The Stones of Mount Safoon: Impact of the Syrian War on Art and Artists

Damascus, Syria-The deep scars of the ferocious 8-year conflict in Syria are impossible to hide. Although it is common sense to acknowledge that wars bring nothing but death, destruction and an endless queue of human tragedies, some ramifications of war in Syria are heart-wrenching. Many of the unique historical monuments, edifices, artifacts and museum treasures in Syria, and more in Iraq, were savagely destroyed by Islamic fanatics who came from all part of the globe. Invaluable treasures are forever gone and impossible to replace; a tragic blow to the history and civilization of mankind at large.

Some of the world’s oldest temples as well as rarest statues dating back up to 9 centuries were barbarically bombed, rendering them to rubble, especially in Mosul, Iraq, and in Palmyra, Syria, widely considered an archeological and architectural wonder, of the same historical grandeur as the Pyramids and Pharaonic temples in Egypt. But the tragic fallout from the war in Syria doesn’t stop there. Artists of all types, as was the case for all society in the region, were vertically divided by the conflict and its subsequent outcomes. This split includes actors, directors, film makers, tv stars, composers, singers, musicians, painters and sculptures.

Whilst many artists sided with the so-called “regime” supporting their country’s army and its allies in what they deemed an evitable war against terror and Islamic Jihadi fanatics such as ISIS and Al Nusra ( the Syrian version of Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda), other artists chose instead to leave the country. Many travelled to Egypt, which is widely regarded as the mother of Arabian art. Other moved to Lebanon and Turkey, while a small minority settled in France or other western countries. Some of those became staunch enemies of the “regime” in Damascus and even joined opposition groups and parties committed to regime change in Syria.

In the middle of this political rift, a place was left for moderate artists or “neutralists” who saw no need to mix art with politics. They often expressed harsh political viewpoints regarding various political, economic, social or humanitarian issues, but under what is considered a national umbrella and without any political purpose or foreign affiliation. Paradoxically, those neutralists come under criticism and sometimes excruciating scrutiny by pro-government activists one day, to find themselves face to face with harsh attacks and a downpouring of anger from opposition and anti-government hawks.

One unique exception in the midst of this artistic mayhem in Syria, who was hardly heard from before the war, is the now phenomenal and world-known pebble sculpture Nizar Ali Badr. I phoned him yesterday and asked him for some exclusive photos of his works in addition to the ones available online; he kindly and immediately obliged. When I told him that the photos would be for a new Italian website to be launched in 2-days-time, he was ecstatic. “You know, I have been invited to Italy for a great art festival coming up in the next few months, what a superb coincidence” he exclaimed.

Nizar Ali Badr, walked 60 kilometers from his humble house in the southern part of Latakia on the Mediterranean, crossing alleyways and dirt roads to the beach. The lengthy and cumbersome collection of pebbles and stones starts here and ends at the foot of Mount( Jabal) Safoon, from which he derived the captions and titles of all his stone structures, statues and fantastic pebble formations, which depicts aspects of humanitarian tragedies during war, as well as various other subjects including love and mother nature.

He then carries or transports the pebbles and stones back home; his now famous rooftop is the workshop where all his instinctive masterpieces are born. The war has inspired Nizar to move quietly from stone sculpturing to colored pebble formations on black basalt bases. Nizar claims that he has produced an astronomical number of art pieces, 25000 in all, all created during the 8 years of the war, meriting being entered into the Guinness Book of Records.

Nizar’s first pebble masterpiece depicts local civilians fleeing from the Palestinian Quarter of Latakia at the outbreak of terrorist attacks in the neighbourhoods. His works have focused on people’s sufferings, martyrs, immigration, displacement, birds and flowers. Nizar explains that his incredibly accurate pebble formations and their themes represent an artistic method that goes back to the famous Mediterranean civilization of Ugarit, in his native Latakia, where the first human alphabet was produced. He calls his works ” the Second Alphabet”, which has inspireds his unquenchable thirst for improvisation in this unique artistic technique and has motivated his unrelinquished campaign and driven his high motivation to export his neo-Ugaritic masterpieces all over the world. Nizar’s stones and pebbles of Mount Soofan tell the story of a country ravaged by war, a society torn by hardships and sufferings, from a rooftop that has become a microcosm of a nation called Syria.