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Syrian Fountain Art Speaks of Home to People Far From Home

The bah-rah, a fountain-like water feature, once played an iconic and pivotal role in Syrian homes and courtyards. The focal point for social interactions within the household, it remains a symbol deep in the hearts of Syria’s diaspora.

The fountain’s transition into the modern world and a dispersed people is the focus of what is now becoming a permanent installation by the Syrian architect Talin Hazbar at Abu Dhabi’s Warehouse421, a center for modern art.

Hazbar is exploring history, identity and culture, not through books and literature, but using a historical symbol in a modern setting.

Her project looks at the concept of the bah-rah from Ottoman times, when it was a source of drinking water for those who could afford it, as well as a place for ritual ablutions, into its modern manifestations. It has also served as a sound barrier for confidential conversations, a cooling device, and, more recently, a decorative feature, Hazbar says.

The emotions and memories these symbolic pieces evoke among Syrians in diaspora have been poured into Hazbar’s research, a social project that evolved into what is now a permanent reminder of the importance of this cultural icon.

“Talking about the fountain, I connected with Syrians across the world for my research …  to find out why it resonates for so many and what it means to them,” she explained.  She was curious to understand this deep relationship to an object so ingrained in the hearts of many who never even experienced it in its classical Ottoman form. (See a related article, “Artist Collects Stories From the Hearts of Syrians.”)

“Talking about the fountain, I connected with Syrians across the world for my research … to find out why it resonates for so many and what it means to them.”

Talin Hazbar  

A Homeland Symbolized in Art

Born in Syria, Hazbar grew up in the United Arab Emirates but made annual visits to her homeland until 10 years ago, when the country’s brutal civil war began. Now, she is separated from that homeland and feels it is symbolized through her art in the capital of the U.A.E.

Having studied architecture at the American University of Sharjah, Hazbar has always been passionate about immersive experiences, and the potential of space to arouse memories, emotions and associations.

Her project at Warehouse421 began as a temporary installation of four quarters of one marble fountain, each functioning independently and designed uniquely, but placed in different locations around the art space. The pieces will soon be made into a united fountain and a permanent installation.

“A fountain was always meant to be this central, balanced object, but having it dismantled and displayed in quarters, each spread around, you’re now part of the water flow, walking through the water and hearing it through different identities and profiles, experiencing the different sounds,” she said.

Initially, each quadrant had its own character, built on different mechanical systems and in different colors, but soon these themes will merge into one.

Gallery: Fountains of Memory

A Sense of Connection

The fountain has always held a place in Hazbar’s heart. As an architect, she says it represents part of a structure but is somehow detached, much like the feeling of being connected to home even when not home. As a Syrian separated from a land she loves, that sense feels even more poignant. (See a related article, “3 New Documentaries Turn Their Lenses on the Toll of War in the Middle East.”)

Fountains were an ornate feature in many old courtyard homes in Aleppo, where she spent many a happy childhood summer. But as she grew older, she began to see them in a new, more symbolic and less tangible light.

“Maybe we feel connection, nostalgia, but yet why do we all connect to that thing even if we haven’t lived in that house typology? Everyone has a different relationship to the fountain. Some people spoke of its smell, others its cooling aspect,” she said.

“It’s so central and balanced in the house, so it feels like home, yet everyone has a very different view when we asked what the fountain means to them, especially when most of the people I spoke to had never lived in an old house in which the fountain has this traditional look and positioning.”

Some of those Hazbar spoke to told her they were even recreating a version of the bah-rah at their home, showing it’s not about the material or how it’s put together but how it serves as the center of a space, a focal point which links back to a cultural heritage.

“It’s been fascinating to see how this means something to so many people,” she said. “Without this research, I wouldn’t really have realized the extent this historical object has traveled in people’s hearts through time, representing a different cultural, historical experience.”

“Certain domestic and social behaviors were adjusted or formed around the water structure in the courtyard.”

Mays Albaik
Programs manager at Warehouse421

Water and Timelessness

Mays Albaik is the programs manager at Warehouse421. She says the installation is being turned into a permanent fixture due to its timeless quality. “Courtyard houses are a typology that is common and enduring both in our local context of the U.A.E. as well as our wider region,” she said.

“Certain domestic and social behaviors were adjusted or formed around the water structure in the courtyard,” Albaik said, “and Talin’s exploration of this as a device offers insight into the question of time and timelessness itself. Her formal strategies question the fragmentation of memory, and her references reveal the kind of detail that pulls the viewer in time and time again.”

Albaik says the pursuit of recalling built structures is to understand the relationships and experiences built around and attached to them beyond mere nostalgia. Hazbar’s project is in fact there, she said, to better understand the significance of water, of domestic space, and of gathering features in building cultures, identity and belonging.

“This project evoked memories and tested how fragments of structures can leave an impact and resonate through semi-familiar forms and definitely familiar sounds of flowing water,” she added. “Talin’s thoughtful and poetic interrogation of the specificity of the Syrian bah-rah gives us windows to relate a variety of experiences to her narrative.”


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