There were many precious buildings that lay within the old district of Homs in Syria before the war, but for 35-year-old local architect Marwa Al-Sabouni, two in particular stood out: the Khalid Ibn Al-Walid Mosque, named after the famous military commander and companion of the Prophet Muhammad, and the Church of St Mary of the Holy Belt, thought to be the oldest church ever built. "Both of them were important to every Homsi," Al-Sabouni says in her new book, The Battle for Home: The Memoir of a Syrian Architect. "It was common", she adds, "to hear the bells of Christian churches and the Muslim calls for prayer echoing through the streets at the same time".
Though a fragile truce was reached between rebels in Homs and the government last December, the damage sustained by Syria's third largest city has been staggering. Both the mosque and church are badly damaged and 60 percent of the wider city – known as the "capital of the revolution" for its central role in the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – has been destroyed alongside the trust different communities once had in each other. "The undoing of the urban fabric has advanced hand in hand with the undoing of the moral fabric," Al-Sabouni says in one of the book's most affecting passages. "And that is what is written in frightful scars on the face of Old Homs."
But despite that destruction and despite the mortars, rockets and barrel bombs that caused it, leaving Homs was never an option for Marwa. While others left, she sought to discover even more about her city, writing a memoir which weaves together an eyewitness account of the war with a broader argument about how bad architecture and bad planning were part of its cause. I called her up to find out more.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
VICE: Hi Marwa. You describe the architecture and built environment of the Old City in Homs as an example of what was good about Syrian cities. Could you elaborate on that?
Marwa Al-Sabouni: I didn't really have the chance to see the city in its best shape because Old Homs was vandalised and much of it destroyed even before the war. You had this mix of old buildings next to new ones and it was very unplanned and unsightly. I couldn't figure out why it was so dear to people. But through writing my book and through the war I rediscovered it and I think I get it now. It's not just the old buildings and the special architecture, it's the urban fabric and how these buildings were interwoven with the lives of the people there. People had this shared space, they lived wall to wall, neighbours were so close to each other. The city was named "mother of the poor" because the people that lived there didn't need to have that much money. You couldn't identify the class divisions between people by the buildings they lived in, you just saw one place where people of different classes and religions coexisted. Each house, the material of each building, the shape of each street, the sense of the space, the architectural details, they all complemented each other.
Why did things start to go wrong and what role do you think architecture and the built environment played in the wider conflict?
Outside the Old City in Homs, there was more ghettoised planning, where certain groups lived on the outskirts of the expanded city, divided by religion, class, and the person's origin – whether they were from the city or the countryside. It's created small cities within the larger city, with different characters and lifestyles. This means you don't have any sense of identity and shared place.
Were the same mistakes in urban planning made outside Homs in other Syrian cities?
Yes. It's the exact same.
You describe how greed and corruption among public officials destroyed much of Homs before the war started. Was that another contributing factor to the conflict?
These actions create anger and resentment among people. Certain places and parts of the old city were destroyed or removed without any consideration of their historical and social value. For example you had a part of the city where people were living and working that was replaced by an empty parking space that nobody uses. You had trees removed that were 100 years old because it meant the officials could make money from it. By renovating certain places that didn't need it, but at the same time not spending one dime on things that were needed like social housing, did not function for people. I call this "moodanism": where one person happens to have the authority to make decisions, and he just does it without any consideration, plans, guidance or vision. This is his mood and this is what he decides for the whole city.
What's the situation in Homs today? What kind of damage has been done to your city?
Over 60 percent of the city has been destroyed. There's just a few neighbourhoods with a few streets left and that's it. Everybody is now living in the remaining parts. You have these destroyed neighbourhoods circling around the remains of the liveable places, which are cut off from each other with barricades so it's not easy to move around any more.
You had an architecture studio in Old Homs. What happened to that?
Ruined. Nothing is left, not even the walls and ceilings.
So why did you stay given the huge danger?
Why leave? I am here living like other people and trying to rebuild the pieces around me. I just don't believe in leaving everything and running way. I must be clear: I'm not condemning anybody for leaving. I know many, many people who have been forced to leave. I was lucky that my own home was spared. But I don't believe in trading these challenges with another set of challenges and difficulties. I came to discover my home through this war and through this book. When difficulties come to you in life you need to face them and approach them in practical ways. Through my work, I've been blessed enough to maybe try to do something about it.
Away from Homs, the destruction of Palmyra has been particularly shocking to people. What damage do you think this has done to Syria's identity?
No more than the destruction of other cities. It's only natural to have this emphasis on Palmyra when you are seeing the picture from the outside – when a prime location is destroyed it draws attention. But I think there are many other places that are undiscovered, that were left neglected for so many years before the war. The real loss is the loss of the people, the loss of the communities and the loss of the cities.
When it comes to rebuilding Syria, what are the dangers that worry you the most?
Repeating the same cycle. Building according to the "Gulf Model" which means investing in big tower blocks without any consideration of aesthetic and moral values, without consideration of social life in societies and the social role of architecture. Building as something to be consumed. Building for those who are privileged, not for everyone. And haste is also my concern. It's urgent, an emergency. You may just get overwhelmed with the size of the task ahead and not plan things. Let's hope people will listen to this message, and the cycle will not be repeated again.
What role do you think architecture can play in repairing communities and cities?
The exact opposite role it played in undermining communities and leading, in part, to war. Bringing people together again, creating a sense of identity, of shared place, a sense of love for the city you find yourself in, where you don't have to pay for every service, and you don't have to live in ugliness and chaos.
And what role are you hoping to play as an architect in that process?
I don't have plans for my role. As every Syrian does now, I'm just living day to day, doing what I can moment by moment. I have no plans for the future.
You say towards the end of the book, though, that you do have hope.
Because hope is what we have to believe in. After every night we hope that the day will come. I can't live in despair all the time.
Thank you, Marwa.
The Battle for Home: The Memoir of a Syrian Architect is out now published by Thames & Hudson.
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