In September 2018, I had the pleasure of speaking with Marwa al-Sabouni, a Syrian architect living in my mother’s hometown of Homs. Sabouni’s book, The Battle for Home: The Vision of a Young Architect in Syria, explains the context of the Syrian war and the role of architecture in accelerating the conflict.
After the French colonized Syria in 1923, they imposed Corbusian urban planning on a place where it was discordant with an ancient melange of Ottoman, Memluk, Ayyubid, and even Roman styles that one might simply call “Islamic architecture.” As with anything Le Corbusier touched, cities like Homs turned into assortments of sterile concrete blocks. Palaces, baths, and other historic structures that had rooted Syrians in their heritage were destroyed to create space for the blocks. Winding streets in Syria’s historic cities become modernist grids.
Sabouni is trying to undo the damage. And she has an ally and mentor in Roger Scruton, the British philosopher who was recently removed from a housing-design commission over comments that were allegedly “Islamophobic,” among other things. Her fixation on capturing a sense of unity and rootedness in one’s surroundings is reminiscent of Scruton’s fervent activism for the preservation of beautiful buildings in harmony with their surroundings, and he even wrote the foreword for The Battle for Home.
Sabouni — who stayed in Homs even as the ongoing civil war ravaged the country and bombs fell not far from her home, and still lives there with her husband and children — emphasizes the importance of the built environment and how it reflects what a people value. “Isolation is the key word here,” she told me. “The French sought control, so they’ve created division and ‘openness.’ The rich class was created by means of creating distinguished neighborhoods for them outside the old city. Sectarian quarters were emphasized and cut out from the urban fabric, the latter has become the victim of French planning, and unity had to go. Class and sect division was created.”
Syria, despite its cultural and geographic vibrancy and beauty, is a country beset by internal corruption. Sabouni notes this in her book; in her experience as an architecture student (she is in her 30s today) and for most of Syria’s modern history, government officials controlled all decisions relating to urban planning and construction. Contracts went only to those who were well connected. Sabouni describes a typical day at work: signing a paper every now and then, drinking coffee and tea, and then most workers would sneak out once the boss was gone. There was little hope or incentive to rebuild Syria in the image of its past glory; creativity wasn’t encouraged, only strict repetition. The malaise not only was conducive to complacence, but stoked division; when there is no sense of shared place among a people as there once was, it is class or faith that distinguishes one citizen from the other.
Sabouni, however, wants more from Syria after the war. Scruton has not only supported her in what he calls a “courageous” effort to rebuild Syria, but describes her as an intellectual “soulmate.” Sabouni’s worldview was changed upon reading Scruton’s 1979 book The Aesthetics of Architecture after haphazardly coming across the title in an online search related to her Ph.D. “I ordered the book, and it turned out to be the single most important and informative book I read about architecture,” Sabouni told me. “It has changed my whole outlook toward my major at the time and given me a perspective on creative judgment.”
As noted above, creativity isn’t often a feature of the Syrian school curriculum. Students are taught to memorize and regurgitate information. Scruton’s book, with the abstract concepts and artistic critiques that compel one to ponder beauty, spirituality, and ethos, was, and still is, liberating.
Sabouni wrote to Scruton in 2014. She had a question about aesthetics after reading his book. They kept in contact, and Scruton found her remarkable, noting in his foreword that her book is the “expression of a beautiful soul.” Since having met, Scruton has lauded Sabouni for her bravery and tenacity, appearing to have learned from her as much as she has learned from him, writing in October for The American Conservative:
Virtually every expert called upon to pronounce on the conflicts in the Middle East has ignored the role of architecture, with one important exception: the courageous architect Marwa al-Sabouni, whose book, The Battle for Home, tells the story of how the conflict in Syria has overwhelmed her own city of Homs. She shows that you cannot destroy the serene and unostentatious forms of the Levantine city without also jeopardizing the peace that they symbolized and which to a measure they also protected.
While Sabouni tells me that she doesn’t believe classical architecture is the optimal model for returning Syria to a peaceful state (as Scruton suggests it would be), Scruton validates the Syrian yearning for identity as a human one; it isn’t only the Syrians, tragically afflicted by the destruction of war, who crave a landscape that evokes shared societal values and national history. In this belief, they have a kinship.
Scruton isn’t only a national treasure, although Britain is fortunate to have him; he leads an integrated life inspired by the transcendence of the beauty he’s encountered in his prolific life’s travels and experiences. To be able to communicate such ethereal and nebulous concepts so fluently is a rare skill to be celebrated by all lovers of thoughtful discourse. His understanding of the universal desire — whether it be British or American or Syrian — for a sense of home reflects a generous spirit that isn’t myopic or solipsistic, but anchored in reality with an understanding of human nature and a respect for cultural heritage. The irreverent attempts to drive him out of polite society are a grim indication that for some, the Socratic “examined life” isn’t only not worth living, but can render the person trying to lead it vulnerable to smears and censor by charlatanic vultures.
There’s a saying in Syria that “without the old, there can be no new.” Scruton is a boon to mankind for his conviction in this belief, too.