Domicide: How the Syrian civil war destroyed the idea of home

Domicide: How the Syrian civil war destroyed the idea of home
Book Club: Ammar Azzouz's 'Domicide' offers a compelling blueprint for the reconstruction of urban areas of conflict. Drawing on his city of Homs, Ammar redefines architectural concerns and envisions new means of communal, sustainable urban planning.
10 min read
16 August, 2023
Ammar Azzouz uses the notion of the 'home' to address the destruction in cities like Homs, the displacement of Syrian people both externally and internally [Bloomsbury]

Ammar Azzouz’s book Domicide makes no pretence over the seriousness of its subject, it is a serious book.

In the first pages of the introduction, Azzouz sets out that he will be dealing with the destruction of home at a time when "the days of youth that were supposed to be filled with joy, hopes and dreams" were instead "the days of loss, grief and trauma."

The story told is that of the devastation wrought upon the city of Homs, the author’s own hometown. In its telling, Domicide makes an important contribution to studies of the human costs of the ongoing Syrian civil war.

"Bringing one’s own lived experience to the writing about violent situations helps us to get closer to what it means to live at the time of war. It is a different kind of history written by the survivors of war"

Though Azzouz specifically criticises the quickly shifting gaze of onlookers, our disinterest seemingly aided by fast news cycles, the implications of his work are broad. It is a testament to his success that parallels can be drawn with other cases of destruction.

The Canadian journalist Lyse Doucet’s foreword makes the immediate connection to Kyiv and Ukraine suffering their own assault and widening the scope of Azzouz’s exposition of domicide – but Homs, the case study, remains a well-detailed focal point.

Azzouz situates the violence experienced by those from Homs and the material fabric of their city in a wider context. Whilst the repercussions of the revolution and conflict are explained in depth, Azzouz first considers the more nebulous process of "modernising" building projects that initially tested the integrity of the City of the Black Stones.

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This deals with the intersection of domicide and identity, articulating the feelings of dissociation that accompany the loss of home, and the second process of conflict likely to shadow any attempts to rebuild and reconstruct, marking out the ingenuity of the study.

The work concludes with Azzouz’s own reflections on what can be done to resist domicide in the future. It is here, perhaps, where the book falters slightly against the force of its own argument delivered so convincingly throughout the earlier pages.

Azzouz’s suggestions for spaces that might bring Syrians together to work on the built environment would no doubt be powerfully effective. I hope to see him involved with such opportunities through workshops and programmes in the future. However, readers of Domicide will be left with no doubts over the enormity of the obstacles that will need to be overcome before that point.

Azzouz’s distinctive voice is ever-present in the book. He is, at times, an adviser, a tour guide and a witness, mouthpiece and polemicist – taking us with him from Homs as it was to Homs as it is.

The author lived in the city for his first 23 years, before fleeing to the United Kingdom where he remains in exile. He is shaped by his course of architectural training and then the war, a long period of study through which ideas were formed and a way of thinking evolved, contrasted with a sharp and immediate rupture.

These influences merge in his view of buildings as archives, combining the architect with the historian in a form of contemporary archaeology and providing the lens through which the work unfolds.

Though an academic work, replete with a well-stocked bibliography, it is also an intensely personal piece. As a prior history student myself, I recall the constant mantra for those in the arts and social sciences – to prioritise objectivity and emotional distance above all else.

This ideal, aligned as it seems to be with the old English gospel of the stiff upper lip, presupposes that the outputs will therefore be clearer, more factual and more useful. When I asked Azzouz directly the question of the importance of distance from a subject his answer was robust, "Bringing one’s own lived experience to the writing about violent situations helps us to get closer to what it means to live at the time of war. It is a different kind of history written by the survivors of war."

Though many readers may not have experienced the most direct end of domicide, his clear ideation prompts reflection and the re-adaptation of the book’s substance into other contexts.

In this regard, Domicide is at its most sharply political (and therefore general) in its first chapter wherein the neoliberal reconstruction of Homs in the pre-war period is dissected. Azzouz shows how whole sections of the old city were razed to construct a high-rise new centre and an accompanying massive car park all in service of the deliberately ambiguous vision to "build a better Homs".

A fierce critique is levelled at those who chose to take apart the ancient citadel, with incomprehensible historic losses swapped for the supposed creation of a "modern, clean" city. This section reminded me in places of James C. Scott’s influential study Seeing Like a State, in which he recasts the famed redesign of 19th century Paris by Haussmann as a deliberate means of clearing out those deemed undesirable, emptying then destroying their slums to make the city more "easily governable". 

"Azzouz warns that if reconstruction comes to Homs it will prioritise new sites for the elite first – designed by architects of a very different creed to Azzouz no doubt – closely followed by the protection and conservation of cultural heritage sites. Neither of which, he reminds us, truly belongs to the majority"

With Azzouz’s comment that the beautiful old streets of Homs were removed in 2006 almost as though they were "redesigned to prepare for war," the parallel is a clear one. Throughout this chapter, Azzouz builds his analytical framework.

He creates a clear theoretical split between blatant and recognisable violence, such as that which took place in Syria from 2011 onwards, and the slower violence of restructuring.

We are asked to view extreme domicide, carried out against those considered by the active force to be subhuman, in a lineage with everyday domicide, delivered upon those deemed to require modernising.

We are forced to note that we have a well-established tolerance for the latter kind. There is a universality ignored by most in the architectural and city-planning logic which is uncovered in all its horror in Mike Davis’ seminal study Planet of Slums, which hops from city to city, country to country, playing out the same vicious cycle.

We do, thankfully, have slightly less willingness to accept the brasher, bloodier violence of "extreme domicide." The chapters that recount the extent of the destruction that Homs has suffered in the last decade are unflinching in their focus.

The author avoids bombarding the reader with statistics, perhaps aware of the numbing effect numbers can have stacked on top of each other, instead embedding facts, "at least a third of Syria’s housing stock has been destroyed," alongside emotive interviews.

I asked Azzouz about this choice and he explained that in fact there were: "times when I was asked by editors or reviewers to remove parts from my writing because they are too emotional. They claimed that it is not the way you write in academic writing. But how can you ask someone who has been forcibly displaced for over a decade, who has friends killed in their early twenties, and who lost his city to remove emotions from writing? We need to challenge these ideas and enable different genres that break through the chains of what is accepted and what is not accepted in academic writing."

The city of Homs is a shell of what it once was [Getty Images]
The bustling alleyways of Homs are a shell of what they once were [Getty Images]

Reading the book, it feels like Azzouz was correct to push back against these removals. The 6.8 million Syrians who have fled the country and the 7 million more who are internally displaced are humanised in this way. With the inclusion of Azzouz’s personal memories of people and places in Homs, the city is itself repopulated and brought back to its pre-War state.

Elsewhere the book is even more creative. Google Maps satellite pictures of before and after are used to show as well as tell cases of localised destruction in areas such as Masha’ al-Arbeen.

However, Azzouz also uses visual media in his exploration of artistic responses to the conflict to appraise ways in which Syrians and allies are reconstructing Syria in exile.

A photograph is shown of Homs’ New Clock Tower, rebuilt at the centre of Greece’s Katsikas refugee camp as a particularly moving example but the author’s digressions on artists "whose work shines light in the dark and brings a hopeful future of solidarity and empathy," are effective throughout – reminding the reader that this domicide is an active process shaping the identities, and modes of expression, of those who have been affected.

What feels at first like an oasis from the chronicle of destruction serves an essential twin function in the book, forecasting hope whilst reiterating the deep human roots of this devastation.

When the book does pivot to discuss the possibility of reconstruction that hope is heavily mitigated by Azzouz’s well-informed cynicism. In a text that has, throughout its linear progression from neoliberal modernisation to violent carnage, not shied away from the fact that destruction is being meted out by one group against another is it perhaps unsurprising that little solace is predicted in the third phase.

Azzouz warns that if reconstruction comes to Homs it will prioritise new sites for the elite first – designed by architects of a very different creed to Azzouz no doubt – closely followed by the protection and conservation of cultural heritage sites. Neither of which, he reminds us, truly belongs to the majority.

In the section on artistic responses, Azzouz considers the drawings of Deanna Petherbridge. With immense and overwhelming care Petherbridge’s fine lines show the whole minutiae of destruction, an effective metaphor for Azzouz’s work.

It is an exhaustive study of a "capital of the revolution" shaken to break its resolve, an ancient city whose destruction is only possible due to the conditions of modernity.

For the people of Homs, I have no doubt that this book will serve as a eulogy of sorts for the city that once was. Simultaneously it manages to be a call to action, for the clarity Azzouz lays bare the systematic and deliberate way Homs has been targeted will inspire a new wave of resilience, and the will to rebuild better.

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For others, there is an additional and no less crucial message. Petherbridge’s art is included because she situates herself alongside Syrians. In contrast, Azzouz is almost as damning of those "many scholars working on Syria who are alienated from Syrians and their suffering but see in (their) pain and trauma a way to progress their careers," as he is of Homs’ destroyers.

There is an exceptional passage that begins "once Syria is not fundable, they can jump onto another suffering community…" and repeats "they… they… they" over 23 lines, each one heavy with justified anger and criticism after criticism of this approach.

It is a moment where Azzouz’s unconventional style is at its most brilliantly effective. Those who might prefer a more traditional syntax throughout will be overwhelmed by its rhetorical force. It is a reminder that though there is a time for objectivity, this is a story with suffering and difficulty of a different scale. It is one that requires proximity. And it could seemingly only have been written by Azzouz.

Will Spiers is a policy researcher and writer based in London. Will read history as an undergraduate, then completed a Master's in Political Science at the American University of Beirut