‘Zaatari camp is my greatest exhibition’: In exiled artist’s murals, a glimpse of home

On the side of what is called a caravan where families live in the Zaatari refugee camp in northern Jordan, artist Mohammad Joukhadar’s brush paints the sea.

The undulating waves in the painting provide a stark contrast to the harsh reality of the desert camp, where the unrelenting sun reflects off the desert floor in a way that can be blinding for hours a day.  

Some 79,000 Syrians currently live in the Zaatari refugee camp, which has become a city of caravans—simple tin structures with a window or two that are scorching in the summer and bitingly cold in the winter. The camp, initially set up as an ad hoc response to the flood of refugees moving south from Syria, once housed as many as 120,000 people.

Today, it more closely resembles a small city, with sewage pipes and paved roads. In Zaatari, Joukhadar has a barbershop and a small painting studio.

The artist’s latest commission is an unusual one: The UNHCR and Norwegian Refugee Council hired Joukhadar, who now has a team of 15 assistants, to decorate the camp with his murals and color-code the camp’s 12 sectors.

The camp itself has been Joukhader’s canvas—first the tents, then the trailers—for years. He estimates he has around 1,200 paintings in the camp, many speaking to “our current situation, what’s happened to us.”

In one of his murals, a Bedouin man pours Arabic coffee, the thick, dark brew, into a small finjan; an offering for unseen guests. Another shows a scene that could be from the streets of old Damascus, all jasmine vines and old stone. One wall becomes a window with a view of the sea. An elderly woman, her city behind her, holds keys aloft: A sign of imminent return. 

Joukhadar, a lifelong artist, fled to Jordan from his home in Homs city’s Bab a-Sabaa neighborhood in early 2013. First passing through the Zaatari refugee camp—then a settlement of canvas tents just south of the border—he moved to the Jordanian capital, Amman. After one year, he returned to Zaatari, “to be with my people,” he tells Syria Direct’s Mohammad Abdulssattar Ibrahim.

“My paintings bring joy and delight to the people here,” says Joukhadar. “Zaatari camp is my greatest exhibition.”

 Photos courtesy of Hovig Etyemezianand Mohammad Joukhadar.

Q: Zaatari is gradually changing from a camp into a city, towards permanence. As an artist, do you deal with this?

Of course, the camp is now very different from what it once was. All of the people in the camp are living in caravans now, in an organized fashion, and now we have a sewage system and all of the roads inside the camp are paved.

Q: To you, what is the importance of culture and traditions at this time specifically? Why do you focus on them?

The people who come to the camp, the delegations that visit us, it is so they learn about our history, culture, heritage and traditions.

Q: Why do you draw on the caravans when you could make paintings and sell them in a studio?

In our role as artists, we’ve been trying through our paintings on the caravans to please those who live in them. We take their suggestions into account, and they’ve been happy with these works, especially the children. The most common request we get is something to remind them of Syria, mostly nature scenes that they miss a lot.

I’ve become well-known in the camp as “Abu Laila the Painter.” I’ve participated in many exhibitions inside and outside the camp, and in foreign countries. Zaatari camp is my greatest exhibition.

My paintings bring joy and delight to the people here. This is my only goal, because they are my people.

Q: What inspires your paintings on the Zaatari caravans? What are you aiming for?

The goal is to decorate the camp and delineate its 12 sectors, each one with its own color and motif. Ultimately, the project is completely removed from politics.

Sector one’s color is deep blue, for seas and oceans. Sector two is orange, for cities. Seven is brown, for heritage and culture. Eight is light green, representing health. Sector nine is light blue, and that is water. Sector 11 is turquoise for education.

Q: Why did you leave Amman to return to Zaatari camp?

I lived in Amman for a while, but decided to return, to be with my people, my blood. At first, I painted on the canvas of the old tents. The paintings spoke to our current situation, what’s happened to us and the oppression of this war. Everybody liked these paintings. I found a lot of encouragement from the people here, so I went back to painting.

Q: How many tents or caravans have you painted on?

The number is something like 1,200, more or less. I don’t know exactly. Of course, I have a complete team, made up of 15 people.

Q: What are your favorite paintings?

I love traditions and heritage, anything old. I’ve painted these things on the caravans.

Q: Does painting in Zaatari pose any unique challenges?

As an artist here in the camp, the difficulties I face are the place itself and its somewhat cruel nature.

I have created many paintings in participation with galleries [outside the camp], and many of them have been sold. I currently have five or six [being shown].

 Joukhadar in his Zaatari studio.

Mohammad Abdulssattar Ibrahim

Mohammad is from Amouda in Hasakah province. He mvoed to Jordan in 2004. Mohammad started work with the Syrian Revolution LCC in Amman by doing reporting and coordinating protests. After that he did volunteer work for refugees in Amman.

Maria Nelson

Maria Nelson was a 2014-2015 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. She holds a BA in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, with a certificate in Arabic Language and Culture.