Discovering truth in art: The Nasher Installation by Dima Karout

By Cora Siré

Before experiencing the Nasher Installation, what did I know about Syria?

Words and images derived from headlines on a country imploding before our distant eyes. Aleppo attacked, Homs destroyed, Damascus under siege. Journalists write of food shortages, power outages, checkpoints, armed militia, and chemical warfare. Photographs depict children on stretchers, rubbled streets and refugee camps. The news feed is nonstop, the facts abstract and hard to process. Millions affected by death, injury and displacement caused by the violence of Syria today.

An installation by Dima Karout changes my perceptions. During her solo exhibition at Montréal Arts Interculturels (MAI) in 2014, I encounter a stunning visual and textual interpretation of the Syrian experience that transcends statistics and facts. An artist and writer from Damascus, Karout studied in Paris and was living in Montréal at the time, before relocating to London.


Who are you after you lose your home?

The gallery in MAI is cavernous, but Karout’s clever use of space gives viewers the sense of a personal encounter and the privacy of a journey to confront the direct experience of war and exile.

It begins with a montage of texts and photographs of Old Damascus walls. The artist introduces two unnamed characters – ‘She,’ a Syrian traveller, and ‘He,’ a Syrian refugee. Presented separately, each of the characters comes to life as Karout delves deeply in exploring their internal conflicts and the walls, or isolation, of their shattered identities. ‘She’ left before the conflict and her memories of Syria are vibrant and colourful. ‘He’ left during the conflict and his are bloody and grey. Both are haunted by survivor guilt as they process the ongoing death and destruction in their former country. Where they meet, metaphorically, is in exile, trying to find answers to the artist’s searing question, “Who are you after you lose your home?”

Dreams summarized in a few drops of water.

In addition to the fraught circumstance of exile, the roles of memory and imagination in overcoming loss are expressed in the Nasher Installation, a collaborative feature of Karout’s exhibition and her most impressive achievement.

Two rows of massive canvas-like fabrics hang in pairs, like laundry, from wires suspended in the gallery’s high ceiling. Each canvas tells a story hand-written in beautiful script – black and occasionally red lettering – presented in Arabic and English. Here I pause to read verbatim excerpts of the many stories the artist collected from a diverse group of Syrians, some in exile, others not, including women and men, many young.

The visual effect is that of textile art. The fabric comes alive as it wafts to the air circulating in the gallery. The amplified size of the canvases conveys the magnitude of individual suffering and resilience in stories told by witnesses from their varying points of view.

On the canvasses, I read firsthand accounts by Syrians such as Jean who remained in Aleppo. He tells of the impact of the conflict on the city’s children. Before the war, they played carefree in the parks and streets. Now they are obliged to collect water in containers for their families which the children do with pride and touching dedication, struggling to carry the jugs and bottles home. “All their dreams summarized in a few drops of water!”

Another canvas tells of Ibrahim’s struggle to adjust to his new life in Paris. He sees the Eiffel Tower as his wall of suffering but yearns to find something positive in this symbol. “It is a metal wall with plenty of voids ... maybe there is a glimpse of hope.”

The best way to reach peace is art.

The personal accounts bear witness to the consequences of the war, transcending political or religious affiliations. Sawsan describes having to leave Damascus after a massive explosion. Now in Beirut, she misses her workshop, her tools and the inspiration her former city always brought her. As to the way forward, Sawsan affirms, “The best way to reach peace is art.”

Karout’s installation juxtaposes two meanings of the Arabic word, Nasher. It refers to both the act of hanging clothes outside to dry and the publication of words, texts, or statements.

The account by Soulaf integrates both meanings as she recalls a scene from Damascus. While driving through the city by car during heavy bombing and sniper attacks, she sees laundry hanging outside a third floor balcony. “Terrified as I was, that scene filled me with the strangest sense of peace.” Another bomb explodes and “the laundry disappeared along with the ones who washed it.” After she returns to her home in Indiana, the scene haunts her – not the erasure caused by the bombing so much as the questions of who had washed the laundry and whether they’d planned a second load.

Speaking over the facts of the conflict in Syria, Nasher gives voice to its impact on the human family. Karout’s installation does not sag in sadness but soars with authenticity and visual ingenuity. After many hours, I leave the gallery feeling I’ve discovered truth in all its complexity, not abstract but heart-achingly real.


Cora Siré is the author of two novels, Behold Things Beautiful and The Other Oscar, and a collection of poetry, Signs of Subversive Innocents. Her essays, short stories and poetry have appeared in anthologies and literary magazines in Canada and Mexico.


by Dima Karout


Nasher is an art installation of suspended canvas first presented in Montreal in 2014 at MAI-Montréal Arts Interculturels as a part of a solo exhibition entitled “Damascus Walls.” It combines a collection of images and true stories. I created the installation’s idea and title around the double sense of the Arabic word Nasher. It makes reference to the act of hanging something outside to dry, often laying clothing on cords and suspending them from balconies. It also means to publish texts, books, or statements. I collected the stories and images via calls and emails, then I hand-wrote the stories on canvas human size (200×100 cm each) and sewed the photos alongside the texts. By sharing these images and stories in their own words, and by using hanging laundry as a familiar concept, I wish to bring Syrians’ experiences closer to the public’s heart. 


We are scattered across the planet, by circumstances. We don’t know what our future will be. All we have left are our hearts willing to maintain hope.

War is concrete, but Hope is abstract.

These are our stories as humans struggling with the walls of life. These true stories made their way here from Syrians who stayed in Syria and Syrians who had to leave and are spread out across different countries. What we have in common is our redefined humanity, and what these stories have in common is the loss of home.

With Nasher, we share our stories in an attempt to recreate a piece of home and to overcome the wall introduced to our lives in 2011. These are the stories that can be told; other stories we cannot hear as they are buried under the rubble.


Soulaf Abas. She is 30. She moved from Damascus to Terre Haute, USA.

On July 23, 2012, I said goodbye to my family after a 10-week visit to Syria. My flight back to the U.S. was cancelled from Damascus because the airport was bombed. I had to drive to Lebanon with a friend, fly to Jordan, and then catch the rest of my flights.

On our way out of Damascus, there was heavy bombing and snipers, so I had to watch the right side of the highway and my friend had to keep his eyes on the left side as he drove. We were both sinking in our seats trying to protect ourselves from random bullets.

I saw buildings go down and I saw cars swaying and crashing after the drivers were sniped. Then my eyes were fixed on a three-story building that had laundry hanging outside the balcony on the 3rd floor. Terrified as I was, that scene filled me with the strangest sense of peace. I thought about the laundry being a small but significant indication of life going on amidst the chaos.

It was only a few seconds before a bomb exploded in the building to interrupt this very thought and shatter my peace. Black smoke filled the air. The laundry disappeared along with the ones who washed it.

45 hours later, I arrived to my house in Indiana with that moment haunting me. And now two years later, I still wonder: what was the last thought on his/her mind, the one who did the laundry? I still wonder if they’d planned on a second load…


Shaza Koussa. She is 35. She moved from Homs to Damascus, Syria.

Leaving my home in Homs three years ago was a huge relief. It was the only way to escape confusing details. After the death of my younger sister, it was the best opportunity to get away from everything that reminded me of her.

A few months later, when I got used to the idea of her absence, I started to seek the end of the combat in my city. I wanted to go back and gather some of our shared memories, maybe some photos or a painting on the wall. I knew that our house was burnt because of the missiles, but I had some hope that I could fix something.

After the neighborhood was liberated, everything was destroyed. I didn’t have the courage to go back and face the new reality. I asked my brothers to get me anything that was dear to us. After a long wait, they got me a photo of our ruined room. When I asked them about family photos they told me that they were all burnt. Nothing remained. Only damaged walls and metal bed strings… Our room looked like a prison cell.

How much we had laughed and cried in this room, how much we had rejoiced and grieved, and how many stories we had whispered as kids at night… The extent of destruction was enormous, destruction of memories, dreams and hope.

In that room, stayed our conversations… Only the rubble can listen to them now.


Jean Hanna. He is 33. He stayed in Aleppo, Syria.

During the holidays this year, the streets of Aleppo were different. I saw children standing in rows for hours not to play on swings or to buy ice cream, no, but carrying big containers to be able to fill some water.

Our Syrian kids were denied their hobbies. They grow up before their time. Today, their dreams are transformed. The only wish they have is to be able to live like other kids around the world, to see water getting out of the tap… All their dreams summarize in few drops of water!

Despite their struggle, I see innocent smiles drawn on their faces when they succeed to get some water for their families.

We can understand everything except that we deny each other water to see who will die of thirst first.

Why should children pay for adult’s war?


 Rana Nezam. She is 32. She moved from Damascus to Ankara, Turkey.

I woke up that morning talking to myself imagining my way to work. Life in itself is hard, so how about life in war? Have you ever imagined yourself living in the middle of a war? I never did, but I am there now.

The road to work used to take me about ten minutes. I used to rush to get there on time. Minutes were a big deal. I used to feel that those minutes were a part of my bright future.

The situation is no longer the same. War influenced our awakening like it influenced everything else. The good thing is that I still wake up every morning, but I am no longer in a hurry to get to work early. What’s important today is that I get there safely. I’m now used to waking up to the real sounds of explosions, before they get broadcasted on TV. Then, the search begins for the safest road that I can take.

Sitting in my car, late, I comfort myself and say, a few more checkpoints and you’ll get there. Two hours later and I’m still imprisoned in the traffic. I try not to get angry. I think to myself: at least you are alive.

At the same exact moment, I hear an extremely loud explosion. I hold my breath.

I look around and thank God that the bomb falls three meters away. Then I continue on my road and in my day as if nothing happened.


Yara Dababneh. She is 32. She moved from Damascus to Amman, Jordan.

I readjusted my seat in front of my computer, and I stared at the ceiling for a long while… I tried to look away from the horror photos of school bags shreds that blended with the blood of their carriers…

I suffocated; I opened my window. I saw my neighbor, a kid, pulling the hand of his bag to drag it behind him, ready for his school day. We shared a morning smile. His eyes were big and courageous. I wished safety for him and his parents. But his innocent look was enough to make my feeling of oppression reach its maximum.

I took my scarf; I rolled it well over my chest full of pain… Each atom of air seeping inside of me increased my suffocation. I felt helpless.

I still can’t imagine that there are people sharing with us our country, planned, facilitated and collaborated to produce death that will take away innocent school kids.


Rita Karout. She is 26. She moved from Damascus to Dusseldorf, Germany.

She used to send me a message each morning at eight, another one at noon and a last one in the evening. I’m far away from her, but I don’t have a choice. My sister lives alone in Damascus. She goes to the university every day on her feet due to lack of transportation. The fear fills my heart because of the big number of attacks and falling bombs on the road she takes daily.

One morning, I heard on the news that the sky is pouring rockets on Damascus. I rushed and called asking her not to go; but her academic ambitions surpassed any fear for her life.

She sent me a message confirming her arrival to the university, so I calmed down a little bit. But then hours passed, and I didn’t hear from her. The news on my screen didn’t help: attacks on Dweilaa and Bab Sharqi resulting deaths and injuries. It is the same road she used to take. I was anxious, scared and desperate. I felt for a second that my “Rawaa” faded away.

I called and called only to get the answering machine. Even my family and her friends; all “Out of coverage”.

I sat at the corner of my bed and I prayed. I cried tears of despair and exile. I waited and waited. The only way I found to keep hope was to pick up my pencil and inflame my “Rawaa” on a white page. My drawing was her in our home in Old Damascus.

The evening came, the phone rang. I ran to it. I heard her voice. I felt that despite my suffering in exile, despite murder and death in my country, despite all the ugliness … I was the happiest person on earth.


Firas Saleh. He is 32. He moved from Damascus to Doha, Qatar.

There always have been two sides: the side of Al-Hamidiyah Old Souq and the side of the Modern Shaalan Souq; the Qassaa area and the Abu Rumaneh area; the Naher Aiesha part and the Malki districts; along the side of the Citadel of Damascus and the other side across the Barada river.

I used to walk with my friends along the Citadel Wall. Every time life got too noisy, we went there to enjoy the peaceful river view at night with all the lights reflecting on its surface.

Today, I remember the smart humble man, who used to sell crafts there. His shop was on the other side of the Barada river. The people would pass near the citadel, see him, and admire his handmade leather bags and golden metal objects but have no access to him. He created a way to communicate with the other side of the river, with us. An ingenuous solution. He suspended a small basket that slide on strings to link the two opposite river banks where he could send the merchandise and people could send him the money in return. He was the one who simply created a bridge.

Hopefully, one day we will be able to break the Wall of our dark emotions and start to build bridges.



I created this installation in 2014 with a total of 13 stories. Some of the Syrians who shared their experiences moved again, trying to create / find a place to call home. This work was later presented in Paris in 2016, and in London in 2018. These canvases are travelling as their authors, in the hope of building more bridges. All narratives shared here are republished with participants’ consent.


About the author

Dima Karout is a visual artist and art educator. She works with mixed media and creates images, texts and installations. In her research, artwork and classes, she advocates for socially engaged art. Her latest projects focus on the evolution of identity beyond borders, the metaphor of home, the human experience of migration and exile, internal and external conflicts and the relation between people and places. It also shed light on the greatness of the human soul and its invincible force to survive.

Dima grew up in Damascus, Syria. After finishing a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) degree in visual communication at the Fine Arts University of Damascus, she started an international journey. She has a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in contemporary art from Paris VIII University, France and a certificate in creative writing from Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. In the past 15 years, she exhibited her work in Damascus, Leipzig, Paris, Montreal and London.

Today, she lives and works in London. She is artist and curator in residence at the Migration Museum during “Room to Breathe” exhibition and working with the British Museum to create a participatory art installation “Our Library of Humanity.”