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Rebuilding Cities Destroyed in War: Arts and Culture Planning for the Future of Aleppo

Robert Templer with Kristin Parker of The Rose Art Museum

Robert Templer with Kristin Parker of The Rose Art Museum

Nov 1, 2016

The Rose Art Museum and students in the undergraduate minor in Creativity, the Arts and Social Transformation (CAST) partnered in November with The Aleppo Project to host a design lab that explored the role arts and culture can play in the eventual post-conflict restoration of that besieged city. Guests Jane Wilburn Sapp and Eylum Ertürk also participated. Cynthia Cohen of the Ethics Center facilitated as instructor for “Introduction to CAST.”

The Aleppo Project is an open collaboration among Syrian refugees, students, academics and policy experts to develop ideas about how to rebuild urban life after the violence.

“The disaster in Syria rarely receives attention in the media,” says Kristin Parker, Acting Director of The Rose Art Museum. “Our guests made the conflict real as they joined the students in brainstorming ideas with true potential for building community resilience and protecting cultural heritage. Our goal was to stimulate students’ creativity in linking theory and practice.”

To prepare to address these questions, students were introduced to Aleppo, its cultural heritage, and questions about a path forward by policy expert Robert Templer of Central European University’s Shattuck Center on Conflict, Negotiation and Recovery; and Rim Lababidi, an Allepian architect now living in the United States (pictured below). Excerpts from their remarks follow.

Learn more about the Aleppo Design Lab, including student recommendations here.

Robert Templer:

“Between 2006 and 2010, a severe drought hit Syria, forcing people to migrate from rural areas into the city. It was the longest drought since records have been kept, a manifestation of substantial climate change affecting the Middle East region. So the eastern half of the city was largely made up of migrants living in shantytown conditions; people felt they had nothing to lose in rising up against the Assad regime....

The western half of the city is the home to most of the cultural heritage sites. There is a profound division between the two sides, based largely on people’s wealth. Before the war, there was a diverse population that worked together quite well, but those interested in gaining power have tried to push aside aspects of identity that might link people together. The center of the eastern half of the city, the last perfectly preserved medieval Arab city, has now been severely damaged. There is enormous loss and dispersal of heritage in all its forms....

What makes a city work? What makes a city an enjoyable place to live? It is the art, the architecture, the humanities, history and culture. Public spaces are vital to support people’s engagement with each other, and to promote peaceful relationships between people of different identities. When we look at other cities that have been recovering from conflict, those that have recovered more effectively have seen arts and culture and expressive forms of life playing quite an important role. We need to move away from rigid ideas of reconstruction and prioritize culture as a way to recreate what is essential about a city.

Women have played central roles throughout Syria, giving out food, administering housing, and working with schools and aid agencies. ...[W]omen will be very important in the reconstruction of the city. This is partly because so many men have been killed, and women will now need to be the breadwinners.

It is so important to engage people now, even while the war is raging, to begin to think about what they envision for the future of their city. If rebuilding is going to work, the people themselves need to be involved.”

Rim Lababidi:

“The damage in Aleppo is extreme; it is being compared to Hiroshima. Many people have already ed the country, and it will be difficult to bring many of them back. When the violence subsides, there will be a shortage of shelter, education, health and services. People will need work, money, a home and hope. It is vitally important not to ignore the needs of the people.

Rim Lababidi with Brandeis students

A huge problem in the rebuilding of Aleppo is that no one trusts the government. And when the revolution started, people realized that the leaders of the revolution were even worse than the government. People are losing trust in religious leaders as well. Huge numbers of Syrians are losing faith. People have lost trust in everything.

In this context, we can still identify some possible sources of resilience. The sense of cultural heritage in Aleppo is extremely strong. Kebab, tarab and dahab – food, music and crafts – are all essential. In them, the people of Aleppo can find common ground for everyone to stand on and build up the city together.”