Have you been to Aleppo recently?
Then you probably might want to give it a try.
The rival sister of Damascus is pampering herself and becoming one of the most important touristic and cultural hub of the Middle East. Decked out in her finest ochre and ecru finery, Aleppo boasts a magnificent past discreetly hiding in the lines of her khans (caranvansaries), the domes of her mosques and the curves of her arabesques and souks.
Once a bubbling city bustling with silk traders, Venetian emissaries and webs of subtle conspiracies, Aleppo is now considered by some people to have turned into a somewhat grim city, one of the last bastion in Syria of the Muslim Brotherhood, neglected by the central regime because of its fundamentalism and opposition, in a word, gone.
All past and no present, they say. Closed up society, they sneer. Let’s all go to Damascus, where the cultural and night lives are booming.
Well, to me, they couldn’t be more wrong. It is not because Aleppo is not the in-your-face kind of city that it is necessarily a cultural desert (Is Chanel boring because it is elegant and classy? I don’t think so. There you go, think of Aleppo as the Chanel of cities, that’ll give you a good image). It seems on the contrary that the city is on her way to opening up, especially in terms of leisure and tourism, and new places seem to open on a regular basis.
Having been the meeting point of caravans coming from Anatolia, Persia, Southern Syria and Mesopotamia, as well as the first stop for exhausted Armenians fleeing the 1915 Genocide, Aleppo has a long-standing tradition of cultural syncretism and melting pot. Soufism, celebration of the Arab and Islamic Cultures (Aleppo was the Islamic Cultural Capital of the Arab World in 2006) and various events organised around the history of the Silk Trade are regular features of the Aleppine cultural scene.
However, it would be somewhat reductive to confine Aleppo’s cultural environment to celebrations of its (albeit glorious) past and events related to religion. Contemporary arts and photography festivals are appearing regularly on the cultural agenda, steering a whole new interest in the city from patrons, artists and foreign embassies. One man especially has been devoted to awaken and revive the Aleppo scene. Soft spoken, hospitable and passionate about his art, photographer Issa Touma is the creator of various festivals taking place in Aleppo, among them the Aleppo International Photo Festival and the Women’s Arts festival. Born in a Syro-Armenian family , Issa Touma has been working in photography for the past 15 years, opening his first gallery in 1992, and his second, Le Pont Gallery, that you can still visit today, in 1995, in Aleppo. Firmly dedicated to develop the presence of contemporary art in Syria and in the region, Le Pont Gallery welcomes various exhibitions from artists both from the Middle East and from Europe. Photography classes are also organised in this open cultural space, enabling students passionate about photography to learn and practice their art, something that is hard to find in the region.
We had the extreme pleasure to meet with Issa during our short visit in Aleppo in December, when he explained how both difficult and wonderful it was to set up cultural and photography festivals in Aleppo. Commissioned by many magazines to provide photos for them, Issa could have spent his life quietly travelling from New York to London to Paris without getting involved in his country’s cultural life. He nevertheless chose otherwise, and keeps roaming Syria to discover the very essence of his country, taking his time to talk to people, sharing parts of their daily life. It is only then that he photographs them. The results are breathtaking photos of an evolving country, depicting scenes that would be invisible for spectators not in the know.
In 1996, he served as art director for the first European-Arab jazz festival in Aleppo and organised in 1997 the first International Photography Festival in Aleppo. Sponsored by various organisations like the Prince Claus Fund, which greatly supported the festivals, and Madinatuna, an organisation dedicated at the preservation and development of the city of Aleppo, the festival has been the object of some serious heated discussions. Issa shared with us how interesting and somehow difficult it was to organise an event and try and remain independent. He thus had to deal with both the Syrian government and different embassies, justifying his actions in front of the officials, explaining exactly what he was doing with whom and why, and trying to work with the foreign embassies and consulates, without compromising the very essence of the festivals. After many ups and downs and slowing down of activity, it seems that dialogue finally prevailed and the Aleppo International Photo festival celebrated its 10th edition in October 2009. For Issa, the most important thing was to remain independent for the sake of the integrity of the festivals.
We visited Le Pont Gallery on a sunny and warm early January day: tucked into an alley, filled with posters announcing cultural events in Syria and around the world, it seemed like the ideal place to reflect on the photographs hung on the white walls, and think about what it took from one man to achieve all of this. Issa’s head is still humming with projects, and he’s now working on turning the former Aleppo power station into the first contemporary art space of the city.
Coming out of the gallery, you see the city with different eyes. An believe me, it’s worth it.
To learn more on:
- Le Pont Gallery: http://www.festival-aleppo.org/
- The Aleppo International Photo Festival: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Aleppo-International-Photo-festival/204975346768?v=info
- Women’s arts Festival: http://www.festival-aleppo.org/Festivals.htm
A very special thanks to my beloved Joe, who made me discover his city and knew how to touch the Beirut-fundamentalist that I am, to Greg Bali, walking encyclopaedia on just about everything and on Aleppo particularly, and to Issa Touma, who kindly opened to us the doors of his house and gallery. The picture shown in this post is an extract from the series Sufi Life, By Issa Touma