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Syriana brings Syrian art to Ellicott City

It started with a coffee cup. Khaldoun AlGhatrif traces the blue letters with his finger, painted in elegant Arabic calligraphy across the white cup. Shaam. It’s the name of his nine-month-old daughter, he said. “And it’s also how we say Damascus in Syria.” He sets the cup in its place with two others, showing how together their words form the lyrics to a famous song, an ode to the days before the war: Beautiful. I love her. Her name is Shaam.

AlGhatrif, owner of the shop Syriana on Ellicott City’s Main Street, was inspired to sell Syrian handcrafts here when he discovered the ceramic coffee sets online. He was searching for something with his daughter’s name on it when he stumbled across the cups, handmade by an Syrian woman who was struggling to get by. Wanting to support her and other artisans in his beloved and beleaguered Syria, Khaldoun and his brother Majd opened Syriana in July.

Every item for sale is painstakingly crafted by hand and it shows. A beaded tapestry portrays a Syrian streetscape with detail that seems like a painting. A set of purses hang from a shelf like lacy doll dresses, with ribbons tied in perfect bows above ruffled skirts. Sanah Saeefo, the 65-year-old woman who makes them, sells these with the help of her daughters to support her blind husband. Nearby, a shelf is piled with tiny ornate camels and finely engraved Turkish coffee pots.

A shelf on the opposite side of the store holds boxes covered in wooden mosaics sprinkled with mother-of-pearl inlays, kaleidoscopic patterns of wood slivers so small you’d need reading glasses to count them all. AlGhatrif describes how craftsmen collect little triangular sticks, bunching them together in patterns and slicing off the ends to create a smooth mosaic surface.

The Syrian civil war, a five-year conflict that has killed around 400,000 people and displaced over 11 million Syrians, looms quietly in the backdrop of Syriana’s story. The store, AlGhatrif insists, is politically neutral, supporting civilians no matter their side in the conflict. But violence and instability complicate business logistics. Transporting goods from anywhere but Damascus can be prohibitively dangerous. Still, AlGhatrif wants to show people that there is more to Syrian culture than the conflict. “It’s not about wars and fighting and terrorism,” he said. “We have a rich culture, art and music and different traditions, that together create a beautiful textile.”

All of these interwoven cultures might as well be woven into the shimmering Damask tablecloths, their rich patterns draped over Syriana’s walls and tables. Before the war, said AlGhatrif, there were 2000 looms where these traditional cloths were woven. Today, there are only five. He has made it Syriana’s mission to keep the endangered craft alive, even if that means pushing down the prices he charges customers for the increasingly rare fabric.

Supporting artisans in Syria is only the first step for AlGhatrif. “95 percent of craftsmen who left Syria are no longer working in the field,” he said. He and his brother want to eventually hire Syrian artisans who have immigrated to the U.S., allowing them to continue their craft. Beyond that, he wants to offer his language skills and expertise to help Syrian refugees settle. A woman who goes to the church where his wife, Rasha, takes English classes has put AlGhatrif in contact with nine Syrian refugee families in Maryland — it felt “shameful,” he said, that as a Syrian he was not already helping them. He was delighted when a woman bought a saj, a rounded pan for making flatbread and had it sent to a refugee family in Florida who were missing the bread of their homeland.

AlGhatrif wants to show Americans that Syria is not the sum of its battles. “If you go to Google Images,” he said, “and type in ‘Syria,’ you will see bloody photos. In 2010, you would have seen art. Music.” His eyes wander across the tapestries and treasures of his little store, traditional masterpieces arranged in a sort of shrine to the Syria he knew. “Beautiful things,” he said with a smile.