Culture

Fighting pain with painting

Faysal, a Syrian farmer who fled his home northeast of Raqqa following a Daaesh offensive, shows his work at the Ain Issa camp in northern Syria on July 16, 2017. AFP / BULENT KILIC

AIN ISSA, Syria: Under the rule of Daesh (ISIS, the self-anointed Islamic State group) a Syrian farmer named Faysal was forced to hide his sketches and paintings. Now displaced by fighting, he’s been able to resume his hobby. He sought refuge with his family at the Ain Issa camp in northern Syria three months ago, fleeing the battle for Daesh stronghold Raqqa, some 50 kilometers away.

The 47-year-old farmer struggled to find art materials in the desolate camp so he meticulously made his own, tying threads pulled from a pillow case to a piece of wood to fashion a paintbrush.

He gathered cigarette butts to use as charcoal for sketches depicting everything from portraits of his favorite singers to the daily life of the displaced.

“I’ve been drawing for 15 years and I would keep all the pictures for myself,” he told AFP. “I’d forgo other things so I could buy paintbrushes and oil paints.

“When the Daeshis came in, I wouldn’t dare draw,” he continued. “I hid all my pieces on top of the closet and covered them up with a ton of other things. They considered drawing to be haram.”

Faysal is among tens of thousands of Syrians displaced by fighting since a U.S.-backed offensive to capture Raqqa began last year.

He fled his home northeast of Raqqa around three months ago with his wife Sinaa and seven of their eight children. The slender farmer did not want to give his real name or the location of his village because he was forced to leave behind a son, imprisoned by Daesh three years ago.

He was reluctant to share much about the arrest, saying only that his son was accused of working for the Syrian state and is being held along with Faysal’s nephew.

Life at the camp is hard, with little shelter from the summertime sun.

Between pulling out sketches from his portfolio, Faysal tried to soothe his youngest daughter, who was suffering intense tooth pain that has gone untreated at the camp.

Like most of the displaced, Faysal arrived in Ain Issa with little, and to resume his artwork he initially used whatever he found around him.

One day, a camp worker saw his pieces and brought him paper and colored pencils, requesting a portrait to memorialize his son, a Kurdish fighter. The resulting work on huge white posterboard shows a young man in a military-style uniform with the yellow badge of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).

Faysal has other portraits, including some of the region’s most famous Middle Eastern divas, like Fairuz and Umm Kalthoum.

“This is Warda al-Jazairia,” he says, gesturing to his rendition of the famed Algerian singer in her youth. “I like to listen to her.”

Other pieces depict what has become his daily life, including a colored sketch of a man atop a stack of the thin sponge mattresses common in the region’s displacement camps.

“During Ramadan, they did not give us as much food as we expected. No one helped us,” Faysal said, gesturing at the sketch.

“We had nothing in the camps beside sponge mattresses.”

Another pencil sketch depicts a family in front of a tent, an old man leaning on a cane, and other people sitting on the ground. “I was looking out from my tent and I saw them, so I drew them,” Faysal explained.

The most painful of Faysal’s pieces depict life under Daesh, and particularly the experiences he fears his son may be enduring.

He holds up a sketch of two young men in jail – one of them leaning his head back on the concrete wall behind him and the other with his head between his knees.

“I imagine this is my son’s situation in jail,” he said.

Tears start to stream down his wife’s face as she looks at the image.

“I love all his drawings,” she said. “But the dearest to my heart is the one of my son.”

Inside his tent, Faysal put the finishing touches to a pencil rendition of a gruesome scene he witnessed in Raqqa while he waited for a doctor’s appointment.

He recalled seeing Daesh gunmen drag a handcuffed and blindfolded man from a car, stifling the detainee’s screams with a piece of cloth.

When Faysal entered his doctor’s office, he heard four gunshots.

His pencil drawing shows a blindfolded young man, his head thrown back.

“This is my pain,” he said. “Everything that happened to us, not just to my son and nephew.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 20, 2017, on page 16.

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