A war is a hard experience for a man when bullets whistle past his ears and shells explode. However, experience is no less hard when a deadly danger threats everything he loves while he has to be away from homeland. Elias Ayub, a 29-year old painter from Syria, expresses his emotions on paintings.
"The Damascus of My Childhood"
The old streets of Kursk where the foreigner loves to walk remind him of Zahle, a peaceful city in Lebanon, the homeland of his mother, and old Damascus, where he was born 29 years ago. In such places, one can "breathe the air of history" as Elias words it. Sometimes, he goes down there alone in a pre-dawn mist or during sunset to spend time alone with his thoughts.
In fact, he has made many friends in two year's time in Russia. Perhaps, because the gentle guy still ingeniously and in a childish way believes in kindness of the world. When he arrived in our country, it seemed strange to him that unacquainted people do not greet each other in the street unlike his compatriots do.
He almost has no free time – it is devoted to his workroom. Elias Ayub opens paint tubes and grabs a paintbrush, but his thoughts are far from here – he thinks about what goes on in his country – mass executions, terrorist attacks and other ferocities of ISIS, refugees, fire attacks, bombings, the future of relatives and friends... Despite of the resistance of the government forces, the war is already near the gates of the Syrian capital, the city where each little corner is dear for him.
He remembers Damascus, the pearl of the Middle East, as a peaceful jasmine-scented city. "In Summer you walk on a carpet of flowers while thousands of birds are flying high," Elias says, smiling. "Doves roost along the whole length of the eave of our old mosque and then, all of a sudden, they take off all simultaneously! This is very beautiful. Many people build dove lofts on the roofs of their buildings. Once my brother also kept birds."
Ayub brothers used to ride bicycles along those narrow streets and used to climb trains in a nearby railway museum. The boys would spend hours sitting on the southern slope of Mount Qasioun from which the whole Damascus City could be seen and from where fireworks would be launched on Independence Day. They used to have their own special games, for example, "floor" mini-soccer. A tiled plate divided into zones served as a soccer field. They made players and a ball out of improvised materials: they rolled paper to form a ball, and then poured melted plastic on it. Then they played soccer trying to score a makeshift goal with their fingers...
Painting the War
Both the city of his childhood and the time of his youth, when Elias used to go for plein air painting to Palmyra and Hama, and when he travelled around the whole country without fear, visiting ancient castles and temples of Aleppo, Homs, Basrah and Al Amea, stayed in the past. Most of the national treasures of those regions have been destroyed by militants of the self-declared Islam State.
Living 3,000 kilometres away from home, the Syrian painter now and then learns from news that another one bit the dust – a familiar guy from his neighbourhood, a comrade-in-arms, a former fellow student... "Many friends of mine have been conscripted to the army, while the others had joined citizen militia before the draft," the Syrian says. "Sometimes I see blogs in social networking websites stating that "this person is in the hands of God now" and a picture of my childhood friend."
Had not this nightmare come true, Elias would have still been painting his pictures about the extraordinary cultural riches of Syria. In the past he rented a small studio surrounded by a protection wall with seven gates in the historical centre of Damask. Even in those carefree days he could not avail himself too much free time. However, he planned his route from the college to the workroom in such a way so that he could not miss out any details and could absorb the centuries-long legacy of his ancestors. It was reflected in the local architecture, in the clothes of the old, in the masterful items of potters, figure-casters and woodworkers, displayed in cramped little stores.
But nowadays Elias just cannot meticulously draw elaborate arabesques. He paints the war – he is in need of a grey paint. "To me, this colour symbolizes the dust of war," the artist remarks. "My pictures have a good deal of the grey. They are all overwhelmed with the colour because it is scary in Syria everywhere and bombings take place all around the country. The dust of the war settled even on the character of a human being, on their soul."
Pitch-black rain on his canvas means shooting and missiles falling down on peaceful dwellers. Inserts of a black fabric is a wall around Damascus behind which terrorists lurk. A black sea is an abyss that swallowed those who fled in fear but have never reached the longed-for Europe's seashore. Elias Ayub's family decided to stay home. They had already been refugees once.
"Until 1973, my family had lived in the city of Al Quneitra in southern Syria, which was adjacent to Palestine," he recollects. "It was one of the most spectacular places in our country. Israeli Air Forces inflicted air strikes in their attempt to occupy the land. Our home was destroyed. My grandfather, a builder by profession, took his family to Damascus and built a new house there, in the basement of which he arranged a furniture-painting workshop for my father. Now they have a small convenience store there instead."
When combat operations started in the north of the country in 2013, the Syrian capital's residents tried not to leave the government-controlled area. But now it is not safe to stay even in Damascus. "It may be relatively calm for several days, then combatants would start shooting attacks again, frightening people," Elias Ayub says. "But people have faith. They are used to danger and know that if they are destined to die then this will happen this way or another. Nevertheless, each person has a shelter where they can hide during a bombing attack. When I was in Syria last year, a shell flew right over my head and fell in a flower bed some 20 meters away from our house. Luckily, it did not explode. The shell was safely disposed of by soldiers."
Elias puts brushes away for a while and takes a nunchaku. The Syrian started to master this eastern martial arts weapon when he was 12 for relaxation and for distraction from problems. However, he is also familiar with real fire weapons, for example, with Kalashnikov rifles. Army service in Syria is obligatory like in Russia. The difference is in length – it is two years there, not one. Thanks to higher education, Ayub was promoted to lieutenant and conducted recruit training: he taught shooting, throwing grenades, marching step and physical education.
The artist did not quit painting even when he was in army. First time he took paints was when he was six. "Mother showed her childhood pictures and I wanted to do the same," he recollects. "I used to watch my cousin draw with a chalk on a blackboard. But I prefered to copy geographical maps." He liked to compose verses no less and also sang for four years in a church choir. He continues to sing now as an amateur and his favourite Arabic instrument is the qanun.
However, his inclination to the pictorial art was the strongest one and he entered Damascus Fine Arts Institute. He took his pictures to Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, joined Union of Syrian Artists, and organized his first show of 20 pictures. When he became a prize-winner of Abdullatif Al Sumudi Competition – named after the famous Syrian artist – he understood that he had been on the right track. Ayub admired the works of Russian artists of classic, realism and avant-garde schools. As the best student, he was sent to Russia to study so that he would have returned later to teach in his Alma mater.
Blue is the colour of hope
Elias has learnt Russian from scratch in two years. Last summer he went to Saint Petersburg and to Moscow where he participated in Artists Symposium. He has a modest dream to visit Crimea and above Polar Circle. Maybe he will make it there someday, but during the Christmas holidays he is going to Damascus. In spite of the trouble situation in Damascus, he hopes to have a merry Christmas with his family just like it used to be before. According to the Christian tradition, they will dress an artificial Christmas tree with garlands and paper toys and will make the Christmas Crib – a nativity scene exhibiting a barn and figures representing the infant Jesus, his mother Mary, Joseph, the Magi and farm animals.
"Despite the different religions, both Muslims and Christians celebrate holidays together," the Syrian says. "This fact strongly irritates those who keep this war going. But it has been like this for ages: Muslims wish us a merry Christmas and a Happy Easter, whereas during Ramadan we fast along with Muslims. It is impossible to break our creed. Those who fight for ISIS are not Muslims at all, I think. I know my Muslim neighbours – they are not like that. That criminal regime will fall soon. And even with the war we have, Syria still stays strong. Now, with the help from Russia, we draw peace nearer. I speak on the behalf of all my acquaintances who are grateful to the Russians.”
Elias Ayub made the last stroke on his picture in a blue colour, the colour of hope. The war will end, the refugees will return to their abandoned households. Children will play out in the streets as before and a flock of white doves will circle in the sky above Damascus...