Maria Khani wears cotton archivist gloves as she arranges the folk art figurines, mother-of-pearl inlays and handcrafted dresses that are among the treasures in her traveling exhibition “A Country Called Syria.”
“They protect everything from my hands,” Khani says.
But one recent afternoon as she worked with the items in Chapman University’s Leatherby Libraries, where the exhibition opens to the public Wednesday, Sept. 30, the gloves served double duty. As Khani described a trip in May to visit her aged parents living in her homeland of Syria, she raised those gloved hands to her face and dabbed away tears.
“It’s maybe the last time I see them,” she said, her voice halting with emotion. “People there live day by day. When you leave the house people say, ‘Goodbye, you may not see me again.’ Because you don’t know if something’s going to happen.”
So Khani well understands the despair rising out of the Syrian conflict and the mounting refugee crisis and cultural destruction it has unleashed. That’s why she wants people to see these artifacts and – in particular at the opening reception – taste a bit of meaty kibbeh and smell the aroma of bay laurel soap.
“I want people to know how my country is not just a small country, but it has a history behind it. I feel like if I can continue sharing that, maybe something different will happen over there,” she says. “Maybe people will do something. If you don’t know the value of the thing you are losing, you will not strive so hard to maintain it.”
“A Country Called Syria” reflects much of that past, from Syria’s long history of glass-making to its distinctive game boxes adorned with geometric inlays of wood and mother-of-pearl. Many of the items come from Khani’s parents, Amal and Abdullah El-Khani. Her mother is a teacher and her father a former diplomat. The exhibition includes exquisite dresses created by women employed in nonprofit workshops started and run by Khani’s mother.
If you go
The opening reception for “A Country Called Syria” will be held 5 to 7 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 30, in the Frank Mt. Pleasant Library of Special Collections & Archives on the fourth floor. It will include a talk by artist Kinda Hibrawi, appetizers provided by Aleppo’s Kitchen and the sale of Scents of Syria soaps by the Karam Foundation.
The exhibition continues until winter break, Dec. 19. Hours are Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to noon and 1 to 5 p.m.
Contrasting the elegance are charming folk art figurines reflecting Syrian domestic and village life, from a family sitting outdoors under a lemon tree to a man selling bread.
The Huntington Beach resident started the exhibition soon after the Syrian revolution, with help from co-curators Dania Alkhouli and Nesrin Muhtaseb. The artifacts have been displayed throughout Southern California, most recently at The Pico House in downtown Los Angeles and at Muzeo Museum and Cultural Center in Anaheim. Khani hopes to create a 501c nonprofit organization so that “A Country Called Syria” can travel across the country and raise money to support refugee education in the United States.
“We’re very proud of our culture,” Khani says. But the woman who has long worked to build interfaith bridges of understanding adds that the exhibition is about much more than that. “The history of Syria is not just the history of the Syrian people. It’s history that belongs to everyone.”
Offering hope through art
The exhibition links with a concurrent display about “Kids Giving Hope to Kids,” an art and pen-pal project that pairs American children with those in refugee camps in northern Iraq. The display is on the first floor of Leatherby Libraries.