Part one of a three-part series reflecting on the role of culture in providing meaning for devastated communities.
“Can you ask him to explain what happened that day?” asked my journalist father sitting alongside me, notebook in hand. “There have been different accounts in the media and some video that might have been faked. I need to clarify what happened.”
Tarek sat in front of me, on the end of a dusty beige couch in what was once someone’s home, likely their pride and joy – a place for a family to be at peace. It was now one of the few intact houses in an abandoned city patrolled by edgy Syrian and Russian soldiers – Palmyra, Syria.
“It happened in the square, near the clocktower. I will take you there later,” Tarek said in Arabic. “That day they forced everyone remaining in the town to gather in the square and watch my father’s execution.”
Tarek’s father, archaeologist Khaled Al Asaad was the man who brought Palmyra to the world in the 20th century. A lifelong devotee of its ancient ruins, Al Asaad had been Syria’s lead expert on this world heritage site. His family was synonymous with the town, and both the town and family grew up around the restoration of desert oasis historical site.
We had come to see what was left of the fabled Roman-era city following its occupation by the soldiers of Islamic State, who twice drove the Syrian army out of the area.
Translating back to my father, I was locked in Tarek’s gaze. The room shrank in on us.
“It was around 10am when they took my father to the square,” Tarek said. “He refused to kneel, so they kicked him in the back of the legs and beheaded him right there.” Tarek’s eyes grew watery but he stared at me with unwavering faith. “Later they took his body and hung it up from a pole on the main road into town.”
I could barely breathe nor break Tarek’s gaze, let alone translate live. Separated from my father by the language barrier, in that moment I was the only one there with Tarek. One man telling another of the most traumatic experience of his life.
I didn’t try to say anything; all Tarek seemed to ask was for me to be there, to listen. Translating back to my father, my brain began to jam as emotion and linguistic logic fought for space. Emotion – more primal, more universal– won out. The interview paused as tears welled in Tarek’s eyes. I whispered the customary, “may god have mercy on him”, sipped tea and took a breath.
We were all tired from the previous day’s long journey to get to Palmyra and the ensuing sleepless night. Tarek and his quiet, chain-smoking cousin Ahmad had driven us several hours into the desert. Along the way, we talked about what had happened to Palmyra and its people in the period after ISIS captured the town four years earlier, in 2015.
The last time I had been on that same road was in April 2011, with my mother. We were among the last tourists to visit Palmyra before the borders closed and the war escalated. I remembered the bus breaking down in the barren landscape and curious Bedouin children and elderly women asking us about Australia. Only a month earlier it was hard to find a room in a hotel there. By the time mum and I arrived the tourist attractions were deserted. During 2011, I studied Arabic at the University of Damascus and watched the unpredictable contortions of the war develop from my classroom window.
It was now Ramadan 2019, and even during the worst conflict the country had ever seen, fasting had a way of slowing life for everyone, even those not following the rules. We had eaten Iftar, the evening breakfast meal – a serving of dates, tamarind syrup, and potato and carrot stew – on the floor of a tiny apartment occupied by a handful of labourers working to restore power to the city.
While scorching during the day, the desert was icy cold at night. Fully clothed, we shivered through the night in tattered beds as heavy artillery pounded outward into the dark from a high hill-top fortress nearby. We assumed their target was ISIS, which still fought in the desert east of Palmyra.
I don’t know how many times Tarek had told that story, but it seemed he had become comfortable with the pain. It had become bigger than his personal tragedy, and instead of shying away from the memory, Tarek had taken on his father’s cause, story, and legacy.
When ISIS overran the town in 2015, Tarek and several other antiquities staff had been amongst the last to leave, selflessly loading ancient monuments onto whatever transport they could find until forced to evacuate under a shower of bullets. Shrapnel hit Tarek in the back and his brother-in-law Khalil Hariri took a bullet in the arm. Tarek’s father Khaled stayed behind, hoping to protect whatever he could of the remaining artefacts at the site he had centred his life around. Khaled was captured and interrogated by ISIS for weeks on the whereabouts of Palmyra’s most valuable artefacts and its non-existent but legendary gold caches before he was executed.
The afternoon we arrived in Palmyra , Tarek and Ahmad, who wore a pistol tucked into the back of his pants, had taken us on a walking tour of Palmyra’s destroyed museum. A young Syrian soldier sat inside on guard, drinking tea. He welcomed Tarek with respect and gently motioned to us to enter before returning to his seat.
With holes the size of cars in the roof, doors blown off hinges, and every single statue and sculpture shattered or defaced in some way, we were confronted by the awful silence of thousands of years of heritage hanging on the edge of loss.
Tarek knew the building like his own home and began a solemn walking tour of what had once been. He stopped as we reached a table topped with a large 3D model of ancient Palmyra smashed to pieces. Scanning the wreckage against his memory of the pre-war site, he began silently to rearrange and reconstruct arches, columns and temple walls with intense concentration, as if enacting his love for the site through an architectural voodoo doll.
After that confronting morning interview we prepared to leave Palmyra, but not before Tarek had matter-of-factly shown us the spot where his father’s body was hung from the clocktower. Skating down the brittle desert road, Ahmad crushed the brakes before each checkpoint. Eventually, he opened up to us about the artillery fire we heard overnight. “ISIS have been conducting raids on Syrian army positions lately. In the last two weeks they have killed dozens of soldiers,” he said.
Putting a few hours and a couple of large military bases between us and Palmyra, we relaxed a little. At a rudimentary rest stop, large ‘Pullman’ coaches were parked while roughly dressed young soldiers stretched their legs, snacked on falafel sandwiches and drank sugary vodka soft drinks, Ukrainian beer, and Russian vodka.
“I’ve never seen a Ramadan like this before” I said to my dad. “Well, some say that freedom to choose is what the war was fought for,” he answered with a smile.
By the next checkpoint, the monotony of the rolling desert had sedated me. A wiry tanned officer with silver hair, aviator sunglasses, and a stern expression pulled us over and asked for our papers. Tarek handed over his and Ahmad’s IDs.
The middle-aged officer peered at me in the back seat, my long blonde hair and fair skin making me a rare sight in Syria. He broke the tense moment. “Your ID brother…?” he asked nonchalantly in a stereotype open-ended Syrian Arabic accent. Baffled and chuffed at being mistaken for a local I burst into laughter, Ahmad too started to chuckle.
“Why are you laughing at me?” the officer scowled, his back stiffening. “He’s fasting and tired sir!” Tarek interjected , not skipping a beat. “Oh, good, good,” replied the officer, breaking into a smile, spinning on his heels and waving us on.
Apparently in his 50s or 60s, he looked like a man with many stories to tell. Yet what Syrian now does not have the story of a lifetime to tell – no matter how conflicting and contradictory their experiences may be? Across all the stories though, across the chaos and ruptures of a global proxy war playing out on their land, Syrians are intimately connected by their trauma. A trauma that strikes deeper than mere political differences.
With the war persisting and millions exiled, the process of healing had not yet begun, and no one could tell how the reconstruction of national identity would play out. The whole region felt it. In neighbouring Jordan and Lebanon, Jordanians, Syrians, Lebanese would say “Souria raahat” Syria is gone. “Yes, yes, sadly,” I would nod, inviting them to go on. Few could summon the words to do so – to describe what it means for an identity to be shattered.
The country could be physically rebuilt if politics and economics allowed, but the lives, memories, and identities from pre-war Syria could never be patched over by simply clearing away the past. That process, of healing collective cultural trauma, the work for the soul of the nation, relies on people’s connection to each other and to previously-shared symbols and rituals.
Palmyra had been one of those symbols, and Tarek despite the trauma associated with the town, he had chosen to continue as a lone soldier in that battle to restore its role as a place of beauty, of human achievement, first for the town and its inhabitants, then the country, and finally the world.
I would come to discover however that Tarek was not alone, that across Syria’s landscape of tragedy other men and women were committing themselves to similar crusades – to protect, retain, and re-establish their identity through art and culture, and the access to spirit, divinity, and beauty they enable.
Part two will follow soon.
You can read more about Tarek’s family story and Palmyra here.