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Aleppo, Syria
September 2006
Report by Fred Baldwin and Wendy Watriss

Despite continuing harassment from a variety of Syrian officials and bureaucrats, Issa Touma’s ninth International Aleppo Photo Gathering has had an unexpectedly long run. It opened September 15, 2006 and is still continuing. Pre-Festival detention of art works in Customs, unexpectedly high fees at the Aleppo Post Office and a last-moment withdrawal of permission to use the large empty electricity building that was to be loaned to the Festival for its main exhibition space failed to stop Issa Touma.


The international artists who have had their work reduced and crammed into the much smaller space of Issa. Touma’s LePont Gallery in the eastern part of Aleppo don’t seem perturbed.  Most had come to support curator Issa Touma’s mission to bring together international practitioners with young photographic artists from Syria and the Middle East and to foster a space for experimentation and exchange of ideas.

At the opening, there were artists from 13 countries. They came to experience Syria and support Issa’s struggle to create an international art space and event in Aleppo. The Dutch Ambassador Desirée Bonis and her husband, an expert in Bedouin poetry and oral traditions, were there to show support and their deep interest to the Middle East.  The former Dutch Ambassador to Egypt and the United Nations, Nicolaas Biegman, a photographer in his own right and Board member of the Prince Claus Foundation that is one of the festival’s major supporters, said he admired Issa’s fight and considers his work very important for international exchange in the Middle East. The Director of the Goethe Institute in Damascus accompanied German photographer Johannes Hepp to Aleppo. Even the U.S. Embassy’s cultural attaché, Brian O’Rourke, was there.


Sixty artists from 28 countries were invited to show work in the Aleppo festival, with more than a thousand works of art. Over 40 artists and curators were able to attend the festival.

The work of Moroccan-born Lalla Essaydi, whose large-scale staged photographic works challenge European-defined notions of Orientalism in Middle Eastern art, was exhibited alongside minimalist imagery of contemporary urban architecture in the United States and Europe by young German artist Julianne Erlich. Lebanese-American documentary photographer Rania Matar showed an image of a young child donning the hijab with care and dedication. Johannes Hepp’s panoramic images revealed the visual ordinariness of urban streets where major terrorist events have taken place around the world.


Among the strongest images were penetrating color portraits of factory workers in Aleppo by a young Syrian Kurdish artist, Nazem Jawesh, who is largely self-trained and self-schooled. His imagery was almost fiercely documentary in form. The frontal, close-up photographs of workers seemed to force these men to speak for themselves, deliberately removing the artist as intermediary.

Logistical problems made it impossible to hold the keynote conference on the role of culture in the East and West, scheduled to include European, American, and Middle Eastern artists and curators. But Austrian curator Gerald Matt, curator/director of Kunsthalle Wien in Vienna, gave an important talk, Cultures on the Move, about globalization and the need to find alternative definitions of cultural boundaries, referring not just to “first and third worlds” but to the “spaces in between” where transnational expression and media are finding or creating roots – “the emergence of an art of the hybrid.” 

British artist Ronnie Close talked about philosophical connections between the 1981 Irish hunger strikers and recent events in Iran. Satellite programs included two nights of classical Egyptian music and presentations of films and videos by Colombian artist Fernando Arias and Danish writer Monica Seidler. The showing of an historic documentary and photographs on the hajj, made in 1929, was a coup; even the festival’s Syrian detractors asked to see those works. In October 2007, a special screening of the film was held under the auspices of Syria’s leading official Sunni cleric, the Grand Mufti Ahmed Hassoun.

In response to the loss of his main exhibition space, Issa Touma continues the Festival, showing the photographic works in his small gallery, rotating exhibits and extending the time of the Photo Gathering from its original ten days to many months so every photograph can be shown.

An important part of the festival experience is being able to experience Syria itself -- breaking through the ‘wall’ of accusations and the complex political/cultural barriers that have arisen since the 1980s between Syria, the U.S. and many Western European countries. As one of the world’s oldest settled cities, Aleppo has experienced  Hittite, pre-Hellenic, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Arab Moslem dynasties – both Sunni and Shia as well as the Christian crusades, the Mamelukes, the Mongols, the Ottoman Empire, 20th century European (French) colonial occupation and post-colonial, single-party socialism. 


Although a self-described secular state that separates state and church, religion is visible and active – Sunni and Shiite Islam, Sufism, Armenian and Greek Orthodox, and Catholic. Places of worship are open and functioning as are many religious schools.


Although a historic city where social and cultural traditions are important, Aleppo is not fundamentalist. It is tolerant, open, and cosmopolitan, despite its cultural conservatism.  In the old center of the city, most women in public were cloaked in black, with their heads scarved and ankles covered. Very few, however, were completely veiled.  Younger women wore beige and gray scarves, with tunics. Except in airport security, few women were working in public places, such as stores, hotels and restaurants. 


Beneath their black clothes and in the privacy of home, however, there is evidence of different lifestyles, manifest in the very risqué lingerie shops in the souk marketplace. These shops, run by men, carry an enormous assortment of transparent women’s underwear in bikini format, sporting feathers, fur, ribbons and lace. Some break into bird song or Arab music when touched. One piėce de resistance is a chocolate ensemble where everything can be licked off but the straps. Storeowners said they aren’t selling to Western countries.  Their clients are Syrian and Saudi as well as women from the Emirate countries.  The new vogue, we were informed, is the use of remote control, rented video cameras to record the many changes of elaborate wedding gowns worn by brides on their wedding night.   

Staying in the old center of the city near the central arched souks and the citadel, one is surrounded by the dense activity of commerce, movement and social interaction.  Everyone is selling. Everyone is moving and interacting.  Nothing is still or quiet, except for the elder men sitting on the sidewalks or in the courtyards of the mosques.  The melancholy, haunting call of the muezzin five times a day creates moments of shared experience -- the ephemeral and penetrating reminder of collective histories and culture. The wind-blown sand from the nearby desert mixes with modern construction, graceful wooden Ottoman balconies, the imposing brick citadel, the ornate underground baths, the winding stone streets of the reconstructed Armenian-Christian quarters, the small ubiquitous glasses of sweetened tea, and above all the density and visual richness of the labyrinthine, arched souks that bring centuries of trade, produce and culture together in ways that are almost impossible to find in Europe or the U.S.


For anyone interested in history, the experience of looking at or bartering for rugs, textiles, herbs, precious and semi-precious stones from Herat, Shiraz, Isfahan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijian, Damascus and Sulemaniyah is a way to bring life to the past. From rap music to lapis lazuli, there is everything in the souks.  


Traveling south through the lost cities of Bara and Serjilla, one sees the extraordinary mosaics of Maarat  al-Numan and, along the route of the Crusaders, the ominous crusader fortress at the Krak des Chavaliers.

Heading east between Damascus and Baghdad, one enters the Syrian desert, covering two-thirds of the country, there one encounters the extraordinary ruins of Palmyra, rising out of the dun, pink mauve of rock and sand.  The last great oasis at the western end of the silk route, Palmyra rivaled Rome in 200 A.D.

Issa Touma’s festivals -- the Aleppo Photo Gathering and the Women’s Art Festival-- bring a different view of the world to Syria.  . Although he is deeply Syrian (and citizen of Aleppo) and very knowledgeable about the rich history of the country, Issa is trying to bring together the East and the West. He takes to Syria the innovative and often troubling side of contemporary art – presenting art works that wouldn’t otherwise be seen there. Issa is building a “space in between.” where Syrian artists can explore and encounter new forms of creative expression in photographic art – and where artists from outside the region can see contemporary photographic art that originates in the Middle East.


For this, he is paying a price. There has been more than six years of harassment from various political and official agencies and individuals. His gallery closed down by police at a moment’s notice. Permissions for the festival rescinded at the last minute.  Electricity cut off.  Shipment of art works held in Customs. Endless meetings with security police and government officials. Court appearances. Threatening phone calls.

Throughout it all, Issa Touma has remained steadfast in his commitment to his country, Syrian culture and his native Aleppo, even attempting to use his art festivals to bring abandoned historic buildings to public attention.

Issa’s open approach to the world is also running counter to what is appears to be growing fundamentalist movements among both Sunni and Shia in Syria.  People talk about open pressure and proselytizing by young men in factories and urban neighborhoods.  It  alarms both government officials and many moderate Syrians who are horrified at the effects of U.S. - British intervention in Iraq and growing polarization in the Middle East.  Anger over the events in Lebanon has come to the surface since the Lebanese war and has manifested itself in widespread Hezbollah posters and images of Nasrullah on shop windows and throughout the souks.  Last fall, in numerous towns throughout Syria, such as Palmyra, citizens were experiencing periodic blackouts as municipal electricity was sent to help Lebanon.


The Syrians we met were open, curious, and comfortable with people from abroad, even those of us from the U.S.  Given centuries of experience with cultures around the world, it should not be surprising that Syrians are quick to make distinctions between individual citizens and their governments.

Significantly, the Grand Mufti Ahmed Hassoun gave a special audience to the Aleppo Photo Gathering and its foreign attendees. A relatively young and eloquent man in his 50s, he used the meeting to discuss the role of art, the Photo Gathering festival itself and international exchange.  He criticized extremist movements among lslamic groups, particularly those calling for armed militancy.  He talked about the necessity of tolerance and said he saw Christianity, Judaism and Islam, all as valuable paths to God. His clear intent was to show his foreign audience that there are alternative and authoritative voices in the Islamic world taking issue with militant fundamentalism.  


Wendy Watriss, Frederick Baldwin and Eddie Phillipe
FotoFest International

Photographs taken with Leica Digilux 2