I was born in Damascus in 1984, lived there one year as a baby, and moved to Saudi Arabia. Growing up in Saudi Arabia in the ‘80s and ‘90s was a dry experience – very different than growing up in Saudi Arabia today. There was a lot closed off. We lived in a military base 100 kilometers outside of Riyadh (the main capital), so I was secluded in the seclusion – it was like a prison inside a prison. I think I left that base by myself maybe twice in the fifteen years that I was there. We used to leave with my parents only to go grocery shopping and to cut our hair. Every day we would get bussed a hundred kilometers away, and then back again, just to get a good education. So, at an early stage I got very comfortable sitting long hours by myself on road trips, just thinking. Even now, I can do a road trip and clear my mind, thinking about things until the cows come home. I don’t get bored.
TOWARDS SKETCHING A LIFE: Biographies of and conversations with Mohamad Hafez
The following biography is self-narrated by Mohamad Hafez, in conversation with Julia Rooney on August 1, 2017. The text was transcribed by Molly Montgomery, and edited collaboratively. It tells a story not conveyed through professional resumes, or even chronologies of his life. Photographs are courtesy of Hafez's friends and family.
Conducted the same day, the attached interview provides more focus on Hafez's studio work and process. Additional interviews and articles about the artist's life and work are available on his website.
During those fifteen years in Saudi Arabia, we’d go home to Damascus for summer vacations. But during those trips, I was spending my time in the swimming pool, seeing cousins and friends–not discovering my roots. When I became a teenager, I began trying to figure out who I was. In Saudi Arabia, though, people who weren’t born there always felt like they were foreigners. It’s not home: you’re a contractor, or you’re the son of a contractor who’s there to serve the society. In my case, my father was a surgeon in one of the hospitals there. Saudis are the owners of the country, and everyone else is a contractor who is there to do a service and get paid for it. I’m not saying it is a bad system – it’s just the way the society was structured. The result of this, however, was that I didn’t feel my roots. I was a teenager with no roots, and no identity.
We moved back to Damascus in 1999. As a fifteen-year-old, I experienced for the first time my culture fully. Walking the streets of Old Damascus, you look to the right—there’s a mosque; look to the left—there’s a church; look here—there’s a synagogue, or there—an art gallery with nude sculptures. I was coming from an extremely conservative society where women are covered fully in black. We didn’t have many activities, and I didn’t leave the campus by myself. Going back to Damascus, I was going back to the Cradle of Civilization, one of the oldest cities in the world. Walking Old Damascus, you see Roman columns, Greek columns, Greek architecture, biblical architecture, Islamic architecture, centuries old markets, people conversing. Life doesn’t stop: two or three in the morning, people on the streets are still eating, drinking, socializing. Weekdays, not just weekends. Any Syrian family who goes to a Syrian restaurant is guaranteed six to seven hours there—maybe more, but no less. You’re going to sit down and enjoy your time: appetizers, coffee, nargeele , food, dessert, Syrian coffee, fruit and whatnot. This is the fabric that we’re all used to, and this is where the nostalgia comes from. When I went back to Damascus, I felt, “I am no longer the foreigner, the son of a contractor. There IS home! This is something that I’m proud of being part of, and that I come from a really meaningful area of this world.”
My father had built a nice villa on the outskirts of the city with a swimming pool and garden. This was where he planned on retiring. We didn’t use aluminum studs to build it. We were building the real deal—cast-in-place concrete, cinderblock clad with panels of limestone that were hand-patterned by a craftsman. When you entered our house or my aunt’s house, there were huge living rooms, big crystal chandeliers, tall ceilings, French baroque wallpaper. It felt like you’d walked through a chateau in Paris. Our salon was all Italian marble panels that had different marble accents between every floor paver The crystal chandeliers were several thousand dollars each, and hand-picked by my mom. She had picked a famous Aleppo craftsman to make our formal living room, to carve it out of wood, and put gold leaf on it. And he worked on it for ten years while we were in Saudi Arabia, and he delivered it when we moved back.
My parents, my siblings and myself were the only members in my family that were living in diaspora. Most of my cousins, aunts and uncles chose to live in Damascus. When we moved back, this experience just hit me at once. We had a big family, and in my culture, everybody’s in everybody else’s business. You’re guaranteed every other day that somebody’s in your house, or that you’re invited to someone else’s house. Because we were the family that had the garden and big house, we didn’t go anywhere on Fridays; we were guaranteed that people were coming over. We always grilled when the weather was nice because people were going to come over, they stayed till late hours of the night. The whole house felt like a festival.
I’m sharing this because it’s important—it changes the narrative. People’s perceptions that refugees and migrants come from tents and desert and camels and nothingness—no civilization whatsoever—is false. The pride that people took in their houses and that people took in establishing their lives was unbelievable. We were normal, middle-class people. We weren’t elite, Life in Damasucs just had a very high standard. And a lot of the refugees that have been resettled here have that high standard as well, especially in the social aspect. “What do you mean, I’m going to have to work nine in the morning until ten at night?” (like we do here, in America). We’re workaholics here. But there, if you were rich or poor, you worked until 2 or 4pm, then you went home, you had a nice big meal like Italians do, and you took a siesta. When you woke up, you went back to work for a few more hours, and after work you called up your friends and said, “Where are we going tonight? Okay, we’re going to this coffee shop.” And you went and sat there for four or five more hours, came back at two in the morning and woke up the next morning at seven to go to work.
I lived in Damascus for four years before moving to the United States for college in 2003. I did a B.A. in Architecture at Iowa State University with a partial degree in electrical engineering. At that time, the travel ban that we know today did exist, but it wasn’t called the travel ban. Nobody knew about it, but post-9/11 in the Bush era, if you were a citizen of these seven countries—Syria, Iran, Somalia, Iraq, etc.—you went through a lot of scrutiny. Throughout my youth, we used to come to the United States many times to see my older siblings that were studying here. There was no problem obtaining visas. When 9/11 happened, that travel ban got put in place, even though Syrians had nothing to do with 9/11 terrorist attack. But the idea was “We gotta’ blame somebody, Mohamad, so we gonna’ blame the weakest in the region. That’s gonna’ be Somalia, Iraq, and Syria, son.” What happened to Saudis and Kuwaitis? “Nope, they’re good – they got money.” That hypocrisy can drive you nuts.
What did that mean for me? It meant that I couldn’t go home for eight years. My visa took a year and a half to get approved. My friends who went back to visit their parents, never came back, and I learned that I was not going back home soon either. The pain was exacerbated. I thought, “What did I do to deserve this?” My parents are growing old away from me; my sister married and had kids. All the life that I fully fell in love with, I was suddenly watching from a distance, not able to participate for eight years. This pain is what sparked my artwork. One night I just started making facades and something clicked.
In 2009, I came to New Haven and started working at Pickard Chilton. To make it feel more like home, I tried to do the architectural trick: if you go into my house, it’s all French baroque antiques, couches, and things that I’ve collected from New England just trying to recreate my mother’s living room – little chandeliers and crystals here and there, Persian rugs, etc. You wouldn’t believe that a thirty-four-year old lives there. I tried to recreate home, but it’s not the same. The architecture does not sustain it alone. That’s why when my mother comes to my house, she always says she wants to go back.
Also, my father is seventy-eight, and my mother is sixty-eight. I was growing up around a culture that was forty-five years older than I was. In the Middle East that translated into listening to the old music – “proper” music, old school – which translates to the substance of our culture, the modern and contemporary culture. So oftentimes people say, “Mohamad, gosh, you’re stuck in the past.” The kind of music I play is the kind of music that my father and mother will play, not a thirty-year-old Syrian. So that adds to the state of nostalgia that I am always stuck in. When I play old music, I am resurrecting those nights on my parents’ balcony, in my parents’ garden where 30-40 people were sitting, having a great time with tea and food for hours.
The last time I went to Syria was in 2011, it was arguably the golden age—right before the war, and when the revolution started. I was on a work trip with my firm that was supposed to last a few days, but I couldn’t get a visa to return to the United States so I waited for six weeks. That stay was heaven after eight years of not going back. The world around me was freaking out: “Mohamad is not going to get issued a visa.” I was very calm, why wouldn’t I be?! I was finally at home. There was no war. I felt that trip was a gift from God. I walked the streets documenting everything that I could, not knowing why—recording people, recording conversations. My peers, my friends, would look at me like, “What the hell is wrong with you? You’re recording people in cafes? That’s everyday stuff.” I returned to the United States almost ready to pack up and move back to Syria.
A few years later when the war erupted, I found these recordings by mistake. I realized that I had captured a moment of peace that is no longer existent. I have a recording of my friends that I haven’t shared with anybody. I can’t share it because they would collapse in tears—the same kids that were making fun of me, who used to play cards every Thursday night. They were my best buddies, six or seven of us. Now, each one is either a migrant or a refugee in a separate country. They don’t know I recorded it either, but I grabbed that moment, and I have it. I plan to make a piece of it when the time is ready.
That trip in 2011 was a critical visit. Then I returned to New Haven, and the war and revolution started. Now again, I’m watching what’s happening from a distance without being able to do anything. The pain is even harder now—and that’s where most of the recent work comes from. In 2012, my parents left Damascus to come here, but they moved back after several months. They said, “We can’t do this. We’re going to go back. If we die, we’re going to die with everybody.” That devastated me. But in 2013, a bomb broke out a hundred meters from their house and there were fights the entire night. The clashes kept them awake the whole night. Then my mom said, “We’re leaving. This (war) is on our doorsteps now.” So, they left for the last time. They packed the house up, covered all the furniture, and they left to live here finally.
In 2014, my brother-in-law hit a wall with his work, and he decided to find a better future for his family, so he became a refugee in Sweden with my younger sister. He was also my best friend from high school, our neighbor from home, a fellow architect and a successful businessman. We share so much memory. The marbles I use in my work belong to his mosaic factory. When he told me he had arrived in Sweden, I was in Italy picking marble for my project . I flew to him immediately. I saw him a day or two after his arrival in Sweden. To see your own family members in a refugee camp, all of a sudden, is a kind of conflict-of-reality. It hits you like a block of ice, on a deep level. We did not expect that. In my mind, subconsciously, “refugee” is the last thing you would ever become – when you run out of money and resources and everything. Well, I learned that it’s a lot more complicated than this. Nobody was issuing Syrians visas. Things were deteriorating. He had the money, he just didn’t have anywhere to go. So, he went to Sweden. When I saw him at the refugee camp, I was the only family member to hear all of his story first hand. I came back and designed the boat and the suitcases. My work took a different path because now the topic was super personal to me.
I’ve only lived in Syria four years full-time, so I’ve always had this guilt inside me that I never took in enough of the country. Those four years during adolescence are all I have to build on because nothing is there anymore. And that’s the pain. I’m stuck in that era. Today, people are different, the architecture is different, society is different. Seven years of war, so much blood, so much destruction, so much atrocity, so many refugees. Our own family is no longer the same. One sister is a refugee in Sweden. My brother is in Dubai. My other sister is in Chicago. My parents, are here and there. I am here in New Haven. Our house is different now. Who knows when we’ll all reunite?!
Living in New Haven now, I am blessed to have a separate studio space. For a while, I had my studio in the basement of my house. Separating them in the past two years has been very helpful. The studio becomes a destination, a serious destination. It becomes a refuge in itself. I am there almost every night. I noticed my studio visits increase with the amount of turmoil in the homeland. Doing this work is the only cathartic action I can think of. While it does not completely heal, it is still very therapeutic.