To meet a man who has been to space is an unusual privilege, inspiring an arcane awe. When the astronaut is also from Aleppo — a darker, more impossible void, perhaps, than even space — meeting him has the effect of rendering all of history and its civilizations on a two-faced coin and tossing it up, our human potential and folly switching fast overhead. To meet Syrian astronaut Muhammed Ahmed Faris, who in 1987 journeyed to the Soviet space station Mir and has been living as a refugee in Turkey since 2012, is to know then that great and wild humankind can be bound up in a single man and spun around a wheel of fortune.
Thus was Halil Altindere, a central contemporary artist in Turkey, inspired to make Faris the subject of his most recent work, “Space Refugee,” on view at the Andrew Kreps Gallery in Chelsea until February 11. The exhibit imagines a refugee colony on Mars and features an interactive virtual reality installation and near-photographic-quality acrylic portraits of a young Faris beside his Russian colleagues, awash in blue LED light. The show centers on a short film tracking Faris from cosmonaut and hero to air force defector under Assad to refugee in Istanbul. “I thought, ‘How absurd that he can go to space and not anywhere else,’ ” Altindere said in Istanbul following the opening of the show in New York. “I decided to pursue it through irony, because irony can’t be easily touched by totalitarians.”
On a January afternoon in Fatih, his adoptive neighborhood in Istanbul, Muhammed Faris, the astronaut himself, sat silent as a reverential group of friends and colleagues discussed him. Irony is apt for an exhibit about Faris, once one of Syria’s most celebrated citizens, now a dissident living in Turkey.
He’d agreed to meet with a journalist accompanied by Altindere and, after the Syrian coffee began to taint the air with cardamom, and the translator made casual introductions, and the Faris sons and granddaughter had filed past and posted themselves along the wall, the first question was asked then clarified then uttered in round Arabic. Faris began to speak and the room went swiftly silent, his measured voice abruptly stopping even spoons turning sugar. “Still I remember the smell of the streets,” he said of Aleppo, “and how they reeked of bitter orange and jasmine.”
He recalled being a boy there more than sixty years ago, remembering first his school — a very old Arabian house with a courtyard in the center where a fountain ran — then retracing a morning walk through the bazaar with his father, a thread-dyer, wearing traditional white dress and wishing neighbors a blessed Christmas. “At that time, we empathized deeply with the joy and sadness of our neighbors, living together for thousands of years like brothers. That was the condition of my youth,” he said.
When the Baath Party came to power, he explained, Hafez al-Assad moved to tear down social institutions, sending police into schools and taking over courts. The schools became without science, the courts without justice. “And after the father comes the son.” Bashar al-Assad, Faris began firmly, is a weak man of many complexes. “To reduce his weakness, he practices cruelty.”
Faris defected from the Syrian air force after witnessing indiscriminate bombings from military aircraft “attacking my own city and district. I knew they cannot discriminate between enemies and the people. I am a witness. We are all witnesses,” he said, an empty-handed relic of lost and blackened Syria, cradle of civilization. “From space,” Faris told his listeners, “I saw the world without limits. She carries us and we destroy her. I wonder, as the destiny of my country is being written every day, how will we go on?”
Just a few days after that meeting in Istanbul, Donald Trump’s travel ban came down, bringing “Space Refugee” one step closer to reality. Now Faris, native of Aleppo, a city that has suffered as much as any in the world, and a critic of the regime, falls into the ever widening group of people not allowed in the United States, not as a refugee nor even as a visitor. In a phone call, Faris was supremely aware of the irony. Having fled Assad, Faris now saw the United States falling under the sway of the same kind of power.
“Trump does not understand anything about human history,” he said, toggling between humor and seriousness with such ease that the only translated effect of his character is sheer dignity.
“He will launch a black period in the history of mankind, especially if mankind chooses to agree with his ideas, the forces of evil,” he said. “There are many sects, ethnicities, racial conflicts around the world that can be used by power. His real plan is not necessarily Muslim hostility, but is a plan directed against all the religions in the world, each of us.” That was the simple fact of the matter: if one, all.
Halil Altindere: ‘Space Refugee’
Andrew Kreps Gallery
535 West 22nd Street
Through February 11