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  • A collage of the work of Syrian artist Ayham Jabr.

    A collage of the work of Syrian artist Ayham Jabr. | Photo: teleSUR / Ayham Jabr

Published 21 October 2016
"The illustrations are my way of telling the truth about this dilemma and the hideous circumstances we live under," says visual artist Ayham Jabr.

He is a member of one of the most famous acting dynasties and was once considered to be Syria's next promising TV director. Today, Ayham Jabr shares a small studio apartment with his mother and sister on the outskirts of Damascus. With nothing more than a laptop and a cracked copy of Photoshop, the 28 year old merges his daily life experiences and illustrations from science fictions novels into dystopian collages: Green Aliens wandering through the old town of Damascus, gigantic spaceships floating above Syrian cities.

Ayham Jabr

Interrupted by power blackouts and accompanied by the sound of mortar fire, the interview with Ayham will last several days. He speaks about creativity under the constant fear of death, about broken love stories and explains what Tim Burton's movie Mars Attacks teaches about the war in Syria.

Let's not start with the war. How was the summer in Damascus?

It's so damn hot and there is no electricity. But still, you can see kids everywhere playing outside. The atmosphere has changed a lot nowadays. There is a feeling of life you can sense everywhere you go. It is like the people don't care anymore about the war or exploding prices. I think Syrians are the most adaptable creatures I have ever seen.

You live in the east of the city. Just 2 kilometers next to your place, the Syrian Army is fighting Islamist militias. How are you, are you safe?

No one is safe here. I live just next to Jobar and believe me, I never thought that we can be that brutal to each other. We witness death all the time. When the truce started they stopped raining (on) us with mortars and shit, but now they fire at us even during the night. But here in my neighborhood we became somehow used to mortars and grenades.

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(Info: Jobar is a suburb of Damascus which was once famous for one of the world oldest synagogues. Nowadays only apocalyptic images reach the outside world from the virtually completely destroyed town. Since spring 2013 the Syrian Army and Islamist rebels like al-Qaida offshoot al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham have been fighting for dominance. The population was almost entirely expelled. Also, the famous synagogue is no more. In May 2014 it was destroyed under unclear circumstances.)

How is life so close to the front?

My life is not exciting at all. I used to go to clubs and bars. But nowadays, most of the time I am sitting at home or taking a walk through the alleys. I have a small room which I remodeled into a photo studio. I spend much time taking photos and creating collages or I just watch movies or listen to good music. And I love spending time in the old town.

Do those walks provide you with the inspirations for your collages?

Yes, I see those old alleys, streets, houses and avenues and I learn to appreciate them. When I was a small child, my parents told me to appreciate every day I am living. I didn't understand the meaning until the war started. Only war taught me to appreciate life.

Appreciating life means appreciating yourself. Appreciating life means to create something out of nothing. I am always broke. And this is so inspiring. Searching for inspirations many great artists used to go somewhere. Far from technology. Far from the people. Damascus is such a place. A place where you won't find anything but yourself.

Yourself and spaceships. How do your illustrations arise? Do you walk through the alleys saying to yourself: “Why not add a Star Wars 'Death Star' to the scene?”

Good question. I am not doing good in expressing myself using words. That's why I use photos, graphics and collages. I think those tools are more clear and vivid than words. Most of my inspirations come from shitty things like a failed love story, someone who died or the lack of security. But it's not just about Syria. By television you can travel around the world while sitting in your living room. Also movies like Mars Attacks by the great Tim Burton.

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So it's rather Mars Attacks than mortar attacks which influence your art?

The common thing between those two is: attack. Everyone is attacking everyone. It's about greed, the illusion of power and striving for eternal reputation.

Sounds as if the “Good vs. Evil” narrative of science fiction novels is closer to the Syrian reality than the complicated explanations from the news.

You are right.

Where does your interest in science fiction come from?

We live in a religious world. And religion is the source of all fiction. I was raised by surreal religious stories. And now they are stuck in my head.

Such as…

Well, there are so many. How Prophet Mohammed split the moon. How he flew over the earth on some animal and went to heaven and back. How Moses turned a wooden stick into a living snake. How Jesus walked on water and gave sight to the blind. Those used to be funny stories when I was a child.

And today?

I am not into religious stuff. I see them as meaningful philosophy like any other philosophy. But beyond that, there is no difference between Cinderella and any religious story. Same morals, same concept. But Cinderella gets by with much less violence.

You are a member of Syria's most famous acting families. Did you never had the desire to follow their footsteps?

Of cause I did. All my family members are great actors and actresses. Therefore, just because of my family name I am carrying a big responsibility with me all the time. But the only role I have played was at the age of nine in school theater.

(Info: The Jabrs are one of the most famous acting dynasties in the Arab world. Ayham's aunt, Muna Wassef, is probably the most famous actor in the Arab world right now. His grandfather's brotherm, Naji Abar, is known for playing the legendary role of Abu Antar in the sitcom "صح النوم" ("Good Morning"). His grandfather is the theater director Mahmoud Jabr.)

What was your play about?

It was about two homeless guys and about ghosts getting stuck in the backyard of a chemical factory. I was one of the ghosts. Silly, I know.

Were you a good ghost?

After the play they never called me again. So I am not sure. (laughing)

How can an artist actually make a living in a war zone?

I do not sell my art and hopefully, I'll never have to. My advice is, you better go and buy something to eat than buying art. I do video editing for TV series, videography and visual design for advertising customers. I also worked as a cashier in a café.

Before the war started you directed your own movies. Do you miss that?

Yes. There was a huge amount of TV channels. All of the Middle East loved Syrian series. Today there aren't that many Syrian production companies left. And the cinema market is practically not existent anymore. I wish to direct a Syrian TV series. I already wrote down many ideas for a screenplay. It has been two years since I directed my last movie.

What was it about?

Refugees. But it is still unpublished. The media laws here are just like a bullet in the brain

And what are your screenplays about?

About the Syrian Army, about the death of Syria's radio and movie industry, about Syrian artists, Syrian women, about the consequences of war for civilians and about terror. By the way, the girl I used to love now lives in Germany as a refugee.

Why didn't you join her?

Being a refugee has never been one of my plans. Of cause, there are people who lost everything, even their home. Maybe it is better for them to go and look for better chances. But I try to appreciate what is left, even if it is nothing. Damascus is so inspiring even in all the madness. I believe that if you can't do what you want to do in your own country, you won't do it anywhere else.

Do you think many people around you share this view?

I really don't know. The smile in the face of every one of us is hiding a sad story. Everyone has lost relatives. That is what is so hideous about the war: destruction and sorrow will cover all of us.

Do they cover you?

Of course. The terror the West is sending us is worse than hell itself. And I think everyone in the world can feel that.

The West is sending those spaceships?

Aliens are. They say they came for peace. But who is really coming for peace? What they really brought is total annihilation. I leave the accusation to the beholder but let's say: It's about aliens who are not as peaceful as they claim. The illustrations are my way of telling the truth about this dilemma and the hideous circumstances we live under.

What is the truth?

No one bombs for peace.

Will the space ships ever leave?

It is going to end badly for them. For everyone who tried to destroy Syria in the past, it ended in total annihilation. After all the wars, Syria has been through it stood up again. Damascus is the oldest city in the world. It will survive as it has always done.

And then, what comes after?

I want to make a TV series from A to Z: screenplay, camera, directing. I want to try acting again. Hopefully, I will still find ideas for my collage art. I wish peace would return to Syria. But I am not sure if it will ever return to us.

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