In the stone courtyard of a lovingly — if quirkily — restored 500-year-old house in the Old City of Damascus, a ginger-bearded man in a baseball cap opens his arms to another set of visitors.
“Hi,” says Syria’s most successful sculptor, Mustafa Ali. “This is my place.”
Tourists may be avoiding Damascus, thanks to more than five years of war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced millions more. But Ali’s artists’ retreat, a combination gallery, performance space and fun-house, is nearly always busy.
On a recent afternoon, a rock band practices its version of Queen’s “Somebody to Love,” the guitar solo mingling with the call to prayer from a nearby mosque.
Ali has been an important part of the revival of the Old City’s Jewish Quarter. The country’s Jewish population has dwindled to a few dozen. He shows visitors his office, which used to be a private synagogue. Arches made of stone cut 1,200 years ago support walls covered with contemporary art and photography.
Ali’s sculptures are everywhere — works in bronze, wood, marble and other materials. Mannequins are piled in a heap, some spattered with fake blood — not a comment on the war, but a nod to Halloween. The basement, carved out of Roman-era stone, features a bar and performance room.
Ali studied in Italy, but says his biggest influence was Palmyra — the Syrian UNESCO World Heritage site that was badly damaged by Islamic State extremists. He says he still remembers how moved he was by the ancient city, especially the magnificent half-mile long necropolis known as the Valley of the Tombs.
“It was for me, my influence,” he says. “Why? Because, you know, I believe in eternity. When I see the tomb like this, the good relation between the Earth and the sky, I said people of Palmyra, they know how to live in life and they know how to be eternity in the second life.”
Ali says he’s a man of art, not politics, and he didn’t join anti-government demonstrations when the Syrian conflict began in 2011. But as the uprising and the brutal government crackdown turned increasingly violent, Ali did become part of the story, to his cost.
His main warehouse, where he kept raw materials and some valuable finished works, was in the Damascus suburb of Ghoutta, a rebel stronghold. He says one day, three rebels came to the warehouse and found one of his assistants there.
“They catch my carpenter, they said, ‘Where is Mustafa Ali?'” he recounts. “He said, ‘He’s not here, no.’ They destroy everything. And if I was there, they want to cut my head.”
Later, he adds that not everything was destroyed, though some of the artworks were stolen, presumably to be sold.
After that, themes of helplessness and destruction began to appear in Ali’s work. He points to one of his wooden sculptures from this period: a human face divided vertically down the middle. The two halves don’t line up properly.
“This face, it was 2013,” he says. “Like the Syrian face, because, you know, we kill — brother kills his brother.”
It’s possible the attack on Ali’s warehouse played some role in his decision not to support the Syrian uprising. But he says even early on, when many of his friends thought there was still hope for a peaceful pro-democracy movement, he was convinced Islamists would take over. He remembers his reply when a friend asked him in 2011 to join the demonstrations.
“I’m secular. I can’t go with you to do revolution in front of the mosque,” he recounts. “Revolution, it’s avant-garde, it’s not behind. And mosque is behind. This is my opinion from the beginning.”
It’s also his opinion, or perhaps his hope, that art can bring change. So he’s kept his artists’ retreat open throughout the conflict. Young painters, actors, dancers and musicians come to his door looking for a place to create in a time of destruction.