Every so often, photographer and media activist Faris al-Khattab climbs to his fifth-floor rooftop in partially besieged south Damascus. From up there, the 25-year-old can see the whole of Damascus – in all its forms.
To the west, scattered black flags of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) demarcate what remains of Yarmouk camp, once Syria’s largest and most significant Palestinian community. To the north, Mount Qassioun imposes itself in every direction, towering over regime-controlled Damascus.
Farther east, the city eventually bleeds into the bombed-out front lines of the Eastern Ghouta suburbs, where pro-government forces are waging an offensive on the last rebel enclave near the capital.
Despite the truce agreed in 2014, south Damascus lives an uneasy calm, al-Khattab told Syria Deeply.
The Syrian government has been pushing for “reconciliation” in the cluster of three remaining non-jihadist areas of south Damascus – Yalda, Babila and Beit Sahem – while reportedly negotiating evacuation deals with ISIS and the al-Qaida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham alliance in neighboring Yarmouk.
Al-Khattab, director of the satirical YouTube series “Southern Sketch” and member of local media activist collective Revolutionary Spring, spoke to Syria Deeply about photographing a city he may not see again, and south Damascus’ vibrant civil society movement, which may be forced north if a reconciliation deal is agreed upon.
Syria Deeply: How did you get involved in photography and media activism?
Faris al-Khattab: I was studying English literature at Damascus University. I never graduated because of the security crackdown by Assad forces during the early days of the Syrian revolution. I had been involved in organizing demonstrations and helping injured civilians. So I left university in 2012 and moved to Eastern Ghouta, where I continued my work [before moving to south Damascus in February 2013].
I eventually started carrying a camera to document events taking place in areas of southern Damascus that were besieged by Assad’s forces and their allies, as well as ISIS. I started filming Damascus from the first day I picked up a camera.
Nowadays, I’m a director of “Southern Sketch,” a [fictional and satirical series] that describes the Syrian revolution.
Syria Deeply: What does Damascus look like from where you are?
Al-Khattab: When I go up to the roof of the building and look at Damascus, I feel sorrow, looking at the city from far away. I immediately try to recollect memories of the old days, thinking of family and friends who are still there.
Often, after a stressful day of work, I’ll go home, make a cup of coffee and then head up to the rooftop. While smoking a cigarette, I watch Damascus from a distance and think. I used to be afraid of snipers up there, because, in the past, Assad’s forces have targeted the rooftops.
From the rooftop, you can still hear the beautiful sound of the call to prayer from the mosques and the sound of traffic. Sometimes you can even see people on their balconies. In the background, with Mount Qassioun lit up, you get the feeling that there, life carries on.
Syria Deeply: What is it like viewing your home city from one of its besieged suburbs?
Al-Khattab: How am I supposed to feel when my homeland is occupied? Damascus is my city, but I am only ever at its gate. It makes me feel heartbroken; heartbroken for Damascus and heartbroken for [besieged] south Damascus, because ultimately I know that both areas are oppressed, although in different ways.
Syria Deeply: Have you witnessed firsthand the recent military offensives in Damascus and rural Damascus?
Al-Khattab: I often film from the rooftop when the regime attacks [rural] Eastern Ghouta. I filmed from there when the regime attacked Barzeh and Qaboun [earlier this year]. I could see the warplanes bombing civilians. It feels like a form of imprisonment to just watch when you know you can’t do a thing to help. You know you can’t do anything about it other than watch from afar, from the rooftop of an apartment block in south Damascus.
Syria Deeply: From your perspective, what’s the future for the south of Damascus? And what do you feel is your future in Damascus?
Al-Khattab: [Residents in] the south of Damascus have lived under the threat of displacement for more than two years now and since the forcible displacements from the nearby al-Tal, Barzeh and Daraya districts, I often feel like we could be displaced next. These days, south Damascus lives in anticipation and panic and in a state of instability; its fate is unknown, its future fragile. We want to stay and hold on to this land. We don’t want to leave, but unfortunately the fate of Syrians has become nothing more than paper thrown in the air.
I still hope that one day I’ll be able to go back to my home in Damascus once the war ends and the tyranny is over. I know my soul is there. I look forward to the meeting between Damascus and the young Damascene.
Until then, I am just a prisoner – in the same way that Damascus is while she waits for freedom.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.