Inner War and Peace

Inner War and Peace

Delicate, wispy curtains blush deep white all around. Resplendent furniture fills the space with carved, polished wood, embroidered textiles and lamps like fine china. On the walls come breaks in the tranquility: explosive, jagged sculptures meant to capture a war-torn tragedy close to the artist’s heart.

I’m in Mohamad Hafez’s Morris Cove home, in his traditional Syrian sitting room, and I’m feeling self-conscious. Between sips of traditional Syrian coffee—long roast, no filter—I’m also enjoying traditional Syrian cookies, piled neatly on a fine metal-rimmed plate. But I keep dropping crumbs. I can see them flashing downward, illuminated in sunbeams, soiling Hafez’s immaculate sanctuary.

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Fortunately, I haven’t worn out Hafez’s traditional Syrian hospitality. “Please, don’t worry,” he says with kindness after I voice my apprehension, and somehow his saying so does the trick. Hafez, an accomplished architect for Pickard Chilton and an emergent fine artist on his own time, exudes an orderly sense of calm good for putting others at ease. But it’s not nearly the whole story. Beneath the surface, most visible in the wells behind his angular dark spectacles, gathers a great swell of anguish at what’s happening to his homeland.

Syria’s been in the news a lot lately. What began with a few Arab Spring-inspired teenagers painting a cryptic message on a wall—“It’s your turn, doctor,” they wrote in 2011, referring to repressive president and ophthalmologist Bashar al-Asaad—has become an all-out civil war. According to news reports, the death toll has passed 250,000, while some 11 million people—roughly half of Syria’s entire pre-war population—have been forced to leave their homes. Murder, rape and abduction are common, among other atrocities. The once-unified rebel side has fractured along religious lines, and the ultra-violent, extranational Islamic State, also known as ISIS, has seized control of vast swaths of the Syrian countryside. Fleeing the violence, millions of refugees have streamed into neighboring countries or made the harder but potentially more rewarding journey to Europe.

News reports tend to focus on the direct costs of the conflict. Like all who experienced and loved it surely do, Hafez feels deeply the harder-to-quantify loss of everyday Syrian culture—of the way of life he recalls from his time living in the capital, Damascus, one of the world’s oldest cities. Through his words and art, he relates some of the sights and sounds and other sensations he remembers: streets crowded with centuries-old architecture; songs of prayer and parakeets meeting the ear calmly, unobtrusively, as if the sound waves themselves were simply out for a stroll; lights strung up across a shared facade, past ornately trimmed arches and vivid oriental rugs airing out on sills and balconies.

Long before the war started, Hafez made the difficult choice to leave those scenes behind. It was 12 years ago, he estimates, when he first came to America. He was on his way first to Northern Illinois, then to Iowa State University, where he would earn his architecture degree, and where, in the meantime, he would find himself quite homesick.

But returning home, even for a short visit, wasn’t a viable cure. “As a foreign international student after 9/11, if you have an F1 visa, particularly if you’re Syrian, every time you leave the country you have to reapply for your visa, and they run a security background check, which took one year the first time I applied,” Hafez says. He couldn’t afford to risk losing another year to bureaucrats, not least because it might have jeopardized the degree and professional life he was working towards. “It was my career and future and success versus going home and seeing my family. I had to make that choice.”

He chose to finish what he’d started. But he also found a way to gain a measure of inner peace, one that engaged his burgeoning architectural talent: making models of some of the scenes he’d left behind. Not for the sake of building something bigger—like this glassy, angular, 48-story office tower he designed for the skyline of Houston, Texas—but for their own sake, and for his. Early works—fashioned from plaster, then painted—were small recreations of actual Damascan facades he had photographed, featuring woody front doors, shuttered windows, snaking drain pipes and mortared bricks peaking through rifts in stucco-like walls.

Then the work became more ambitious. Larger. More detail. More layers. More abstraction. More materials. More to say.

Especially since the war broke out. A recent work, His Royal Highness II, has a regal gold-trimmed window topped by a delicate crown and guarded by little green men. It rests atop a bulging stack of blown-out, red-splattered fragments from much humbler buildings—the price the ordinary people have paid, that the powerful have not. Dimpled, slightly conical metal pieces like jet turbines stick out from this pile of bones, suggesting bombs as the weapon that blew them apart. On his website, Hafez makes his intent clear—“a direct critique all tyrants and dictatorship regimes around the world that seized control over the corpses of their nations.”

He says one of his favorite pieces is A Refugee Nation—a tangle of exposed wires, wall fragments and sandy tents built into an old typewriter carrying case. Meant to give viewers a sense of the shelled-out “new aesthetic cities have taken” on, it’s also a tribute “to the strong will power of all civilians forced to shelter in decrepit structures or torn tents in the middle of the Arabian desert…” Being meant for a typewriter, the suitcase is smaller than most and rigid, emphasizing the harsh constraints—of resources, possessions and options in general—most refugees have had to accept.

“I also feel like I live in a suitcase,” Hafez confesses, even as we sit in his beautiful home, on a quiet street, on a temperate, sunny day in New Haven. “You carry this baggage of emotions with you,” he says of Syrians the world over. “This war-torn country is in you.”

Mohamad Hafez

Written and photographed by Dan Mims.

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