Founded in 2013, Heritage for Peace is, in many ways, as unorthodox as Isber himself. The NGO was created, for example, after Isber and the respected Dutch anthropologist Rene Teijgeler spent two weeks brainstorming in the back room of a pizza joint in Spain where Isber – having completed his Spanish master’s degree in cultural heritage management just as the Syrian cultural heritage he had hoped to return home to manage, was in the process of being irreparably damaged – was doing the baking.
While Isber roasted fish in the pizzeria’s large, wood-burning oven, the two experts hashed out a way to put European and American know-how about what happens to art in times of conflict to use in the Syrian crisis, while leveraging Isber’s extensive network of Syrians on the ground – a group of people the Syrian scholar had met over the years he spent taking Italian and Spanish tourists around the country as an official Syrian state tourism guide, as well as workers and others he befriended on site at digs during his archaeological training. “We just had the idea, but no support,” Isber recalls. “We were just two crazy guys who decided to do something.”
In the pizzeria, in January, they forged their core mission statement: “As an international group of heritage workers we believe that cultural heritage, and the protection thereof, can be used as a common ground for dialogue and therefore as a tool to enhance peace.”
By April, they had launched the first project – a seminar held in Beirut that came about after Isber contacted people from the Syrian State Department for Antiquities and Cultural Heritage. “Talking to them, we decided to make a training for staff in antiquities department,” says Isber. “We looked at ‘lessons learned’ in Bosnia and Herzegovina.”
Three years later, ongoing projects include compiling a database of mobile phone snapshots of looted art that is being offered for sale. When local people hear about new pieces on the (black) market, they approach the sellers. “Of course, the locals working with us don’t have the money to buy the pieces,” says Isber. “But they pretend they are interested in buying. Then they take pictures, and if these objects show up in European auction houses later, we have a record that they were looted.”