The 14-Year-Old Syrian Refugee Who Built the Aleppo of His Dreams
The incredible story of Mohammed Qutaish's paper model of the city and how it was secretly transported to a gallery in the US.
Photo credit: Baraa Al-HalabiAFP/Getty Images
This article originally appeared on VICE US.
In 2012, Wael Qutaish and his wife, Shahed, returned to Salaheddine, the southern Aleppo neighborhood they fled after the Syrian government dropped a first wave of barrel bombs on the city. A blast had destroyed Wael's electronics store, so he took a job with an American NGO. Shahed and other parents improvised a neighborhood primary school. So it went, under the constant threat of airstrikes: If you lived, you lived carefully, flexibly, with an eye out for one another and always at ground level or below.
It was sometime later in 2012 that the oldest Qutaish child—a light-eyed, long-limbed 11-year-old named Mohammed—broke the rules. He climbed up to the roof of his family's two-story villa, taking with him the paper and markers it sometimes took his father two or three days to acquire in territory then controlled by the rebel Free Syrian Army. Wael would give Mohammed whatever he needed to support his son's almost compulsive love of drawing, he tells me, but the roof? In the following weeks, Wael and Shahed made a decision. They asked a neighbor if their son could take an empty, ground-floor room for a studio.
Over the next three years, Mohammed filled that room with the view he'd lost. Paper towers, streets, and solar panels, lakes, restaurants, and an entertainment district, all of it water-colored by hand—and not drawn but rendered in three dimensions, based on architectural models he had seen on the internet. Green trees stood with wry and decidedly treelike composure at the bases of skyscrapers several feet tall. Aleppo had once been Syria's largest city; thousands of years ago, it was a terminus of the Silk Road. Mohammed thought it could again be beautiful, modern, strong. From his worktable, a new Aleppo grew, one from which he had erased all traces of a half-decade of strife: a city without ISIS, Al Nusra, or Bashar al Assad.
Mohammed spent four to five hours a day on his project, "with breaks, of course," he tells me. In the meantime, conditions in Aleppo and Syria worsened. Friends and neighbors were killed; a bomb blast smashed the makeshift school; Mohammed's mother was pulled alive from the rubble. And then a neighbor, a citizen journalist named Waad Alkateab, passed on a message to Mohammed and his family. Would he be willing to send work for an exhibition in the United States? There was an American museum, a curator named Alex Kalman. Would it be possible to acquire a piece of Mohammed's art to be exhibited in Manhattan, 5,500 miles away?
To reach New York's Mmuseumm, where Mohammed's Future Aleppo is on view through December 18, the artwork made much the same journey that millions of refugees have attempted: It moved from person to person, from car trunk to hotel room, starting with the very same streets Mohammed depicted in his model, and with the same combination of contingency, urgency, and risk. Kalman, the Mmuseumm's curator, had come into contact with Mohammed's work earlier in 2015, when a friend sent him a video that had appeared on the British station Channel 4. Kalman then cold-emailed a producer at the station. After a flurry of emails and leads, he reached the journalist who had shot the video. Waad Alkateab, who turned out to be Mohammed's neighbor, responded within days, though it felt, Kalman says, like two weeks.
Mohammed spent the next several weeks custom-building a new portion of Future Aleppo. In the meantime, led by Kalman and Alkateab, a group of Turkish and Syrian strangers arranged by email and WhatsApp to transport it out of a smoldering city into a country where tensions between Turkish citizens and Syrian refugees were already exploding into intermittent violence.
The first to carry the model was a doctor named Zahed Katerji—Alkateab's husband—who ferried the model from the Qutaishes's home to the southern Turkish border city of Gaziantep in the trunk of his car. In a room at the opulent Hotel Tuğcan, he handed over an enormous transparent plastic trash bag full of paper buildings and trees.
That bag was, in turn, received by Ozgur, a Turkish man who took the model to have custom boxes built by a friend for its transport. Ozgur then brought the newly packed city to DHL, where Eva, an Istanbul-based designer, had already helped complete all the customs forms. Ozgur explains over Whatsapp that he wanted to do something for both Syrian and Turkish people at once; Eva emails me to say that because she is a mother, she felt she had no choice but to help.
Mohammed's Aleppo arrived in New York City on December 24, 2015, after three days of transit. "Seventy-two hours of staying awake," Kalman says, speaking by phone early this summer. Later, he emails me a photo of an explosion of tape and cardboard: the same sorts of modest materials out of which Future Aleppo is made.
In the model, the citadel sits on a low paper hill on which Mohammed's brushstrokes stand out clearly. That same hill, back in Syria, had been in use since 3000 BCE, long before the building of the castle—the prophet Abraham may have milked his goats there—but it is now off limits to civilians. In the course of the conflict, UNESCO has scrambled to preserve and document Syria's historic sites, even dispatching trained civilians with 3D scanners. In photographs of Aleppo, you can see the remaining citadel walls crumble down toward the surrounding city, which is now blanketed in the white dust of its own pulverized buildings.
Five stories below the Tribeca studio where I sometimes meet with Kalman to talk about his work as a curator, there is a converted elevator shaft containing three walls of glass cases lit by hidden LEDs. This is Mmuseumm, founded by Kalman and two other filmmakers, now entirely under Kalman's idiosyncratic and demanding oversight. Within my hearing, Kalman—tall, poofy-haired, a restless talker in his 30s—has called the space a contemporary natural history museum, a contemporary archaeology museum, and a museum of the contemporary vernacular. "Object journalism" is the phrase he now prefers, as coined by the design writer Rob Walker. Kalman thinks that learning to look at everyday objects might help us find new stories—even urgent ones—in our contemporary world. Currently on exhibition in Mmuseumm's fifth season: chintzy Trump-branded paraphernalia; artifacts left by immigrants at the US-Mexico border; immaculate replicas of ISIS currency.
A few feet farther up the alley, there is another strange space: Mmuseumm's annex, or Mmuseumm 2. The padlock on the door reads "HARDENED": Kalman removes it one afternoon to let me look at the artwork now called Future Aleppo. In a small alcove, eight blocks of paper city occupy a pedestal of about a square yard. There are the trees, the toy cars, the solar panels, a river, a bridge over the river just lifting to allow the passage of a sailboat underneath. A few taxis are parked at the Citadel of Aleppo, one of the world's oldest castles, built by the Seleucids in 300 BCE. Nearby there is a tower with a rooftop pool, another tower with a helipad—a vision of Aleppo not just rebuilt but improved. There is a park because Mohammed includes a park in every model he makes.
Future Aleppo comes down from Mmuseumm 2 later this week to prepare for a new season and its journey to London, for an upcoming Victoria and Albert Museum exhibition called, fittingly, Future Design . If you can visit, you will see a video of Mohammed painting trees. You will see, scattered behind him, the detritus of his studio—that ground-floor room—and his drawings on the walls, since Kalman has included the footage Waad Alkateab shot for Channel 4. In the exhibition materials, too, is a statement from Alkateab, in which she describes her hopes for Aleppo and for Syria. Freedom, she says, and the overthrow of tyranny, and assistance from the West—requests of a righteousness and pathos particularly stinging now that the United States may soon embark on a closer relationship with Russia, which has supported Assad in slaughtering Syrian people wholesale in their own country.
The 25-year-old Alkateab began working as a citizen journalist in 2012, inside the city, risking her life and her freedom. "Anyone is prone to be arrested or kidnapped by the forces of the regime," she tells me in a voice memo sent by WhatsApp. She was 21 when the conflict began. Her greatest fear, she says, is that she will have to leave. In the midst of her reporting, she still finds time to work on other film projects, including a longer piece about motherhood under siege, and what it was like to be pregnant during the siege. "Personally, when I feel bad, I go to Old Aleppo," Alkateab tells me. "I walk in the streets and look at the monuments. This provides me with energy and hope."
Mohammed, too, remembers Aleppo's former grandeur. When he began working in paper, he started with a model of the citadel, for him—as for most people who know Aleppo—"the symbol of the city." (He also made an early model of his high school, which "witnessed his childhood.")
When we speak via Skype, he is very patient with my questions, many of which revisit information already gathered by the curator Kalman. He is also thorough, asking often for clarification from our translator. Early in the conversation, Mohammed's younger brother reaches up to wave, and then all seven of the Qutaishes, parents and children, begin flashing peace signs.
At the time, the Qutaishes were in a Turkish port city, celebrating Eid on their first vacation since the conflict began. They had spent the day swimming, and you could see the ocean in Mohammed's hair. They fled Aleppo this summer, settling in another southern Turkish city. Mohammed's father's NGO work provided him with the appropriate documents to leave Syria. His children don't have papers, but Wael says he doesn't want them to grow up in Turkey anyway, where refugees are often beaten and robbed. Wael says that if heaven were in Turkey, he wouldn't want to go there. He wants only to provide his family as much happiness as possible without inflating their expectations or promising the impossible. Yes to the art supplies, I think, no to the roof.
I also ask Mohammed what he thinks he might do next. He is undeterred in his ambitions to become an architect. Though he left everything behind, he is drawing again. I ask Mohammed if he thinks art can bring Syrian people back together. He says, "Yes, I believe it can," in a tone that suggests he is amused by people who think it couldn't. He also tells me he has a message for the public: "If your child has a gift, please help him to develop his skills. Help us rebuild our country and society."
In the Victoria and Albert Museum, Mohammed's model will be exhibited alongside a shining, bullet-gray ring: another architectural model, this one built by the British firm Foster and Co. of Apple Campus 2 in Cupertino, California. The curator, Rory Hyde, says the gesture of placing Mohammed Qutaish alongside Norman Foster poses a simple question: "Who owns the future?" He calls Mohammed's work "speculative, ambitious, generous." Something in his tone suggests he thinks that an artwork with those qualities could stand up to anything. Mohammed describes the phenomenon straightforwardly: "My sorrow, caused by this destruction, has inspired me immensely."
After more than two hours of interview, our translator stands up for a much-needed break. "We'll just wait for her to get back," says Kalman, sitting next to me in New York City. "In the meantime, we'll have our smokes." He takes out an electronic cigarette and smiles. Over Skype, I see Mohammed's father light up and lean against the fence in a Turkey. Suddenly, the father and the museum curator strike me as two men anywhere, outside a bar, on break in an alley. A rare and a fragile connection—and yet perhaps an easier one to establish than any connection between Aleppo and the rest of the world. For weeks and months now, Russian and regime fighters have pummeled East Aleppo: About 250,000 people are trapped. All the hospitals have been destroyed. From the thick of the fighting, out of a terror most of us will never see or know, Waad Alkateab wrote to Kalman about miracles. It was a miracle, she said, that she was still alive.
When Alkateab was honored last month—twice—by Amnesty International for her reporting from Syria, she printed out, on a sheet of pink paper, a statement to the awards committee. She said it might be her last letter to the world. In the letter, she wrote that the air had become unbreathable, and that 30 barrel bombs had been dropped on her neighborhood in one night. Pro-government forces have since closed in on the last sliver of rebel-held neighborhoods in Aleppo, followed by reports of mass civilian executions, a collapsed ceasefire, and then a rebrokered one Wednesday night. Alkateab and her husband are still alive, trapped in a hospital in the city. Their lives, like so many other Syrians, remain in grave danger.
"There is a perished city called Aleppo," she wrote to the awards committee, back in November. "And all its people are asking you to remember your humanity." The plainness of her language reminded me of something I saw in her film about Mohammed. He kept a piece of paper pinned to the wall of his studio: They destroy. We rebuild. We rebuild—in our memories, with our hands, with whatever we can gather—the better and the vanished world we once glimpsed from the roof.
Annie Julia Wyman is a writer and doctoral candidate in the Harvard English Department. Follow her on Twitter.
Future Aleppo by Mohammed Qutaish is on view at Mmuseumm 2 in New York through December 18.
The last names of certain participants in this story have been omitted to protect their identities and safety.