I never bought vegetables from his shop, I’d pass by several times a day and would always say hello, always promising myself to buy something from him one day, I never did, there were lots of similar shops and some even closer to my house. Did he mind I often wondered?
Those first days of the war in Damascus were the scariest, we knew it was coming, sometimes we were anxious, other times it seemed it could never happen on such a beautiful day, then almost overnight it arrived, all the shops closed and the streets emptied, gunfire filled the night sky and small mortar bombs landed in the narrow streets around my house, nobody came to collect the rubbish.
The shock and adjustment took a few days to sink in, the kids came out and collected the rubbish, shops were re-stocked and open again, life slowly emerged from behind the gated houses, the war continued but we adjusted, money had to be earned and food had to be put on the table.
The little vegetable shop though stayed shuttered, I walked past often expecting to see him sitting in the patch of sun on the other side of the alley, his pot of tea and cigarettes on a little wooden table.
The old man died under the first bombs, I never knew his name and never bought vegetables from his shop.
I lived in Damascus ten years until I was forced to leave my house in the summer of 2013, now in Istanbul I am sharing some of my memories.
Photographs really should be printed and hung on walls; I say this as someone who loves photography not as a photographer.
As I work towards launching a new website dedicated to print sales I am offering a generous discount to raise the necessary funds, buying a print will go a long way to supporting my work as well as the opportunity to own a beautifully crafted image.
The prints are made at a London lab that pride themselves in producing the highest quality Giclee prints using the latest Epson professional Ultrachrome inks on beautiful archival rag paper.
Only $75 for a 30cm x 40 cm print (+ postage) other sizes are of course available.
The images on this post are just a sample; please do search my website and Facebook page for alternatives.
(Please note a few images are not available due to lost hard-drives when I fled my house in Syria)
Have a browse and drop me a line and I will forward a detailed price list.
One of my enduring memories of living in Damascus will always be the early morning ritual of my neighbor’s pigeon’s swoop and circle above my house. While I sip coffee on my rooftop he would wave and whistle at his birds, even when the war started they continued to fly, they still do. The formation they rarely strayed from their flight path, much like the fighter jets that also became a morning ritual and one I wish would not endure.
Syrians know the men as Kashash al Hamam, almost every working class neighborhood has one, men of dubious character, so dubious in fact their testimony is not accepted in court, although they’re hardly pushers or pimps. I am sure most Syrians in exile reading this will feel a peck at their heart strings; looking down from Qasyun as the sun is setting and among a thousand minarets are a thousand flocks that swirl and eddy over the city.
Innocuous it may seem but their reputation as fly-by-nights has been earned through guile; kidnapping and extortion are all part of the sport – when a neighbor’s bird is lured by a feathered temptress onto the roof of the pigeon loft, a net is waiting, and then begins the harangue and haggle. Mostly it’s a game and all the contestants know the unwritten rules but from time to time blood is spilled.
Morally too there is dispute; Kashash al Hamam are deemed un-Islamic, spending too much time and money on their birds and not enough with their family, and of course the fact that the sport is carried out on rooftops that afford a voyeuristic vantage point, open courtyards where modesty can be disregarded.
In my time exploring this fascinating world I found less of the darker side, constantly being warned to stay away from the edge of the roof so as not to annoy the neighbors, for the most part the men I met just wanted a distraction from the usual stresses of everyday life, a cigarette and a cup of tea.
Now as Syria is being ripped apart by a brutal war and the Daesh virus spreads unchecked across the country, the self-styled Mullahs of the so called Islamic State have issued a Fatwa outlawing the keeping of pigeons, the reason farcical in the extreme; the sight of the birds genitals as they fly overhead being offensive to Islam. It would be funny if it were not so desperately sad.
The fabric of Syrian society is being torn to shreds, once tolerant and accepting it’s now divided and bleeding, the bearded firebrands are not welcome in Syria, perhaps it’s not the keeping of pigeons that is the problem but that the dove is a symbol of peace.
I lived in Syria for ten years including the first two and half years of the war, I ran foul of the security services and was placed under investigation, follow my Damascus Diaries for the unfolding drama.
Please support my blog development by purchasing a print; contact me directly for details.
I photographed Syrian farmer Mohammed Darwish in late 2009 while on assignment for the Financial Times, this was three years after the worst drought for nine hundred years and two years before the beginning of the current Syrian war.
Mohammed was forced to leave his farm in Hasekeh in the north east of the country after successive crop failures, over the course of the drought hundreds of thousands of other Syrian farmers were forced to migrate south to the cities which were often already overcrowded with refugees from the war in neighboring Iraq.
How much the drought impacted the war is open to debate but there must be little doubt that socio economic factors must have contributed, the war has touched every segment of Syrian society but the poorest needless to say suffer most, millions of refugees in the camps of Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey are from the most vulnerable communities.
Mohammed was determined to continue working the harsh Syrian steppe and resist migrating to the city, we found him tending a flock of sheep on a narrow strip of land currently under Syrian government control but sandwiched between the deluded forces of the Islamic State to the east and west.
Needless to say I have no idea how or where Mohammed is now, like so many Syrians I met and photographed over the years, I do though smile when I remember him asking if I was going to take a thousand pictures and when we asked if he had anything waiting for him back in Hasakeh he replied only an old mattress, but you can’t eat a mattress he said and drew heavily on his cigarette.
My fingers were freezing as I fired off the thousandth frame but I wanted to capture the resilience etched in Mohammed’s face.
So it was bound to come out sooner or later; Me, Clinton and the funding ISIS scandal.
Thanks to that bloody Assange and his leaking Wiki tittle-tattle, like a jealous teenager Julian it seems has been scrolling through Hilary’s Whatsapp messages and internet history to find irrefutable proof that the inevitable leader of the free world has been funding the Islamic State.
That the Democrat nominee is corrupt would not come as a surprise to many, that she has been funding ISIS is, albeit unlikely, hardly something she would shy away from had the deal something to offer in her interests such as, well you know, profit, no, obviously the shock of the revelations is my involvement.
So the accusation that Hills back in the early 1990’s was a board member of the French cement company Lafarge, the same company may have received micro finance loans aimed at development projects in third world countries, Lafarge has a cement factory in Raqqa province in Syria, in the heart of the short lived (I am sure) Caliphate, the French CEO is reported to have paid via a series of middle men, or as we prefer to call them; blood sucking parasitic war lords, substantial amounts of cash to keep the factory operational, ISIS taxes or protection money call it what you like, the factory was able to continue production and importantly continue to employ and pay local staff until it finally closed in 2014.
So where in this sordid story does Wreford come in I hear you ask; In the summer of 2011 I was commissioned by Lafarge to visit Raqqa province and photograph the factory, staff and some of the surrounding area, the revolution in Syria was well underway by that time and fighting was taking place in Homs and the south but Aleppo and the north still relatively calm, it proved to be one of my last paying jobs in Syria.
I flew with a representative of Lafarge to Aleppo, as usual on arrival my camera equipment caused a degree of excitement with the security guys, journalist, journalist one was the cry of one young recruit almost weeping with pleasure, we calmed them down with some official paperwork and set of for our hotel.
We checked into the brand new Carlton Citadel hotel, a swanky palace of a place that was once a beautiful Ottoman hospital, I had already visited the hotel just before it opened the previous year, its only redeeming feature being the views over the beautiful old city of Aleppo. Syria in 2010 was a very different place and tourism investment was flourishing, the Carlton though was in the wrong place at the wrong time, the time being 2014 and the wrong place being the front line between the Syrian regime army who were using it as a base to attack the rebel opposition, in an audacious attack opposition forces tunneled under the hotel and laid enough explosives to raise the hotel to the ground, its Google + page now declaring it permanently closed.
Early the following morning we drove the 150 Kms or so via a few military checkpoints without problem to the factory where we spent the day, unlike cement factories I have photographed in Egypt this was pristine, efficient, safety conscious and came with the usual overwhelming Syrian hospitality that included not only a substantial lunch but also a porta-cabin with bed and shower to relax in. The afternoon was spent visiting some of the local farming villages, remote and beautiful countryside, Bedouin shepherds and fields of smiling sunflowers, it was a calm and peaceful time but the war was very close and would inevitably arrive.
The factory eventually closed its doors in 2014, the staff were paid for a while but soon mostly fired, and the local villages were overrun by the godless animals of Daash, now as I write this the trip is fresh in my mind yet so much has changed, I hope those beautiful people have survived all that has been wrought upon them.
My name has been redacted from the emails but I will confess here and now I did take money from Hilary Clinton via a Syrian intermediary working for Lafarge during the Syrian uprising.
It’s been five years of a brutal war and almost every day the international media has carried some Syrian related story, from revolution to refugee and while most of Europe is now cowering under its bed in fear what can you really tell me about Syria and its brutalized population?
For a future blog post I would like to try and paint a picture of Syria before the war but with your help and contribution:
Did you have the chance to visit Syria?
Are you Syrian or have friends and family who have or are living there?
What do you think Syria was like as a country before the conflict?
Do you know where it is?
Please post your thoughts, your questions and experiences, I would like to avoid turning this is into another place of conflict so let’s not get bogged down in the political whys and wherefores, for those wishing for more in depth information on any such issues I am happy to provide links and sources so just drop me a line.
My Damascus Diary blog posts offer some insights and I promise to update and organize this more professionally shortly:
Meet The Syrians is also an ongoing project that will introduce some of my Syrian friends:
Four great gates has the city of Damascus
And four Great Wardens, on their spears reclining,
All day long stand like tall stone men
And sleep on the towers when the moon is shining.
This is the song of the East Gate Warden
When he locks the great gate and smokes in his garden.
Postern of Fate, the Desert Gate, Disaster’s Cavern, Fort of Fear,
The Portal of Bagdad am I, and Doorway of Diarbekir.
The Persian Dawn with new desires may net the flushing mountain spires:
But my gaunt buttress still rejects the suppliance of those mellow fires.
Pass not beneath, O Caravan, or pass not singing. Have you heard
That silence where the birds are dead yet something pipeth like a bird?
Pass not beneath! Men say there blows in stony deserts still a rose
But with no scarlet to her leaf–and from whose heart no perfume flows.
Wilt thou bloom red where she buds pale, thy sister rose? Wilt thou not fail
When noonday flashes like a flail? Leave nightingale the caravan!
Pass then, pass all! “Bagdad!” ye cry, and down the billows of blue sky
Ye beat the bell that beats to hell, and who shall thrust you back? Not I.
The Sun who flashes through the head and paints the shadows green and red,–
The Sun shall eat thy fleshless dead, O Caravan, O Caravan!
And one who licks his lips for thirst with fevered eyes shall face in fear
The palms that wave, the streams that burst, his last mirage, O Caravan!
And one–the bird-voiced Singing-man–shall fall behind thee, Caravan!
And God shall meet him in the night, and he shall sing as best he can.
And one the Bedouin shall slay, and one, sand-stricken on the way
Go dark and blind; and one shall say–“How lonely is the Caravan!”
Pass out beneath, O Caravan, Doom’s Caravan, Death’s Caravan!
I had not told ye, fools, so much, save that I heard your Singing-man.
This was sung by the West Gate’s keeper
When heaven’s hollow dome grew deeper.
I am the gate toward the sea: O sailor men, pass out from me!
I hear you high in Lebanon, singing the marvels of the sea.
The dragon-green, the luminous, the dark, the serpent-haunted sea,
The snow-besprinkled wine of earth, the white-and-blue-flower foaming sea.
Beyond the sea are towns with towers, carved with lions and lily flowers,
And not a soul in all those lonely streets to while away the hours.
Beyond the towns, an isle where, bound, a naked giant bites the ground:
The shadow of a monstrous wing looms on his back: and still no sound.
Beyond the isle a rock that screams like madmen shouting in their dreams,
From whose dark issues night and day blood crashes in a thousand streams.
Beyond the rock is Restful Bay, where no wind breathes or ripple stirs,
And there on Roman ships, they say, stand rows of metal mariners.
Beyond the bay in utmost West old Solomon the Jewish King
Sits with his beard upon his breast, and grips and guards his magic ring:
And when that ring is stolen, he will rise in outraged majesty,
And take the World upon his back, and fling the World beyond the sea.
This is the song of the North Gate’s master,
Who singeth fast, but drinketh faster.
I am the gay Aleppo Gate: a dawn, a dawn and thou art there:
Eat not thy heart with fear and care, O brother of the beast we hate!
Thou hast not many miles to tread, nor other foes than fleas to dread;
Homs shall behold thy morning meal and Hama see thee safe in bed.
Take to Aleppo filigrane, and take them paste of apricots,
And coffee tables botched with pearl, and little beaten brassware pots:
And thou shalt sell thy wares for thrice the Damascene retailers’ price,
And buy a fat Armenian slave who smelleth odorous and nice.
Some men of noble stock were made: some glory in the murder-blade;
Some praise a Science or an Art, but I like honorable Trade!
Sell them the rotten, buy the ripe! Their heads are weak; their pockets burn.
Aleppo men are mighty fools. Salaam Aleikum! Safe return!
This is the song of the South Gate Holder,
A silver man, but his song is older.
I am the Gate that fears no fall: the Mihrab of Damascus wall,
The bridge of booming Sinai: the Arch of Allah all in all.
O spiritual pilgrim rise: the night has grown her single horn:
The voices of the souls unborn are half adream with Paradise.
To Meccah thou hast turned in prayer with aching heart and eyes that burn:
Ah Hajji, wither wilt thou turn when thou art there, when thou art there?
God be thy guide from camp to camp: God be thy shade from well to well;
God grant beneath the desert stars thou hear the Prophet’s camel bell.
And God shall make thy body pure, and give thee knowlede to endure
This ghost-life’s piercing phantom-pain, and bring thee out to Life again.
And God shall make thy soul a Glass where eighteen thousand Æons pass.
And thou shalt see the gleaming Worlds as men see dew upon the grass.
And sons of Islam, it may be that thou shalt learn at journey’s end
Who walks thy garden eve on eve, and bows his head, and calls thee Friend.
James Elroy Flecker