It was not scenes of death and destruction but images of colorful mosques, smiling strangers and family dinners that New Haven artist Mohamad Hafez discussed in his Sunday talk about his Syria-inspired art.
Hafez — a Syrian-born artist and architect who now lives in the Elm City — spoke in the United Church Parish House Lounge on the last day of his art exhibit in Silliman College. The exhibit, titled “Refugees: Stories of Life’s Dreams and Scars,” has been on display in Silliman’s Maya’s Room since Feb. 6 but comes down Monday. Hafez was invited to speak by local peace advocacy nonprofit Promoting Enduring Peace.
Of the subjects of his artwork, Hafez said the ongoing conflict has made everyday life very different.
“These normal day-to-day people are probably not smiling anymore,” Hafez said.
Hafez has not been to Damascus, the city where he was born, since 2011. During his last visit, which coincided with the dawn of the Syrian revolution, Hafez said he had a feeling deep in his gut that he would not be coming back any time soon.
Anticipating this, Hafez said he chose to begin documenting the beauty of everyday life in his home city to ensure its memory would not vanish.
Hafez’s artistic career started roughly a decade ago, when he was a homesick architecture student at Iowa State University. Using scraps from architecture models, he put together his first cityscape of Damascus while still at college.
Hafez’s art has taken many forms including portraits and plaster works, but he is now focusing on three-dimensional models that incorporate sound, in an attempt to draw in audiences desensitized by the barrage of images in the media of suffering refugees.
The slideshow he presented during his talk included photographs from a concert he had attended that featured a Christian and a Muslim choir singing alternating Christian and Muslim hymns together. Such a display was very typical in prewar Damascus, Hafez said.
“It is important to show such images. [The war] is not an eternal conflict; it is not a secretarial war. For centuries people lived side by side from many religions and backgrounds,” Hafez said.
Hafez urged the packed room of attendees not to think of Syrians merely as refugees but to consider the terrible conditions that are now making them risk their lives to flee their homes.
The rich cultural and archeological history of prewar Syria came to life through images of Damascus’ architecture and artwork during Hafez’s talk.
Doors were a prominent feature of Hafez’s photographs. He explained to the audience that it is typical for homes in Damascus to have plain exteriors even if the inside of the homes are richly decorated. He said doors are kept modest as an outward symbol that people are equally important, regardless of wealth.
He also included a photo of his family and pointed out that although some of his smiling sisters were wearing hijabs, his mother was not.
“We were raised with equality and freedom of choice and speech,” Hafez said. “The assumption that the [Syrian] culture is creating a religious war is preposterous.”
Iraqi photographer Maher Shaker, whose work was included in “Refugees: Stories of Life’s Dreams and Scars,” was also in attendance during Sunday’s talk. Shaker, who has lived in the United States for two years, shared the stories of the Islamophobia he has faced on multiple occasions in different cities.
“I tried to be friendly and talk to people but they don’t like this and they told me you are not from here. They tell me I am a terrorist,” he said, adding that he has been asked if he “remembers” 9/11 and told to “go home.”
Hafez also discussed Islamophobia and prejudices against refugees in his talk. He said it is interesting that politicians focus so much on terrorism and safety but fail to consider the implications of barring refugees from entering the United States. He explained that individuals stuck in refugee camps with no hope for the future are at a higher risk of radicalization.
PEP administrator Stanley Heller said his organization asked Hafez to speak because it was impressed with both the exhibition and Hafez. He said the main concern of his organization has traditionally been the injustices in Palestine. But in recent times, he said PEP’s focus has broadened.
“Our concern was always Palestine, but what’s [happening] in Syria is so huge, so enormous, so deadly,” he said.
The New York Times reports that more than 200,000 people have been killed during the four-and-a-half-year Syrian Civil War.