In Idlib, Aziz al-Asmar resists with colors and brushes
After 20 years in Lebanon, al-Asmar returned to his war-ravaged hometown where he records the story of the Syrian uprising, and its tragedy, on the city’s walls.
Al-Asmar is a graffiti artist with a round face, shoulder length hair and gentle, optimistic look who is dedicated to graphic activism, an artform that has dwindled in the rest of Syria outside of Idlib. Since January, the opposition-held stronghold has been controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a jihadist group dominated by the remnants of al-Qaeda’s Syrian franchise. The region is also under regime and Russian bombardment despite being designated as a “demilitarized zone” in a Russian and Turkish brokered agreement last September. The regime has indicated that it wants to take back the area by any means necessary, and Idlib’s population is forced to live under the constant threat of bombing raids on their cities.
"When there are air raids on Saraqib (about twenty kilometers away), we say that tomorrow it might be our turn,” says al-Asmar, who is 46 years old and has become popular outside of his town because of his art.
At the end of February, a baby girl was killed after her mother was fatally wounded by shrapnel in Maarrat al-Nouman, another town in Idlib. The tragedy shocked the population. In an attempt to cope with what happened, al-Asmar painted a tribute to the martyred girl on a wall in Binnish. Under the reproduction of her photo he included the caption: “The war against terrorism in Syria”.
"These are the drawings I prefer. It hurts, crushes my heart, but I must keep on painting the martyrs,” al-Asmar says. He is motivated by a desire to leave a trace, even for a brief moment, of the victims of this eight year long war. In Binnish alone, 1,000 people are reported to have died since 2011 and another 200 are believed to be held in the regime's prisons.
Not Tora Bora
Al-Asmar is a storyteller, and he not only wants to send a message to his countrymen, but also to the rest of the world. He feels that people outside tend to overlook what is happening in Idlib, a region that is all too often perceived as only a stronghold for jihadists. "Some even likened Idlib to Tora Bora,” al-Asmar says, referencing Osama Bin Laden's last refuge in Afghanistan, which has been controlled by the Islamic State since 2017. “Why give only a bleak vision of our region? Idlib is anything but that. We love life, sports, music, art,” he adds.
Before the Syrian revolution began, like many others, al-Asmar struggled to find work in Syria and left for Lebanon at the age of 22. He comes from a family of scholars and artists: his father is a civil servant and calligrapher; his maternal uncle studied law and medicine, but decided to become artists. In Beirut, al-Asmar found work at a publishing house and stayed for 20 years. He would see his former school teachers from Syria forced to work menial jobs in Lebanon during the summertime to make enough money to survive back home the rest of the year . "An English teacher who sold vegetables one day answered a buyer in this language. Upon seeing his surprise, the professor said to him, “Do not be surprised. The one who pushes the cart behind me is a professor of history, behind him, there’s another of philosophy, and the last one there, he is the principal of our school,” al-Asmar jokes.
The story is funny, but it also shows the serious economic problems Syria was facing in the 2000s. "The government was unable to help the graduates. When the Arab revolutions broke out, I thought we would finally be rid of this regime against which we dared not express our anger,” he adds.
Al-Asmar followed the beginning of the uprising from his apartment in the Karantina neighborhood of Beirut, where he lived with his wife and their two children at the time. He spoke with his relatives in Binnish and sketched portraits of the martyrs from his city. In July 2015, the bombing in Binnish became more intense because of its proximity to al-Fu’ah and Kfarya, two Shia villages that were besieged by rebel forces. Al-Asmar was afraid for his family’s safety to the point that he was losing sleep at night, and decided to return to his hometown. It was an unlikely decision at a time when thousands of Syrians were leaving the country to take refuge elsewhere.
Al-Asmar partially felt guilty that he was not suffering the same way others who opposed Bashar al-Assad were, but he also watched a growing surge in anti-Syrian xenophobia in Lebanon that led to a series of laws that made life more difficult for expatriate workers. "Very often, there were police raids in the neighborhood. It was very stressful,” al-Asmar recalls.
While he at times experienced racial profiling first hand, his employer was quite generous and gave al-Asmar an end-of-service benefit of nearly $11,000. The money allowed him to return back home.
Al-Asmar and his family crossed the border and moved back in Binnish in September 2015. The city was unrecognizable. "Just two days after our arrival there were air raids as I was walking in the street. I did not know what to do, so I threw myself on the ground while others kept going normally. It took me a while to get used to that,” al-Asmar says.
Back in his hometown, he decided to participate in the revolution in his own way, by decorating the war-ravaged walls of the city. His first work, a simple slogan, "Saoufa nabqa" ("We're staying"), tagged on the roof of a destroyed building, went viral on social media.
No matter what was happening elsewhere in Syria, the walls of Binnish, under constant threat of bombardment, became al-Asmar’s canvas. "I think of people who sacrificed their lives to pay for their homes, who may have died in them or who had to leave them because of the bombings,” he says of his inspiration.
Groups of children often join in to help al-Asmar with his paintings. They recognize him on the street and speak with him. He often goes to their schools to paint or goes to orphanages to try to brighten the children’s days, if just a bit.
An unusual family
Al-Asmar has also paid tribute to figures of the revolution who passed away recently, such as Syrian actress and dissident May Skaf, who died in Paris last June, and the emblematic Raed Fares, originally from Kfar Nabel, who is presumed to have been murdered by members of HTS, a group he fought as much as the regime.
For his part, al-Asmar says that he hasn’t had any problems with HTS and enjoys total freedom of speech, as do his nine brothers and sisters, all scholars and artist. Adnan, one of his two brothers who chose to remain in Binnish, is a sound engineer for an opposition media group and writes music in his studio. The other brother, Amer, is a calligrapher, cartoonist and English professor at the university. The rest of the family is dispersed between Germany, Turkey, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates.
Despite the desperation caused by the defeat of the insurgency, al-Asmar doesn’t regret returning to his hometown, where he continues to live with his wife, who is a teacher, and now their three boys, including a two-month-old baby. Al-Asmar’s oldest son, Ahmad, is 13. He’s first in his class and appears to be talented in literature. Mohammad, 10, is a math whiz and is often described as a little genius. At age four, he was already able to do mental calculations and quickly became unbeatable at chess. "He learned the Quran by heart and is able to multiply up to several million," his father says proudly.
Last Friday marked the eighth anniversary of the Syrian revolution. In Binnish, which means "son of man" or "humanity" in Syriac, several prominent figures, activists and artists who were displaced from Ghouta, Aleppo and Daraa met for a demonstration. Al-Asmar painted the flag of the revolution and wrote: "Slaughtered, but we continue".
(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 20th of March)