I have come to you . . . From the history of the Damascene rose

by Sandy Saad-Smith

I have come to you . . .
From the history of the Damascene rose
That condenses the history of perfume . . .
From the memory of al-Mutanabbi
That condenses the history of poetry . . .
I have come to you . . .
From the blossoms of bitter orange . . .
And the dahlia . . .
And the narcissus . . .
And the "nice boy" . . .
That first taught me drawing . . .
I have come to you . . .
From the laughter of Shami women
That first taught me music . . .
And the beginning of adolescence
From the spouts of our alley
That first taught me crying
And from my mother’s prayer rug
That first taught me
The path to God . . .

Nizar Qabbani, Damascus, What Are You Doing to Me? (verse 9)

Waard ورد
/rōz/waard (arabic)
flower with a sweet smell that grows on a bush with thorns on its stems

A division of a city or borough

Waard Ward is a collective comprised of professional artist Petrina Ng, arts worker Patricia Ritacca, educator Laura Ritacca, and three family members from Toronto’s Syrian newcomer community, community organizer Hanen Nanaa, coordinator Shoruk Alsakni, and florist Abd Al-Mounim. Originally from Aleppo, the Nanaa family settled in Scarborough, leaving behind flourishing lives that had been disrupted by war. The patriarch of the family, Abd Al-Mounim, was forced to abandon his thriving floristry profession, which had supported his family in Syria, to seek refuge in Canada. Here, he faces various barriers that prevent him from finding meaningful work.

Established in 2019, Waard Ward employs a social art practice to explore unconventional ideas around the value of work and labour. Al-Mounim contributes his floristry knowledge to Waard Ward, who utilize his skills, along with those of the other family members, to create income-generating opportunities. Waard Ward’s community-collaborative art projects and programs, bouquet-making workshops, and public garden plantings are inspired by floristry through a decolonial lens and are often geared toward newcomers. A rose gives its fragrance even to the hand that crushes it is part of a process-based, living project that offers a unique take on ways the art ecosystem can benefit from, and support the knowledge and experiences of, newcomers. The exhibition honours the memory of lost land while exploring ways community, cultural exchange, and meaningful work opportunities can support the process of establishing new roots.

In 2022, The Doris McCarthy Gallery partnered with the University of Toronto, Scarborough (UTSC) Farm to offer a land-based residency to Waard Ward. The collective planted historic Damask Roses in the Instructional Centre Rooftop Garden and at the UTSC Farm, offering a gathering space in memory of destroyed public gardens in Syria. For centuries, Syrian farmers have handed down the knowledge and skills of cultivating and processing the famous flower; Damask Roses extend from small mountain range towns and into the countryside north of Damascus. Making their way to Scarborough, these particularly fragrant roses have lived for two seasons on campus. As a botanical experiment, gallery staff will attempt to revive them this winter in A rose gives its fragrance even to the hand that crushes it at the Doris McCarthy Gallery. The exhibition offers layered complexities for visitors to consider the colonial history of flowers, the legacy of war on land, the imagined landscape through memory, and the attempts to find familiarity and stability in the process of displaced homemaking.

I enter the courtyard of the Umayyad Mosque
And greet everyone in it
Corner to . . . corner
Tile to . . . tile
Dove to . . . dove
I wander in the gardens of Kufi script
And pluck beautiful flowers of God’s words
And hear with my eye the voice of the mosaics
And the music of agate prayer beads
A state of revelation and rapture overtakes me,
So I climb the steps of the first minaret that encounters me
“Come to the jasmine”
“Come to the jasmine”

Nizar Qabbani, Damascus, What Are You Doing to Me? (verse 5)

The works in the exhibition honour both the memory of the Nanaa’s garden and courtyard, and home lost when they fled amidst the Syrian civil war (2011 – 2020) and settled in Canada in 2016. Waard Ward has assembled artistic collaborators with whom they have long-standing relationships and shared research interests to contribute to the creation of the works. Reza Nik is an artist and licensed architect, and Alize Zorlutuna is an interdisciplinary artist who explores connections to land and culture. Together, they developed Roses for those who dream of return, an immersive garden installation with elements evocative of the Nanaa’s home courtyard in Syria. Visitors enter the space through a multifoil archway, and are greeted by the scent of roses, the sound of running water, and a place to rest. A long, monumental structure, designed by Nik, encompasses seating, a water fountain, and Damask Roses. Transplanted from the UTSC Instructional Centre Rooftop Garden, the roses have been moved into the warmth of the gallery to ‘wake’ during the exhibition. The plants are surrounded by tiles, including hand-painted pieces with images of fruit, trees, and varying plants created by Zorlutuna. As part of their process, Zorlutuna performed a ritualistic rosewater wash on the ground and developed perfumes out of roses to amplify the sensory elements of the garden. Although inspired by the Islamic Garden intended for rest and contemplation, this garden highlights remnants of a lost home. Its fragmented central structure, constructed out of plywood, includes missing elements and gaps within its linear design. It sits in front of a sheer curtain that runs wall to wall and is interrupted by a passage of transparent silk fabric imprinted with crushed rose petals. Inspired by patterns of river streams and flows of mass migration, the rose silk interruption created by Zorlutuna offers a delicate hazy screen through which visitors can discover re-created elements of the Nanaa’s beloved lost home. Carrying the debris of flowers that once bloomed, symbolic of the loss of life, abundance, peace, and security, the curtain obscures the view of a broken sculptural staircase and a large-scale faded photograph. A structure created out of concrete cinder blocks suggests a staircase; although it is based on the stairs that led to the Nanaa's master bedroom, these steps lead nowhere. It sits next to a large, faded photograph of a domestic scene of laundry hanging on a clothesline from the Nanaa’s once-bustling courtyard.

I open the drawers of memory
One . . . then another
I remember my father . . .
Coming out of his workshop on Mu’awiya Alley
I remember the horse-drawn carts . . .
And the sellers of prickly pears . . .
And the cafés of al-Rubwa
That nearly—after five flasks of ‘araq—
Fall into the river
I remember the colored towels
As they dance on the door of Hammam al-Khayyatin
As if they were celebrating their national holiday.
I remember the Damascene houses
With their copper doorknobs
And their ceilings decorated with glazed tiles
And their interior courtyards
That remind you of descriptions of heaven . . .

Nizar Qabbani, Damascus, What Are You Doing to Me? (verse 10)

Time is a prevailing element of the Islamic Garden often representing the antithesis of decay, the garden is a place of cyclical renewal. The care embedded in the maintenance of the garden prevents decay, suggesting an everlasting longevity likened to the notion of eternity in paradise. A rose gives its fragrance even to the hand that crushes it is an exhibition that utilizes time to both nurture growth and reveal decay. The painstaking care taken to revive the roses – their mother plant born in Syria, and her descendants re-planted in Scarborough earth, moved into the Gallery to wake, will impact the way the exhibition looks and feels, and what further metaphors may be drawn. Time will reveal if the collective acts of care by Gallery staff and Waard Ward will adequately enable the roses to thrive. The consistent observation, watering, and nurturing beneath grow lights is a metaphor for the broader questions explored in the show. Longevity becomes ever-present through documented floral arrangements found in the Gallery lobby, which has been re-envisioned to suggest a living room and reading area. A 2021 collaboration between Waard Ward, Darren Rigo, and Nicolas Fleming produced Flowers for Shahed Kaleel, Flowers for Shirin Tawadros, and Flowers for Shoruk Alsakni. The works are the result of a project that displays the collective’s community-created bouquets on structures built by Fleming and photographed by Rigo. Producing site-specific environments for Waard Ward’s community-driven events, Fleming employed recycled materials to develop displays to house the floral arrangements, while Rigo photographed the bouquets and displays. Together, they created a body of work that pays homage to the beauty resulting from the communal programming facilitated by Waard Ward, and enduring documentation of the ephemeral nature of their work. As the roses inside the gallery suggest longevity and hope for successful blossoming, there are bouquets located in the vitrines just outside the gallery that reveal a different moment in a life cycle. Developed during a newcomer bouquet-making workshop led by the Waard Ward collective in the days before the exhibition opening, the floral arrangements created by the participants hold testament to the impact of time and the insistence of entropy. These plants, having been severed from their roots and arranged during a moment of peak blossoming, have been left to naturally decay for the duration of the exhibition. Similar in nature, yet different in their life cycles, time is manifested in contrastingly different ways through the flowers in the gallery, which are nurtured to live, and the flowers in the vitrines, which are left to die.

The Damascene House
Is beyond the architectural text
The design of our homes . . .
Is based on an emotional foundation
For every house leans . . . on the hip of another
And every balcony . . .
Extends its hand to another facing it
Damascene houses are loving houses . . .
They greet one another in the morning . . .
And exchange visits . . .
Secretly—at night . . .

Nizar Qabbani, Damascus, What Are You Doing to Me? (verse 11)

The layout of A rose gives its fragrance even to the hand that crushes it is not only based on the Nanaa’s family courtyard, but their entire home. Visitors enter the gallery in the centre of a space recalling a courtyard on the right, and a living room and dining room area on the left. The west gallery suggests a dining room, a space central to the Nanaa household. Karam, the Arabic term describing hospitality and generosity, is central to Middle Eastern culture and informs the way homes are built. There is an emphasis on shared gathering spaces, especially around food. A cornerstone of hospitality, food makes its way into the exhibition through the presence of the roses. Much more than ornamental plants, roses are quintessential ingredients in Middle Eastern cuisine, cherished for their delicate floral aroma and distinct flavor. The exhibition’s evocative dining room houses a central low table surrounded by comfortable cushions, inviting visitors to sit. A floral cloth covers the table on which rests ten ceramic serving dishes. Produced by Anne Campbell, who has created floral vessels for the collective’s previous projects, each dish is dedicated to a contributor to Waard Ward's upcoming cookbook, whose contributors come from a public open call seeking recipes including roses as an ingredient. The cookbook serves as a testimony to the culinary traditions rooted in customs and indigenous practices that predate and oppose colonial and capitalistic mindsets. In this publication, roses are not highlighted for their desired beauty as defined by their status as global commodities. Instead, they are revealed as a highly coveted culinary ingredient found in Middle Eastern, Pakistani, Indian, and Persian cultures to name a few. Seen in this way, the rose is an important element of a dish created to serve loved ones. Ten recipes were selected for the cookbook set to launch in 2024. Also situated in the ‘dining room’ is Darren Rigo’s Paradise for Thorncliffe Park. The large-scale photograph pays homage to an imagined future of Waard Ward’s community garden in Thorncliffe Park. This utopian image shows two fantastically colossal rose bushes that take over the scene. They are untamed and left to their own devices, interrupting the grid-like pattern of the apartment building behind them, which has been enhanced digitally to appear endless. The bush on the left is filled with roses, and the bush on the right has been harvested, their scale offers an organic overflow of beauty and life.

When I was a diplomat in Britain
Thirty years ago
My mother would send letters at the beginning of Spring
Inside each letter . . .
A bundle of tarragon . . .
And when the English suspected my letters
They took them to the laboratory
And turned them over to Scotland Yard
And explosives experts.
And when they grew weary of me . . . and my tarragon
They would ask: Tell us, by god . . .
What is the name of this magical herb that has made us dizzy?
Is it a talisman?
A secret code?
What is it called in English?
I said to them: It’s difficult for me to explain…
For tarragon is a language that only the gardens of Sham speak
It is our sacred herb . . .
Our perfumed eloquence
And if your great poet Shakespeare had known of tarragon
His plays would have been better . . .
In brief . . .
My mother is a wonderful woman . . . she loves me greatly . . .
And whenever she missed me
She would send me a bunch of tarragon . . .
Because for her, tarragon is the emotional equivalent
To the words: my darling . . .
And when the English didn’t understand one word of my poetic argument . . .
They gave me back my tarragon and closed the investigation . . .

Nizar Qabbani, Damascus, What Are You Doing to Me? (verse 12)

By planting roots in Scarborough - a place where people from varying else-where’s make home, the Nanaa’s resettlement highlights some of the ways people who come from differing circumstances adapt to a new land. With almost 80% of its population comprised of visible minorities, many of which are foreign-born, Scarborough is one of the most diverse places in Canada, allowing newcomers to find community and familiarity. A rose gives its fragrance even to the hand that crushes it pays homage to the memory of home. It poetically unpacks the effects of the loss of land, and places of comfort and origin, while working through explorations of finding community and meaning in resettlement. Much more than a place to build or cultivate, land embeds within it history, community, conflict, and loss. The exhibition comes at a contentious moment in history. As we are confronted with news of violent land loss, life loss, migration, and conflict, A rose gives its fragrance even to the hand that crushes it conveys the humanity of those who seek refuge but are often represented as statistics by media outlets. The exhibition reveals beauty in places that once were, and in ancestral traditions that have been uprooted. Exploring metaphors and enacting methodologies of care, the exhibition considers community-centred approaches to reconciling with the realities of displacement. In this ongoing process it asks: ‘Can the roses bloom despite their displacement? Will we be treated to their intoxicating scents and beauty?’ A rose gives its fragrance even to the hand that crushes it offers hope and calls upon us to consider the ways we may carry on traditions of hospitality and generosity.

This essay centres around excerpts from the poem Damascus, What Are You Doing to Me? by Nizar Qabbani (1923 – 1998). Qabbani was a Syrian diplomat, poet, writer and publisher widely known for his works exploring themes of love, eroticism, religion, and Arab empowerment against foreign imperialism and dictatorship.