BEIRUT, Lebanon — One day this summer, a group of mostly young civilians navigated the warrens of Aleppo’s Christian quarter, toward the deadly and often fluctuating frontline between Syrian government forces and the rebels fighting the regime.
Just a few years ago the neighborhood, called Jdeideh, hosted fine dining and boutique hotels housed in centuries-old mansions — the kinds of attractions that lured Western tourists to a country just beginning to open up to the world.
But more than a year since Syria’s largest city became ensnared in the raging civil war, the area is now a dangerous battleground.
Above an alley roughly 20 meters from the frontline, the group of young artists hung up their latest project: a bunch of compact discs carefully arranged to spell out a message in both Arabic and English.
“Art is peace,” the CDs read.
The initiative that brought the CD project to life is one of the latest by 48-year-old Issa Touma, an eccentric and bespectacled Armenian-Christian native of Aleppo.
A staple of the city’s cultural scene before the war, Touma is a photographer who runs an art gallery there. You can often spot him for the wide-brimmed hats he wears to work.
Since the war came to Aleppo in July 2012 — more than a year after Syria’s uprising started — Touma’s efforts have been focused on “Art Camping,” a group he created primarily as an outlet for local youth.
In hours of phone and Skype interviews in July and August, Touma provided a glimpse into what remains of Aleppo’s cultural scene, along the way describing his own attempts at keeping art alive in the besieged city.
Art Camping invites young people to learn about, practice, and eventually share art with the people of the city and refugees who fled to Aleppo from other parts of Syria. Through the project, Touma hopes the group will return a semblance of normalcy to his war-torn hometown.
“We were thinking that if the war comes to Aleppo, we should really have something to help the people survive,” he said.
Touma says he knows creating art might seem trivial in a place where food stocks are dangerously low, electricity is sporadic and daily death counts high.
More than 100,000 people have been killed in the fighting since March 2011, the United Nations says.
But for this veteran artist, it is a crucial part in surviving the war and resisting its dehumanization.
“People don’t only survive by food and water,” Touma said. “They survive by art.”
In one Art Camping project, “Texture of the city we lost,” residents have created pencil rubbings of ordinary objects, street tiles and portions of building facades — all items that have faced destruction.
War has torn the social fabric, too. As Syria is increasingly divided along sectarian lines — Alawite, Christian, Sunni and Shia — Touma says every sect is welcome at Art Camping.
The embrace of diversity reflects pre-war Aleppo, he says, a cosmopolitan mix of Armenians, Kurds, Arab Christians, Sunnis, Alawites and others who once coexisted, giving the city its charm.
Aleppo “was kind of like five cities within the borders of one city,” Touma said. “Even the Arabic accent from one area to another changes.”
But the Syrian conflict shattered this harmony.
Aleppo is now demarcated by checkpoints and frontlines, where the wrong name or area listed on an ID card can get its carrier killed.
It is no longer remembered by its towering citadel or labyrinths of souks, but rather by the dates of massacres and rule of the gun.
Touma stays on the government side of town. As a Christian, he said he is fearful of Syria’s burgeoning Al Qaeda-linked jihadist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraqand the Levant.
The level of attendance at Touma’s gatherings varies depending on the situation of the moment. Some of the participants are required to cross battle lines to get to the meetings.
“All this mix and balance, we lost it forever,” he said.
Aleppo’s Old City, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, in particular embodied much of what Touma loved about the city — but it’s been heavily damaged by the fighting.
Touma had the means to leave Aleppo, but decided to stay.
He had to take care of his elderly father, for one. And these days he thinks the roads out of Aleppo are too dangerous to try even if he did want to flee. But he also stayed to buck the trend of artists abandoning their homes at times of trouble.
“Last year I was very angry when I found that a lot of intellectuals left and cried for Syria from outside,” he said. “Whatever happens to the people happens with me.”
Touma also kept his gallery, Le Pont, open.
Recently it hosted a show called The Last Supper, an exhibition of haunting Guernica-esque paintings by Syrian artist Yacoub Ibrahim.
Touma continues to make arrangements for a big photography festival next year, despite the uncertainties in the country.
Before the conflict, Touma was sometimes regarded as an opposition figure. Syrian authorities shut down his gallery a number of times and Touma found himself in conflict with the state — accusing the government of breaking the law for shuttering his space without a compelling reason.
Some of his projects, such as one where he photographed nude women at various locations around Aleppo’s Old City, seemed provocative. He says he was often called for questioning by the government over his subject matter.
“It was a terrible time,” he said of the years before the conflict, particularly 2005 and 2006.
While at times critical of the Syrian government, Touma said he was never part of the opposition or any side. Instead, he says he is just an artist.
These days, he shows a bit of disdain for rebel forces.
In July he was upset when his neighborhood was cut off by a rebel blockade and food was running low. Throughout the blockade, shelling continued. “Are they trying to free us to heaven?” he asked.
For Touma, art is about preserving what’s being lost to the war.
“This can all help build trust,” he said. “Because in war time it’s very easy for people to lose trust in each other.”
Editor’s note: GlobalPost last confirmed Issa Touma’s safety in late September. Phone lines and internet connections in his neighborhood have since been cut, and remain down for the time being.