It is inconceivable to recount the story of the Syrian uprising without dedicating a lurid chapter to Saraqeb, a small city located east of Idlib. Saraqeb was one of the first cities to participate in the revolution, its earliest demonstrations date back to March 25, 2011. Nevertheless, it is not the city’s role in the civil movement that earns it its significance, but rather its walls that eternalize the spirit of the revolution.
The idea behind the walls of Saraqeb, more commonly known as the “lovers' notebooks”, was simple and spontaneous. The city had become almost free of regime control by November 2012. The people then chose to celebrate their new-found freedom by painting the walls of their city and graffiti became ubiquitous. However, this collective artwork also gave way to several issues between the inhabitants, like negative, harmful graffiti, which drove activists Raed Fares and Iyas Kadouni to oversee the project.
The two activists decorated the walls of Saraqeb with poetry excerpts by renowned Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish and phrases inspired by their day-to-day reality.. One wall holds a quote by Syrian filmmaker Bassel Shehadeh, who was killed by the regime while filming in Homs. The quote reads “Revolution is an entrance ticket, not a pass.”
Other graffiti show solidarity with Syrian cities or stem from personal experience, like the one Iyas Kadouni painted after he found out his brother-in-law was killed. The graffiti reads “I will write that I love you.”
Later, the group grew bigger as calligrapher and social activist Laith al-Abdullah joined the team, along with artist Somar Kanjo, who specialized in children paintings. By that time, Kadouni had also started an ambitious project to draw a panorama of the revolution from its outbreak in March 2011, until the end of 2013.
At first, the people of Saraqeb were hesitant to engage in the phenomenon, because they feared the army would eventually return to their city. The young activists thus restricted their graffiti to public spaces, bearing in mind the concerns of the people. But as the barrier of fear gradually vanished, the people themselves started demanding activists to paint on the walls of their houses.
The artistic movement in Saraqeb faced serious challenges after armed insurgents claimed control over the city. They prevented activists from raising the revolution’s flag and threatened them during demonstrations. However, Kaddouni tells the story of two armed men from the outskirts of Damascus who saw him writing solidarity slogans with Douma and Darayya. The two men embraced him and apologized for their repressive practices. “This incident infers that any respectable project that truly serves the revolution, is capable of making a difference,” explains Kaddouni, who despite the ideological contrast between him and these two fighters remained in touch with them, until they were killed in the countryside of Damascus.
When Daesh came out of the woodwork however, everything changed. The latter painted over most of the graffiti with the help of other factions. “Many artworks were sabotaged,” says Iyas Kaddouni to SyriaUntold, “Radical Islamist groups and the regime’s daily raids have gone hand and hand to demolish a beautiful and authentic part of the civil movement in Saraqeb,” he bitterly adds.
The clashes between religious fanatics and the operating activists manifested itself when they erased a phrase written by Kaddouni, addressing the Iranian opposition in Persian. This has driven the founding activists out of the country, except for Laith al-Abdullah, who abandoned the project after being abducted.
Before leaving Saraqeb, Iyas Kaddouni who had received death threats painted his last graffiti, that reads “Swear allegiance to whomever you like. I pledged allegiance to my homeland and the people who cried freedom.”
From his exile today, the activist is looking for ways to reactivate the artistic movement in the city by sending painting materials to the children of Saraqeb. Kaddouni hopes that the children would continue what he and his friends had started.
Lover’s notebooks was born from liberty, and it grew to counter tyranny with colors, words and love, as one of the walls that survived the vandalism testifies:
“My friend, the martyr
Weary are the walls and all the stories are sorrowful
In my homeland, death has become a habit, a zest
Love will remain our warble,
Until it returns as the hero of our story.”