How Raqqa, once the Syrian capital of the Daesh Caliphate, recaptured its Arab cultural pride
RAQQA, SYRIA: It has been five years since the Syrian Democratic Forces raised their flag in the main square in Raqqa, which was the capital of Daesh for four years. The streets and squares of Raqqa had witnessed appalling atrocities – beatings, torture, beheadings and other unspeakable acts.
The global media, which followed the operation to liberate the city with bated breath, almost immediately packed up and fled after Raqqa was liberated from the terrorist group, leaving the people alone again in the rubble of their once great city.
But among the ruins, cultural flowers bloom. Groups of writers, artists and intellectuals are making every effort to restore Raqqa’s culture, despite the black mark left by Daesh.
The area around Raqqa has been populated since the third millennium BC. settled. It gained notoriety when the Abbasid Caliph Harun Al-Rashid, himself a lover of culture and tradition, chose the city as the site of his imperial residence in 796 AD
Although the city has been destroyed six times in its long history, many of its centuries-old historic sites still bear witness to its importance.
When Daesh stormed into Raqqa in 2014 and declared the city its capital, the local artistic and cultural community was immediately gripped by fear.
“When the armed groups came, our group broke up. We couldn’t sing or do anything. It got to the point where Daesh arrested me twice,” traditional singer Melek Muhammad Al-Saleh told Arab News.
“The militants said I was committing blasphemy. They said it was haram, it was the work of Satan,” he said with a questioning look.
Then, speaking more seriously, Al-Saleh added: “They came to destroy and wipe out our culture. They destroyed our museum. They broke and destroyed all of our antiques.
“They were sent to erase the history of this city and this country, because they themselves have no history; They have no opinions or goals. Their only aim was destruction.”
Al-Saleh had a decades-long career as a traditional singer. After returning to his native Raqqa from Aleppo in the 1990s, he formed a seven-piece music group called Njoom. The group has traveled not only within Raqqa Governorate but throughout Syria, performing at weddings and cultural festivals.
When Daesh came, the city’s proud culture and heritage was under attack. All cultural centers became departments for the various offices of Daesh. They confiscated musical instruments from people’s homes and destroyed them. They destroyed cassettes, CDs and televisions. Weddings, once joyful affairs in Raqqa, complete with music and dancing, became quiet and solemn.
Daesh interrogated al-Saleh and said he had “forgotten God” and threatened to behead him. However, the group was shocked to discover that Al-Saleh was a devout Muslim who knew a lot about the Islamic faith. “I was with them for 12 hours. I had religious discussions with them. My faith was strong and hers wasn’t. You were wrong,” he said.
He continued: “They were shocked; They asked me how a singer could know so many things about religion because they said singers are unbelievers. They asked me to be their judge.”
Al-Saleh refused to work for the group and was eventually released. He continued to sing, but in secret – his group’s music concerts took place at night in private homes, usually with a guard watching outside for Daesh patrols.
As Raqqa rebuilt itself, the cultural departments of the new Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria began searching the city for its remaining artists. Al-Saleh became a member of the artists’ union and proudly displayed his union card.
All members of his old music group either passed away or left the country, so he formed a new group with 11 members. He also teaches his son the basics of traditional Raqqa music “so that the new generation doesn’t forget our traditions.
“Over the past four or five years, we’ve made every effort to bring our culture back to what it used to be, or to make it even better. But that will take a lot of time,” he said.
Daesh was just as angry at the free expression of the written word as he was at traditional music. Mohamed Bashir Al-Ani, a poet from Deir Ezzor, was executed along with his son for “blasphemy”. Many writers were forced to flee, including Raqqawi writer Fawziya Al-Marai.
“I saw my city completely destroyed and felt like my head was about to explode. Everything was in ruins,” Al-Marai told Arab News, recalling her return to Raqqa after living in Turkey during Daesh’s occupation.
“Not only the city was destroyed. Everything in me was destroyed,” she said. “I’ve lost everything beautiful in these ruins.”
Al-Marai, 74, is a prolific author who has written over 10 books of poetry and short stories since she began writing in the late 1990s.
Most of her writings were inspired by the traditions of Raqqa, particularly the dress and folklore of Arab women, and the Euphrates River. She attended literary festivals several times a year and met famous Syrian poets such as Nizar Qabbani and Raqqawi native Abdal Salam Al-Ujayli.
When Daesh attacked, “I fled. If I had stayed they would have killed me. They were looking for my name,” Al-Marai said.
Her books, which she described as her children, were all burned by the terrorist group. “I had 25 to 50 copies of each book and when I came back there weren’t any left,” she said.
It wasn’t just her books that were destroyed — the entire intellectual community she had spent decades building was gone. “None of my friends were left. They all fled and became refugees in Europe,” she said.
Al-Marai was determined to help rebuild the culture of her beloved city. Having become a consultant in the Arts and Culture Department of the Autonomous Administration, she now regularly holds literary salons in the city’s Fushat Hiwar, or Talking Room, to read and discuss literature.
“Now we organize festivals and trainings for our youth on how to write stories and poems. We celebrate them and always have activities to bring our culture back to how it was before. We always take the opportunity to let the youth know that the future is theirs,” she said.
Shahla Al-Ujayli, a niece of Abdal Salam Al-Ujayli, has carried on her uncle’s literary tradition by writing several books, including one in which the protagonist joins one of Raqqa’s most famous cultural pastimes – horse racing.
Raqqa has been famous for its equestrian heritage for over a thousand years. The unique breed of Arabian horse was used as a tool of work, a means of transportation, and eventually as a status symbol.
“The horse was a symbol of the family. If a family had a horse, it was known to be wealthy. Then it became a cultural tradition, passed from grandparents to parents to children,” Ammer Medad, a horse owner, told Arab News.
Medad estimates that while there were once between three and four thousand original Arabian horses in Raqqa, the current number is only around 400.
He recalls that in 1983 the first horse racing facility was established in Raqqa. It was a makeshift setup in a local landowner’s garden and was only about 1,000 square feet. A local from a famous equestrian family donated 10 horses to help found the first equestrian club.
The club began training and eventually began competing at a national level. They were the poorest team of any Syrian governorate and only had their horses. The drivers trained in the desert rather than on a regular racetrack. Since they didn’t even have separate uniforms, they were forced to share a single uniform with each other.
Despite this, the riders of Raqqa always won bronze, silver or gold in the competitions. Her skills were so second to none that, according to Medad, she caught the attention of Basil Assad, the late brother of current Syrian President Bashar Assad, who was himself an equestrian champion.
Basil funded the construction of a racetrack and horse facilities in Raqqa, which were completed in 1989. The team competed in races across the Arab world, including in Qatar, Jordan and Egypt. Although horse racing eventually waned in popularity, it was still an integral part of local traditional culture. All of this changed when Daesh came to town.
Daesh destroyed the racetrack and littered it with land mines. They used the Raqqa facilities as a storage facility for 4,000 stolen horses, according to a local track worker. “They stole the horses for themselves. They even used them as food,” Medad said. He recalled an incident where a Daesh fighter approached a friend who intended to buy a horse to eat.
Medad asked why the militant would buy such a beautiful horse just to eat.
“Daesh fighters rebuked me and said I could not ban what God allowed and said I had to come to their court. I ran away for 15 days, then the militant who wanted to take me to court was killed and I was finally able to return home.”
Five years later, the racetrack was cleared of Daesh landmines and the facility was 50 percent rebuilt, Medad said. The track has already hosted a local festival and plans to host one nationally, the first such race in Raqqa since Daesh took the city in mid-October.
The statue of Raqqa’s cultural forefather Harun Al-Rashid, destroyed by Daesh, was replaced in front of a crowd of onlookers in early September, symbolizing the city’s slow but unstoppable return to its roots.