Talashi brings together personal photographs of men and women who fled war-torn Syria. They were taken between 1990 and 2019. In the course of my meetings with these people in exile, I wrote the stories of these photographs and of those who entrusted them to me.
Her name is Maha. She tells me that before leaving she asked her daughters to choose what they wanted to bring with them. That there wasn’t much space left in the suitcases. That her younger one took her doll with the long blond hair that she brought everywhere with her, and that the older one preferred to bring photos that she’d selected from the family albums and tied up with a pink ribbon.
She was a university professor, he was a doctor. They were Syrians living in Aleppo and were part of the Christian minority. That summer, the popular uprising turned into an armed conflict. They decided to leave the country, cross the border with Turkey, stay there for a few months, then head to France where he had studied. By then, they were refugees.
The years have passed, her daughters have grown up, Maha is disheartened that they no longer want to speak Arabic. We talk very little about the situation in Syria where the war churns on. I ask her what happened to the photos. She shows them to me. They are stored in two tinplate boxes. As I look at them, I see their past life, their life before exile: smiles in front of the cakes placed on the kitchen table, walks to the park, bathing with their grandmothers, portraits taken during the Easter festivities in the local photographer’s studio, surrounded by bales of hay, stuffed rabbits, and papier-mâché eggs.
His name is Ahmed. He tells me that he was fully devoted to the revolution right from the first protest, that he was at every march right up until a sniper shot him, that the bullet entered his mouth and lodged itself against his spinal column. He tells me that his mother saved his life by managing to convince an underground surgeon to operate on him. He tells me about his arrest, prison, solitary confinement, with no news of his family for over a year, his trial, his sentence, then his release, his life in hiding once again, his escape from the country.
He comes from a town that has been under siege of the regime’s army for four years. The building where he lived with his family was bombed. Like most of the buildings in the town, it crumbled. They lost everything.
He still has some photos he took before the war with his first digital camera and his cell phone, photos that he saved, scattered on his computer’s hard drive. There is the school trip to Palmyra, holidays at the seaside in Latakia, rides in his first car, the trip with his friends to the North of the country, the impact of bullets on the bodywork after the first demonstrations, the barbecue near the river at a time when he was already being pursued by the security forces. I ask him what happened to his friends. On one group photo, he points out the ones who were arrested, the ones who made it out of prison and the ones who are still inside, the ones who have disappeared and the ones who are dead.
Her name is Salam. She proudly shows me a video she kept on her cell phone. It shows a small group of children marching down a dusty street, supervised by women wearing niqabs and black gloves. They sing slogans that the children take to heart. She tells me it was her sister who was filming, that she organized this march against the closure of schools imposed by Daesh after the capture of the city.
She was a professor of Arabic and lived in Deir ez-Zor, a city on the banks of the Euphrates. A few months after the beginning of the revolution, she was dismissed from state education because of her activities on the demonstration coordination committee. Her brother was arrested. She found out that she was wanted. She left home and reached the area controlled by the Free Syrian Army.
Then Deir ez-Zor fell into the hands of the Islamic State. One of her for mer colleagues who had become a supporter of the Caliphate visited her and tried to convince her to join them. She refused to cooperate and was forced, like other teachers, to take rehabilitation courses. After a year, she was asked to undertake istitaba, an act of repentance. She refused again and received death threats. She decided to flee to the north of the country with the help of a smuggler. A few days later, her mother and three sisters joined her after crossing the territories controlled by Daesh hidden under haystacks in a truck.
His name is Muhammad. He tells me about the five years he spent in Daraya, a city besieged by regime forces, just a stone’s throw from Damascus. Of his choice to stay, with his family, in the liberated city while most of the inhabitants had left after a massacre that lasted three days. Of daily survival, of the plots of land that are cultivated at the foot of buildings, of the English classes he was giving in cellars. Of the work to document
daily life under siege and pass on information, of the antennas made from pot lids that were fixed on roofs, despite the bombardments, to pick up a network signal from Damas. Of the vain hopes of a reaction from the
international community to stop the war. Of the unprecedented violence of the bombings in the few days before the forced evacuation of the city.
He translates a discussion which is archived on his cell phone between the brigade chief who was defending the city and a member of the liaison committee based in Jordan who was responsible for distributing humanitarian
aid: the liaison officer felt that the images sent from Daraya were not graphic enough compared to the images of starving children from another besieged city that were circulating on the web, picked up by some major international media. He suggested that they should also provide images of starving children if they want to get help.
Her name is Haïfaa. I remember a room on the second story of an unfinished house in an ordinary suburb. I remember her smile when she opened the door, the two beds placed side by side in front of the kitchenette, the old sofas that we sat on, the memories and books stored on shelves, the oud hanging on the wall. I remember her daughter’s gaze, two black marbles pulling you toward the abyss.
She was a painter, he was a carpenter, they lived with their two children in a little town in the mountains, between Homs and Hama. He was very active right from the outset of the revolution—photos show him at the head of processions, among the other protestors. He was arrested for the first time and spent eighteen days in prison. He was arrested a second time and they had no news of him for over a year. One day, they were told they must pay to receive news of him. They paid. They were told that he was dead, buried in a common grave, that they would not be able to collect his body.
She hands me a USB drive and tells me that she has prepared a selection of photographs from those she scanned before leaving Syria. I discover the tale of a beautiful love story told through images. She asks me if I’d like more coffee.
Her name is Tuka. She tells me she doesn’t have any pictures of her life before the war. She tells me that her husband participated in the organization of the first demonstrations in Aleppo, that he had been arrested and then released after two weeks, that they were afraid he could be arrested again, that she could also be arrested. He left the country. She followed him a month later, crossing the border without a passport, hidden in the back of a car driven by her father. She left thinking that she would be back in a few weeks, a few months at most. She was convinced that the fall of the regime was near.
She refused to learn a new language. She was waiting. Time passed. After six months, she understood that the regime would not fall, that they wouldn’t be able to go home. She no longer believed in the victory of the rebellion. She called her former neighbors, asking them to retrieve the photographs left in their apartment and burn them.
Her name is Hala. She tells me that she fled Syria with her two sisters, just after the death of her father, a political dissident. She tells me that she managed to enter France on her second attempt. She is a student at film school. She looks at the photos I’ve collected. They remind her of a scene in a film by Pedro Almodóvar, a cross fade where the images of the present cover up those of a childhood memory. I ask her if she knows an Arabic word to translate that impression of images erasing one another. She suggests talashi, which means : fragmentation, erosion, disappearance.