In the courtyard of his Ottoman-era house in Sarouja, a district of narrow alleys near the Damascus citadel, Youssef Abdelke stoops to feed his doves. The birds are free to fly over his rickety second-story veranda and take wing for anywhere in the troubled Syrian capital, but they always return, sometimes with new companions.
Abdelke’s own vision of his country’s future is gloomy in the extreme. One of Syria’s best-known artists, these days he draws rather than paints. Charcoal provides the somber quality he wants for his mournful still lifes: a fish with a rope tied round its middle, a knife protruding from a bunch of flowers, a series of boot prints in a pool of blood. The starkest image rests on an easel in his cluttered ground-floor studio. It shows a woman kneeling with her hands on a kitchen chair on which is propped the photograph of a young man, who is, one has to assume, now dead. Her bent body, shrouded in black, has the monumentality of a sculpture by Käthe Kollwitz, the German artist Abdelke acknowledges as his heroine.
As Syria’s civil war intensifies, Abdelke reflects the feelings of much of the country’s intelligentsia. Strongly critical of the regime of Bashar al-Assad, they deplore the way the peaceful uprising—which they eagerly supported last year—is being transformed. Its character has become increasingly religious, and foreigners rather than Syrians are driving the change.
“More and more weapons are coming in, and not just basic ones. The Gulf states are paying enormous sums to provide arms, and they have a completely different vision from most Syrians. Even worse, groups of Salafis linked to Al Qaeda are arriving with an outlook on life that is even more closed than that of the Gulf states,” Abdelke says. “We’re moving toward a war between Sunnis and Alawites [the minority offshoot from Shiism to which the Assad family belongs]. We could be facing a real danger of Syria’s fragmentation.”
Abdelke is a longtime critic of the Assad regime. A member of a left-wing party, he spent two years in prison from 1978 to 1980 before leaving for Paris to study at the École des Beaux-Arts. In 1983 he was told he could not come home. His exile lasted a quarter of a century, but in 2008 he returned to Damascus with dreams but no real hopes of change. On his studio wall is a Parisian slogan from the anti-Sarkozy movements. “Rêve générale” (general dream), it says, a pun on the more familiar call for a general strike (grêve générale).
Abdelke blames the Syrian government for the escalation of the crisis. It was Assad who provoked the switch to armed rebellion and violence by rejecting dialogue with the opposition when the protests began. But the issue has gone way beyond that, in his view. “The situation is no longer in Syrian hands. The conflict has become regional and international. We are pawns in a big game,” Abdelke says. He hopes Russia and the United States can reach some sort of agreement to end it, but he has little optimism. “The outside powers still think there can be winners and losers,” he says. “It could go on for months, until the international powers change their position and really press for dialogue. Meanwhile, Syrians will go on dying in the street. For the outsiders, these deaths are secondary, just as Syrian freedom is secondary as far as they are concerned.”