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'The Battle For Home' Traces Syria's History Through Architecture


The Syrian city of Homs was one of the first cities to rise up against the government in 2011. Not long after those protests started, they turned into fighting, and eventually more than 60 percent of the city was destroyed. Hundreds of thousands of people left Homs, but some, like Marwa al-Sabouni, stayed. She's an architect, and she has written a book about her city and her work. It's called "The Battle For Home."

She says one reason people rose up in the first place is the way Homs was developed - to benefit corrupt politicians and their cronies. Then came the bombardment of the city by government forces and a violent response from anti-government rebels, and that anger only got worse.

MARWA AL-SABOUNI: It contributed very significantly to the anger to see, to witness this destruction because people have lost the connection with their place. And they also have lost connection with each other.

MCEVERS: I think if anyone who is listening to me introduced you and said that you are living in the city of Homs - if they have seen pictures of the city of Homs in their news feed or on TV, they've seen a basically ruined city. I mean, buildings that have been reduced to rubble, empty streets. But you actually live there, and you've continued to live there throughout this war. You were born in Homs? Tell us just about the life you live there.

AL-SABOUNI: Yes. Before the war, I found life in my city very dull - you know, very...


AL-SABOUNI: Very flat, you know - I'm honest - because I didn't find any connection with it. But after the war - and this may sound strange, but I shared a very bad experience with people here. Even if I don't know these people, you know, we shared a very painful experience. And we witnessed very horrific things that I think we owe this place a part of ourselves to, you know, make it good again.

MCEVERS: So many people have left, and there's been so much destruction in the city. I guess anyone listening would just want to know how you managed to stay.

AL-SABOUNI: Very, very hard way (laughter).


AL-SABOUNI: Yes. You know, there were stages to this. With every stage, we sort of - there's a lot of coping mechanisms. And each stage had - and has - its own difficulties and challenges.

MCEVERS: I mean, we're not just talking, like, regular stages. We're talking about stages where there's long stretches with no electricity. The stages when the mortars start coming down and hitting very near to where you live and how you talk to your children about what an explosion sounds like and what they should do.

AL-SABOUNI: Yes. You know, even stages where tanks were just down the streets and aircrafts were, you know, just visible. Like, my husband took my son, who was, I think, five or six years at the time, and showed him the aircraft - how it's flying and where it's hitting - so he will understand he's not the target 'cause it's a horrific sound. So he was assured when he saw that he's distant from the actual target.


AL-SABOUNI: But this stage thankfully has passed.

MCEVERS: You write so much about how architecture can alienate people and that that's maybe one reason for this kind of split in Syria. But another message in your book is about how architecture can envision a world where people, you know, will have their homes again.

AL-SABOUNI: If it was made right and avoided all of those mistakes in the past, yes, we have a chance. The place has a chance. I just hope it will be done right.

MCEVERS: And what is right for you?

AL-SABOUNI: Right, you know - in short, architecture should hold the values - the aesthetic values, the moral values - of the place. Architecture should contribute to the life of the people. It should be responsible for their spiritual, social and psychological needs, not only, you know, the practical needs. I think that people who are responsible for built environment (ph) should take this in consideration.

MCEVERS: You know, I think some people would think that for an architect, a city where two-thirds of it has been destroyed would almost be an interesting challenge - right? - a blank slate. You think of the Chicago Fire, and all the wonderful architecture that followed. Do you think Homs that way - as a place where there is a chance in some way, someday, to start over, to start from scratch?

AL-SABOUNI: It shouldn't be done from scratch, you know. The place - even if it's destroyed, the place has a memory. And it's not, you know, just in the stones because architecture, if we are talking, like, cars, you know, it is the path for the vehicles to move on. And so as the road takes you to places, also architecture takes you to places.

But architecture takes you to places not even by the configuration. It takes you even with the details. Each detail has a value to hold and has a suggestion to make. So it shouldn't be done from scratch. It should hold the memory of what was important for people in the place.

MCEVERS: That's Marwa al-Sabouni. Her book is "The Battle For Home: The Memoir Of A Syrian Architect." It is out now. We reached her by Skype in Homs, Syria. Thank you very, very much.

AL-SABOUNI: Thank you, Kelly. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.