Syria: Stories from Raqqa
Some days, life seems normal in the city of Raqqa. The markets stay open until the late hours of the evening, people visit cafes and public parks, and playground toys are erected for children in public spaces where families sit on the grass.
However, shelling or clashes could begin at any minute. The city is under the control of various factions of the armed opposition. Forces loyal to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad still control three areas in the province, including the military airport in the city of Tabaqa, from where jet bombers periodically take off to bomb Raqqa.
Opposition brigades in the city include Free Sham, the Islamic State in Iraq and Sham (ISIS), and a Free Syrian Army affiliated brigade called the Grandchildren of the Prophet.
Residents fearful of the regime’s shells and bombs find themselves turning a blind eye to the violations of some of the armed opposition factions in Raqqa. Such violations include appropriating public or private property and arbitrary arrests of activists. There are also some cases of kidnapping.
It was in this unstable environment that Fatima Ibrahim began her artistic journey. The 50-year-old Kurd, with no education beyond elementary level, sculpts statues from clay in order to express herself. She places her sculptures on a wooden table in the corner of a small room on the roof of her house.
Ibrahim is dark skinned and wrinkled, with Bedouin tattoos adorning her face. Her house consists of two rooms with modest furnishings, and a small work room on the roof.
Originally from the Kurdish city of Kobani, Fatima now lives on the outskirts of Raqqa in the Ashwaiyyat area where the garbage accumulates and residents suffer from a lack of water. She lives with her disabled husband, five daughters, and three sons.
Ibrahim moved from Kobani to Raqqa around ten years ago. Her son in Lebanon sends her money from time to time.
Ibrahim came to art by chance. Her daughter, a student at the Faculty of Fine Art in Raqqa, told her she was taking a class in using clay. Ibrahim asked her daughter to bring her some, and she began sculpting.
“My daughters were impressed with my work, and they think that I must have taken anatomy classes,” she said in her Raqqian-dialect Arabic. Ibrahim trusts her daughters’ judgment and believes that they are being honest with her, and that if her work was not good, they would not hesitate to say so.
Through her small sculptures, Ibrahim depicts various scenes she has witnessed herself or seen on television.
Each sculpture has a story. She points to one of them.
“These days, you will find a woman about to give birth forced to sit and wait at the border. Her house was destroyed and she was made homeless. What will she do if she goes into labour? Where will she put her newborn?” she asks.
One statue depicts a woman carrying her son and his umbilical cord as she flees from the conflict to a neighbouring country. She says this woman is raising her child to her lap, unafraid despite everything. Another piece depicts a scared mother with her children around her, wanting to leave but her relatives preventing her.
Ibrahim’s sculptures are not only of women. Another piece depicts a muscular man on his knees with his hands behind his back, despite his strength. Another man carries the corpse of a small child who might be his son or his neighbour’s son. Yet another shows neighbourhood residents jubilant at the arrival of the Free Syrian Army and receiving them with pots of tea.
Another shows a woman she calls “Khalaf’s wife”, telling her husband – who supports neither the regime nor the Free Syrian Army – that their farm has burned down.
In another piece, Ibrahim expresses the worry she herself constantly feels. She depicts herself cooking, her hand on her cheek, wondering when her son will send them money.
Ibrahim creates her sculptures from clay after mixing it with glue. She places them on wooden platforms to make them easier to carry.
“I apply glue and paint them. Some I leave unpainted; they are the colour of smoke. I use colours that express what Raqqa is witnessing,” she said.
Ibrahim, a natural artist who learned from continual practice, has been able to express deep and varied human emotion in men, women and children.
She wants people to see her work, and she is generous – she gives out free samples to artists and organisations such as the Women’s Association, the Organisation for the Deaf and Mute, and cultural centres that can help promote her work.
She hopes to be able to sell her work in the future. Currently, the dire living conditions in Raqqa preclude that.
Recently, Ibrahim joined several other Syrian artists for an exhibition in the southern Turkish city of Reyhanli entitled, “A Panorama of the Revolution, from the Cradle to Martyrdom.”
Ibrahim hopes to continue showing her work outside Syria.
This story was produced by the Damascus Bureau, IWPR’s news platform for Syrian journalists.