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The interview: Mohamad Hafez

Mohamad Hafez
A portrait of Mohamad Hafez. PAUL SPECHT

You were born in Damascus, then spent much of your childhood in Saudi Arabia before moving back to Syria as a teenager. What was it like growing up in such different landscapes?

It’s strange, but growing up in Saudi Arabia was actually the best childhood you could hope for! It was a manicured bubble. I used to go to school by bus and I looked forward to it every day because we would drive 200 kilometres across the desert. I think that’s where I began to love being alone, especially because I was one of those weird kids who didn’t like sports. I was 14 when my family moved back to Damascus for a few years, and for me, being back home in Syria was like a non-stop performance! The streets were teeming with life and sensations, so when my parents took their siestas I would explore the streets of the old city. I still remember some of the smells, like the jasmine flowers that hang over house walls. We call it Damascene jasmine, and I was like a small, dry sponge, soaking all this up. But, after just a few years as a Damascus teenager, I moved again to the US, to study architecture.

One of your exhibitions features miniature scenes of streets in Damascus, framed by Victorian-era mirrors. How did you make the transition from being an architect to an artist, and what provoked you to create miniature models?

I actually started making models while I was at architecture school in the US. To be honest, the Damascus models have never been based on actual streets, but rather my romantic perspective of my nostalgia and deep homesickness for Syria. After I qualified, I stayed in the US – I spent many years as a clean-shaven guy working as a corporate architect for multi-nationals, including oil companies! Sorry to say that now! But gradually my artwork took over, because I wanted to focus on what home means, especially to those of us who have lost it. My pain is nowhere like the pain of those who are still inside Syria, but I haven’t been able to go back home since 2011. Even that was just a very short trip to Damascus to see my family. Then the war broke out and I knew I wouldn’t be able to go back for a long time. One of the results of my long exile is that my recollections of Syria are frozen in memory since before the war started. I have fallen in love with the idea of Damascus, and my memories of her; this work means that I can feed my twin passions of street art and activism.

In light of your intense homesickness for Syria, does the US feel like home, or is it maybe more like a state of limbo for you?

I live in Connecticut, and America does feel like home now. Damascus is also home, but in a very different way. Because, you know, home isn’t just a physical place. I have two different mindsets: one preoccupied with my intense reflections on the Middle East, especially Syria – and then there’s my Western self. For me these two identities live side-by-side, but they don’t clash. Though I would say I’m a proud American, I can also say that the way the US government treats migrants, and issues of migration, is hypocrisy. It is a country built by migrants, and it needs to remember that more, and to stand by its founding principles. I’ve done artworks on migration, and the loss of home for migrants and refugees forced to flee their homes, because we need much better policies on both of these issues.

Do you see links between architecture and wellbeing, as well as between the way that cities are designed and violent conflicts?

Indeed! Throughout Syria’s history, we understood so well this relationship between architectural space, beauty and wellbeing. If you take any classic courtyard home in Damascus, you can see, for example, that the windows face east and west, to welcome sunlight: and in the ways that domestic spaces are designed to provide sanctuary and privacy, as well as salons for welcoming guests. Outside, we lined the streets with trees to give shade, and to make walking a pleasure even in the heat. Another tradition was to build religious buildings from different faiths close to each other, like churches and mosques, because this promoted accommodation and peaceful coexistence. People sat together in public parks and gardens. Our [Syrian] architecture and streetscapes are the living evidence of these traditions. If our history before the [2011] war had been as bloody as people often think, these ancient buildings wouldn’t even exist! Now I honestly don’t know who could bring together different interests and religious groups inside Syria, because the status quo is silence. But if you look carefully, my models of Damascus streets contain hidden messages, especially for those who are still in Syria; these are messages of hope and encouragement – and they are also wake-up calls.

What arts projects are you currently involved in, and why?

I’m working with cultural and archaeological organizations and institutions [in the US], to educate new generations of young Syrians and Middle Easterners living in diaspora about their heritage. I want to plant my nostalgia with them especially about the architectural wealth of our region. And I’ve opened a ‘third space’ project called Pistachio: it’s a cultural salon where I invite friends for poetry and food, and to become agents of peaceful change. This is my activism, always embedded in my romance with nostalgia.

A short documentary about Mohamad Hafez, called ‘A broken house’, was shortlisted for an Oscar this year. It can be viewed at mohamadhafez.com

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