Iraq News

In north Syria, the arts return to former ISIS bastion


Ziad al-Hamad, director of the first cultural centre to open in al-Raqa since ISIS was ousted from the city, holds a book as he stands in the centre's new library on May 1st, 2019. [Delil Souleiman/AFP]

A traditional music and dance group perform at the first cultural and arts centre to open in al-Raqa since the ouster of ISIS from the Syrian city. ISIS had forbidden music and the arts during its rule of al-Raqa. [Delil Souleiman/AFP]

Amal al-Attar, a 37-year-old Syrian artist, looks at her artworks on display during an exhibition at the first cultural centre to open since ISIS's rule ended in the eastern Syrian city of al-Raqa, on May 1st, 2019. [Delil Souleiman/AFP]

More than a year after ISIS fled al-Raqa, Syrian drummers and dancers are finally back on stage performing for the first time at the newly opened culture and arts centre. [Delil Souleiman/AFP]

More than a year after the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) fled, Syrian boys and girls are finally back on stage -- bobbing to the rhythm of drums in the northern city of al-Raqa.

At the first cultural centre to open since the extremists' draconian rule ended, sunlight floods into the brand new library, while books line shelves along a wall that still smells of wet paint.

After almost four years under ISIS, which banned music and the arts, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) expelled the last ISIS fighters from al-Raqa in October 2017.

But it has taken a bit of time to resuscitate cultural life.


Members of a traditional music and dance group perform at the first cultural centre to open since ISIS's rule ended in the eastern Syrian city of al-Raqa, on May 1st, 2019. [Delil Souleiman/AFP]

"I cannot describe how happy I am," said Fawzia al-Sheikh at the centre's opening earlier this month, in the still largely devastated city.

"After all this destruction, and no arts or culture, we finally have a centre where we can listen to song and poetry" again, the al-Raqa resident added.

In the al-Raqa Centre for Arts and Culture's brightly lit gallery, paintings hang beside charcoal drawings, near sculptures of human figures.

In the concert hall, Malak al-Yatim stepped off stage after performing -- exhilarated to finally be able to sing in public again.

"I feel like a bird sweeping through the spring sky," he said.

Yatim added that ISIS smashed his instruments and banned him from singing.

"We were like nightingales in a cage," he lamented.

"If we did anything, they'd chop off our head or whip us."

ISIS overran al-Raqa in 2014, making the city its de facto Syrian capital and imposing a brutal interpretation of Islam on everyone in its orbit.

Books 'saved from the ruins'

Before ISIS arrived, the city had more than 20 cultural centres, the largest housing 60,000 books.

But the extremists forced all these facilities to close, burning and destroying books and paintings.

In the new centre's library, hundreds of volumes that survived the extremists adorn shelves.

"These books you can see -- we saved them from the ruins," said Ziad al-Hamad, the centre's director.

"During ISIS's rule, residents hid them wherever they could," added the 62-year-old.

"When the city was liberated, they gave them back to us," added Hamad, who also sits on the city council's culture and antiquities commission.

The SDF expelled ISIS from the village of al-Baghouz, its last scrap of Syrian territory, in late March.

While the extremists have continued to claim deadly attacks in areas controlled by the SDF -- including al-Raqa -- local artists have returned to their easels.

In the cultural centre's gallery, painter Amal al-Attar has work on display after returning from exile in Beirut.

Among her works is a painting of a white boat adrift on an ocean, and another of a home on the shoreline.

"It is like a re-birth," the 37-year-old said of the centre's opening, sunglasses perched atop her dark shoulder-length hair.

Attar used to run a studio for artists, but when ISIS overran the city they told her art was forbidden.

She left 50 works behind when she fled to neighbouring Lebanon.

"ISIS burned them," she said.

"I cannot forget what happened back then, but this cultural centre will give us a new drive," she said.

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