devoid of life to a vital and vibrant neighbourhood. The artist has a vision for the whole of the Old City and a plan for how it can be made into a much more habitable place for residents and visitors
While the Jewish Quarter is still rough around the edges, its labyrinthine lanes lined with tumbledown buildings and cluttered corner stores, the area is increasingly attracting artists’ studios to its dusty alleys.
It’s also now home to stylish boutique hotels such as Talisman, established in 2007 in the same street, and will soon boast a luxurious new 80-room property in historic Beit Farhi, currently being restored opposite Mustafa Ali’s gallery, and due to open in late 2009.
When we arrive at Mustafa Ali’s splendid 500-year-old courtyard house, several photographers – one from Morocco and two from Syria – are hanging out in the cool liwan, a covered lounge area off the courtyard that catches the breezes.
They’re chatting, smoking, reading, and occasionally taking photos of the tranquil place that is now the Mustafa Ali Cultural Foundation, a lively arts and performance space and meeting point for the city’s artists and intellectuals. The sculptor appears from his cluttered office to greet us, immediately offering us cold drinks, tea, and cigarettes, and pulling out a few chairs.
Mustafa Ali bought the house in March 2004 and officially opened it to the public as a gallery and cultural centre that same summer with a large welcoming reception. Soon people started dropping in to visit and artists began migrating to the neighbourhood and opening workshops in the rickety old houses.
Some 40 artists, photographers, sculptors, and ceramists now work in studios in the historic houses that line the surrounding lanes, although you’ll barely catch a glimpse of them on a stroll through the old alleyways – their ateliers are hidden within courtyards behind the high walls.
The sculptor remains the face of the movement, with a constant stream of people calling in to his house throughout the day and night – artists, musicians, actors, intellectuals, tourists, ambassadors, and visiting dignitaries.
Most come to view Mustafa Ali’s work and see exhibitions he is hosting, others hope to meet the man himself, while some simply want to get a peek at the interior of an old Damascene house and soak up the atmosphere.
Mustafa encourages people to use the courtyard and his underground cave bar, for meetings, workshops and classes. He also hosts a program of weekly activities and events – music concerts, film screenings, modern dance performances, tango shows, and photography and art exhibitions.
The house could also be considered the first artists’ retreat in the quarter. Soon after establishing the cultural centre, the sculptor opened some rooms upstairs to visiting artists, writers and travellers intent on spending longer than a few days in Damascus to really get beneath the skin of the place.
“I want to change people’s perceptions of Syria, especially the perceptions formed by Western media,” he tells us, “People think it’s dangerous to come here. Many people have no idea there are artists in Syria and that we have such cultural activities. I want to show them how strong and alive our cultural scene actually is.”
In recent months the sculptor has been working on a strategy to formally develop the quarter into a vibrant arts area. He’s hoping to offer scholarships to foreign artists, writers and filmmakers to bring them to Syria for short periods to produce works that will help change people’s notions about the country.
Soon, a small park nearby will be developed so it can be used for cultural activities, more old houses will be restored, and – hopefully – the area will be pedestrianised. Mustafa Ali has been integral in a campaign to persuade the authorities to close the whole Old City to traffic, establishing car parks outside the walls, and introducing electric vehicles to transport people.
All of these activities would be full-time occupations for an arts administrator, a cultural ambassador and a town planner, but Mustafa Ali is foremost an artist. How he has time to conceive and execute his work with all the comings and goings at the centre is mystifying – until he leads us outside and along some dusty laneways to a run-down old house, one of four workshops he has in the Old City where he goes to work alone.
“Three families once lived here – upstairs there was a Jewish doctor, downstairs two Muslim families,” he explains, guiding us into his workshop. Mustafa escapes here to sculpt in the mornings, spending his afternoons at the courtyard house nearby. Sculpting remains his greatest passion.
“I started to sculpt properly at the age of 15. I made a portrait of another child in plaster, and this was my first real work. I dreamt about being a sculptor from the age of 13 or 14 when I went to the Fine Arts Institute at Lattakia,” he reveals. “I saw the sculpture room and I thought it was a temple. Immediately I asked the teacher if I could stay and I started to work there every day.”
Mustafa Ali’s first exhibition in 1988 was of a bronze sculpture, and he became renowned for his work in bronze. “Bronze is such a noble, strong material. I like the way it reflects the light and the way it changes colour,” he explains. “I like to change materials. I started to experiment with bronze and wood in 1992-93 and now I like to combine them in my work.”
Mustafa Ali collects wood from renovation projects in the city and stores it for future use. “The wood adds warmth,” he says. “With wood – you can feel the humanity of the material.”
Mustafa Ali’s sculptures have unique qualities, although you can sense the influence of his greatest inspiration, Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966), who hailed from an Italian-speaking area of Switzerland near the Italian border. Ali studied sculpture in Italy for six years, but he believes his main influences come from Syria.
“The first and greatest influence on my work was Ugarit and the finds on display from Ugarit at the National Museum. My second influence was Palmyra and the relationship between the earth and the sky there. Then came Old Syria and the Aramaic, and, more recently, after I moved to the Old City five years ago, I now seek inspiration from Old Damascus,” he tells us.
Back at his cultural centre, Mustafa Ali takes us on a tour of the galleries, showing us some of his favourite pieces, occasionally interrupted by phone calls – he’s organising an oud and qanun concert in the courtyard that night.
“This small piece is probably my most favourite piece,” he confides, showing us a tiny bronze called ‘The Balance’ consisting of a figure of a man with another figure balanced on his head. “I like this piece because it was based on big ideas – about finding the right balance in life.”
Only Mustafa Ali – sculptor, tireless promoter of Syrian art and culture, and influential Renaissance man for Damascus’s old-town renewal – could talk about balance, while juggling so many projects.
Later that night after the successful concert, Mustafa Ali is still holding court, introducing people to eachother, conducting informal tours of the centre, slipping in and out of conversations with several groups of people scattered around the courtyard, and, later, in his underground bar, excitedly discussing projects over beers. It’s a wonder he finds time to sleep.