Established by Fathi Ibrahim Bayoud 2005 - Homs

Syrian refugees help put centuries-old glassware on show in Paisley

Syrian Refugees | 2020-11-16 11:32:00
Syrian refugees help put centuries-old glassware on show in Paisley
   Maryam Alhorani (left), her husband, Jamal Horani, and his sister, Khadeja Alhorani, with some of the glassware. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian
An unusual collection of 2,000-year-old glassware is providing Syrian refugees in the Renfrewshire town of Paisley with a connection to their homeland, five years after they settled in Scotland.

The 30-piece collection, dating back to Roman times, was bequeathed to Paisley Museum in 1948 by Elizabeth Spiers Paterson, the daughter of thread manufacturers, and is believed to have been acquired from antiquities dealers in Syria, known as the birthplace of glass-making.

Now the refugees are working with museum curators to prepare these “masterpiece” objects for display for the first time.

Joel Fagan, a research assistant of world cultures, said he was “stunned” when the bequest was rediscovered in an underground store as part of the museum’s ongoing £42m transformation project.

“It’s incredible they survived,” he said. “We could have just thrown them in a case but we didn’t feel that was acceptable. We wanted to bring the museum to the Syrian community.”



The delicately blown and moulded vases, perfume bottles and drinking beakers shimmer with iridescence – and also with memory, said Jamal Horani, one of the refugees. “I was so pleased to see these objects that had come from Syria to Scotland. I don’t know how or why they came here but I feel very proud that we were able to make these masterpieces. It gave me some emotional thoughts about Syria.”
His sister Khadeja Alhorani added: “To see them takes us back to old memories, when tourists would come from all over the world to buy our glass.”

Horani said his family had their own glass collection, some of it more than 100 years old, but left behind when they fled the city of Homs.

His wife, Maryam Alhorani, described the role of glassware in family tradition. “Syrian people are very sociable, with families visiting and eating together. We tend to keep special glass not for meals but for ornaments, which we can talk about to the younger generation and introduce them to their culture,” she said.

All three recall the thriving industry that produced fine blown glass with intricate designs and Arabic phrases etched on them, glass wall hangings in different colours to represent different sentiments – red for power, green for goodness – as well as perfume bottles designed for jasmine, rose and other scents.

The Horani family are now part of a nearly 200-strong Syrian community in Renfrewshire. Twenty-eight babies have been born there since the area started welcoming refugees under the official resettlement scheme started by the UK government in the autumn of 2015 as part of a global response to the escalating humanitarian crisis in Syria.

“We didn’t know much about Scotland before we came, and we had some concerns about the weather and a new culture, but we’ve been able to get on well, make new friends, and now we are part of the community as well as guests,” Horani said.

The group are now involved in directing the museum’s final display, choosing the items and writing labels in English and Arabic to help visitors understand the relevance of the glass to them.

Following the deliberate destruction and looting of Syria’s cultural heritage by Islamic State, the objects take on even greater significance. Syrian artisans have struggled to sustain their craft since the war erupted nine years ago.

“These objects come from a time when glass-blowing had only just been invented, but the glass industry has been booming in Syria continuously until the current conflict,” said Fagan. “Of course their cultural value is greater when they represent part of a lost heritage, but we should be mindful that it may be our past looting that has allowed these pieces to stay safe.”

For Khadeja Alhorani, the display will offer an alternative to the stories of conflict that have lately dominated public understanding of her country. “We’d like visitors to understand that we have a great civilisation and that our glass-making is known across the world.”
The Guardian
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