When Fadia Mrad, 25, graduated with a degree in fine arts, she never imagined she would end up at the vanguard of a group of women preserving Syria’s traditional cultural heritage amid the war.
“Women are capable of playing an important and influential role in this sector, but they need to be given opportunities to unleash their potential,” says Mrad, who works with the Day After Project, a U.S.-funded initiative to preserve Syria’s cultural heritage by teaching traditional handicrafts. Mrad, who first worked as a teacher following graduation, noted that in the past, women were often marginalized in traditional industries.
Syrian women – architects, journalists, academics, writers, filmmakers, collectors, craftswomen or cooks – both at home and abroad – are now leading efforts to safeguard their heritage. From sharing their stories to sharing their recipes, many are working to ensure their culture and traditions live on despite years of war that have scattered Syrians around the world.
Women also have more active roles than ever before in efforts to preserve Syria’s heritage sites, many of which have been damaged or destroyed during the war.
Archaeologist Lina Kutiefan has been with the Syrian state-run Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) for 27 years, and has worked on everything from restoration to registration of new sites for possible inclusion on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.
With the start of the conflict, she was appointed director of Syrian World Heritage Sites at DGAM, and she and her team began documenting damage of heritage sites. Preserving “this irreplaceable heritage is in the public interest because it protects a vital cultural legacy for coming generations,” Kutiefan tells Syria Deeply.
“I believe that cultural heritage can provide an automatic sense of unity and belonging within the Syrian people, especially during this hard crisis,” she says. “It will allow us to better understand the unique history of where we come from.”
In addition to making the work of archaeologists more vital than ever, the war has allowed more women to “take center stage, notably in governmental jobs,” in this field, she says. Kutiefan’s advice for women interested in this sector is straightforward: “You must be able to work hard. You have to know more than anyone else. Learn to pay attention, read, attend educational seminars and join us in these hard times.”
Though the war may have helped highlight the important role women play in this field, working to preserve the country’s heritage still comes with significant danger and social stigma in some areas of Syria.
“Few women on the ground in Syria are active in preserving cultural heritage because of social taboos over women working in such a field, in addition to the lack of financial support,” says Nwayrat al-Qaddour, who works with The Day After project on emergency response to protect artifacts and archaeological sites in the northern province of Idlib.
However, according to the 27-year-old who studied history at the University of Aleppo before the war, it is key for women to take on a more active role.
“Woman make up 50 percent of society and are no less important than men. Cultural heritage is part of a larger Syrian national identity, and protecting this identity is as much a national duty for Syrian women as it is for men,” she says.
Noura Alsaleh studied architecture at the University of Aleppo before the war, where her primary focus was the rehabilitation of the buffer zone around the UNESCO borders of Aleppo’s old city.
“I did several studies and my graduation project on how can we preserve the cultural significance of that area and its heritage,” she tells Syria Deeply.
Today, Alsaleh is a scientific assistant at Brandenburg University of Technology in Germany, where she is writing her doctoral thesis on the post-conflict reconstruction of the old city of Aleppo and the role of cultural heritage in the rebuilding process. Her thesis is part of the research network supported by the German Foreign Ministry.
She is an active member of both UNESCO’s newly established young expert forum to safeguard Syria’s cultural heritage, and its expert roster for heritage on Syria issues that cut very close to home. Alsaleh’s home city Aleppo was destroyed last winter.
“I felt a personal responsibility to contribute to the reconstruction process of the Syrian cities and cultural heritage sites, of which many are still threatened by destruction and damage,” she says.
Alsaleh hopes that the rebuilding process “won’t be a second destruction caused by the unregulated urban reconstruction, which could cause more damage to our heritage than the one by the conflict itself.”
Archaeological sites are just one part of the larger effort women are making to preserve Syria’s cultural heritage. Some women have focused their efforts on documenting and preserving Syria’s culinary traditions, which became particularly important as roughly 5 million people fled the country.
In the cookbook, “Our Syria: Recipes From Home,” filmmaker Itab Azzam and author Dina Mousawi compiled stories of Syrian refugees scattered around Europe, along with their traditional recipes, “to bring to the world the glories of Syrian food and in the process honor these brave women who are fighting back against the destruction of their home with the only weapons they have: pots and pans.”
Syrian-American journalist Dalia Mortada used a similar concept to create “Savoring Syria,” a website dedicated to the stories and recipes in the Syrian diaspora. As a member of the diaspora herself, she knows the importance of traditional food when far from home. (She’s tested and tasted all the recipes herself, to be sure of the measurements, she said.)
“Even if I was born and raised in the U.S., my family is Syrian and I was raised that way,” Mortada tells Syria Deeply. “I arrived in 2011 to be a journalist in Turkey, and after a few years, more Syrians started settling in Istanbul, opening bakeries and restaurants. They came with their own ingredients, like the fresh coriander that was impossible for me to find here.”
In May 2015, she began organizing food-related events in the U.S., Europe and Turkey to help foster ties between local communities and refugees around Syrian dishes.
For her, telling the stories of Syrians displaced by conflict through food is a way to eliminate the “victimizing angle, because the war is not the whole thing, and taste and flavors have their place in their narrative.”
She also feels it is a way to preserve their culture and traditions: “It was so new that the recipes hadn’t changed yet, not adapted to the new ingredients and environment. It says a lot on the culture and history of a whole country, and I’m happy I got to know a lot about it through this project.”
But she expects that, with time, the recipes will be adapted, influenced by local flavors and changed. “My grandmother used to send my mother recipes by fax that my mother would copy and transform because some are impractical to make. Now, I use this same cookbook and copied it in English, adapting the recipes, too, exchanging new ingredients or developing other techniques.”
In a country that has been marked by war, with a population that has been forced far from home, more women have taken on the crucial mission of preserving ancient heritage sites, cultural history and even one grandmother’s tricks to roll the best waraq enib (stuffed grape leaves).