Raqqa, Syria: Five years have passed since the Syrian Democratic Forces raised their flag in the main square in Raqqa, which for four years was the capital of ISIS. The streets and squares of the city were the scene of horrific atrocities – beatings, torture, beheadings and other despicable acts.
The international media, holding their breath while observing the liberation of Raqqa, left the scene immediately after the city was liberated from the grip of the terrorist group, leaving people once again alone under the ruins of their old city.
However, the cultural boom has found a way amid the ruins. Groups of writers, artists and intellectuals are doing everything they can to recreate the culture of Raqqa, despite the dark page left by ISIS.
The area around Raqqa has been inhabited since the third millennium BC, and gained some fame when the Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid, himself a lover of culture and tradition, chose the city as his imperial residence in 796 AD.
Although the city has been destroyed six times in its long history, its many centuries-old historical sites still testify to its importance.
When ISIS stormed Raqqa in 2014, declaring the city its capital, the local arts and culture community immediately panicked.
The arrival of armed groups led to the disintegration of our group. We can’t sing or do anything else. “She was arrested twice by ISIS,” said popular singer Malak Muhammad al-Saleh. Arab News.
“The activists said that what I was doing was blasphemy, haram, and the work of the devil,” he said, bewildered.
Mr. Al-Saleh adds in a more serious tone: “They came to destroy our culture. They destroyed our museum. They destroyed all our monuments.”
They were sent to wipe out the history of this city and this country, because they themselves have no history. They have no opinions or goals. Their only goal is destruction.”
Mr. Al-Salih has had an impressive career as a traditional singer for decades. Returning to his hometown of Raqqa from Aleppo in the 1990s, he created a seven-member orchestra called Nojoum. The group toured not only the province of Raqqa, but throughout Syria, performing at weddings and cultural festivals.
When the Islamic State arrived, the city’s culture and heritage came under attack. All the cultural centers acted as administrations for the various ISIS offices. They confiscated musical instruments in homes and smashed them. They destroyed cassette tapes, CDs, and television sets. Weddings, which were once cheerful events accompanied by music and dance of the raqqa, became very quiet and solemn.
ISIS interrogated Mr. Al-Saleh, telling him he had “forgotten God” and even threatening to behead him. But the group was surprised to discover that Mr. Al-Saleh is a devout Muslim who knows a lot about the Islamic faith. I spent twelve hours with them. I had religious discussions with them. My faith was strong, but not mine. They were wrong.
He continues, “They were shocked. They asked me how the singer could know so much about religion, because the singers, according to them, are infidels. They asked me to act as a judge for them.”
Mr. Al-Saleh refused to work with the group and was eventually released. He continues to sing, but in secret – his band’s concerts are held at night in private homes, usually with a guard outside looking for ISIS patrols.
at the momentwhere Raqqa was rebuilding, and the cultural departments of the new Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria began to search in the city for the rest of the artists. Mr. Al-Saleh has been appointed as a member of the Artists Union and proudly displays his union identification card.
All members of his former music group have either died or left the country. So he created a new group of eleven members. Moreover, he teaches his son the basics of traditional raqqa music “so that the new generation does not forget our traditions.”
“For four or five years, we have been doing everything we can to return our culture to its brilliance, or even improve it. Still, he said.
ISIS was angry at free writing and traditional music. Muhammad Bashir al-Ani, a poet from Deir ez-Zor, was executed along with his son for “blasphemy”. Several writers were forced to flee, including Raqqa-born writer Fawzia Al-Marai.
“When I saw my city completely destroyed, I felt like my head was going to explode. Everything was in ruins,” says the writer Arab Newsrecalling his return to Raqqa after living in Turkey when his city was under ISIS occupation.
It was not only the city that was destroyed. “Everything inside me is destroyed,” she says. “I’ve lost everything I had the most beautiful I had in these ruins.”
The 74-year-old prolific writer has more than a dozen collections of poetry and short stories to her credit since she began writing in the late 1990s.
Much of her writing is based on the traditions of Raqqa—particularly Arab women’s dress and folklore—and the Euphrates River. She attended literary festivals several times a year, and met famous Syrian poets such as Nizar Qabbani and Abd al-Salam al-Ajili from Raqqa.
When ISIS attacked the city, “I ran away. If I stayed, they would have killed me. They were looking for me in my name,” she said.
Her books, which she called her children, were burned by the terrorist group. “I had 25 to 50 copies of each book, and when I got back there were none left,” she says.
Not only her books were destroyed – but the entire intellectual community she spent decades building. “None of my friends are left. They all fled and took refuge in Europe.”
The writer was determined to help rebuild the culture of her beloved city. Having become a consultant in the Department of Arts and Culture of the Independent Department, she now organizes regular literary salons in the city’s Easter Dialogue (conversational space) to read and discuss literature.
Now we are organizing festivals and training courses for our youth on how to write stories and poetry. We are still doing activities to return our culture to its former glory. We always take the opportunity to tell young people that the future is in their hands.”
Shahla al-Ajili, the niece of Abd al-Salam al-Ajili, continued her uncle’s literary tradition by writing several books, among them a book in which the protagonist participates in one of the most famous cultural pastimes in Raqqa: horse racing.
For more than a thousand years, Raqqa has been known for its equestrian heritage. The unique Arabian horse breed was used as a means of work and transportation, and eventually as a status symbol.
“The horse was a symbol of the family. If the family owned a horse, it meant that they were wealthy. Then it became a cultural tradition passed down from grandparents to fathers and then to sons” Arab News.
Midad estimates that while there were three to four thousand indigenous Arabian horses in Raqqa, the current number is only about 400.
It is reported that in 1983 the first horse racing center was established in Raqqa. It was a temporary installation in the garden of a local landowner that was only about a thousand square metres. A local man from a famous equestrian family donated ten horses to support the establishment of the first equestrian club.
The club team started training and was eventually able to compete at the national level. She was the poorest of all the Syrian provinces and only had her horses. Participants trained in the desert rather than on an organized racetrack. Since they didn’t even have multiple uniforms, they were forced to swap a uniform among themselves.
Despite this, participants have always won bronze, silver or gold medals during competitions. Their talent was so unparalleled that, according to Mr. Medad, it caught the attention of Basil al-Assad, the late brother of the current Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who was himself a champion in equestrianism.
Basil funded the construction of the racetrack and equestrian facilities in Raqqa, which was completed in 1989. The team has competed in races across the Arab world, including Qatar, Jordan and Egypt. Although the popularity of horse racing eventually waned, it was still a part of the traditional local culture. That all changed when ISIS arrived in the city.
ISIS destroyed the hippodrome and mined it with landmines. The fighters used the Raqqa facilities as a place to store 4,000 stolen horses, according to a local worker. “They stole the horses. They even used them for food,” says Medad. He remembers an incident in which an ISIS fighter approached a friend to buy a horse he was going to eat.
Mr. Medad asked why the fighter would buy such a beautiful horse just to eat it.
The ISIS militants berated me, saying that I could not forbid what God allowed. They asked me to go to their courts. I ran away for fifteen days and at that time the activist who wanted to sue me was killed and I was finally able to go home.”
Five years later, the hippodrome was cleared and 50% rebuilt, according to Mr. Midad. A local festival has already been held there and there are plans to hold another nationally. This race is the first of its kind in Raqqa since the Islamic State took control of the city in mid-October.
A statue of Raqqa’s cultural predecessor Harun al-Rashid, destroyed by the Islamic State, was replaced in front of a crowd of onlookers in early September, symbolizing the city’s slow and relentless return to its roots.
This text is a translation of an article published on Arabnews.com
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