(Teir Maalah, Homs) Teir Maalah is a town situated on the Orontes river 7 km east of Homs, whose name means “fresh air” in Aramaic. It has a small secret: it has birthed a number of people who played an important role in Syrian literature, such as Faraj Bayraqdar, Talib Hammash, Mohammad Hammash, Anwar ʿOmran, ʿIssam Kanj al-Halabi, Hassan ʿAwad and Fu’ad ʿOmran. Teir Maalah was also home to a number of painters, like Riyad Stouf and Abdur-Razzaq Shblout. These creatives, and dozens of others, took their town and its character with them to Arab and European countries. Like so many others, they struggled to express themselves but were unable to do so in the confines of their town, because of the lack of institutions and the closemindedness of their fellow citizens.Hassan ʿAwad, a native of Teir Maalah and the winner of the 2013 Sharjah Prize for Arab Creativity for his short stories (“Trees In Need Of Trimming”), explains Syria Untold that the town’s closeness to Homs let many of Teir Maalah’s youth to pursue their studies as well as attain some social mobility. “The fact that the wealthy residents of Teir Maalah studied engineering and medicine, in addition to other subjects, set them apart from others in the nearby towns. As a result, many of its citizens took the positives of the countryside in addition to the city,” says ʿAwad.
Very few, however, saw the negative aspects of their town, apart from the poet Faraj Bayraqdar. “An Arabic graduate born into an impoverished family that owned no land, Faraj attempted to address these issues,” according to writer ʿAwad, “he wrote poetry which drew its inspiration from his village and the political takeover by Hafez al-Asad.” Bayraqdar’s politicized poetry cost him 14 years in prison (1987-2000). "After him, no writer dared to deal with politics, they stuck to literature until the outbreak of the uprising, knowing that Faraj himself eventually did the same," concludes ʿAwad.With the start of the revolutionary movement, the residents of Teir Maalah protested against the regime of Bashar al-Asad. As a result, they were subjected to arrests. Bombing of Teir Maalah started in 2013, when the armed opposition entered it. However, violence did not flare up the town until 2014, when a deal was struck with the regime to allow for the evacuation of opposition fighters and their families from the old city in Homs, with most of them finding refuge in Teir Maalah. This was followed by Russian intervention in 2015, which destroyed even more parts of the town, displacing further residents. During this war, the town has presented stories of pain, longing and humanity. Their creativity has not been limited to the pen or paintbrush, but has been embodied by its inhabitants. Abdur-Rahman Hammash, a young resident, began to write on his Facebook page about events he had witnessed, including the story of Abu Mohammad, who went about his daily business attending local meetings before it was revealed to the town that he had just buried his son by himself. Abu Mohammad’s son, Khaled al-Lawz, was killed by Russian air strikes and three days later Mahmoud, his other son, sustained fatal injuries during another air raid on October 26th, 2015. The intellectuals of the village did not agree with the majority’s ideas, most notably the religious ones. Painter Abdur-Razzaq Shblout told SyriaUntold: “Having a baccalaureate degree, I began to question my preexisting ideas about society, religion, politics, etc. So I would not become complacent with our situation. I realized that my neighbors and relatives kept trying to push my leftist beliefs towards the path they deemed as ‘right’ and, as a result, I kept bickering with all of them and we became estranged. I would only take the bus to and from my house in order to avoid any confrontations.”
Prompted about his relationships with other residents at the start of the revolution, Shblout said: “I was with the people of the village on the side of the right. My brothers were at the forefront of the youth who were protesting: my brother Nadim, my brother Samir, then my sister’s husband and my father were all killed. My brother Hamza, wounded, and when the Russian warplanes began shelling the town, my cousin was one of the first to die. But recently I have not felt close to the town residents.”
In September 2015, Abdu-Razzaq Shblout held an exhibition of his paintings in the German city of Düren, which included a photography exhibit of his deceased brothers in addition to paintings inspired by the Syrian tragedy. What was left of his family fled to neighboring villages and Shblout spends most of his time communicating with them, even though the painter’s relationship with his hometown is still a troubled one. “Since the start of the events in Syria, I have not felt close to anyone,” he told Syria Untold.Once a major source of inspiration and creativity on the Orontes, Teir Maalah has been turned into a symbol of art and pain.