Architect Marwa al-Sabouni was born and raised in Homs, Syria. When the Syrian civil war began, she decided to remain in her home with her husband and two young children. An architect at the beginning of her career, al-Sabouni was determined to pursue her PhD in architecture, even as the war raged and her apartment building was caught in the crossfire between the Syrian army and opposition groups.
Al-Sabouni published her reflections on war, urbanism, and the relationship between architecture and community in her 2016 memoir The Battle for Home: The Vision of a Young Architect in Syria. In this episode, she discusses her life and her understandings of architecture, identity, and culture.
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JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, President of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
MARWA AL-SABOUNI: When I was writing this book, I was looking at the collapse of buildings, the collapse of surroundings. But then when the collapse ended, I was very saddened to witness the collapse of humanity.
CUNO: In this episode, I speak with Syrian architect Marwa al-Sabouni.
Marwa al-Sabouni was born in Homs, Syria, in 1981. Thirty years later the city was engulfed in the Syrian Civil War. Married and with two children, Marwa elected to stay in Homs. “I’m lucky,” she says. “I didn’t have to leave my home. We were stuck there, as if we were in prison; we didn’t see the moon for two years. But apart from broken windows there was no damage.” They did, however, face a scarcity of fresh water and food, and the ever-present fear for their lives.
Since the ceasefire in 2015, Homs has largely been quiet. But it has fundamentally changed. Much of the old city has been destroyed and 60% of its other neighborhoods are little more than rubble. The challenge now is to rebuild the city. For Marwa, this raises questions about the very purpose of architecture: who decides what gets built, and how and for whom? Her book, The Battle for Home, offers answers to these questions, which have been given a new sense of urgency in this phase of the Syrian civil war.
Marwa spoke to me from her home. Listeners will hear the call to prayer from outside her window during the first part of our conversation.
Thank you, Marwa, for joining me on this podcast.
Let’s start from the beginning. You were born in Homs, Syria, in 1981. What was your childhood like? What was Homs like then?
AL-SABOUNI: Well, my childhood was a very normal. I’m the biggest daughter of four. I have three more siblings. And my father is a doctor and my mother was a staying-home mom who studied biology. And I come from middleclass and I lived in a neighborhood called the New Homs, because it was—
Although it is about seven to ten minutes from the city center, it’s separated from the city by the river. So in that sense, it was a new development, so it’s kind of a modern neighborhood to the city, pretty much detached from the city by the orchards and the river.
CUNO: Yeah, that sounds beautiful. How did you come to study architecture?
AL-SABOUNI: Without a previous intention, I’m afraid, because the way things were and, to a certain degree, still are, we study for our A-level exams. And in the end, our degree’s pretty much decide for us. I think it’s a French system from the French Mandate. And let’s say medicine and pharmaceutical industries are the highest degrees, and then comes engineering. So architecture included, like, civil engineering and mechanical engineering, et cetera. And I scored at that level.
CUNO: I see.
AL-SABOUNI: So my degrees allowed me to entered architecture and other engineering faculties, and I chose architecture for no particular reason.
CUNO: How old were you at the time?
AL-SABOUNI: I was seventeen when I entered the college. I was the youngest in my year. But yes, when I tell this to my children, my daughters just say, “Oh, well, you were so naïve, Mom.” Because now they have a wider scope towards the world and they know more.
CUNO: What was the city like, in terms of its architecture?
AL-SABOUNI: It’s quite divided, I think, because the Old City, where the traditional architecture and the basic, let’s say, core of the city, the main character of Homs, was enclosed towards the wall of the city, the old wall. And it’s a very strange city if— When I studied architecture and began to look at my city from the perspective of architecture, it’s quite strange because we have two centers and they are separated only by 200 meters.
So we have two clock towers at the two centers, and they are just one street away from each other. And it’s called the New Clock Square and the Old Clock Square. And the Old Clock Square, it marks the beginning of the Old City, the traditional city, which is built in accumulation of different civilians. But in one material, which is the local basalt stones. It’s a black stone and quite rough. For some edges, they use the white limestone, to give it some light.
And this is a quite distinctive character. Even in the Syrian context, Homs has a distinctive character, in terms of traditional architecture because of this building material.
And in terms of the New Clock Square, where let’s say the recent building begins, it’s quite colonial in character. So the French Colonial architecture can be seen in the façades of the buildings. The blocks of three to four stories buildings, with those mixes of French Colonial styles and some traditional decorative elements.
But then the city began to have— to lose— to lose the character and lose any charm, basically, because it begins to look like endless rows of building blocks that, you know, has no distinctive style.
CUNO: Is this something that you recognized when you were a student, something that caught your eye as a student? Or what kind of architecture were you looking at?
AL-SABOUNI: Also, strangely enough, we were, at the school of architecture, we were never instructed to look at our local context. So the five years we— I spent and my colleagues spent in the school of architecture, all the focus was on studying the history of Western architecture. We studied the Modernism history and we looked at, let’s say, Brutalism and High Tech and Organic architecture, and all those— all those trends and all those styles that, you know, were Western— in the Western world, and the International style were the focus of our attention.
CUNO: Did you have examples of that kind of architecture in Homs, or was it from photographs and books that you saw that architecture?
AL-SABOUNI: The period of the sixties and the seventies was very experimental. In the whole region. In, for example, in Iraq and in Syria, you can—you can see— you can see those trends. Because in that generation, there was so much opening towards the Western world, and many of our professors coming from those periods of time studied in England, for example, and in Germany. And they came back with those understandings in mind and have experimented in their local works. So you have those touches, let’s say, of those schools; but you don’t have big examples.
CUNO: So the civil war broke out in 2011. You were already a practicing architect at the time. What was it like for you, as an architect and as a mother and as a person?
AL-SABOUNI: I was just starting in my career, I think, because I was still studying for my PhD. It was my first year in PhD. And it was ten years ago, so I was twenty-nine. And I was just, you know, a very young architect. So I haven’t, at the time, I haven’t accomplished anything, you know? I just, you know, designed a few façades here and there. It was at the beginning of me opening up towards my future and finding where, you know, the next step would be. So it was quite frustrating, from this point of view.
As a mother, also it was very also big pressure, because my children were five and three. So my youngest never saw a city without war. And it was very difficult to explain to him. Sometimes it’s just heartbreaking because was watching TV and he would ask us, ’cause, “Do they have war here? Do they have war here?” As if he cannot imagine anyplace that people live in peace. But luckily, he grew up fine from this stage and had a more normal childhood.
CUNO: What was it like to celebrate the Arab Spring? I suppose you did celebrate the Arab Spring. What was it like in the transition from the Arab Spring to a civil war?
AL-SABOUNI: Well, frankly, I didn’t celebrate anything. Let’s say I didn’t buy the idea of an Arab Spring.
CUNO: Why not?
AL-SABOUNI: Because it seemed so superficial.
CUNO: In Homs or in Syria or in the region?
AL-SABOUNI: In the region, yes. It seemed as if, you know, a burst, you know? Because as part of this frustrated young Arab generation, I realize how things were and the blocked horizons that we were facing. But it seemed as if a bubble of anger that had burst and it had no vision, no answer of what’s next. And for me, it was just very herded[?].
CUNO: Yeah. And how did Homs respond to the outbreak of the civil war? How different was it from in Damascus or Aleppo?
AL-SABOUNI: Well, Homs was the first city to erupt in violence, for a start. And Homs was called the capital of the revolution. So Homs basically held the flag of the demonstrations and the so-called revolution.
CUNO: And when did the siege of Homs start? At the very beginning of the revolution?
AL-SABOUNI: Well, no, because things progressed from different place to different place, with different rhythm. So for example, certain neighborhoods were designated as dangerous or violent before others. And then, you know, life stopped, I think in 2013. And the peak of violence happened in 2013 and 2014.
CUNO: Can you describe it for us? I mean, how did you get drinking water? How did you live? How was your family living? Were they safe? How did you get all the basic necessities of live during the siege?
AL-SABOUNI: Well, I have to begin from the location of our home, because we lived at the battle line. So we were caught in the middle, in the crossfire between the armed forces of the opposition and the army, the official army. And they were shooting at each other and we were in the middle. The row of our building and, you know, the buildings next to it. And the street ahead of us and behind us were where this battle line, where the crossfire happened.
It was very intense. And we had it all. Except from bombing, we had it all in our apartment. So we had the stray bullets, we had the tanks marching below our window, we had the tank stationed at the end of our street. So the windows will fall and the whole building would shake up and it was pretty, pretty intense. Then mortar phase happened, where mortar missiles landed just, you know, in— And this stretched over years, so it’s two to three years of this, you know, on and off.
CUNO: Did you stay in your house?
AL-SABOUNI: Yes. We never left. We never left for one day during that.
CUNO: How did you get food and how did you get water and— ?
AL-SABOUNI: Like I said, it’s— There were different phases, so different necessities would come on and off. So you never have it all. So it’s one week of no electricities, and then electricity will come and water will disappear. And the cooking gas will disappear and the water will come. And the internet will go for two or three months, and then the electricity will come. So it’s just—
You know, sometimes we joked about it that, you know, that those amenities cannot, you know, face each other. So it’s a constant pressure on the household. You have to invent daily ways of coping. And in terms of food, the prices went very high and everything was very expensive. And we were out of work for two years. So this [was] also additional pressure.
But we were never hungry, for example. We were fortunate enough to have food on our table every day. But men had to spend the whole day in the job of securing the, let’s say, the necessities. For example, my husband would go in line for two or three hours to get bread. Then he would go for a different place. And this is a literally, a life-threatening adventure, that you cross from one street to another to get something. To get, you know, milk or, I don’t know, meat or something. Because there were snipers that were from the two conflicting parties, and each sniper would shoot at certain stage, at people.
CUNO: Yeah. So in the midst of all of this, you decided to write a book, the book that we’re talking about today, called The Battle for Home. That’s H-O-M-E, home.
What made you decide to write a book in response to the situation in which you found yourself, you and your family?
AL-SABOUNI: Well, as I said, I was studying for my PhD, so I was continuing to do the research and keeping myself busy in studying and translating texts and reading books and— And my PhD was about stereotyping Islamic architecture.
So I was— I was looking at the local architecture and the architecture of our region trying to be, you know, having this detached perspective and looking at this architecture from the perspective of somebody who is— who has nothing to do with it. And like I said, the surroundings that I was living in compelled me to look at it, to think about it, to reflect on it.
And having my husband also as an architect, our conversations revolved around the situation and the question of why certain neighborhoods had certain behavior attached to them. And is it a stereotypical point of view to look at and to attach certain labels? And why would a group of people belonging to a certain place have a common behavior or a common reaction to events that is quite different from other[s]?
And I only had to look out of my window to find the answer. And that was the motive to write the book. And my said, “Well, you have to write this. And you said that to me and you have to write it down. I think it will be a good book.” And so the credit goes to him, in that respect, of encouraging me to write the book.
CUNO: Well, you write that there is an inescapable correspondence between architecture of a place and the character of the community that is settled there. Which comes first, the architecture of the place or the character of the community?
AL-SABOUNI: Well, I think it’s the hen/egg question. Because the two make a cycle. So one affect[s] the other. But of course, human comes first. So we decide, the community, the character of the community decides the kind of architecture. But then the architecture you build also channels the behaviors and the interactions and all of that, and so the character will be affected correspondingly.
CUNO: You write at the same time, that “the failure to create architecture that can constitute a home for its users stems from a loss of identity.”
CUNO: Explain that to us. How the two are so closely related. And what was the loss of identity that you were experiencing and reacting to in Homs?
AL-SABOUNI: Well, identity, for me, just— it’s a set of values that can express our emotions and our aspirations, and basically, our perspective towards life and the universe. Those values, they make their way into our built environment. And when one looks at an environment that has no character and has basically failed to bring people together and to express people’s views and to express people’s aspirations, this failure correspondingly [is] just a symptom of the loss of those values.
Let’s put that in context like you asked about Homs. I think in the Arab region, we have an identity crisis. And this is something that is spoken about and discussed in the works of many intellectuals and researchers. So it’s no secret that we have an identity crisis. Like the one I was having when I was a teenager. You know, I was Westernized because the place I came from had no clear set of values that I could identify myself with.
So it’s the identity crisis that we struggled with after the colonization of our region that, you know, the Sykes-Picot pact that divided our region into different countries with different loyalties. And from basically the nineteenth and twentieth centuries till this day, we live in a series of crises. And we seem not to find our way out.
CUNO: So you write about a social and economic dysfunction, a culture of favoritism and bribes, as leading to two choices: either the way out, to the gulf or the West; or the way in to corruption and degradation.
What brings that about, and how simple or how complicated is that culture? Is it something that is directly related to the condition of the Arab identity that you’re taking about? Or is it something that’s generally humankind?
AL-SABOUNI: Well, it’s bothI think we have this legacy, the colonial legacy, where dysfunctioned institutions were created, basically, to keep the system weak. But also, I don’t believe that we can blame it all on just, you know, Western interference. I think we also chose this way, this culture of favoritism and bribes. Because this is the official way of functioning our institutions. Mind you, not only the public institutions, but also the private institutions. So this gives you an indication that it’s not something that[’s] not related to people’s choice. It’s just, you know, it’s an official failure, but also it’s a failure of society.
CUNO: So I’m just trying to keep this straight, this image of the city in my mind. So you have the souk itself, with its 4,000 shops, the civic gathering place, and you’ve got these two great historic sites of the mosque and the church. And then you have these modern towers of— clock towers, one older than the other. But then you have this hotel called the Twin Tower Hotel. How do they all fit together into what is an emerging urban center?
AL-SABOUNI: They didn’t. Just, you know, it’s a whole mess, a whole big mess made of the city. And it’s the story that I try to tell in the book, that this city had suffered so much of the ill-devised decisions of its leaders and its multiple figures, because nobody paid attention towards their city, basically. Their main focus was making profit. And it’s very neglected throughout history. That is still a mystery to me, how this city was destroyed stone by stone intentionally.
It’s very strange and very interesting that every governor that took rule in Homs made a decision, from the municipality or the governor or the businessman, to demolish a building in their ruling times. And it doesn’t make sense why the city is systematically being deprived of its buildings and its communities and its, like we were discussing, of its civic pride, even.
CUNO: In the midst of all of this, of course, there is the war raging on. You write about the battle of Baba Amr. And your husband was born and raised there. What role did its different religious and ethnic groups play in its urban culture, and how did they figure in the war?
AL-SABOUNI: They don’t have different religious groups; they are Sunni Muslims. So let’s talk about, first, the religious groups. Although I don’t like the word groups, you know, because it’s so segregational. But Homs is a Sunni city by majority, but also has, in the twentieth century, it had its third of its population of Orthodox Christians. But then in the fifties and the sixties, when the factories were opening and the whole industrial transition that was happening in the country, people from the countryside, and mainly from the Alawite section, came and settled around the city.
But in Baba Amr, although they originally, the people who settled in Baba Amr originally from the villages, they are Sunni, Sunni Muslims, but they are Turkman, which is, you know, of Turkish origins. But I speak about how this, let’s say, ethnic difference was never accepted by the city.
And I think it’s not by the people, because people here in Syria, we are accustomed to variety. We all come from different origins and come from different countries. And it’s, you know, an ancient hub of trade and different people learning how to live together.
But I think it’s, like I tried to make the case in the book, I think it’s an urban planning issue. I think the way that the city authority decided to keep this neighborhood out of the regulatory plan of the city, keeping it informal, keeping it impoverished, made this segregation between the city as a system and the neighborhoods that try to plug into the city.
And Baba Amr was the place where violence erupted. So it’s the first place where the first battle in Syria happened.
CUNO: You say that it could’ve been avoided by a fair form of urbanization. How do you reconcile the basic social and economic needs of a people in times of war with architecture, especially architecture that’s contested between the developers and the architects?
AL-SABOUNI: They don’t reconcile. In civil war— in war, you are in a survival battle. You need to keep your life, and nothing else. So you cannot reconcile. It’s just— it’s too late to think about architecture during the war. But in the book, I speak about thinking about architecture before the war, before the moment of eruption.
CUNO: You say that Damascus differs from Homs not only architecturally and demographically, but also psychologically; that the buildings, streets, and trees were not just the components of the urban environment, they were the very soul of the city. Tell us about that.
AL-SABOUNI: Yes. Damascus, of course, is considered the jewel of Syria because all the weight of culture and administration and wealth is centralized in Damascus. And Aleppo comes after that, and then the rest of Syria comes.
We are not discussing Homs here alone. In The Battle of Home, we are discussing— I think I discuss the wider issue. Just, you know, it’s the way our built environment led us to deadlocks. But in Damascus, the situation is slightly better because they have more order. They have more wealth. The government is monitored there, and they have a slightly more functioning system of the other cities, because there is also the international eye. They have the embassies, they have the cultural centers, and all of this plays a role of keeping more of a ordered way of life.
CUNO: Does the central authority of Damascus aid in situations in Homs or in Aleppo, or are they isolated one from another?
AL-SABOUNI: They isolate one from the other. For example, in Homs, the governor is— should not be a person from Homs. He should be someone who is, you know, from a different city. So he’s never close enough to the problems of the city. And this makes a huge difference when, you know, those who are in charge are from the city and they are concerned about the city.
CUNO: Now, the final chapter in your book is titled “The Battle For Continuity.” And you begin the chapter with a story of how you and your husband raced to get your PhD filed for— in the school, university. Tell us about that story and how important that story is to your thesis in the book.
AL-SABOUNI: Well, it’s a story about fighting, or breaking dreams, I think. Because there are many people, like, had very similar experiences like mine, but they didn’t have the chance to tell the story. Basically, I was— In the university, there were a clique of people, like professors who didn’t want me to take my PhD. They didn’t want, I think, a competitor or they don’t like it when a person, you know, says very loud and clear; they want more of a type that could say yes about things, let’s say, in a softer way.
So there was a group of professors who didn’t want the defense hearing to happen. And they made every attempt to postpone this. And they stretched the process for me over a year, just you know, postponing one meeting to the next week and the next week and the other. And at the end of the year, that was one year delay of the delayed meetings. I just, you know, I just had it because my professor, the professor who is supervising my thesis, he said, “Well, Marwa, you have two hours to come. And otherwise they will postpone the hearing to after the holidays.” It was the end of Ramadan. And afterwards, there was— there will be a long period of holidays, the Eid holiday.
So basically, I had to run to the stationery shop, where you just, you know, print, because we had no electricity and we had no printers. And I found one place where a printer was operating and he just, you know, mixed inks from old bottles. And it just, you know, was so improvised because this was in the height of the conflict. It was very dangerous. And we had no taxis in the streets, so it was very dangerous even to take a taxi because you could be kidnapped.
I basically met my husband at the stationery shop. And then I had to run with my son— Was it my son or my daughter? I don’t know. I had a child with me. And we had to run like two kilometers. We were fasting and I was so thirsty and just so hot, and we had to run towards the college. And when I arrived there, everybody was leaving. And I made it. I made it, like, five minutes. Like in movies. I made it, like, five minutes before they close everything up.
And then my professor came out of the dean’s office and he said, “Well, Marwa—” This man, one of those professors, he just, you know, made an objection. And he went to his home. Now it’s just, you know, it won’t happen. And I was so devastated. I just sat on the floor and started crying.
But then something— I don’t know, it’s just, you know, beyond my control. It just so miraculously happened. After the holidays, this professor was moved from his position. It had nothing to do with me, but they allowed the defense to happen, and finally, I got my PhD.
CUNO: Gosh, it’s like an allegory of the triumph of ambition over frustration.
CUNO: But the final chapter, the heart and soul of your book, and therefore of your thesis, is dealing with the continuity of culture and of style in architecture. You ask the fundamental question, what exactly is Islamic architecture? How did you answer it as a student, and how do you answer it now?
AL-SABOUNI: Well, I think I came to the conclusion that Islamic architecture is beyond the stereotypical image that we have of certain elements, incorporating certain elements like an arch or a dome or decoration or whatever that is a stereotypical image of Islamic architecture, to the wider conception that Islamic architecture is the manifestation and the expression of the Muslim mind and its understanding of the universe.
So basically, when you look at Islamic architecture, because it’s so wide in region, geographical region from east to west and from north to south of the Muslim Empire when— during history, and stretch it over eleven centuries. So even for researchers, it’s very difficult that they could find one string that could connect all these different regions and different cultures and different expressions towards the style that they all agree that there is a style that you can call Islamic.
And from my point of view, it’s the interaction with the universe. Because in Islam, you identify yourself with how you look at the Creator and how you look at the universe that He had created. And from this point of view, you can look at the creations of those builders and understand the Islamic architecture.
CUNO: But there’s a controversy around the naming of it. You speak about the heart of its style and its meaning and purpose; but there’s the controversy that you point out in the book about the naming of it, whether it’s called Islamic or Moorish or Mohammedan, or even Arabic or Turkish or Ottoman. Tell us about that controversy, and how does it play itself out?
AL-SABOUNI: I think the controversy is between Islamic and Arabic, because all the other meanings are just, you know, synonymous to the same, either to the religion or the language. So I believe that the language is, like architecture, is an expression. It another manifestation; it’s not the core understanding. Because religion is a value. And like I said, it’s a way of understanding your place in the universe and how you react to the universe. Whereas in language, it’s a way of communication. Like architecture, it’s a way of communication as well. So I think of language as the vessel of expression, whereas the religion is the core value that drives the expression.
CUNO: In your book, you are critical of the architecture of Zaha Hadid, who’s most often identified as a British Iraqi architect. You refer to some of her decorative elements as bubbles and gadgets, just as you refer to the architecture of Dubai as looking like a shelf of perfumed bottles.
CUNO: Is there no room for the contemporary architecture to be more experimental, let’s say, or more engaging with the West.
AL-SABOUNI: Of course, there is room The thing is, I’m critical of these types of architecture because I believe they abandoned the idea of value and they focused on standing out as the sole value of their creations. So those creations never attempted to make the effort, from my point of view, to reach out to their surroundings, to their communities, and to, you know, add any value beside of attracting attention to their creations.
Whereas the architecture that I believe that we all should aim at and defend is the architecture that digs deeper and try harder to reach out to the human value that we have. And that’s when you call an architecture sensitive or communal or moral. So that comes from a reflection, and then an attempt to express or, you know, stretch a hand towards this value.
CUNO: Now, you conclude your book with a very bold statement. You say that, “you build by making a livable home for both rich and poor, Muslim and Christian, owner and tenant, adult and child, in which parts, localities, functions, and businesses are woven together in a continuous fabric, and in which a shared moral order emerges of its own accord.” You said in your book that you hope for that. You said in your book that you hope for that. Your book was published four years ago, in 2016. Do you still have that hope today? And is your hope based on the same principles today as it was then?
AL-SABOUNI: Well, my hope, to be honest, has been, let’s say, diminished to a certain degree. Just, you know, it got very small, during those four years because— And I’ll tell you why. Because when I was having this hope, when I was writing this book, I was looking at the collapse of buildings, the collapse of surroundings. But then when the collapse ended, I was very saddened to witness the collapse of humanity. And in this sense, my hope was affected.
I think it will never go away, because I believe that as long as we live, we must have hope.
I do have the same principles. I still believe in the same message. But I think we have a longer way to reach those principles now.
CUNO: Thank you, Marwa, for your time on this podcast today. We wish you and your family the very best, in terms of safety and security and happiness and good health. So thank you again, very much.
AL-SABOUNI: Thank you so much, and I wish you the same.
CUNO: This episode was produced by Zoe Goldman, with audio production by Gideon Brower and mixing by Mike Dodge Weiskopf. Our theme music comes from the “The Dharma at Big Sur” composed by John Adams, for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003, and is licensed with permission from Hendon Music. Look for new episodes of Art and Ideas every other Wednesday, subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and other podcast platforms. For photos, transcripts and more resources, visit getty.edu/podcasts/ or if you have a question, or an idea for an upcoming episode, write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for listening.
JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, President of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
MARWA AL-SABOUNI: When I was writing this book, I was looking at the collapse of buildings, the col...