Marwa al-Sabouni’s ‘The Battle for Home’ offers personal account of Syria’s conflict

Drawing of the Tekkiye Suleymaniye complex in Damascus on page 79 of “The Battle for Home.”

The line to Homs crackles but, with the seventh anniversary of the war in March, Marwa al-Sabouni is used to inconvenience. As an architect, she looks forward to reconstruction but she also has a daughter of 12 and son of 9 to raise.
“My son, Ayk, has a friend whose father was killed by a sniper and who explained to him exactly where the bullets landed in his dad’s body,” she said.
“One day, I discovered this child had attacked my son at school with a pencil and cut him behind the ear. So I asked him: ‘That’s very dangerous — what did you do?’ And my son replied: ‘I think he’s traumatised so I didn’t tell the teacher and have him punished.’”
Ayk may have inherited his mother’s preference for explanation over blame.
Sabouni’s “The Battle For Home” has won wide acclaim since published in 2016 by Thames & Hudson. In March she is to speak at Ireland’s prestigious “Mountains to Sea” festival alongside other leading writers such as Britain’s Joanna Trollope and Pakistan’s Mohsin Hamid.
“The Battle for Home: The Vision of a Young Architect in Syria,” peppered with Sabouni’s line drawings, would startle just as a personal insight into Syria’s conflict expressed in English prose of originality and power. Its ambition, however, is to locate origins of violence in architecture and urban planning and to outline a vision for recreating what in the book she calls “civilised environments where the communities live in peace.”
Over the crackly line from Homs, Sabouni traced the different civilisations that added layer upon layer to the city: “The basic model of the city goes back to Hellenistic [fourth century BC] and Roman times [64BC-AD395]. Ayyubid [1169-1260] and Mamluk architecture [1250-1516] are very evident in both Damascus and Homs, more so than Ottoman. They didn’t just tear down what had been built [before them].
“The souks, the old markets, were built in the same location as in Roman and Hellenistic times. Major mosques, like al-Nuri in Homs and the Omayyad in Damascus, were originally pagan temples, then transformed into churches and then into mosques. It was always evolution, integration, not razing to the ground.”
The break came with colonialism and modernism. Sabouni’s book recalls the French-mandate authorities applying the “Versailles” and “Haussmannian” models to Damascus, with a vast plan for ring roads and squares drawn up by Rene Danger between 1925 and 1937.
Modernism outlived colonialism, Sabouni said. “With an independent republic [after 1945], we should have come up with local solutions, but they called upon Michel Ecochard [who had worked with Danger and photographed Damascus from the air] in the 1960s to continue planning Damascus. We kept this inferiority complex: foreigners knew better.”
The grand schemes — Danger’s plan was 65% realised by 2009 — had scant regard for how people lived and worked. To this was added, by the 1970s and 1980s, a growing influx of countryfolk. Whereas the old cities encouraged mixing, modernist town planning bred segregation.
“People came from the villages with different skills — from the mountain, where they had little land, so they sold their labour,” she said. “They felt tension, that somehow they didn’t belong, that they were treated cruelly because of origin or sect.
“These newcomers are mostly Alawite but there were Shias, Christians, Druze and some Sunnis. Their unfair treatment was a moral decline within society. It was enhanced by urban planning, as they were settled together in one place away from the old city.”
The “built environment,” she writes in the book, created a “jungle” in which survival was for the “wildest and greediest… a precursor to war.” Lessons should be learned, Sabouni insists. Change should be no faster than people’s ability to absorb it.
“We must empower local tradesmen instead of importing building elements,” she said. “Let’s create pattern-books of windows, doors, arches, ornaments and walls to put in people’s hands instead of Western catalogues. Let’s use local materials — here in Homs, black basalt; in Damascus, limestone and black basalt. Allow masons, smiths, carpenters to have a market.”
In “The Battle for Home,” Sabouni highlights her proposals for Baba Amr, a sprawling Homs suburb, based on a “tree unit” design for homes, gardens and shops — allowing citizens both privacy and spaces for safe social interaction. It’s hard to imagine a greater contrast to the sharp lines of the highways and apartment blocks in the official plan.
To date, she said, little reconstruction was under way. “Homs is 60% destroyed, shrunk into three neighbourhoods. The rest is pancaked — hollow buildings ripped to the structure, concrete hanging off metal strips, although some people are living inside,” she said.
“The most evident problem is international sanctions, which bring difficulties in banking. The currency fluctuates. It’s not politically stable, people don’t know which legislation or building codes are coming, what kind of constitution might be introduced. Everything is on hold.”
Well, not everything, she remembers. “Children are amazing. You hear many stories and you see how resilient they are and how forgiving they can be. We should learn something from them.”
Gareth Smyth
has covered Middle Eastern affairs for 20 years and was chief correspondent for The Financial Times in Iran.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.