Book review: Domicide: Architecture, War and the Destruction of Home in Syria

reviewed by Sabine Ameer

30 Nov 2023, 11:16 a.m.

Domicide book cover

Ammar Azzouz, Domicide: Architecture, War and the Destruction of Home in Syria, London: Bloomsbury, 2023; 176 pp.: ISBN: 9781350248106, £85.00 (hbk)


Cities have been targeted since time immemorial. From Mostar to Mosul, Mali to Kyiv and Aleppo to the ongoing deliberate destruction in Gaza, cities have been the epicentre of violence. With the advent of urbanisation and subsequent blurring of civilian and non-civilian boundaries, cities are at a much higher risk of destruction. Conflicts are now fought within city centres, resulting in the shelling of social, economic and physical infrastructure as well as the carpet destruction of neighbourhoods. However, the current discourse fails to encapsulate the impact of violence on everyday life. The psychological impact of having one’s home, neighbourhood and city being destroyed – intentionally or as a collateral damage – remains under explored in the scholarship. Azzouz’s Domicide: Architecture, War and the Destruction of Home in Syria, through its focus on human agency, offers a paradigm shift amid the scarcity of narratives where people, their emotions and their lived experiences of violence are on the frontline.

Through Domicide, Azzouz builds on the concept of deliberate destruction of cities, unpacking three broader themes: politics of urban (re)development, politics of destruction and politics of reconstruction. Azzouz carefully positions the analysis across the neighbourhoods of Homs, the capital of Syrian revolution and his hometown. The narratives of making, unmaking and remaking of home are central to Homs as the city, notes Azzouz, is being profoundly destroyed during the Syrian Civil War. While encapsulating complex themes focussed on Homs, Azzouz does not shrink from bringing into perspective the experience of people from other cities in conflict: Beirut, Belfast, Kyiv, Cairo, Berlin and Shanghai. With each fragile city documented in Domicide, Azzouz draws parallels between the suffering of its urban dwellers and the residents of Homs, evoking a sense of shared loss, grief and sorrow irrespective of the geographical setting. Bringing together the diverse scholarly and artistic work of architects, urban planners, researchers, writers and artists, Domicide is indeed an impressive cross-cultural and cross-disciplinary auto-ethnographical account.

The analysis relies on visual materials – videos and newspaper articles, webpages of city councils, social media accounts of charities and interviews with affected Syrians. Domicide also develops from the individual and collective work that Azzouz has engaged with through seminars, workshops, exhibitions, festivals and forums, as well as the work of non-Syrian artists. ‘Loss of home’ is a recurring theme throughout Domicide, which is structured into five chapters with an elaborate introduction. Through the introductory chapter, Azzouz outlines the ongoing research on cities and violence in Architecture, Urban Studies, Human Geography, Heritage Studies and Politics (and International Relations), highlighting major shortcomings. There is a lack of scholarly writings capturing the radical transformations of cities in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, notes Azzouz. For instance, Raqqa, a Syrian city marred by the US-led coalition, and cities like Gaza, Mosul and Taiz remain unexplored. Further, the scholarship on Syria is dominated by white academics writing from the comfort of their homes in first world countries and consequently there is a lack of engagement with local communities. Within the scholarly work largely focussed on monumental sites in Syria, Azzouz’s Domicide brings distinction by examining the impact of destruction of everyday spaces.

In the first chapter, Domicide: Slow Violence, Division and Destruction, Azzouz offers a convincing argument that ‘violence of domicide is not only limited to times of war’ (p. 29). Structural violence, which he refers to as ‘slow violence’, underpins domicide during peacetime – often in the form of architectural and urban planning projects – targeted against the urban poor. Urban renewal, he argues, often belies the violence that uproots people living in informal settlements, labelling them as a threat to the overall wellbeing of the city. Drawing reference to the ‘Homs Dream project’, he demonstrates how such projects transform the city centre into spaces of exclusion and division, exacerbating segregation, driving gentrification, and causing displacement and demolitions. Within this discourse, the carpet destruction that followed the war, fears Azzouz, would eventually pave the way for the pre-war redevelopment projects in the form of reconstruction as a new face of domicide (p. 54). However, the theory propelled by Azzouz, that the pre-war slow violence manifests into destruction during the war, indicates a deliberate link between the two and might require future research.

In Chapter 2, War on Home: In Search of a Place to Call Home, Azzouz presents in-depth first-person narratives outlining the psychological trauma incurred by internally displaced people (IDPs), a topic rarely explored in academia. Azzouz depicts how the loss of home is not merely the material loss but encompasses the loss of one’s sense of belonging, sense of community and identity. Some IDPs, mentions Azzouz, have been internally displaced as many as 25 times in the past decade and their search for home is still ongoing. Domicide thus offers timely intervention by bringing the issue of IDPs within the ongoing debates and discourse on migration and forced displacement, which are largely dominated by ‘refugee crisis’ in the West. Azzouz further highlights the role of local and international charities, which are working on rehabilitation projects to retrofit partially damaged homes and facilitate the safe return of their original owners. Azzouz mentions, however, that ‘these local charities work with limited resources and in extremely difficult living conditions’ (p. 77). While Azzouz does touch upon the international–local dichotomy in the third sector, there is a need for detailed inquiry within this discourse.

Chapter 3, Domicide and Representation, encapsulates the lived experience of Syrians and non-Syrians living in exile in their pursuit of (re)making home in new countries. Azzouz refers to the notable work of writers and artists – covering the broader themes of refugees, migration and displacement – as a lens to make sense of the loss of home incurred by Syrians. In doing so, Azzouz himself experiences a sense of longing, sitting on the threshold of two worlds: the life he left in Homs, Syria and the current life he is building in London, United Kingdom. Azzouz depicts how Syrians have chosen Syrian paintings, drawings and maps to adorn the interiors of their homes in foreign lands. Often, art and music, as well as artistic and cultural initiatives, Azzouz proposes, transport those living in exile back to Syria, evoking a sense of belonging. This chapter clearly depicts that art and culture of various forms have become viable tools and devices to resist cultural amnesia in times of crisis in Syria (and beyond).

Through Chapter 4, Azzouz unpacks the complexities surrounding reconstruction within a conflict context, asking intriguing research questions yet to be explored, such as: What are the underlying motives behind reconstruction? Does reconstruction transform conflict? Whose past should be remembered and whose memories should be forgotten? Azzouz labels reconstruction during the ongoing conflict as a form of whitewashing and even attempting to hide the ruins of war. Azzouz argues that reconstruction is often selective as ‘new dividing lines emerge, not only physically in towns and cities but also socially between communities’ (p. 99). Reconstruction could, therefore, pave the way for a new wave of contestation, struggle and conflict. Azzouz uses this chapter to critique the reconstruction by international organisations that does not take into consideration the community perspective. For instance, Azzouz draws reference to the 3D remaking of Palmyra’s Triumphal Arch – which was destroyed by the Daesh – in London by international architects and archaeologists. The remaking, which involved not a single local architect or historian, was heavily criticised by the Syrian Diaspora for being colonial and imperial.

Through Chapter 5, Domicide in War and Peace, Azzouz concludes concisely by calling for resistance of the loss of memory caused by the deliberate destruction of home, reclaiming the Syrian narrative and dreaming of a hopeful future. In doing so, he successfully complicates the neatly arranged scholarship exploring the interlinkages between built environment and violence. Domicide: Architecture, War and the Destruction of Home in Syria thus offers a unique perspective on violence and built environment nexus, bringing the human element to the fore. In this way, Azzouz’s Domicide directs the conflict narrative towards people, bringing to the forefront their stories of losing home during peace and war by unpacking the impact of domicide on people and their everyday lives. The discussion is enriched through documentation of the emotions of those who had first-hand experience of the war and the destruction of homes that followed. With the more recent destruction of neighbourhoods we have witnessed in Ukraine and during Israel’s ongoing ‘war on terror’, Azzouz’s Domicide offers a timely intervention that goes deep into the physical and social trauma caused by destruction of and displacement from home.


Related articles

If you enjoyed this review, the following articles published in Urban Studies might also be of interest:

Comparative urbanism for hope and healing: Urbicide and the dilemmas of reconstruction in post-war Syria and Poland by Joanna Kusiak and Ammar Azzouz

In their Open Access study, Joanna Kusiak and Ammar Azzouz ask what role can an ethical, affective stance such as hope play in the methodology of comparative urbanism?

Palestinian refugee women and the Jenin refugee camp: Reflections on urbicide and the dilemmas of home in exile by Sahera Bleibleh, Michael Vicente Perez, and Thaira Bleibleh

This article considers the memories of Palestinian refugee women who survived Israel’s urbicidal war on the Jenin refugee camp to show how women enacted particular forms of agency that do not fit into discussions of urbicide or national resistance.

Read more book reviews on the Urban Studies blog.



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