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Battle scarred

Struggling to survive in war-struck Homs, architect Marwa al-Sabouni directly links poor planning with Syria’s broken society

Overview of the inner configuration of Krak des Chevaliers showing recent damage.
Overview of the inner configuration of Krak des Chevaliers showing recent damage.

Marwa al-Sabouni, a young architect based in Homs, Syria, asks three uncomfortable questions at the start of this book. ‘Why is it that a scratch on a column in Palmyra is of more consequence than the destruction of an entire concrete building? Furthermore, how was it that we vandalised our own cities in Syria before war came to deliver the final blows? How should we rebuild what has been destroyed so that it will not happen again?’

Her point is that the imposed ‘planning’ of pre-war Syria, allied to endemic corruption, was the vandalism that, she argues, was very significant in causing the multi-way conflict in Syria and the terrible destruction, loss of life and misery it ushered in. Hence the need for a complete rethink of the way Syria builds, when the time comes.

A lot of the story here is about Marwa herself. When she first contacted me a few years back to offer to write an article for the RIBA Journal, it seemed incredible to me that – at a time when the Syrian war was particularly fierce in and around Homs – anyone there could consider such a thing. This was a time when the very survival of her, her fellow-architect husband Ghassan Jansiz and their young children was under real threat. But with intermittent power and internet connection, Marwa determinedly made her contacts in the world outside. We published some of her pieces, as did other magazines, then she went quiet and I wondered why. Fighting for her PhD at the still-functioning but hostile University of Homs was one answer. This book is another: she was writing.

I can never wish for things to go back to the way they were... I was jailed behind the bars of nothingness

She regards the ongoing war as the ­unwanted opportunity for curing a society that she sees as cancerous. ‘I can never wish for things to go back to the way they were: to an era when I – like hundreds of thousands of disorientated young people – felt stuck in time and space, waiting for nothing to happen; waiting as everybody, consciously or unconsciously, was waiting. I was jailed behind the bars of nothingness,’ she writes. She recounts how she used to hate holidays because there was nowhere much for her and her children to go. In this, Syria’s third largest city, there were no proper parks or cultural centres, no zoo or amusement parks– ‘and even if they had existed, there would have been no exciting activities, no safety measures, no tasteful or memorable architecture.’

Each chapter of the book, as with its overall title, is presented as a battle: the Battle for Freedom, the Battle of Mortar, the Battle for Continuity and so on. Her and Ghassan’s drawings illustrate it, from depictions of ruins and vile recent developments to their community-inspired plans for the future.

Marwa is a great admirer of English academic and traditionalist Roger Scruton, who writes a typically sweeping introduction to this book. According to him there have been only two models for ‘modern’ Middle Eastern cities – Le Corbusier’s plan for Algiers, and market-madness Dubai. Really? No others, such as Frank Lloyd Wright’s Baghdad or Foster’s Masdar? Marwa’s own writing is better when it comes from her own heart, rather than quoting Scruton. But everyone can agree on one thing: whatever were the things that made the great, tolerant, cities of the Levant great in urban terms, these are what must be rediscovered now.

The Battle for Home – the memoir of a Syrian architect by Marwa-al-Sabouni, Thames & Hudson, £16.95, HB