Symposium to Showcase Summer Research, Creative Pursuits

Summer Research Symposium

Tuesday, Sept. 12, 7 p.m., Lilly Family Gallery

The work of Davidson students who spent their summer months engaged in collaborative research, scholarship and creative pursuits will be on display at the Summer Research Symposium. Come out for refreshments and to show your support.

Lost Generation: AJ Naddaff ’19 Reports on Syrian Artists in Exile

Scores of artists–actors, writers, dancers, musicians, painters–fled the intractable civil war in Syria for Western Europe and now practice their art in exile. AJ Naddaff '19 wanted to learn more about these individuals and their work, as they seek creative community and negotiate displacement. Here he recounts his summer reporting on their lives.

  • AJ Naddaff '19 waits for a train in Berlin, Germany; photo taken by Hani Zaitoun '20, who accompanied him to several interviews.

  • "Leave my last hand and leave us" by Diala Brisly

  • Naddaff in Hysteria tattoo studio with Syrian tattoo artist Hosam Abu Hashish: "Do I look like a Syrian? Even I have to swear and exclaim ‘Shamy' so people believe where I'm from!"

  • Ballet dancer Ahmad Joudah on the Amsterdam canal.

  • Visual artist Amer al Akel  talks with Naddaff about his work "Washing the War," which features a Kalashnikov, the most popular weapon in Syria, crafted out of Aleppo handmade soap that predates a thousand years.

  • Lebanese writer Elias Khoury and Syrian intellectual Farouk Mardam Bey at a conference on writing in exile in Berlin, Germany.

  • Actor and theatre director Ziad Adwan with his daughter. Adwan is a founder of "A Syrious Look," an English-language magazine on Syrian culture in Germany.

  • Khaled Takreti, a leading Syrian artist whose pop aesthetic has influenced a generation of contemporary Arab painters.

  • Racha Rizk, the singer behind the Arab World's cartoons. "Ask anyone born in the Arab world during the 1990s if they watched the Arabic TV channel Spacetoon, and most will respond with waves of youthful nostalgia."

  • Syrian artist Diana Brisly

  • Syrian artist Iman Hashbani in Berlin, Germany

Describe your summer research project.

My summer project documents Syrian artists in exile in Western Europe through photography and written journalism. I interviewed more than 25 Syrian artists in five central European cities. I met their family members, neighbors and friends. I began my journey in Vienna in late May and traveled to Amsterdam, Paris, Stockholm and Berlin, meeting artists until late July. 

What do you hope to accomplish with this reporting?

Above all, my goal is to provide a different image of Syria than the mainstream, eradicating labels like "Syrian artist" that try to place Syrians into a box. Documenting these untold stories of intellectuals in exile is essential so that they do not become a lost generation, a phenomenon that happened to talented artists who fled during Saddam Hussein's reign and whose stories are now buried in history.

What was the genesis for the project?

The research topic crystallized at Davidson last February, when I spent three days shadowing native Syrian celebrity [author] Khaled Khalifa. He told me about life in exile. In the end, Khalifa preferred to return to Syria and was able to do so. His choice left me curious: Who are the large group of artists who do not have the privilege to return, or who choose not to? How difficult is it to achieve artistically in a foreign land? How hopeful are they about returning to their homeland?

Is there an adventure you remember most vividly?

I recall in Amsterdam how badly I wanted to meet ballet dancer Ahmad Joudeh, but I only made contact with him the day before I was leaving. He agreed to meet me at midnight at the train station in The Hague, where we both were. I would end up conducting the interview in the train on our way back to Amsterdam until two in the morning.

How did Davidson prepare you for the project?

Davidson is supporting this project financially through a Dean Rusk International Studies Program grant and also through a Chidsey Center for Leadership Fellows Immersion Grant. Davidson has taught me the skills that have served me the most during my project, such as how to think critically and how to write. I have been paid for several articles in numerous publications. I am indebted to my mentor Dr. Rebecca Joubin (Chair of Arab Studies) for her inspiration and for my progress in the Arabic language. The process took more than six months to set up.... I drafted detailed messages in Arabic explaining my independent research project to initiate conversations, with translation assistance from my Syrian friend Hani Zaitoun '20.

What's next?

Syrians are spread all over the world. My aim is to capture as many artists as possible to produce something worthwhile. I have connections with artists in Istanbul, London, Dubai, Doha, Beirut and all over the United States that I would still like to include in the coffee table book I plan to publish. Next year, I'll be at Middlebury Language school in Amman, Jordan, to improve my Arabic skills. This project will be on my mind.

Visit the Davidson College Arabic Studies Research & Scholarship page for the latest publications by Naddaff and others.

John Syme


  • August 24, 2017