In your recent works you have focused intensively on the situation in Syria. How do you approach it in your current work for HKW?

In the past few years all my works have focused on the current situation in Syria, since it is an ongoing tragedy with no clear end in sight. So, every time I approach the subject, my position shifts. It shifts, because the situation on the ground also changes constantly. And just recently it became clear to me that I wanted to ask my questions about the general upheavals and political transformations through a more intimate narrative, through a more personal perspective.

How is that decision related to your choosing Aleppo as your main focus for this project?

The project took shape after the horrible events that Aleppo had to witness lately, the brutal bombings by the Russians and the Syrian regime with its allies. We all know how it ended: it led to the complete destruction of the eastern part of the city. Now my project is about Aleppo, but really it is dealing with the upheaval that is happening in the whole region. The way in which I am trying to narrate the story of the city is specifically by looking at what has happened over the last few years, but from the perspective of people who know the place. It was very important to me to avoid the general, dominant narratives about the city and Syria in general. I didn’t want one-dimensional narratives that the media as well as geopolitical analyses perpetuate. I wanted to tell the story of rather marginalized places, the story of spaces that the world doesn’t tend to look at, hidden and unknown places. Because every one of them means something to someone who is attached to them. And I was interested in the complex lives that enfold behind the history of places.

Your project addresses the topic of absence. How will the absence of those spaces translate artistically?

It was a big challenge actually. For me, as someone who had to leave Syria, who has moved from one place to the next since then, words like “absence” dominate almost every discourse. Since I’m away from home, I have zero effect on the ground. And sometimes I almost refuse to believe what is actually happening there. Those who are in the diaspora keep mixing reality with memories. Because sometimes, that’s the only way to cope with the situation. It is a form of resistance, if you will; to convince ourselves that there are still things that we hold dear, that we intend to keep, that we can derive hope from. That was the idea behind interviewing people about their beloved places in Aleppo.

How are you going to translate these stories in the huge space of the auditorium at HKW?

This, of course, is a challenge. We will be working with actors who act as mediators between the interviewees, their stories, and the public. And to me the absence of the interviewees specifically reflects the constant struggle of Syrians in when trying to explain themselves and their situation to other people. We still have a lot to do with deconstructing fixed concepts and stereotypes about the country — historically or current. Because, so far, we have been left with narratives about radicalism and Islamic State (IS) versus the Assad regime —as if that was our only story. I was missing the stories of real people, real voices. That’s why we’ll also avoid imagery in this project. To let the stories speak for themselves and by asking the audience to listen carefully, gently even, in one-on-one sessions.

Who did you interview, and what struck you about their memories?

We interviewed people from all over the city. Since Aleppo is Syria’s largest city in terms of population, it also holds the greatest diversity, ethnically and socially. We tried to reflect on that diversity with the testimonies of people coming from different communities and backgrounds: people that were highly educated and people from marginalized areas in the city. That was a deliberate choice. We didn’t want to just stay within the circle of intellectuals, who are used to articulating themselves in a certain manner. The ten people whose testimonies made it into the final project now live in Beirut, Brussels, Turkey, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Paris, and even still in Northern Syria, which altogether says something about the Syrian diaspora today. Because each and every one of these people has a very specific relation to their city. A shoemaker for instance talks about a sidewalk as his favorite place, because people in the Syrian suburbs always sit outside. The pavement is their community, an extension of the home. A professor on the other hand, speaks about an old house in the rough part of the old city of Aleppo that was renovated to be used as a cultural center. He supervised the renovations, and during that he witnessed the unfolding of different layers of the history that was buried in the ruins of this neglected house. And since he was a stranger to that part of Aleppo, the process of the renovation was his own personal journey to get to know his city in a much deeper way. Not just its recent past, but also its current complex map of powers.

You are also a stranger to Aleppo, in that you didn’t grow up there. How did that inform your work about the city? And do you have a favorite place?

Not being from Aleppo was extremely interesting. I know the city, but it’s not my city. And that’s why the reliance on other people’s testimonies was so important. It was as much a journey for me, which I wanted to comprehensively map, to explain how and why we stand at this horrible moment in the life of the city. It is a special map, a map of intimate narratives. My favorite place in Aleppo is in the eastern part of the city. I spent some time there in the summer of 2013. I went there to do a theater workshop. From the people attending I learned so much about how it felt to live under constant risk while still trying to keep one’s hopes up—trying to preserve the spirit of the uprising and to protect it against various tyrants. Many of the people I lived with there, were later killed. Some by the bombings of the regime, others assassinated by IS. But the memories about my time there are still vivid. The same goes for the stories of our interviewees. Because they all talk about their most intimate relations to Syria. About memories that stand in stark contrast to the picture of a country the media portrays, as if it only just came into existence six years ago.