'This place is like a small Syria. Without the violence'

An artists' retreat in Lebanon offers respite and a creative space for Syrians and their families.

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"Syrian artists have so much raw material in them. People have been in a slumber for 40 years, but they are waking up now."
Raghad Mardini stands barefoot in the small garden in Aley, a mountain town outside Beirut. Behind her sit old stone stables, abandoned and overgrown, scarred by the fighting of the Lebanese civil war. Today, the place is an artists' residency – and safe haven – for Syrian artists.
It was after learning about her work restoring houses in old Damascus that Ms Mardini's friend, Lebanese calligrapher Ziad Talhouk, brought her to the old stables. The house belongs to his family, and he wanted to restore it as a tribute to his late father. It took Ms Mardini and a team of local renovators a year to work on it. Since then, it has housed a number of Syrian painters and sculptors.
"I wanted to do something to support Syrian artists. It's hard times for everyone right now. There are no opportunities for artists. They cannot work, the market for selling art is completely shut down," says Ms Mardini.
The artistic community faces more serious difficulties as well. Many have been targeted since the conflict in Syria started in 2011: well-known cartoonist Ali Farzat was abducted and tortured; painter Youssef Abdelke is still imprisoned.
The residency in Aley provides something different: stillness, and a space for contemplation and work. Artists who apply and get accepted can come and stay for a month. The one condition to which they agree: that they will donate one piece of their work to the collection.
A large wooden board, resting against a wall inside, displays rows of small figures, wrapped in rainbow-coloured pieces of fabric.
It's courtesy of Milad Amin, an art student from Damascus. He "wanted to give death a colour," says Ms Mardini. Another piece, in equally bright colours, is that of Heba Aqqad, also from Damascus: a doll inside a box, its limbs tied together and pulled apart by ropes.
At this time, the residency is home to painter Hasko Hasko, art teacher Sabe Hasko, and their three children. The family, originally from the Kurdish parts of northern Syria, have just arrived from Damascus, where they live and work.
"We came to a point when we were constantly scared. Life in Damascus is not as bad as elsewhere, but we cannot do anything.
"We didn't take the kids to the park or a restaurant in two years. Things have become so expensive. There's no safety. Armed soldiers come storming into the house at four or five in the morning. The kids should not live through that," says Hasko Hasko.
While the conflict has changed things dramatically, Mr Hasko continues to paint the way he did before: in soft, delicate pastels. There's no other way, he says.
"My art is very far from war. If, as an artist, you become absorbed by war, you have to stop creating art. What's happening now in the country is beyond comprehension. It's impossible to create art that represents the violence, the fact that people sign up to kill others. It's surreal, yet we're living in the midst of it."
He is out in the garden, mounting a canvas onto a frame with the help of Bina, his eldest daughter. Nishan, his son, is sat on a sofa absorbed in a game on his mobile phone. Sabe Hasko takes a seat next to him.
"We don't know what to do next. We want to take the children away from what's happening in the country. They are so aware, they understand everything. They talk about who has been killed, what has been bombed," says Mrs Hasko.
She walks back into the house, which is a combined studio and lodging. An open kitchen gives way to a living area and a small, adjacent bedroom. On the sofa lies Liya, their youngest daughter, with a bottle of milk in her hands. The TV in the background shows a Syrian drama.
Ms Mardini comes in, with a box of fruit in her hands. Cactus figs, just in season.
"They make me think of Damascus," she says. "We always used to eat them during the summers, they are sold at every street corner. It seems far away today. But this place is like a small Syria. Without the violence."
Jenny Gustafsson is a Swedish political scientist and independent journalist based in Beirut
On Twitter: @atJenny