Even before peace can even be imagined in Syria, there are already plans underway to renovate antiquities destroyed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levent when they took control of the central Syria in 2015. The United Nations and UNESCO have both pledged support to reconstruct Palmyra, an important site of ruins dating back to two thousand years BC. But while war rages on, Syrians in Za’atari refugee camp begin reconstruction on a much smaller scale.
In 2015, Mahmoud Hariri and a group of Syrians in Jordan’s Za’atari refugee camp took it upon themselves to remember and recreate Palmyra’s historical sites threatened by destruction. By doing so, these artists gained exposure for the Syrian situation while at the same time using artistic efforts to activate memory and maintain connection to homeland. Mahmoud says:
We haven’t had electricity in the camp recently, so I hadn’t seen the news. I’m very worried about what might happen. This site represents our history and culture, not just for Syrians but all of humanity. If it is destroyed it can never be rebuilt.
While not a part of contemporary Syrian culture, the Palmyra historic site serves as an important component of nationalism and nationalistic pride in the same way the Great Pyramids are iconic to Egypt’s identity, Stonehenge is to the United Kingdom, and Teotihuacan is for Mexico. It might be parallel were displaced Americans, as an act to remember their homeland, created models of the Statue of Liberty or Mount Rushmore.
In other articles you will find me saying that artists and artistic production captures issues and ideas that politics and media often overlook. The story of these artist and what they’ve done defies my statement, and while I still believe it is generally true, news and social media have mightily covered this story and the accomplishment of these artists in exile. The artists and the media covering them, like me, are aided by UNHCR (UN Refugee Agency), who finds important efforts like this one where refugees cope with extraordinary challenge using creativity and limited resources. It is not only their own memories they reconstruct, however, and even from tents in refugee camps they are recreating important relics of our world for “but all of humanity.”
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