'See My Raqqa': Rescuing the Syrian city's memory after the IS group occupation

All rights reserved | Lamis Aljasem, a 28-year-old Syrian living in exile in Paris, on a bank of the Euphrates at the entrance to Raqqa in 2012.

A Syrian exile in Paris has set out to reclaim her hometown’s image following the end of its occupation by the IS group. “See my Raqqa”, Lamis Aljasem’s digital collection of 'before' photos, provides bittersweet insight into the city of her youth.


The nostalgia-tinted snapshots are a vision of Raqqa landscapes and faces now lost forever. Merchants tending their stalls, a grave-looking grandmother, the placid banks of the Euphrates in the hot summer sun… Life as it was, before the Islamic State (IS) group designated Raqqa as the capital of its self-styled caliphate in 2014, forcing many to flee. An alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias finally liberated the devastated northern Syria city in October 2017.

“See My Raqqa” brings to life moving, fleeting moments of a bygone Raqqa across a palette of social media platforms: on Twitter, on Instagram and on Facebook.

The project started last October with a video. Friends back home sent Aljasem footage of what had once been her house. “Instead of this place I had lived in for my entire childhood, there was nothing but rubble. It had all collapsed,” the 28-year-old graduate student, who has lived in Paris since 2013, tells FRANCE 24. She understood then, for the first time, that her old Raqqa was gone for good.

Video: Returning to the rubble in Raqqa

Sadness soon yielded an obsession: to bear witness to what her city once was, to remember it herself and to help Raqqa’s grief-stricken residents do the same. “'See my Raqqa’ is first and foremost a memoir, for reliving the human, ordinary Raqqa that I grew up in,” she says.

The photos celebrate local life. In one, guests of a wedding in the Raqqa countryside are shown performing the dabkeh, a traditional Middle East folk dance. Another displays the Ibn al-Walid pastry shop, famed in the 2000s for its shaabiyat desserts. The portrait shows smiling men “happy to pose with their creations”. Indeed, Aljasem is keen to share photos of appetising local dishes “because Syrian cuisine is particularly rich and varied and, like all cuisines, it brings people together”.

Another goal of “See My Raqqa” is to change the connotation of a city that has become synonymous with fundamentalist atrocities.

When IS group proclaimed the caliphate, Aljasem says, she felt as if her identity had been stolen. “Raqqa had been, until then, a little-known Syrian town, unknown even to some of my compatriots, and overnight it became, in the eyes of the world, a symbol of IS group’s barbarity,” says Aljasem, who helped create the first network of Syrian women journalists in 2013.

“Once Daesh had been definitively driven out on October 17, 2017, I was no longer ashamed to say I came from Raqqa,” she says, using the Arabic name Daesh for IS group. “I wanted to show another side of the city, to show it beautiful, calm, to reveal hidden treasures from before the revolution [the 2011 uprising against Bashar al-Assad’s regime] and from before the war.” Cue photos of the sunny banks of the Euphrates, the castle or the monumental “Baghdad Gate” on the southeastern edge of the city.

Aljasem, who is studying for her masters in Human Rights and Humanitarian Action at Sciences-Po Paris, has already shared sixty-odd photographs, dating from the 1980s to 2012. Each is the product of research aimed at unearthing images a world away from the ravaged streets and IS-group black flags that Raqqa inevitably evokes today in the collective imagination.

Photographers featured include locals -- amateur and acclaimed alike, including Hamza al-Hussein -- as well as foreigners. French photographer Yann Arthus-Bertrand, for one, immortalised Raqqa from high above for his popular “The Earth from the Air” book series.

“The photographers I have contacted have been enthusiastic about the project and were delighted to send me the snapshots that I share,” Aljasem says.

She also invites Raqqa natives to bear witness themselves. Beneath a tableau of the city snapped from its hilltops, a 20-year-old named Essam reminisces: “I miss everything in Raqqa, even the cold weather. My favorite memory is waking up too early, walking [in] the foggy weather in the street of my beloved city to get to my school, then realizing that I have to hurry to not be punished. I miss all of that.”

“This isn’t to say that life was rose-tinted before the revolution, but simply my way of burnishing my city’s image,” explains Aljasem, who plans to launch a website for the people of Raqqa of all ages to express their thoughts for the city’s future. For her part, the Paris resident says she wants to return quickly to Raqqa and “fight” in support of the city’s reconstruction.

This article has been adapted from the original in French.

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