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Syrian American Artist Recreates Home

By Cassandra Basler

By day, Syrian-American Mohamad Hafez designs skyscrapers made of steel and glass. By night, the architect recreates the streets of his home country out of plaster and found objects. Hafez said he wants to preserve the culture of a country that’s been torn apart by civil war.

During his recent exhibit reception atArt Space New Haven, Hafez’s friends from the Levant region of the Middle East shared music and food with guests.

Musician Mustafa Adil recently migrated to Connecticut from Iraq. As guests looked at Hafez’s sculptures, Adil plucked a traditional Middle Eastern Oud. The instrument is a kind of small, round guitar with 10 to 12 double strings.

“I used to play and sing in my country until the war,” Adil said. “After the war, the situation is different.”

He played while his friend, artist Mohamad Hafez, stood before a sculpture of his hometown of Damascus.

Hafez’s sculpture is a four foot long, one foot tall streetscape with balconies, arches and turrets that capture Syrian life in the little details — like the string of party lights that drapes above apartment balconies.

Damascus Cafe
Credit Cassandra Basler
A close up of Hafez's sculpture "Unsettled Nostalgia" shows a cafe like the ones he visited in Damascus.

Hafez pointed out a tiny cafe table and chair to gallery visitor Susan Sawyer.

“I would sit in cafe shops, just like this,” Hafez said. “I would listen to people’s conversations, and often times you would have music just like this playing.”

Tears welled up as he talked about his sculpture, called “Unsettled Nostalgia,” and listened to Adil play the Oud.

“I don’t know if you can tell but I’m…he’s already chewing me up with the music,” Hafez said.

He told Sawyer how he remembers these scenes from his last visit to Syria in 2011, shortly before civil war erupted in July that year.

Hafez had left America for a business trip to Dubai that May. While he waited for his visa to return to United States, he decided to visit his family in Damascus for the first time in eight years. Protests against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had already started in rural Daraa, south of Damascus. He said his mother worried he wouldn’t be able to return to the U.S.

“Everybody was very tense, but I was very relaxed. I was so happy because I was so homesick that every moment in Damascus meant a lot to me,” Hafez said. “I used to take advantage of this downtime in the city and escape to Old Damascus, the old historic neighborhood in the city [with] hundreds and hundreds of years worth of culture and civilizations, and biblical, and Islamic and Christian heritage are all in the architectural fabric.”

After waiting six weeks for his visa, he finally did return to the U.S. and got absorbed in work at his architecture firm. Hafez did not begin sculpting right away, but as the news reports of the Syrian war overwhelmed him, he said he had to channel his energy into artwork.

“Seeing thousands of years of heritage being blown up over news channels — that killed me.”

That’s why Hafez uses plaster and parts of toasters and radios to raise awareness about Syria in his new home.

“This is my way of traveling in time,” he said. “I can’t go back home now. But what I could do is I could make myself a piece of home and walk through it.”

Hafez found inspiration from his last visit home. While he was still in Damascus, he had recorded sounds of Syrians on the street with his iPhone. The sounds became a kind of audio portrait of Syria before the war.

“I came across my recordings and I discovered that I captured a moment of peace that is no longer existent,” he said.

One of the moments of peace Hafez recorded captured a Muslim call to prayer. A choir sang the call at the Umayyad Great Mosque in Old Damascus.

“That makes it a very unique mosque in the Muslim world, aside from being a spectacular architectural gem in itself,” Hafez said. The Umayyad Great Mosque is one of the biggest and oldest mosques in the world.

Hafez said he plans to play this recording with a new installation he’s working on--a destroyed street intersection. He said that’s how many streets look today in places like Hams, a part of northern Syria where protests against the Assad regime began.

“You will hear this echoing sound of peacefulness blended with birds flying in the skies of Damascus. And you would hear this echoing sound along this entire city of mosques firing off calls to prayer one after another,” Hafez said.

The peaceful sound would contrast with the sculpture of destruction.

“I thought the bare minimum responsibility I’d have is to raise awareness as part of a western society,” Hafez said. “To share the stories, to show what is it so rich about the region and what is so devastating that somebody could risk all their family in a little float over the Mediterranean and how bad does it have to get for somebody to risk the lives of their own kids on a little inflatable.”

Hafez said he hopes his art will inspire people to welcome Syrian refugees to Connecticut.

“All they need is really a warm friend. A lot of the needs are very basic. How do I get to the grocery shop? How do I apply for a driver’s license? How do I learn English?” Hafez said of the refugees he has welcomed so far.

IRIS, the refugee services non-profit based in New Haven, estimates that 10 Syrian refugee families have arrived in Connecticut since the war began in 2011.

Hafez’s immediate family has green cards, and Hafez himself has been in the U.S. for 13 years. But many of his aunts, uncles, and cousins are still living in the suburbs of Damascus. Hafez said it’s been difficult keeping in touch with his relatives living under the Asaad regime.

“You cannot talk on the phone freely. You can’t say more than, ‘Hi, how are you?’” Hafez said. “What you really want to say is, ‘How can I get you out?’”