damascus-3Recent Tory, Labour or unionist comments equate the Scottish independence movement with the most divisive aspects of the Brexit campaign, but we need only look at mainstream coverage of 2014’s indyref, or aspects of the plight of Syrian refugees, to understand how policy and propaganda distort how we see a people and their culture.

As an artist who usually paints Scottish landscape, last year I was moved to respond to the situation in Syria. I began a series of paintings called Damascus rose when I heard that the Damascus rose was no longer in production due to the war in Syria.

For me the rose of Damascus became a symbol, or a way to explore a difficult subject that I couldn’t claim to understand on a personal level, only as an observer, albeit a fellow human witnessing the suffering of ordinary people in Syria through my computer screen. This was central to the three paintings; how we view a people, their culture and identity.

I had been musing on the symbolism of flowers, and the way flowers have been appropriated to causes. For example, the Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid’s ‘little white rose’:

The rose of all the world is not for me
I want for my part
Only the little white rose of Scotland
That smells sharp and sweet – and breaks the heart

The white rose (Burnet rose) was adopted by Jacobites during the ’45 rebellion when Charles Edward Stuart plucked one from a bush and attached it to his bonnet as he approached Highland troops at Glenfinnan, which might in turn have been inspired by the Clan Keith (whose emblem was the white rose) who forfeited their land and fought for the 1715 Jacobite rebellion, but facts have been lost in time or translation …

A few years ago, former First Minister Alex Salmond suggested it might be a little white rose ‘for all Scotland’ – appropriating it as a symbol for everyone who lives in Scotland. It’s interesting, the way that symbols or ideas are adopted or adapted – MacDiarmid’s poem references the ‘rose of all the world’ in WB Yeats’ The Rose of Battle.

The rose often features in Middle Eastern poetry as a symbol of love, it has done for centuries and up to the present, as in the following poem by Kurdish poet Bejan Matur:

‘Peaceful morning’ …

A time before time
A morning of peace
Of roses
And fountains.
A welcoming
Of the creatures
Of the latecomer
Rescued from the hand of sleep
In the dappled dawn.
So arms
Moved away from a statue’s body
And found a human.
Desired.
What belonged
Far more than words
Was love.

The rose of Damascus became the link between my three paintings – first the rose of Syrian stylised designs that adorn the temples and mosques in Aleppo and Damascus, some of which were destroyed during attacks. Citizens almost immediately began to rebuild, just as Bosnians did with the Mostar bridge, decades ago.

I carried the colour of the rose into my next painting, loosely based on a map of Damascus from above – suggesting a military view of the city – the streets glow rose-red beneath thick, bitumen-like layers of black. Some of the most ancient streets in Damascus proved the best cover for residents under attack, as these streets were so narrow and deep. I thought of the narrow alleys of Edinburgh’s Old Town, and how it might feel to see loved ones under threat.

The indigenous wild-growing white rose of Scotland, adopted by the Jacobite cause in the 18th century, became MacDiarmid’s Little White Rose of Scotland, written in the 1920’s when MacDiarmid was a supporter of Scottish Independence, but things have changed radically in Scotland since then.

To take a local perspective, the area of Edinburgh I grew up in, Leith, is still often the first port of call for new immigrants and has a long history of newcomers and settlers. When I was growing up here I sometimes witnessed racism against the Chinese and South Asian communities (the WW2 generation will probably remember racism against the first generations of the Italian community).

I’ve watched Leith’s community change for the better over the years though, as a result of the more outward looking and inclusive society we are becoming in Edinburgh’s most multicultural community.We look outwards now. So while the little white rose of Scotland is dear to my heart, we are all connected. The 12th century Muslim Andalucian poet Muhyyeddin Ibn Arabi wrote these lines before he died in 1240:

My heart has become capable of every form: it is a
pasture for gazelles and a convent for
Christian monks,
And a temple for idols, and the pilgrim’s Ka’ba, and
the tables of the Tora and the
book of the Koran.
I follow the religion of Love, whichever way his camels take.