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NPR's Peter Kenyon recently visited Syria. He was one of the few foreign journalists to be invited by the government to report on the country's ongoing conflict. In the historic heart of Damascus, he met one of Syria's most famous artists, someone who's created a creative oasis in the middle of civil war.
PETER KENYON, BYLINE: The narrow alleys of the old city of Damascus are not filled with tourists admiring the historic churches and gorgeous traditional architecture. The nearly six-year conflict that's killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced millions more has seen to that.
But turn a corner in what's still called the Jewish quarter, though at most only a few dozen Jews remain in Damascus. You'll stumble on an unexpected find - a refuge for young artists to hone their skills and to celebrate modern secular life.
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KENYON: Inside the courtyard of the sculptor Mustafa Ali's beautifully restored 500 year old stone house, the call to prayer from a nearby mosque competes with a rock band practicing a version of Queen's "Somebody To Love." Ali's sculptures are everywhere - figures in bronze, wood and other materials along with the work of other Syrian artists.
An energetic, ginger-bearded 60-year-old in a baseball cap, Ali seems at home in this artists' retreat he's created - part gallery, part performance space and part funhouse. He says his biggest artistic influence was Palmyra, the Syrian UNESCO Heritage site that was partly destroyed by Islamic State militants last year. He says he still remembers how moved he was by the ancient city, especially the magnificent half-mile-long necropolis known as the Valley of the Tombs.
MUSTAFA ALI: It was, for me, my influence. Why - because, you know, I believe in eternity. I say, people of Palmyra - they know how to live in life, and they know how to be eternity in the second life.
KENYON: Ali says he believes in art, not politics, and he didn't join anti-government demonstrations in 2011. But as the uprising and brutal government crackdown turned increasingly violent, Ali did become part of the story to his cost.
His main warehouse where he kept raw materials and some valuable finished works was in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, a rebel stronghold. Ali says one day, three rebels came to the warehouse and found one of his assistants there.
ALI: They catch my carpenter. They say, where is Mustafa Ali? He said, he's not here. No, they destroyed everything. And if I was there, they want to cut my head.
KENYON: Later he explains some of the artworks were stolen, not destroyed, probably to be sold. After that, themes of helplessness and destruction began to appear in his work. One of his wooden sculptures from this period shows a human face split vertically down the middle, and the two halves no longer align.
ALI: This face - it was 2013 - like Syrian face because, you know, we kill - brother kill his brother.
KENYON: It's possible that the attack on Ali's warehouse played a role in his decision to not support the Syrian uprising, but he says even early on when many of his friends thought there was still hope for a peaceful pro-democracy movement, he was convinced Islamists would take over. When a friend asked him in 2011 to join the demonstrations, Ali says this was his reply.
ALI: I'm secular. I can't go with you to do a revolution in front of the mosque. Revolution - it's avant-garde. It's not behind. A mosque is behind. This is my opinion from the beginning.
KENYON: It's also his opinion or perhaps his hope that art can cause change. So he's kept his artists' retreat open throughout the conflict, and young painters, dancers, actors and musicians come to his door to create in a time of destruction. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Damascus.
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