Syrian child artist's dreams stifled by brutality

Syrian child artist's dreams stifled by brutality
Feature: A portrait of a young artist trying to survive the viciousness of the Syrian revolution, as described by Haneen Ateeq.
4 min read
15 April, 2015
The child artist began painting prisons [AFP]

Life has given him hands that can create the most outstanding paintings. It has also given him the sensitivity to glimpse into the souls of those around him, and sense their pain.

When he was at school, Munaf used to study painting at the Adham Ismail Institute of Fine Arts in Damascus, one of Syria's most important art institutes. He was the youngest regularly enrolled student ever to pass the institute's entrance exam.

     He was preoccupied with religion being transformed into an evil force that eats away at people's hearts and minds.

"The institute taught me about life and changed my perspective on the world," he said.

When the revolution began it gradually took over his life, and he was influenced by his friends at the institute who were part of the revolution's secular trend. 

Munaf observed many of the peaceful protests that took place in the country. "There was a beautiful defiance in the demonstrators faces. I wanted to paint that defiance the way Goya did – the artist whose painting I feel I live within," he explained.

His paintings exposed all forms of intellectual and religious persecution. He was preoccupied with religion being transformed into an evil force that eats away at people's hearts and minds, and he feared the effects of this monster on the revolution.

"I wish I my painting's could expose everything that kills thought, everything in its entirety, however sacred it may be," he explained.

A year after the revolution began, Munaf's maternal uncle was killed for speaking out against the regime. Soon after Rabee, a friend from the institute, was found with his throat slit.

Life took Munaf to its darkest depths.

"My uncle's murder was like a terrifying thunderbolt that turned our lives upside down. What will I paint now? My grandmother's tears for her son are the most honest in this depraved world," Munif said. 

Describing Rabee as exemplifying the pure and virtuous religious Damascene community that shuns fanaticism. He said: "I cannot believe this has happened. He had done nothing. He only used to paint."

Munaf used his painting to escape from the horror around him.

His mother became sick and had to travel abroad for treatment.

One day, his friends at the institute were arrested, the head was fired and replaced by someone who knew nothing about painting. A week later he was called to the new head's office.

     For his father the entire country became inhospitable as he no longer knew how to protect his son.

"Munaf, I know you are the institute's youngest student, but I know who your friends are. Because you are young and have been led astray, I have not sent you to jail. But either you keep quiet and stop painting prisons, or you will end up in one of them and will ask for death, but not find it," the new head threatened.

After that, Munaf was too frightened to return to the institute, and he was expelled after failing to complete his final year.

The streets of Damascus became inhospitable. The Damascus he had loved and that his paintings had loved. The Damascus that used to revive his spirit as he walked through its alleys.

For his father the entire country became inhospitable as he no longer knew how to protect his son.

A car took them and their dreams that had been stuffed into suitcases to the Lebanese border. However, at the Lebanese border real death awaited the young artist's spirit.

"We arrived at the Lebanese border as the sun was rising. I cried the whole way because I had said goodbye to my loved ones. But my father reassured me".

At the border the police stamped Munaf's passport, but when they looked at his father's passport they accused him of being a criminal. A few seconds later, two armed soldiers came over and separated the artist from his father with a sudden kick. They then handcuffed his father, hit him, blindfolded him and took him away.

"I began screaming. The sky pressed down upon my chest, and I felt I would suffocate. I knew what being arrested meant. I saw my dreams committing suicide before my eyes. The blood ran cold in my veins. All the languages of the world fell silent, and I felt that I was walking towards an abyss and falling to the bottom of the world."

This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.