Only in Duma, Syria, weapons become musical instruments
Through the ugliness of war, sometimes we witness the rebirth of life. Though it may be difficult to imagine, Syrians today have channeled their creativity, using pieces of the very weapons used to kill them to create works of art. Through their creations, they transform their despair to the joy and hope that so many are longing for.
Abu Ali al-Bitar has chosen to use bullet casings, unexploded mortar shells and bits of destructive rockets to create art. His “creative montage” includes a stove, a motorcycle, medical supplies, music instruments and a vase made of bullet casings. Abu Ali hopes to hold exhibits in Syria and across the globe after the downfall of the Assad regime to display his artwork, for no reason other than to proudly hoist the banner of a free Syria and say to the world, “Look at how we Syrians produce hope from the heart of pain, and joy from the heart of grief. Look at how we light a small flame, and illuminate a great darkness.”
“I created art from the epitome of pain and destruction,” Abu Ali says. “The Syrian people are a smart and courageous people, and the world stands witness to our ancient culture and civilization. We are a people of peace, not a people of war, and we are not bloodthirsty.”
Abu Ali, who knows not much more than the art of ceramics and marble, never expected that his story would become one to be told. The father of four hails from the city of Duma, which joined the revolt against the Assad regime in its early days. Before the uprising, Abu Ali was like any other man from Duma. He was a hard-worker, well known for his sculptures that used to decorate the houses of so many of his neighbors.
Abu Ali’s first direct encounter with the Assad regime came when the city municipality came to demolish his house, which he had worked 20 years to be able to afford, claiming that it was built on agricultural land. Damascus is surrounded by many slums that were overlooked, either because the residents were connected to members of the regime that have claimed Syria for themselves, or because they were able to bribe officers. But Abu Ali was not so lucky, and this is when he realized how oppressive the Syrian regime was. He began noticing how people with money were favored and had an easy life, whereas he struggled to make ends meet, and could barely afford to pay his utility bills and increasing taxes. And so, like others of his generation, Abu Ali waited patiently for the spark that ignited on March 15. He joined all the anti-regime protests in Duma, which was one of the first cities to join the uprising.
The regime accused Abu Ali of shooting at a colonel in the military police, so he fled from Duma and stayed away for 80 days. Upon his return, Abu Ali rejoined the protest movement and also began working with displaced people, casualties of a regime that was incredibly violent in the face of non-violent protesters seeking nothing but dignity.
Eventually, the people of Duma took up arms to protect themselves against regime forces. One of the first armed men in the city was Bassam Muhammad al-Bitar, Abu Ali’s uncle. He was killed by a rocket that fell on his neighborhood, an event that greatly impacted Abu Ali.
Abu Ali speaks about another incident that does not escape his mind. “At the start of the uprising, in the peaceful days, eight martyrs fell in Duma’s Great Mosque. Two of them died right in front of me, and I was filled with feelings of revenge. At that time, weapons were not widespread, and killings [by the opposition] were rare. I also saw how regime forces took detainees from the mosque, dragging them along the pavement for about 20 meters. Later on, about 10 of my family members were martyred, in addition to a number who were wounded, and even sustained permanent disabilities. My thirst for revenge grew. At first, I did not want revenge. But my need for it grew as the number of people dying around me did.”
Perhaps to his good fortune, Abu Ali was unable to join the “armed [opposition] groups” because of a foot injury sustained long ago in a motorcycle accident. So he decided to “get revenge through art” by transforming bullet casings and leftovers of other weapons into musical instruments, vases, candlesticks and other antiquities. “I hope to represent the Syrian revolution through my works of art at a large exhibit outside the country,” he says.
The inspiration for Abu Ali’s artwork came gradually At the start of the uprising, he began gathering the remnants of weapons in order to document the regime’s crimes. When residents of Duma took note of what he was doing, they began helping collect the pieces at times when security forces withdrew from the city or shelling calmed down. “The neighbors knew I had a hobby, and so young and old people began bringing me these casings. I used to go to the mosque and find children, youth and elderly men gathering pieces for me. I had a large collection, and decided I needed to create something that would last.”
Abu Ali began thinking of ways to use death machines to give birth to life and happiness. The struggles of the people around him served as his first and key source of inspiration. When he heard his neighbors were in need of a stove, he used the pieces he had to create a usable one. He was not trying to be merely artistic. Rather, Abu Ali tried to create tools that could be benefit the people around him. He did not lose sight of the two basic principles of art, “pleasure and utility,” but also worked to help people in their time of struggle, and give them a dose of optimism amid the devastation they lived in.
Like all the people of Duma, Abu Ali and his family are facing difficult living conditions, dependent on support and money from relief groups. This has pushed him to address a message to the Syrian people and the Arab countries, that are “all talk.” He is asking for help, “ as the situation is dire and desperate.” He does not have much money to spend on his art, which requires welding tools. Despite the wearisome conditions, he is persistent in continuing his work to preserve the revolution in everlasting art, and so that he can someday hold global exhibits to tell the story of the Syrian people. He says, “When the [Assad] regime collapses, we will learn of the pride, dignity and Arab unity that the regime has preached for 20 years, and we will reclaim our country and our lives.”