Migration, homesickness and the Arab Street

A review of an exhibition of the work of Mohamed Hafez by Joseph Healy.


Fabrica in Brighton always organises first class and thought-provoking exhibitions and they are all for free. I have usually visited it during Brighton Arts Festival and this year was no exception and once again did not disappoint. The theme of the festival this year is rebuilding, and this is a very pertinent theme for a Europe racked by both war and mass migration. Of the two festival Co-Directors this year, one is Marwa Al-Sabouni who hails from Syria and there is a distinct Syrian aspect of the festival with performances by Syrian musicians and choirs.

Back to Fabrica where I saw an amazing and imaginative exhibition of the work of the Syrian artist Mohamad Hafez who now lives in the US and is a US citizen. A short video with the artist at the exhibition explains his background and that of the exhibition. Hafez lived a happy early life in Damascus but went to study architecture in the US before 9/11. When 9/11 happened and its resulting disastrous fallout for the Middle East, he was unable to return to Syria and then the war broke out in Syria itself. He is now a permanent immigrant as he would be arrested on the spot as a critic of the Assad regime and the war if he returned to Syria.

His sense of longing for Syria drove Hafez to create miniature reconstructions of the Arab street with memories drawn from his life in Damascus. These wonderful recreations of the Arab street contain amazing detail including Arabic lettering and Islamic filial details complete with clapped out cars and even lines of washing hung on wires below each piece and the occasional carpet or two. They are each a work of art in themselves and one contains audio material too, blasting out the call of the muezzin which would be commonplace in Damascus and in many cities in the Middle East. Each of the works is surrounded by a 19th century style French frame which is a synthesis of West and East.

The houses shown in each work, and Hafez’s architectural background shines through, are clearly working-class ones and they are often overhung by other balconies and structures, complete with aerials and satellite dishes, giving a real feeling of the cramped quarters of many Arab cities. It is from this background that the mass movements of the Arab street emerged creating the Arab Spring which went down to a disastrous defeat in Syria and a bloody war of repression.

Hafez links the war and migration and one of the most impressive works is a wooden model of an RPG but decorated in a beautiful Islamic style with miniature architecture in each end including wires stretching out at the end of which are small metal oval containers representing refugee boats. This captures wonderfully the connection between war and migration in Syria.

The other part of the exhibition deals with the reception of migrants once they reach the West and consists of a disturbed tea service on a table, representing people who have had to take flight urgently and surrounded by large black plastic sheeting on which are spray painted xenophobic and reactionary slogans and quotes against migrants.

At the heart of the exhibition is a deep homesickness and understanding of what it means to be an exile and a refugee building a life in a new country.

One of the most powerful exhibits is a long line of life jackets on a rope representing the refugee boats which made the perilous journey to Greece and from Libya across the Mediterranean to Europe.

The exhibition is entitled “Journeys from an Absent Present to a Lost Past” and runs as part of the Brighton Festival until 29 May 2022

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Joseph Healy is a member of Anti*Capitalist Resistance.

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