It was the ever curious travel writer Gertrude Bell who wrote so eloquently about the apparent anomaly of the conical mud-brick houses found in Twal Dabaghein and Sarouj east of the city of Hama, Syria.
Comparing them to nothing found outside of “illustrations to Central African travel books”, Bell had the same feeling we did many decades later while exploring the region to research a travel guidebook.
Ayman, our Syrian driver and sporadic guide, was in a helpful mood the day we visited the ‘beehive villages’, as they’re known to tourists. Poor Ayman. Despite our warnings when we hired him, he was a little overwhelmed by how many hours a day we had needed to work and how far we really needed him to drive each day to get our research done to our level of satisfaction. He later told friends he’d never worked so hard in his life!
Fresh after a few days off (on our dime), when we visited the beehive villages he was ready to dig a little deeper with us. While I’m sure he had been here before to visit, I don’t think any travellers had ever really wanted to do more than take a happy snap of the exteriors of the quirky structures and move on.
We wanted to gain a better understanding of how these people lived here — if, in fact, they still lived in the structures and didn’t just fill them with hay for the animals as they did in some places.
The family we met that day were definitely living in their little conical house. The mother was raising three children on her own and she really had to work hard to eek out a living to support her kids. Even before Ayman began to translate, we could tell by noting the expressions on her face and studying the compact space just how hard life was for her.
As it gets very cold there at night, a mountain of blankets was stacked along with mattresses in the home against one wall. She stood in front of them as she explained how they lived and her small children naturally gathered around her. With the blankets providing a colourful backdrop, I asked if I could make their portrait.
The image didn’t end up getting selected for the guidebook, which didn’t surprise me as it’s far less confronting to capture the peculiar exteriors rather than engage with their actual inhabitants.
I was a little surprised when I recently went back to look at these images closely and noticed that I had used my 35mm lens on the small Nikon D80. Then I remembered that the family was incredibly shy and I recollected that I had felt at the time that it may have spoilt the sense of connection that we had established after talking to them for a while if I brought out the ‘big gun’ D2X and start firing away.
I only made a few frames that day, conscious that the family was most certainly not used to visits by strangers bearing camera bags.
What I especially like about this image is the strong, serious expression on the boy’s face, as well as the way he’s wrapped his red and white checked keffiyeh around his baseball cap. While I can’t remember what the mother and daughter are looking at outside their ‘beehive’ (Lara tells me there were goats outside), I like the way the light falls on the daughter, highlighting her sad eyes.
Life was already hard enough for this family back in 2007, I hate to imagine how difficult it became after the war began. I wonder whether their strange little beehive homes have withstood the battles that have raged in the region around them and the bombardments by the Assad regime. But most of all I wonder where and how they are now.
Details: Nikon D80, 35mm f/2.0D Nikkor @ F3.2 @ 1/120th second @ ISO640.