How Raqqa, once the capital of Syria’s Daesh caliphate, regained its Arab cultural pride

RAQQA, SYRIA: It has been five years since the Syrian Democratic Forces raised their flag in the main square of Raqqa, which for four years was the capital of Daesh. The streets and squares of Raqqa have been the scene of horrific atrocities – beatings, torture, beheadings and other unspeakable acts.

Global media, which watched the city’s liberation operation with anticipation, almost immediately packed up and fled once Raqqa was liberated from the terror group, leaving people alone again in the rubble of their homes. old big city.

But among the ruins, cultural flowers bloom. Groups of writers, artists and intellectuals are working hard to restore Raqqa’s culture, despite the dark mark left by Daesh.

The area around Raqqa has been inhabited since the third millennium BC. It gained a reputation when the Abbasid Caliph Harun Al-Rashid, himself a lover of culture and tradition, chose the city as the site of his imperial residence in 796 AD.

Although the city was destroyed six times in its long history, many of its centuries-old historic sites still bear witness to its importance.

When Daesh burst into Raqqa in 2014 and declared the city its capital, the local artistic and cultural community was immediately gripped by fear.

“When the armed groups arrived, our group dissolved. We couldn’t sing or do anything. It got to the point where Daesh arrested me twice,” traditional singer Melek Muhammad Al-Saleh told Arab News.

“Activists said I was committing blasphemy. They said it was haram, it was the work of Satan,” he said with a questioning look.

The recently restored statue of Caliph Harun Al-Rashid, one of Raqqa’s ancestors. (AN Photo/Ali Ali)

Then, speaking more seriously, Al-Saleh added: “They came to destroy and eliminate our culture. They destroyed our museum. They smashed and destroyed all our antiques.

“They were sent to eliminate the history of this city and this country, because they themselves have no history; they have no opinions or goals. Their only goal was destruction.

Al-Saleh had a distinguished career as a traditional singer for decades. Returning to his hometown of Raqqa from Aleppo in the 1990s, he created a seven-member musical group called Njoom. The group traveled not only in Raqqa Governorate, but throughout Syria, performing at weddings and cultural festivals.

When Daesh arrived, the city’s proud culture and heritage came under attack. All the cultural centers have become departments for the various Daesh offices. They seized musical instruments from people and destroyed them. They destroyed cassettes, CDs and television sets. Weddings, once jovial affairs in Raqqa with music and dancing, have become silent and solemn.

Daesh interrogated Al-Saleh, saying he had “forgotten God”, and threatened to behead him. The group, however, was shocked to discover that Al-Saleh was a devout Muslim who knew a great deal about the Islamic faith. “I was with them for 12 hours. I had religious discussions with them. My faith was strong, and theirs was not. They were wrong,” he said.

He continued: “They were shocked; they asked me how a singer could know so much about religion, because they said singers were infidels. They asked me to become a judge for them.

Al-Saleh refused to work for the group and was eventually released. He continued to sing, but in secret – his band’s musical concerts took place at night in private homes, usually with a guard outside on the lookout for Daesh patrols.

As Raqqa rebuilt itself, the cultural departments of the new Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria began to search the city for its remaining artists. Al-Saleh was named a member of the Union of Artists and proudly showed his union ID card.

Equestrian and horse owner Amer Medad with one of his Arabian horses. (AN Photo/Ali Ali)

All the members of his former musical group died or left the country, so he created a new group of 11 members. In addition, he teaches his son the basics of traditional Raqqa music, “so that the new generation does not forget our traditions.

“For four or five years, we have been doing everything we can to bring our culture back to what it was, or to make it even better. It will take a long time, though,” he said.

Daesh was just as angry with the free expression of the written word as it was with traditional music. Mohamed Bashir Al-Ani, a poet from Deir Ezzor, was executed along with his son for “blasphemy”. Many writers have been forced to flee, including the Raqqawi writer Fawziya Al-Marai.

“I saw my city totally destroyed and I felt my head was going to explode. Everything was in ruins,” Al-Marai told Arab News, recalling his return to Raqqa after living in Turkey during the occupation of Daesh.

“It’s not just the city that was destroyed. Everything inside of me was destroyed,” she said. “I have lost everything that was beautiful in these ruins.”

Al-Marai, 74, is a prolific writer, having written more than 10 books of poetry and short stories since she started writing in the late 1990s.

Most of his writings were inspired by the traditions of Raqqa, especially the dress and folklore of Arab women, and by the Euphrates River. She attended literary festivals several times a year, meeting famous Syrian poets such as Nizar Qabbani and Raqqawi native Abdal Salam Al-Ujayli.

When ISIS attacked, “I fled. If I had stayed, they would have killed me. They were looking for me by name,” Al-Marai said.

Inauguration of the statue of Harun Al-Rashid, previously destroyed by Daesh, in one of Raqqa’s parks. (AN Photo/Ali Ali)

Her books, which she called her children, were all burned by the terrorist group. “I had 25 to 50 copies of each book, and when I came back there were none left,” she said.

It wasn’t just her books that were destroyed — the entire intellectual community she spent decades building is gone. “None of my friends stayed. They all fled and became refugees in Europe,” she said.

Al-Marai was determined to help rebuild the culture of her beloved city. Having become an adviser to the Department of Arts and Culture of the autonomous administration, she now regularly organizes literary salons in the city’s fushat hiwar, or conversation space, to read and discuss literature.

“Now we organize festivals and training sessions for our young people on how to write stories and poetry. We celebrate them and always have activities to restore our culture to what it was before. We always take the opportunity to let young people know that the future is between them,” she said.

Shahla Al-Ujayli, a niece of Abdal Salam Al-Ujayli, continued her uncle’s literary tradition by writing several books, including one in which the protagonist joins one of Raqqa’s most famous cultural pastimes: the horse races.

For over a thousand years, Raqqa was famous for its equestrian heritage. The unique Arabian breed of horses was used as a means of work, transportation and, eventually, a status symbol.

“The horse was a symbol of the family. If a family owned a horse, they were known to be wealthy. Then it became a cultural tradition, passed down from grandparents to parents to children,” horse owner Ammer Medad told Arab News.

Medad estimates that while there were once between three and four thousand original Arabian horses in Raqqa, the current number is only around 400.

An artist paints at the Raqqa Cultural and Artistic Center. (AN Photo/Ali Ali)

He recalls that in 1983, the first horse racing center in Raqqa was created. A makeshift installation in the garden of a local landowner, it was only about 1,000 square meters in size. A local man from a famous equestrian family donated 10 horses to help establish the first equestrian club.

The club began training and eventually began to compete at national level. They were the poorest team in all the Syrian governorates, having only their horses. The runners trained in the desert rather than on a regulation race track. Since they didn’t even have separate uniforms, they were forced to share one uniform with each other.

Despite this, however, Raqqa runners have always won bronze, silver or gold in competitions. Their talent was so unparalleled that, according to Medad, it caught the eye of Basil Assad, the late brother of current Syrian President Bashar Assad, who was himself an equestrian champion.

Basil funded the construction of a racecourse and equestrian facilities in Raqqa, which was completed in 1989. The team has competed in races across the Arab world, including Qatar, Jordan and Egypt. Although the popularity of horse racing eventually waned, it was still part of traditional local culture. All that changed when Daesh arrived in the city.

Daesh destroyed the hippodrome and littered it with landmines. They used the Raqqa facility as a holding facility for 4,000 stolen horses, according to a local track worker. “They stole the horses for themselves. They even used them for food,” Medad said. He recalled an incident in which an Daesh militant approached a friend of his, intending to buy a horse to eat.

Author Fawziya Al-Marai, 74, holds an old photo of herself, with a picture of the late Syrian poet Abd Al-Salam Al-Ujayli in the background. (AN Photo/Ali Ali)

Medad asked why the activist would buy such a beautiful horse just to eat it.

“Daesh militants scolded me, saying I couldn’t ban what God had allowed, and said I had to come to their court. I fled for 15 days, at that time the activist who wanted to bring me to justice was killed and I was finally able to return home.

Five years later, the hippodrome was cleared of Daesh landmines and the facility was 50% rebuilt, according to Medad. The track has already held a local festival and plans to hold one nationally, the first such race in Raqqa since Daesh took over the city in mid-October.

The statue of Raqqa’s cultural ancestor Harun Al-Rashid, which had been destroyed by Daesh, was replaced in front of a crowd of onlookers in early September, symbolizing the city’s slow but inexorable return to its roots.