Al-Qaeda’s war against a medieval Syrian poet

In 2013 in Ma’arrat al-Nu’man, a statue of the famous local-born 11th-century poet al-Ma’arri was decapitated by jihadists as a symbolic threat to their moderate rivals. Today civil society activists have restored the site as a fledgling cultural center, imperiled by the same jihadists now effectively besieging the city.

[Editor’s note: This article was originally published in Arabic on 7 November, 2017.]

MA’ARRAT AL-NU’MAN, Syria – The house had grown old after its abandonment in 2008, and the decapitation of its statue in 2013, with two bullets shot through the cloak with which the sculptor Muhammad Qabawa had enveloped the statue’s figure. The grave remained alone, adorned with the words selected by its childless inhabitant some 950 years ago—“This wrong was done by my father to me, but not by me to anyone”—until life returned anew to the house in 2014.

This house, in the courtyard of which its occupant was buried, turned first into a mosque, then later into a place of culture to which people of learning and intellect made pilgrimages in the 1960s. In the age of Assad fils—the age of “the march of development”—“modernity” took revenge on its historical heritage, sweeping the rug from underneath it and making it a new cultural center, with its white stone and spacious halls. This left the tomb cold and alone; a prisoner of its cells, to which were added new padlocks and a locked iron door, and trees whose scattered leaves filled up the entire space, after the Ministry of Culture had denied it even a gardener to water its plants, as though Time were repeating its accusation of heresy, and waging war on the man for his imagination that gave us 10,751 lines of poetry in his Luzum Ma La Yalzam (“Necessitating the Unnecessary”) corpus, and his vivid depiction of travels in the hereafter, Risalat al-Ghufran (“The Epistle of Forgiveness”), translated into most of the world’s languages, to say nothing of dozens of further poetry volumes and other compositions that remain a focus of attention today for litterateurs, philosophers, students, and many others.

The statue of Abu al-Ala’ al-Ma’arri used to sit on a stone chair at the entrance of his city, Ma’arrat al-Nu’man, in Idlib Province. It was his poor luck to be in a city whose past generations had adored him; taking after his stories in their behavior, sayings, poetry, and daily speech, exalting boastfully whenever he was mentioned: “We’re from Ma’arrat al-Nu’man, the city of Abu al-Ala’;” yet whose newer generations have forgotten his tales and the pride of their forebears in him. The name al-Ma’arra does predate the poet by centuries—the town having borne the name “Maghrata,” a Syriac form of the Arabic maghara (“grotto”), as well as the Roman name “Arra,” the Byzantine name “Marr,” and the Arabic name “al-Awasim” (“the metropolises”), as Abu al-Ala’ himself liked to call it: “When did Baghdad ask about me, and her people/ For I ask a lot about the people of al-Awasim.” Nonetheless, his fame overtook the city’s earlier renown, and would ever remain its badge of honor thereafter. As for the al-Nu’man appendage, it’s said this goes back to the days spent in the city by the Prophet’s companion al-Nu’man ibn Bashir after the death of his son therein. Thus al-Ma’arra carried his sorrow in its name over the ages, being a city that never forgets its sorrows.

“That tight bond between the city and her poet has been forgotten by many among the new Syrian generations, just as the Assad government forgot its city, and neglected its heritage and thinkers,” says Abu Saleh, a vegetable seller who has lived next to the tomb for seventy years.

“We are forgotten, like the tomb; neglected, like our city, which acquired some of its status from its position on the national highway between Damascus and Aleppo, such that people would pass through it on buses, buying some greens and sweets, without paying any attention to its poet, or its sights, or antiquities, or museums. The people changed—previously we would see tourists coming to us from all over, visiting the Grand Mosque, which resembles the Umayyad Mosque in its construction; and the shrine of the Prophet Seth; and the Umar ibn Abd al-Aziz Mosque; and no one could possibly depart before spending a few hours in the Museum of Mosaics and the House of Culture, where the tomb, books, and possessions of Abu al-Ala’ were kept.”

The building surrounding the tomb, which later became the House of Culture, or the old cultural center of Ma’arrat al-Nu’man, was built in 1944 to commemorate one thousand (Islamic) years since al-Ma’arri’s birth. That year, when Syria was still under the French Mandate, the Iraqi poet Muhammad Mahdi al-Jawahiri was in Damascus, where he learned by chance at a checkpoint that he was part of the Iraqi delegation due to attend the festivities of al-Ma’arri’s millennial, having not been notified officially due to his being at odds with the Iraqi publications censorship body at the time. With one week to go before the occasion, he was unable to write anything until he was invited to join the poet Umar Abu Risha on a trip to Lebanon, where he wrote the opening line of his poem: “Stop at al-Ma’arra and wipe its dusty cheek/ And seek for inspiration him whose gifts encompassed the world.” Within less than a day, he had completed the 100 lines of his encomium to al-Ma’arri, which he recited with his hand on the shoulder of the writer Taha Hussein, saying the latter resembled Abu al-Ala’ in both form and thought, adding that he had never attended a tribute ceremony as affecting as that of al-Ma’arri’s, for him to say therein, in the same poem: "The world was raised, with clamor, and brought down/ By an old, stooped man, watching with disquiet.”

At the time the House of Culture—the ceiling of which now leaks water—was built, its grounds spanned five hundred square meters, in the middle of a street bearing the name of Abu al-Ala’, with an architectural façade comprising an entrance with a raised arch supported by two stone columns, adjoining an open-air court bearing the modest, unornamented grave of the poet. To its north were two entrances leading to the hall of the library, which once contained wooden cabinets filled with books ranging from works of literature to history to science, in addition to al-Ma’arri’s belongings and books. To its south was a garden with two further graves, said to be those of his students. At the suggestion of Taha Hussein, the building was converted into a cultural center in 1960, two years after the statue was put in place.

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The tomb of Abu al-Ala' al-Ma'arri, October 2017 (Al-Jumhuriya)
The tomb of Abu al-Ala' al-Ma'arri, October 2017 (Al-Jumhuriya)

In 2008, the books of the House of Culture were moved to the new center.

“Government cars stockpiled everything that was inside the House of Culture, from valuable books to antiquities to wooden cabinets, and moved them to the new cultural center, taking the employees with them too, and locking the original center with two iron padlocks,” says Abu Saleh. “A few days later, the municipality placed garbage containers against the walls of the building, and it became a refuse dump.”

“The people of the city were angered by that insult, and they moved the bins to a place far from the tomb. I don’t know if what the municipality did was intentional, but we felt insulted at the time. And it wasn’t long before vegetable cartons took up place along the walls, their noise spoiling the tranquil resting place of the poet. I used to keep an eye on the locks of the new door and feel aggrieved by what happened to the tomb. Before its doors were locked, I would go to it, and a feeling of restfulness would course through my body whenever I glanced at the site and breathed its scent.”

“War waged against thought”

Ma’arrat al-Nu’man was the site of one of the first demonstrations in Idlib governorate at the start of the Syrian revolution, on 25 March, 2011, when demonstrators took to the national highway. And it was home to the governorate’s first martyr, Ghassan al-Bish, killed on 29 April, 2011; and the site of the first use of military helicopters to break up a demonstration, on 10 June, 2011. The city was stormed by Assad’s soldiers on 8 August, 2011, and eventually liberated by the Free Syrian Army on 10 October, 2012.

Between the regime’s attack on the city and its liberation, much of its heritage and antiquities were lost. Some people accuse the regime of looting the museum, the tomb, and the House of Culture, while others point fingers at the revolutionary factions. There is consensus, however, that the decapitation of the statue of Abu al-Ala’ on 12 February, 2013, was carried out by fighters from Jabhat al-Nusra; this was attested to by many we encountered in the city.

The head of the statue, after all, was severed with a stone-cutting appliance; it was not the result of shelling or barrel bombs. The target on this occasion was the man himself, or else why was the body spared? It was a case of moral assassination, resembling the toppling of the statue of Ibrahim Hanano in the Seven Fountains Square in Idlib’s city center in 2015, and the dynamiting of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan in 2001, at the hands of the same bunch. And it’s strange what the locals say about that bunch thinking the statue of Abu al-Ala’ was actually of Hafez al-Assad. Commenting on that, one city local who declined to provide a name said with a laugh: “Abu al-Ala’ was not a ruler, or a politician, for his head to be chopped off. This is war waged against thought, and revenge by religious extremists, otherwise how could one cheer, after a thousand years, at victory over a statue? It’s also designed to frighten the city’s people; a clear message from their new rulers.”

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The decapitated statue of al-Ma'arri
The decapitated statue of al-Ma'arri

Al-Ma’arri’s tomb was targeted three times by Assad’s fighter jets, inflicting only slight damage—the walls still bear some pockmarks created by the shrapnel. Other treasures were not so fortunate.

“The nearby mosaic museum was completely destroyed by two barrel bombs,” says Abu Saleh, with a tremor in his voice. The museum had been considered one of the most important mosaic museums in the Arab world, with over 2,000 square meters of mosaics, most notably the “Frikeh” panel, named after the village in which it was found, narrating the story of the building of Rome; and the 27-square-meter “Hercules” panel; and many others, all of them reduced to ashes on 21 June, 2015.

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Pockmarks from shrapnel left by regime bombing (Al-Jumhuriya)
Pockmarks from shrapnel left by regime bombing (Al-Jumhuriya)

“Assad’s soldiers don’t like books,” says Abu Saleh. “They didn’t take any of the books in the cultural center when they left the city. They only looted certain old written documents and antiquities when they converted the center into a military base in 2012.”

“Nor do many opposition fighters take much interest in books and reading,” he continued. “When the city was emptied of its residents by the intense bombardment, and only some revolutionaries and their families remained, the al-Waddah Brigade from Khan Shaykhun searched for antiquities in the city and looted them, but they didn’t go near the books that some revolutionaries from the Khashan family had taken to one of the warehouses for protection from the bombing. And they adopted al-Ma’arri’s tomb as a base for themselves until the liberation of Wadi al-Dhayf in December 2014, after which the people came back to the city.”

With the return of people came the return of light to the old House of Culture, and two trucks carried the books that were in the warehouse to restore them to their old place. The center opened its doors at the initiative of local residents, with assistance from the city’s Local Council.

“In 2014, we reopened the cultural center in order to support intellectual and educational activities, and our work developed and broadened, after which we returned the books that were being protected in one of the warehouses. The military group that was present in the site handed the center over to us, and we readied it anew and equipped its library with shelves, populating it with around 14,000 books, the majority of them literary, historical, and Islamic,” says Umar Khashan, the center’s director.

The center “lends books to students and people of competent learning, and opens its door to visitors, readers, activists, literary events, exhibitions, and training courses, for the place has its prestige and presence, and its figure [al-Ma’arri] who dedicated his life to thought and literature.”

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Books returned to the al-Ma'arri library (Al-Jumhuriya)
Books returned to the al-Ma'arri library (Al-Jumhuriya)

A lingering threat

Ma’arrat al-Nu’man is the most prominent stronghold of the Free Syrian Army’s 13th Division, which was formed in 2013 with some 1,800 fighters. On the fringes of the city sit Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (“The Levant Liberation Committee”), or HTS, led by Jabhat al-Nusra, which raided the city and attacked the bases of the 13th Division in the spring of 2016, leading to a wave of street protests against the jihadists. HTS raided the city once again several months ago, over another dispute with the 13th Division, about which no residents interviewed dared to speak except to say that five members of the latter were killed, along with three civilians; one member of the Ahrar al-Sham (“The Free People of the Levant”) brigade; and Capt. Taysir al-Samahi, the head of the police station and the security committee in the city; prompting demonstrators to turn out yet again to protest HTS’ presence in June, 2017, after which the jihadists withdrew from the city’s streets but encircled it with checkpoints at all points of entry and exit.

The war has had its effect on the work of the center, in that culture is no longer a priority for the city’s locals or its displaced arrivals, in light of the harsh economic circumstances in which they live.

“Only one person; a man from Aleppo countryside; has come to our center to borrow a book, which we gave him and which he subsequently returned,” says Khashan. As for the city’s own people, in particular its young intellectuals, “they carry out weekly activities inside the center,” in addition to “creative writing skills courses for women, and the teaching of methods of educating and raising children.” While there is no official link between the center and the Local Council, the latter provides whatever support it can to keep the center running.

 “When you lose something, you feel its value,” says Abu Saleh at the end of our conversation. “The center deserves attention befitting the stature of its dedicatee—as poet, philosopher, and son of the city. And the statue, too, should be restored, for Ma’arrat al-Nu’man is tied to it, and the whole world knows us because of it. The city has seven gates; who knows them? Who can mention even three of them? Yet ask any child in the city where Abu al-Ala’ is, and he’ll take you to him.”

Turning his gaze to the tomb, Abu Saleh concluded: “It’s not only people, but their remnants too, that are irreplaceable.”