Manaf Halbouni tells me that the price of tomatoes in Syria has increased 80 fold since the start of the conflict: “When I left Syria you used to pay five Syrian pounds for one kilo of tomatoes and at the moment it’s around 400… if you want to buy eggs you pay around 500 Syrian pounds. The prices are insane. I really ask myself how they manage to live. The salaries didn’t get higher just the prices.”
Inflation is just one of the tragedies to come out of the war on Syria, along with the constant air strikes, bombs and shootings that terrorise people on a daily basis. Over five million people have fled Syria since the war started in 2011.
As an artist, Halbouni’s response, or protest, against what is happening in his home country has been to build an installation – “a monument against war” – which aims to break our reality so that we consider once again the depths of this tragedy.
The result is three German buses, tipped on their side and secured in place outside the eighteenth century neoclassical monument, the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. The gate once symbolised the division of the city into East and West and, when the Berlin Wall fell, it represented reunification. Halbouni used original buses from the Bavarian city of Nuremburg that in the past had been used for public transport, the adverts still pasted to the side of them.
“I didn’t want to transport the image of war to Europe one to one because we’re living in peace over here,” says Halbouni. “I just wanted to bring a different feeling to people; usually you see these buses everywhere and you drive them to work and do some other stuff. It’s a different feeling if you see this object you usually use horizontal standing in front of you, you realise something different, especially if you see these buses in a clean place.”
Halbouni was inspired to create the piece in 2015 when he came across an image in the Guardian of three buses that had been turned upright using ropes and manpower in a street in Aleppo. In this position the vehicles formed a shield to protect civilians from regime snipers.
“It was amazing, seeing this will to survive from people,” says Halbouni. “It was a real great symbol of life for me these three buses. People who are probably civilians, not involved in this war, tried to continue their daily lives. This inspired me to cut out the buses in this picture and try to experiment and put them in open spaces around different cities in the world.”
The installation was previously erected in front of the Frauenkirche Church in Dresden on the anniversary of the day the allies bombed the city during World War II. It took two years to secure the permission and sponsorship, design the construction and find the buses.
Not everybody was happy with the final product. Halbouni estimates that he received 1,000 pieces of hate mail and a lot of abuse. When the installation was unveiled 400 people stood in the square to shout him down as he tried to explain his work.
The right wing started to cover this and said I am taking their day from them by thinking about other victims of war and they wanted on that day to just remember their own victims. This is really weird because victims are victims and it doesn’t matter where. Because war is always bad
“Europe was once at war and most German cities have been destroyed and they rebuilt everything and now [there’s] peace here and it’s a great country,” he continues. “I would also like to transport that there are other parts of the world where this is happening at the moment and I also want to transport a little image of hope to the people like in Aleppo for example, or Syria, and any other places where war is and where cities are destroyed, that war is nothing that will last forever, there will be a day when war will end and people will start to rebuild but it needs time.”
“I saw how a complete city – like Dresden where I’m living – the whole society has been changed during six years,” he adds as an afterthought. “They even don’t have any war. The war is like 4,000 kilometres away, and we had huge changes here. How people think, how people react, and then you have this uprising of the right-wing and the whole city is divided by a problem that is not here. So it’s actually very interesting the changes we’re going through at the moment in Europe.”
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Halbouni himself is half Syrian, half German and lived in Damascus all his life, studying fine art at university there. He arrived in Germany in 2008 as a student, wasn’t able to go back because of the conflict, and has since lived here through the problems in Syria and amidst the social changes in Germany. “For me at the moment I’m not really accepted, I’m a migrant. For me the logic says OK I’m a citizen of this world because also I’m not Syrian.”
The solution to the Syrian crisis is not just letting all refugees come to Europe, says Halbouni, because most people don’t want to come here – “they’re just coming here because their places have been destroyed and it’s not stopping”. If they could re-enter their cities and start to rebuild they would probably stay there.
“In World War II Dresden was totally destroyed, it was totally wiped out in the Second World War [but then] it just took two days and people entered again and started work. Because they didn’t have to fear that there would be killing again and the war stopped some months after. In Syria it’s totally different, once an air strike comes in you’re not sure if they’re coming in again and [it’s been like that for] six years. It’s a different situation and you need to give people hope, you need to say OK, the war has stopped, and now we can start our life again.”
It’s difficult to predict when this will be because the Syrian conflict, says Halbouni, has not been in the hands of the Syrians for at least four years. “The end will come but actually at the moment I’m still not seeing the big players decide to end it. The Syrian conflict is a very big money machine. Global interests, arms. It’s just about money and power. I heard that a lot of European companies already have contracts over there for rebuilding, even after the war a lot of people are going to earn a lot of money over there.”
“Syria has already been turned into parts where different people are acting,” he adds. “You have now Turkish places, Iranian places, Russian places. There are places where the Turkish army entered, they already started to rebuild and they opened Turkish banks everywhere.”
One of the challenges after the war stops will be rebuilding the country and uniting the people again after they have lived in what Halbouni describes as a “mafia state”.
Monument will help go some way towards helping people understand this: “For the audience it’s just having this moment of thinking about our peace and how precious our peace is.”
“I just wish an end for this war. At least to give the civilians a little bit of peace where nowhere is being bombed, no one is shooting each other, so they can start rebuilding the country again. That would be the greatest actually.”