In Praise of Times Past

The Islamic Conference decided to select capitals of culture from the Islamic world to be representatives of the positive face of Islamic civilisation. Mona Naggar has been taking a look around in Aleppo, one of this year's Capitals

The metal ball monument in the city's central Saadallah al-Jabiri Square (photo: Mona Naggar)
Aleppos's Metal Ball is reputed to be the Middle East's largest metal ball - but like much of the city's 2006 cultural programme it has been severely criticised

​​A metal ball monument has been the talk of the town in Aleppo for months. In the city's central Saadallah al-Jabiri Square, across from the monument to those who fell in the struggle for independence against France, what is reputed to be the Middle East's largest metal ball has become the setting for a variety of cultural events. Many of the city's inhabitants however are not particularly impressed.

The illumination of the square has also incurred their wrath given the problems that the city's electricity supply is prone to.

But it is the improvement work on Saadallah al-Jabiri Square that is to thank for Aleppo's selection as one of this year's Capitals of Culture. The Organisation of the Islamic Conference has decided that each year three cities from the Islamic world are to be chosen as Capitals of Islamic Culture. They are to be presented to the world as showcases of Islamic civilisation.

Last year it was Mecca, birthplace of Islam, which was chosen as inaugural city. This time round the honour is being shared by Aleppo, Isfahan and Timbuktu.

A hub of Islamic high culture

Mohammad Kujjah, director of the archaeological society and of the general secretariat in charge of the festivities in Aleppo is proud of his city's performance in beating off competition from Damascus, Istanbul and Cairo to fulfil the criteria set by the Conference of Islamic States.

photo: Mona Naggar
Aleppo's historic citadel

​​In his office, close to Aleppo's historic citadel, he is in his element expounding on the history of Halab, as the city was known in the second century BC. This north Syrian city, which is one of the oldest continuously inhabited in the world, became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986.

The imposing citadel, the mosques, churches, schools, khans, hammams, covered souks and hospitals reflect all epochs of Islamic history. High-water mark in the city's history came during the rule of the Hamdanid prince Saif ad-Daula in the 10th century, with his court becoming a magnet for prominent men of letters and scholars such as the poet al-Mutanabi and the mathematician al-Khawarizmi.

A hopeless task

For centuries the city was an important trading centre. Today it is still home to a multi-ethnic, multi-faith population. Aleppo is also associated with prominent figures from the period of the Arab Renaissance or nahda, such as the writer Abdarrahman al-Kawakibi or the literary family Marrash.

It's a rich heritage, and one which the programme of events is intended to reflect. Something of a hopeless task though, as Mohammad Kujjah explains: "Really, one would need years to properly prepare for such an event. But it wasn't until the middle of last year that we were informed that Aleppo had been chosen as one of the culture capitals. And, unfortunately, I have to say, we received a budget of only two million dollars from the Syrian government."

Neither the Organisation of the Islamic Conference nor the Arab League was prepared to give financial support to the city. The programme, which is comprised of a mix of lectures, readings, exhibitions and some concerts, can be downloaded each month from the website that has been specially set up for the occasion.

The threat of marginalisation

The main focus of the events is clearly on the glories of Aleppo's' history. The challenges and problems that have been a feature of the citizens' lives for decades in a city with a population now close to four million, hardly feature at all. One challenge is the provision of a city plan that would help cope with the swelling population, improve the quality of life and preserve the authentic identity of the city as well as help resist the threat of marginalisation posed by the power of capital Damascus.

Among the citizens, enthusiasm for the festivities has been somewhat restrained. Some are openly sceptical and happy to spread the latest rumours on the corrupt officials who, they maintain, are only out to line their own pockets. Many others are simply not interested. Musician and singer Zafer Jesri, however, is critical of such thinking:

"We are not used to culture. People sit in front of their television sets and don't get out. I don't believe that the organisers have done anything wrong; it's just that people in Aleppo are fond of finding negative things to say. For us glass is always half empty."

Independent cultral activities as security risk

The intellectual Abdarazzaq Id, who admits he has not been to any of the events, is more critical, and sympathises with the views of his fellow citizens. People, he believes, don't trust anything that is organised by the government. Such things tend to bear the imprint of the Baath Party and the intelligence services and are treated with indifference.

Independently organised cultural activities were not welcomed by the powers that be and looked upon as a security risk. Id believes that Aleppo's cultural life is in terminal decline.

Issa Touma (photo: Mona Naggar)
Issa Touma: "I am not against the culture capital idea as such, but I refuse to work with unprofessional people"

​​Gallery owner and photographer Issa Touma is boycotting the official activities. He has refused to allow the international photographic exhibition, which has been running at his gallery since last October, to be included as part of the Capital of Islamic Culture programme. "I am not against the culture capital idea as such, but I refuse to work with unprofessional people."

Touma's readiness for confrontation, an attitude that has led to his gallery facing closure, speaks openly about how the city is run:

"We've been complaining to the culture minister for years about the culture-starved condition of Aleppo. We are in a very bad state. Many galleries have had to close in recent years. The main problem is the power of the Amn as-Siyasi, one of Syria's many intelligence organisations; they control everything that goes on in the city. In Damascus, permission for such cultural events comes directly from the Ministry of Culture."

But in Aleppo every exhibition needs the approval of the intelligence service.

A lost opportunity

One thing that those involved in the cultural sector in Aleppo, whatever their political persuasion, are agreed upon, is that the title of Capital of Islamic Culture represented the biggest chance in decades for the city to present itself internationally.

Not only the critics have been expressing disappointment. Even someone friendly to the regime, like writer Walid Ikhlasi, director of the culture committee with responsibility for the festivities, talks of a lost opportunity.

The various local organisers have given their best to the project, but in a climate of strict political control culture, too, must live within confines. An unfortunate truth, even in a city boasting thousands of years of glorious history.

Mona Naggar

© 2006

Translated from the German by Mona Naggar

"International Photography Gathering" in Syria
The 9/11 Pietà
The International Photography Gathering in Aleppo, Syria is featuring an exhibition called "Encounters with the Middle East". Gabriela M. Keller has been taking a look at how the international artists have approached the Orient - and why the curator of the exhibition has incurred the displeasure of the Syrian regime

Ancient City of Aleppo
Restoring a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Syria
The GTZ is an international cooperation enterprise for sustainable development. The organization aims not only to preserve the Ancient City of Aleppo, but also to give it a future. Youssef Hijazi interviewed project director Meinolf Spiekermann

The Hotel Baron in Aleppo
Spies, Nuns, Presidents, and a Broken-Hearted Lover
The "Hotel Baron" in Aleppo has witnessed a century of Syrian history and European involvement in the politics of the Middle East. Previous guests have included kings and presidents, writers and spies; now, Kristin Helberg experiences modern comfort combined with the flair of times past