Posted by on July 18, 2014 in Blog

By Emily Cooke
Summer Intern, 2014

In war torn Syria, artillery shells litter the rubble of destroyed homes and cultural heritage sites; but in an art studio in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, the beginnings of the bronze bust of late Syrian poet, Nizar Qabbani, sits waiting to immortalize this Syrian history now vulnerable to the destruction of war.

Leila Khoury is a student of interdisciplinary sculpture at the Maryland Institute College of Art, and the visionary behind the memorial sculpture of Nizar Qabbani due to appear in Cleveland’s Syrian Cultural Garden in the fall of 2014. A child of Syrian immigrants, Leila was exposed to the poetic works of Qabbani at a young age. It was the profoundly simple, eloquent prose Qabbani employed to explore themes of love, feminism, religion, and Arab nationalism that first captivated Leila and so much of the Arab world.

Qabbani was born in the Syrian capital of Damascus, a city that ultimately failed to escape the haunting scars of a country now gripped by fierce political conflict. Now, 16 years after his death, Leila looks to Qabbani, whose sculpture is meant to “commemorate a peaceful figure of Syria’s history during this time of great violence [and] serve as a symbol of welcoming and comfort to those who had to relocate to the United States.”

For Leila, Qabbani epitomizes what it means to be critical but peaceful, as he frequently channeled his advocacy for social equality in Syria through a voice of nonviolent resistance. Arguments for the equality of women and frustration with authoritarian rule emerged as hallmarks of Qabbani’s poetry that lent him a certain public adoration; but it was his habit of avoiding combative rhetoric that won the favor of political elites. In short poems Qabbani spoke volumes, advocating the kind of peaceful thought and action that is alone capable of ending Syria’s enduring civil war. 

Leila reflected upon this profound artistic expression of concepts tied to her heritage and upbringing, and confessed in an interview with AAI that this was something quite new to her. After witnessing the ongoing, large-scale destruction in Syria and its impact on the Syrian community in Cleveland, however, Leila allowed her Syrian roots to find new depth in her artistic capabilities. Leila shared that, “as an art student, I believe my creative expression is my most powerful instrument in responding to the war and the way it has shaken the community I was raised in.”

The Syrian Cultural Garden in the city of Cleveland, a picturesque tribute to Syria’s history and community, will be the fortunate beneficiary of Leila’s sculpture later this year. While Nizar Qabbani left his words to unify and preserve a rich Syrian history, Leila now hopes her bronze sculpture will do the same. As the language of nightly newscasters and newspaper headlines paint the portrait of a Syrian history sacrificed to war, the memorial sculpture of one determined Syrian American will serve as an important reminder that unity in the country is not obsolete.

As the war in Syria rages on, no one contends that Nizar Qabbani could prophesize the future—but with any luck his poetic verse might: “Arab children, Spring rain, Corn ears of the future, You are the generation that will overcome defeat.”