Goodbye to Aleppo

For Inna, Jörg and Ilonka

 

Clashes are raging in the Syrian city of Aleppo as government troops and rebel forces battle for control. (DemocracyNow! Headlines, July 24, 2012)

Whereas I used to follow the reports on the popular uprisings in Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, I have caught myself shunning news from Syria, especially the visual footage from the urban battlefields: Daraa-Damascus-Hama- … When about two years ago the tumult of the Arab Spring broke out in the Middle East, an anxious thought of Syria immediately crossed my mind. I expected Syria to join. Knowing the country’s uneasy political past, I sensed how badly it was likely to turn out. The long-lasting silence from Syria was ambiguous: It could be a sign that Syria was doing better and would be able to solve its long suppressed conflicts by taking a path of reform. Or maybe it was the silence of a population too broken in spirit to mount a protest. Deep down, however, this silence gave me hope that Syria might be spared this time the bloodshed of post-revolutionary Egypt and especially that of the excruciatingly brutal civil war in Libya. When the protests finally started, I did not follow them. Glancing only briefly at the headlines, I inexplicably and for a long time hurried to turn away to something else. I did not want to dwell on my reaction, until suddenly in mid-summer I saw Aleppo in the headlines.

Rebels forces, meanwhile, released video footage of the execution of four alleged pro-regime fighters seized in the ongoing battle for Aleppo. The video shows the bloodied fighters being led into a courtyard before they are mowed down in a hail of gunfire. The violence in Aleppo is intensifying, with government forces using fighter jets to carry out bombings and rebel groups deploying tanks. (August 2, 2012)

There was a snapshot of me taken in September 1993 in a narrow street of the medieval center of Aleppo, looking and behaving as I did in my student years. With a ponytail and bangs, in ridiculous green and white VOLVO breeches, a black T-shirt and moccasins, I’m sliding sideways off an unsaddled donkey that I had just tried to mount unsuccessfully. An old man, the owner of the donkey, or maybe just a passer-by who happened to witness the scene, stands to the right laughing so whole-heartedly that he leans back holding his belly with both hands. This photograph, like all my Syrian photographs, got lost in my many moves across the globe. But this particular image stayed present in my memory more vividly than any other scene of my travels around Syria nineteen years ago in the company of my sister and two friends. It got preserved by accident. I remember how much later, back in Berlin, I was showing this photograph to one of my friends visiting from Russia as an example of my utter clumsiness. I pointed to the old man’s Homeric laughter as a measure of my ridiculousness. But to my surprise, she defended me in a quite unexpected way saying that whereas I can’t ride a donkey, this man couldn’t write a Master’s thesis in German. I was so struck by this response that some mental shutter fell on this photo lifting it into memory. Unawares, I have carried this image of Aleppo, sunlit, peaceful, and cheerful, as my image of Syria throughout the years. It came back vividly only when Aleppo hit the headlines.

Violence is raging in cities across Syria as rebel fighters clash with the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Syrian activists say Assad’s forces have stepped up attacks in Homs, which has seen heavy fighting over the course of a four-month siege. Aerial and ground attacks have also been reported in Aleppo, while a bombing at the police headquarters in Damascus has left one officer dead. (October 8, 2012) 

I went to Syria from Berlin in mid-July of 1993 to visit my adventurous family for about eight weeks. Half a year or so earlier, my parents and sister had moved to Damascus from Moscow and taken up residence in a traditional Arabic house in the northeastern district of Barzeh, in a shabby neighborhood near the Hassanein mosque. Their house had just two windowless rooms, with an entrance hall like an inner yard without a roof so that on a rainy day one had to use an umbrella to go to the kitchen or the bathroom. There were stairs leading from this hall up to an open-air porch behind a high parapet protecting the privacy of the space from the world outside but leaving it fully open to the world above. I chose to sleep on this porch that had a vertical view of the skies, with the walls of the neighboring houses towering over me on the one side and the minaret of the Hassanein mosque on the other. After the sunset, the top of the minaret would suddenly light up green and bats would leave their sleepy hideouts under the roofs and flutter in their abrupt, nervous fashion across the outside yard of our block sometimes trespassing over the porch. At first I mistook them for little night birds. I liked their company and often climbed up on the high parapet to observe the zigzagging movements of their darting shadows. The Hassanein mosque was not beautiful. There was an anonymous, mass-produced quality to its big, box-like, beige cement structure behind a high metal fence. Nor was the voice of its mullah melodious. His prayers did not sound mystical, wise, or accommodating. Announced in advance by the grouchy crackling sound of the old microphones, they rather disconcertingly resembled hysterically high-pitched, desperate screams. In the middle of the night, they would wake me up to uneasy thoughts about the cultural and political misery that the Syrians had inflicted upon themselves.

It’s difficult to judge how poor Masaken Barzeh was on the Syrian scale. On the one side of a big street that cut through the district were lined up the apartment houses inhabited by the members of the professional educated class. Our friends had an apartment there. They were the family of an established journalist who had studied in Moscow, had an educated Russian wife and four children and worked in Moscow as a Soviet Union correspondent for the Syrian Radio. This side of the street was reserved for leisurely promenades. One could often see polished young men walking up and down conversing and holding hands, an expression of masculine friendship that would be out of question in relation to the opposite sex even in the secular, emancipated Syria.

On the other side of the street there was a long row of common cement boxes, which housed small shops. This was the space for trading and chaffering. In the daytime the shops’ metallic pull-down doors were rolled up exposing the goods for sale. This side of the street was crowded and loud, full of odors and life. Only late in the nighttime, they closed, exposing the dirt and ugliness of their unseemly structures. Traditional Arabic houses were crowded behind these shops. Their inhabitants, shopkeepers and tradesmen of all sorts, seemed to be also more simple and traditional in their life style. They lovingly groomed their small delivery buses as country people did horses and donkeys: They coated them in blue and red ornaments, decorated the front doors and windows with garlands of paper flowers and the roof with a bush of ostrich feathers. Since traffic rules were practically non-existent, especially in this part of the city, the drivers usually screamed their way through the neighborhood and signaled their turns by stretching an arm out of a window. Their educated neighbors rarely crossed the street to this side. But my parents happened to live among them, even if rather by circumstance than by choice. And I considered myself lucky to be in this exotic place, full of dust, trash and many odors.

When Aleppo hit the headlines, there was no mental space any more for self-betrayal: The worst has happened. Syria is engulfed in a civil war. It started over a year and a half ago with peaceful demonstrations in the small town of Daraa in the far South. The residents of Daraa protested against the brutality of police who arrested and for a long time kept in an undisclosed location a few foolish teenagers who had painted graffiti on a school wall, saying “Down with the regime!” When the teenagers were finally released, the signs of torture on their bodies exasperated the families, friends, and neighbors enough that they took to the streets. The exaggerated violence of the government’s crackdown on the demonstration ignited the powder bowl of resentment accumulated over many decades of exposure to unrestrained oppression. Violence produced more violence. Now, a year later, the civil war has swept over even well-guarded, status quo Damascus. Our neighborhood, Masaken Barzeh, was among the first to rebel. On February 12, 2012, the local shopkeepers on the main street courageously closed down their small shops in a general strike against Bashar Al-Assad’s hopelessly bankrupt regime. Barzeh was also among those neighborhoods where the government has moved the tanks and which it targeted from the helicopters. By the mid-summer, the war reached Aleppo. Lying far in the north, not far from the border to Turkey, Aleppo is its last and most important frontier.

 At least 25 people have been killed and more than 70 wounded in a series of bombings in the Syrian city of Aleppo. The attack reportedly struck at a public square near a site for Syrian military officers. (October 3, 2012)

 Did a mortar shell fall on the street near the central market where I once mounted a donkey? If the old man in the snapshot is still alive, today he must be in his eighties. Did a bomb hit his house? Is he among the wounded? On whose side are his sons, grandsons, nephews? Did some of them work for the government, or have they become army officers now fighting desperately for Bashar Al-Assad’s and their own survival? Are others among the rebels? Were his family members targeted by the government forces, or kidnapped for ransom by the opposition? Or did he and his family manage to escape across the border to Turkey? The recent New York Review of Books article on Aleppo by Charles Glass quotes an Aleppine saying that Aleppo did not rise, the uprising came to Aleppo and the government forces followed it. – That may be. Whatever its origins, the sides have been taken, and not over night. Syria is at war with itself, a war in which the winning side will exterminate the other. On whose side was the old man back then, in September 1993? Could a power-obsessed, corrupt person laugh so fully at a foreign girl’s foolish behavior?

 Fierce clashes in the city of Aleppo meanwhile set off a massive fire over the weekend in the city’s historic central market, a UNESCO World Heritage site. (October 1, 2012)

 My first encounter with the officials of the Syrian regime occurred in the Damascus airport. A border control officer looked at my passport and asked whether I was together with the guy next to me. It was an alternative German student of Indian philosophy whom I had met on the plane and who accompanied me on my way out. Assuming that I might be in trouble, he immediately denied our acquaintance and disappeared into thin air. Then the official winked me aside, as if something were wrong with my visa. I had to step out of line and wait for some clarification. Confident that nothing could be possibly wrong with my documents, I stood around for quite a long time, until all passengers had gone through, the crowd had dissipated, and this area of the airport had become empty. To my surprise, nobody ever came back to check my documents. Instead, a group of ten or so military officers left their booths, lined up along the exit path and told me with a mocking and menacing demeanor to go through to the exit. They stood so close to each other that I would inevitably brush across their uniformed chests with my shoulders while passing. Only then I understood that my documents were just a pretext for this routinely practiced entertainment. This was the official welcome that Assad’s Syria offered me. The goodbye was only slightly mitigated by the presence of my boyfriend. While we were waiting to board our plane, the airport officials were circling around us: One after another, they brazenly stepped close behind his back to make faces at me across his shoulder. A Western woman is always a spectacle on the streets of the Arabic world, and Syria is no exception, but nowhere else in the country did anyone cross the line in the way that the Syrian government officials did at the international airport. — But there was also an old man laughing in Aleppo.

Violence continued across Syria on Monday with around 100 people reportedly killed, most of them civilians. Unverified video shows what appear to be the bodies of 20 blindfolded Syrian soldiers after they were executed in Aleppo. (September 11, 2012)

 Syria has been a military dictatorship for some time. On March 9, 1963, immediately after the Baath party had taken over power, it introduced emergency law in order to eradicate real and potential dissent. (Hafiz Al-Assad came to power in an intra-Baath party coup in November 1970.) It is precisely this Syrian violation of human rights that made it a country where the United States sent its own prisoners in the infamous practice of “extraordinary rendition.” Only when the uprisings started in Daraa did Bashar Al-Assad fulfill the long-standing demand of Syrian civil society activists to eliminate this law. But it was too late. In 1993, martial law was still in place and allowed random arrests and extralegal executions. Those endowed with the state’s authority to make random arrests ruled supreme. And as is the case with all unlimited power, the oppressive regime soon slid into the mire of corruption. Unlike the Soviet Union, where corruption was practiced covertly, under the air of bureaucracy and not without a certain sense of discomfort, the Syrian military officials practiced it openly, impudently and smugly. The confidence of impunity with which they extorted bribes and bullied the population gave it an especially sordid touch. When several weeks after my arrival, one of my friends joined me from Munich, her camera was stolen from her luggage in the Damascus airport. This incident led to my next encounter with representatives of the state, this time the police.

The search for an authority which could issue an official police report for my friend’s insurance was not easy. The police’s official stance was to deny that a theft could have happened in Syria. And in fact, the crime rate was astonishingly low in a country where crime was institutionalized as a governmental privilege. After being bounced from one police department to another, we ended up at the police headquarters. I remember how we were led to the police boss through many long and narrow corridors with the endless row of offices. Their open doors allowed a glimpse of huge piles of paper all over the desks and all the way up to the ceiling. Unbearable heat made fat bureaucrats strip to their underwear. They sat sluggishly in their papered caves, sweat rolling over their faces. A heavy odor of acidic fumes in the air mingled with paper dust and sand blowing from the desert through the open windows.

We had to sit long in a dirty, empty waiting room, until the boss agreed to talk to my friend in broken English. He refused to admit that the camera could have been stolen by the airport staff and ended up issuing a paper blaming the theft on an anonymous person in the street. When the paper was ready, he called my friend alone into a separate room, making the rest of us quite nervous. But she came out fast and laughing, vehemently gesturing us out. And we stormed out of the building. In the street, she told us what happened behind the closed doors. Upon handing her the police report, the police boss extended a hand toward her palm-up expecting remuneration. She pocketed the document and at first misunderstanding the situation shook his hand. Then realizing what was expected, she used the moment of confusion and darted out of the room. This was our moment of triumph but we were not always so lucky.

Scores of Syrian government forces have been killed in a double bombing in the besieged city of Aleppo. Residents and activists say the bombs targeted makeshift barracks housing soldiers stationed in Aleppo to root out opposition fighters. Syrian state media says at least 17 soldiers were killed and 40 were wounded. (September 10, 2012)

Syria was not a touristy country, despite its amazingly well-preserved sites of many ancient civilizations. Lack of tourists meant a lack of revenue for the country but it also implied a lack of demoralizing idleness and kitsch. Old ruins preserved an untouched air of noble serenity. People who travelled around did so knowingly and for a reason. As for other European foreigners on our route, we met only a group of French nuns who were following traces of biblical history and a Swiss hydraulic engineer who hoped for a job in Lebanon and was travelling around the desert to explore the terrain. We met him in Hama, famous for its Persian water wheels. Their decaying wood, covered with moss, was still creaking while raising the green, dirty water of the local rivulet on the well-preserved parts of aqueducts leading nowhere. As lone travellers often will, the engineer joined us for part of the way to the ruins of ancient Palmyra that spread around an oasis in the desert. I still remember his late evening horror stories about encounters with snakes, spiders and poisonous plants during his hydraulic adventures in the rainforest of the Amazon river. The challenge and danger he was about to face while working in Lebanon were of a different kind.

In 1993 Lebanon was recovering from a civil war that had lasted from 1975 to 1991, including the periods of Israeli and Syrian military invasions. Lebanon and Syria used to be one province of the Ottoman Empire, and both fell under French colonial mandate after WWI. When ceding their colonial territories after the WWII, the French colonialists cut their territory into two countries, leaving Lebanon in the hands of the Francophile Lebanese Christians. Lebanon still preserved an awkward parliamentary system of religious representation based on a 1932 census which identified the Maronite Christians as the majority in the territory. According to the “confessional democratic system of political apportionment,” defined by the National Pact of 1943, the office of president was reserved for a Maronite Christian, that of a prime minister for a Sunni, and that of a speaker of parliament for a Shiite; the size of the political blocs in parliament and staffing of the government were to be apportioned in a like manner.

Despite many conflicts that resulted from this situation, exacerbated by the fact that Christians ceased being a majority, Lebanon, unlike Syria, is a country where the population is participating in what can be called a political process. Ironically, it is the flexibility of the Lebanese political system and the struggle of the religious/political groups for the fair representation (complicated by the large presence of stateless, politically unrepresented Palestinian refugees) that made Lebanon into a minefield of Middle Eastern politics. Ever since Syria became a dictatorship in 1963, it has been openly or covertly claiming influence in Lebanon and, through Lebanon, on global politics. It is only in Lebanon that Syria’s little dictator, backed up directly or indirectly by the former Soviet Union, could abandon himself to dreams of world dominance in crossing swords with Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United States. What resulted was rather a world nuisance. — The 1990s were maybe the most peaceful years for this part of the Middle East. In 1991, Syria signed the Brotherhood Treaty with Lebanon and improved its standing with the United States through its cooperation against Iraq in the Gulf War. In 1992-93, Bill Clinton and Yitzhak Rabin focused on the Syrian-Israeli track in negotiating the Arab-Israeli conflict, and Syria’s peaceful disentanglement and return of the Golan Heights seemed possible. The real horrors were to come later. Meanwhile, with fearless ignorance, we were treading the Syrian desert profiting from a moment of truce. Among my old correspondence, I found an old postcard that the hydraulic engineer sent to my sister on December 4, 1993, from Lausanne. He reported that after our parting he proceeded to Homs and then took a taxi to Beirut, where he had his job interview. Of all things lost, this little piece of the past has quite miraculously survived, reminding me that his name was Alexandre. Did he get that job?

We travelled to the small town of Bosra in the very south of the country, famous for its majestic Roman amphitheater. The two-thousand-year old remains of a Roman town would have stayed fully intact, had they not been used by the local population as a stone query. Over the years they have taken apart the Roman walls in search for material to prop up their own houses. However, the amphitheater, maybe because it was built out of bigger blocks, stayed almost fully untouched. Quite surreally, it towered over the emptied out foundations of the former Roman dwellings on the one side and over the Arab anthill of a town on the other.

Our arrival was always a sensation in small Syrian towns. But the Bosrians decided to keep us. When we arrived at the bus stop to go back to Damascus, the bus driver refused to give us a ride, and so, one by one, did the taxi and car drivers in the square. The meaningful, resentful glances that the bystanders and the drivers exchanged at our plight suggested some kind of conspiracy. Whether they just wanted us to stay in a hotel for the purposes of local revenue, or were toying with some other plans regarding us, the whole affair had a threatening, unfriendly air. Finally, to our utter relief, somebody came over and offered us a private ride to Damascus in a minivan. We were somewhat surprised to see that besides us, six or seven men entered the bus, but the bus driver explained that he needed more passengers to make the long ride worth it. Some twenty minutes into the ride, it became clear that these men were not accidental passengers but belonged together. Not expecting us to understand Arabic, they started a conversation which seemed to consolidate some plans concerning our destiny. One of them addressed the bus driver over our heads with some orders. My sister sensed a menace and suggested that we’d better get out. But our request to stop was drowned out by a sudden argument breaking out among the group. One man sitting in the very back of the van had obviously changed his mind and decided to back out from the plan, objecting loudly and screaming at the rest of the company with visible anger and disapproval. They screamed back at the dissenter. The bus driver slowed down to wait for final directions, and we used the moment to open the door and jumped out of the van. Fully engulfed in their fight, the men did nothing to halt our escape while gesticulating vehemently at each other. The door shut, the bus made a sharp U-turn and drove off without a goodbye.

We stood on an empty highway in the middle of the darkening desert with arrow signs at the crossroad pointing one way to Baghdad and another to Beirut. Our sense of liberation was vast. We had hardly had time to take in what happened when a big tourist bus appeared on one of the diverging roads. The bus, when it slowed down to pick us up, turned out to be full of peasant women returning from a long-distance shopping trip, most likely in Lebanon. Their sunburnt, tired faces in multicolored kerchiefs looked at us sternly through the windows. They squashed their huge bags and moved them aside to leave us some space to sit. As if to compensate us for our misadventure, the bus driver treated us as hitchhikers and did not charge us a fare.

I wonder now whether Bosra happened to be a hub for the Muslim Brotherhood who terrorized the country in 1979-1982 and went underground after their revolt was finally put down by the bombing of Hama. The resentment which we encountered there was of a sterile, ideological kind, a resentment a priori, which I encountered later only at the academic job interviews. Syrians were usually delighted by the sight of Western girls. Syrians’ hospitality could be selfish and somewhat burdensome in its ritual rigidity but there was always a human quality to the interaction with them. In Bosra, it felt very different: there was detachment and animosity in the air. Who could be resentful toward Westerners, especially Russian and German travellers, in Syria in 1993? Germany was not involved at all in Syrian affairs, besides the archeological sites. The Soviet Union was one of the few close political allies Syria had. The contacts were broad. The number of Syrian exchange students who studied in the Soviet Union and of Russian professionals who worked in Syria was exceptional. Syrians and Russians also densely intermarried. Nowhere in the world have I met foreigners who could speak Russian with the perfection of Syrians. Many of them spoke Russian so well that you really couldn’t distinguish them from native speakers. When the Islamist uprising started in 1979, they targeted not only the Alawites, the Shiite sect of Hafiz Al-Assad, which was in control of the country, but all Western (which meant mostly Soviet) educated intellectuals and professionals. The Syrian friends of my family, men who had studied in the Soviet Union and had Russian wives, had had to flee the country and were hanging out with us in Moscow in the time of my childhood. I remember the story of a Russian friend who had to go back to Syria to sell their house in the countryside, where her Soviet-Union-educated husband couldn’t show up lest the local Islamists capture him. Her adventure was much more risky than the famous trip to Siberia by the wives of the Russian Decembrists. Having covered herself fully in a black veil so that the neighbors wouldn’t recognize her, she went to her husband’s village and sold the property, passing for an Arabic country woman. Speaking Syrian dialect without accent helped.  – I no longer remember whether the bus with the shoppers took us all the way to Damascus, or to some other town, from where we could take a regular, non-ideologically-obstructed bus line home.

We travelled to Latakia on the Mediterranean coast in the West where the sea was covered so densely with floating trash that one couldn’t enter the water without pushing aside the debris of old furniture, broken shoes, plastic cans and other refuse. To avoid this painful sight, we turned to the German archeological site of the pre-Roman Ugarit where tablets with cuneiform script, presumably the oldest letter alphabet in the world, were once excavated. It was the only place in Syria that was involved with the tourist enterprise: You could buy here plastic replicas of the tablets to wear as a pendant. We did and took off disenchanted.

For several weeks we cruised Syria in local buses, led by my teen-age sister who had already picked up some Arabic and could ask directions and ticket prices and identify the numbers and destinations on the rusty buses without air-conditioning and smelling like gasoline. Most importantly, she had become fully proficient in the mimicry, body-language and psychology of chaffering. I remember her negotiating the prices of our food and necessary supplies in the market, where she would stand long near a stand looking around with an air of utter indifference, prompting a trader to offer the merchandise at a certain price. Then glancing over it only very briefly, she would look away with an air of lethargic contempt shaking her head very subtly and slowly while making a tsoking sound with her tongue against the teeth but staying in place. The amazed trader would first turn away with a mixture of outrage and laughter but then inevitably turn back and lower the price somewhat. She would never lose her equanimity but just smile quietly away and continue doing the same, until the price was finally to her satisfaction.

The funniest thing was not even the fact that she masterfully adapted this strategy of chaffering but that her particular mimicry was the one usually practiced by old men. The traders couldn’t believe their eyes, laughed, threw their arms in the air, screaming out in wonder and excitement that they couldn’t go any lower, but nothing would bring my sister to break her composure and air of confident indifference. In the end, the trader would drop his arms, ask for her price and either agree to it or set his counter-offer just an iota higher to save face. She always knew where the line was drawn and would purchase whatever she wanted, magically transforming in a second back to her own non-chaffering self. It was the most amazing spectacle of intercultural mimicry that I have ever observed — a young European girl beating the Arabic men on their own ground! And they accepted their defeat, recognizing her victory as an utter homage to their culture.

We visited a medieval Christian castle built by the Crusaders. Among the visitors, there was an astonishingly beautiful Muslim woman who exuded ethereal elegance and grace though fully veiled in black. I remember us reveling in the beauty of her movements and talking for a long time about the seductiveness of concealment underlying the intensity and torment of Islamic eroticism. We visited the remote Christian village of Maalula nestling discreetly in the seams of a mountain ridge that separates two regions of the Syrian desert. In Maalula, people still spoke Aramaic. The remnants of this Near Eastern language seemed to be as ancient as a narrow passage in the mountains cut by an ancient creek, or, according to another version, by God Himself who opened the mountains in front of the early Christian Saint Thekla when she was escaping from her persecutors. It is on the plateau near Maalula that I saw another miracle — a tall beautiful olive tree growing out of the dry stony ground and spreading its green crown in the middle of a desert, despite its full exposure to the burning sun and strong winds. I asked my boyfriend to take a picture of it. For many years, I worshipped the photograph of this tree on the walls of my residences as a symbol of hope, until it got lost. — Aleppo was our final destination.

 Several neighborhoods have reportedly been reduced to rubble as the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad wages a massive ground assault to retake control of Aleppo. (August 10, 2012)

 On the way to Aleppo, I wanted to stop at the Euphrates to make sure that it existed. The biblical associations of this river compromised in my eyes its physical reality, giving it an eternal air of myth. “I’ll believe in it only if I see it with my own eyes! and touch it with my own hands!” I remember declaring to my friends in my usual hooliganish fashion. We took a map and located a train stop that seemed to be closest to the banks of the Euphrates. We hoped to be able to walk to it briefly from a train station. – It does exist! And in fact, after a long and slow train ride through the red-clay desert, with the rare clay huts of the Bedouins as the sole and quite unconvincing hint of life, the approach of the Euphrates does teach you the notion of paradise: An orange-colored desert senses the proximity of water a way before you can see the river itself and suddenly turns into a saturated green. This transformation of death into life is so sudden and so exhilarating to the beholder that one understands why this particular geography produced three paradise-obsessed religions.

On the train we befriended a local villager who told us that Euphrates was not in walking distance and offered us a ride in his relative’s car. He told us to wait in the station. His relative would come and pick us up for a little reward. And in fact, he came and brought us to a place on the bank of the river where we could access the water. The area surrounded by the dense growth of reeds was empty. Only several village boys were swimming at a distance and diving from the bridge. The waters of the Euphrates were crystal clear, magnificently blue and very deep already at the very bank. I remember us standing silently in the fresh breeze, overwhelmed by the clarity, width and swiftness of its stream. I hocked down to touch it with my hand, when we suddenly heard noises and voices behind our backs. We turned. A crowd of people was facing us, and more were arriving in buggies, on bikes and donkeys, bringing along their goats, children and elderly grandparents to see the exotic spectacle of the foreigners on the bank of the river. The rumors of our arrival have spread very fast. The crowd watched and discussed us with excitement, urging us to undress and to jump into the water. Our driver became visibly nervous and urged us to leave.

On the way back, at the roundabout just outside the village that we skirted, we were stopped by police. The driver had to step out and was interrogated about our presence in his car. I remember observing his long conversation with an officer, in the course of which the latter gestured to his wrists hinting at handcuffs. He was threatening the driver with arrest. Finally, the driver returned very distressed, saying that he had to pay a fine for entering in contact with the foreigners. We compensated him for the fine with something like $100, which was a heavy sum, on top of the promised reward but despite this remuneration he was visibly unhappy. He gave us a ride hoping to keep his entrepreneurship a secret, driving us on a back road to a hidden place on the bank of the river; but the small village is a small village. — This was how we learnt that the Syrians were prohibited from coming into personal, state-unsupervised contact with foreigners. After all, Syria was officially in a state of war with Israel since 1967, and just two years before had been in the Gulf War with its neighbor Iraq. In the big, crowded cities, this rule could be flaunted, but in a small village the police could turn it to advantage to procure heavy bribes and to garner new occasions for terror over the local populace. Even in the first hopeful months of Bashar Al-Assad’s power, when the Syrian civil society movement was asking his cabinet to introduce in Syria the right of free assembly and the government seemed to yield, contact with Westerners was a taboo that couldn’t be broken. Unfortunately, it is very likely that after this adventure by the Euphrates, our poor driver was blacklisted and thus became a habitual source of extra income for the local police thugs. Now the Syrian populace fights them back in a war of retaliation. Incidents like this one and its likely unsavory aftermath accumulated in the almost daily grievances that the Syrians came to hold against their corrupt, abusive government.

Our excursion to Euphrates thus curtailed, we ended up spending many idle hours on the tiny platform of a tiny train station to the utter excitement of the local teenagers. They sat down around us, watching and photographing us in a way that one usually does in a zoo. They were delighted by the show and had a lot of comments about every movement we made. My friend defiantly cleaned her teeth in front of them, only pouring oil on the fire of their anthropological curiosity. And as for me, I swore to myself never again to photograph people on my travels. It was already dark, when the train finally arrived and we took off for Aleppo.

 Syrian government forces continue to bombard areas of the besieged city of Aleppo in a fierce battle against rebel fighters. Several neighborhoods have reportedly been reduced to rubble as the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad wages a massive ground assault to retake the city. On Wednesday, Amnesty International released satellite imagery showing extensive bombings around Aleppo. (August 9, 2012)

 I don’t remember any more how long we stayed and what we did in Aleppo, apart from a general impression of Aleppo’s glamour and cosmopolitanism that distinguished it favorably from bureaucratic, dull and shabby Damascus. We walked through the clean, even polished, narrow streets of the medieval center, through the central market and the surrounding squares. A large street café in front of an entrance to the market had a European, touristy look. It was clear that Aleppo, regularly receiving streams of visitors over the Turkish border, was a part of Syria that was more than any other in touch with the outside world. What stayed in my memory was our late night visit to the Citadel on the eve of our departure. We missed the chance to visit the Citadel in its opening hours and were wandering along the wall in the darkness of a late evening hour to see it from the outside. The night guard on the wall noticed us, came down and invited us to come inside for a small private tour of the Citadel’s inner wall where he had his office. He led us up onto the wall and onto one of the Citadel’s towers, from which we could have a full view over its inside structures and nighttime Aleppo. Then we joined him in his office where a couple of other guards came by to chat with us in the international language of gestures and smiles. It was difficult to converse but they were very happy to have us as guests. We stayed politely until heavy, sweet tea was served to mark the end of the audience. It was a goodbye without any greedy or selfish undertones, an encounter of sheer joy and hospitality, just as we witnessed in Syria on many other occasions. It has stayed attached in my memory to the image of Aleppo.

Syrian government forces have launched a long-awaited ground assault on the besieged city of Aleppo after weeks of clashes. Heavy fighting has already broken out in the frontline district of Salaheddine, with reports of many casualties. On Tuesday, the head of the U.N. Supervision Mission in Syria, Babacar Gaye, said the fighting in Aleppo has forced international observers to pull back temporarily. (August 8, 2012)

To catch up on what has happened in Syria after we left, I read through David Lesch’s generous and flattering biography of Bashar Al-Assad, The New Lion of Damascus. No doubt embarrassed by its party-line flavor, Lesch had to compensate hurriedly with a new book after the would-be reformer had cracked down with shocking brutality on the civilian demonstrations in March of 2011. Lesch’s books filled me in on some details. But nothing really unexpected has happened, besides the fact that Basil, the first son of Hafiz Assad, who was groomed for inheriting state power, died in a car accident in January of 1994, just several months after our trip, and it was his second son, the ophthalmologist Bashar, who was brought back from his medical residency in London for this purpose. Preparation for the transition of power into the hands of the next Assad was accompanied with purges of the governing elite who had experience and competence in managing the state and thus could potentially mount an opposition. The purges were flagged as an “anti-corruption campaign.” The farce included even a change of the Syrian constitutional requirement that the president be at least 40 years old to match the age of the heir, who was then unanimously “elected” in a referendum as sole candidate. Well, no surprise here. I remember the quiet conversations asserting that the son of Assad would take over. In the end, it did not really matter which one of his four sons did so, since the maintenance and continuity of the routine alone were at stake. The saying of the US ambassador to Syria that “Hafiz Al-Assad made the regime, and the regime made Bashar” pins it down. In fact, Bashar handled the recent demonstrations in such a way that it took me some time to realize that his father has been dead since 2000. The methods used against Syria’s own population, including aerial bombings of whole cities and neighborhoods, bore Hafiz Al-Assad’s signature. Rumors that the regime or the rebels might come to use chemical weapons are not unimaginable, considering the degree of hostilities, which did not spare even prosperous, neutral Aleppo.

In Syria, at least 34 people are dead after two car bombs exploded in a suburb of the capital Damascus early Wednesday amidst ongoing clashes between anti-government rebels and the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Amateur video uploaded Tuesday showed Syrian rebels shooting down a military helicopter over the northern city of Aleppo. The video is seen as potential proof the rebels are now using heat-seeking missiles in the fight against government forces. Meanwhile a United Nations General Assembly committee voted Tuesday to condemn the Syrian government for widespread human rights abuses. (November 28, 2012)

 When Aleppo finally hit the headlines, I put other things aside and went back to the archived footage of the war, snippets of information leaking from Syria to the outside world. I watched amateur recordings of the distant smoke rising from the ruins of bombed neighborhoods, traces of bullets on the walls of destroyed buildings, listened to people’s screams and the sounds of shots, read the day-by-day log of the battles transmitted by activists. Whatever the rebels, whom France has declared to be the sole representatives of the Syrian people, are fighting for, they don’t fight for democracy. Thugs are fighting thugs using thuggish methods for the right to exercise unrestricted power as it was used against them.

The social understandings on which Aleppo prided itself are unraveling. Muslim fundamentalists have targeted Christian churches, and Shiite mosques. Arabs have fought Kurds. Iraqi Shiites and Sunnis have crossed the border to fight each other in Syria. (Charles Glass, “Aleppo: How Syria Is Being Destroyed,” NYRB, December 20, 2012, 38)

In fact, Syria did have a chance at reform and change. It was a series of initiatives — the “Statement of 99” (September 2000); the “Manifesto of 1,000” (January, 2001) – launched by courageous Syrian intellectuals who felt inspired by Bashar Al-Assad’s inaugural speech (July 17, 2000), which seemed to promise a reform. The groups of intellectuals, journalists and artists addressed his new cabinet with several proposals to revive the civil society in Syria, with the right to free assembly which would allow the formation of civil organizations and political parties, develop the culture of debates, negotiations and compromises, and over the course of several decades would have laid the foundation for a peaceful reform of the government. The Damascus Spring lasted just half a year, in which many political fora and salons, indeed, were established, some new, private newspapers opened, and even two human rights organizations, the Syrian Human Rights Association and the Defense of Democratic Freedoms and Human Rights, started to operate in Syria. But the activation of political life alarmed the government who preferred the Chinese model of liberalization of economy without liberalization of political system. Six months later, around February of 2001, this momentary opening of the public space was over.

I remember seeing Syrian professionals and intellectuals sitting at night in the cafés in Damascus, men and women with intelligent faces engaged in intensive conversations. For me, it is them and the laughing man in Aleppo who are the representatives of the Syrian people, not the thugs with the guns who loot, kill, kidnap and retaliate against members of the population whom they suspect of pro-government sympathies. The unique opportunity for reform was mishandled. Desiring to be a dictator of paternal benevolence, Bashar introduced amnesties for political prisoners without opening space for the political process. – The war of all against all rages in Syria. And a coalition built overnight in response to Hillary Clinton’s hint as a condition for American support is a flimsy and unconvincing construct.

The images of the war are grey, dull, poor images: Grey dust, grey smoke, grey asbestos blur the vision, cover the contours of the objects; even the blood is grey, mixed with the ashes, sand, mud of destruction. There is an abyss between these images and those bright photos of our trip that my ex-boyfriend digitized and sent me recently to help me remember. Like an overused eraser, the war turns memories into shapeless greyness. Natural and social cataclysms uproot the past from geography and history. They destroy not just the places, I learnt, but also the way we remember them. Like Moscow’s Donskoy monastery after the invasion of free enterprise, like the old Jerusalem after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, like the rocky coast of Sendai after Tsunami, Aleppo has joined the places of my youthful adventures and intense friendships that have been one by one fading away into zones of no-return. Now engulfed in a deadly Scylla-and-Charybdis struggle, Syria might become one day a better or a worse place, but whatever comes, it won’t be the place I remembered, and I won’t remember it any more as it used to be. I gather old, already yellowed postcards of little cave-like Christian churches hiding somewhere in Damascus, a drawing of Saladin from an old Arabic manuscript, a table of Ugarit’s ancient alphabet from 14th B.C., the little memory props that have loyally accompanied me throughout these years, and put them away.

3 thoughts on “Goodbye to Aleppo

  1. The Arab Spring has been a messy business, not the black-and-white cartoon of dictators vs. the people that one sees on the news. One might not be a fan of any of the Assads; one might be suspicious of the clientele relation between Syria and the USSR, and later Russia; but if the only opposition able to organize itself under their one-party system has been the Muslim Brotherhood, I have to find myself disgustedly warming to the tyrants and thugs who at least made it possible for women to educate themselves and hold office, for Syrians to intermarry with foreigners, read foreign books, exit and reenter their country, and for other basics of civilized life to be taken for granted. Cf. Afghanistan, cf. Libya, cf. a bunch of places. The problem of Syria in 1990s and today is another reminder that the Cold War is not a useful frame for thinking about politics.

    • And contrast with the Western portrayals of the relationship between the West and Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Dubai, etc.. The “Arab Spring” is a conveniently selective term for a phenomenon which, ever since it began, has been misrepresented and/or misunderstood and which will, I fear, result in a bloodbath which will engulf most of North Africa, and in which the West can never prevail.

      It’s questionable if it is an Arab phenomenon at all, when you consider Iran’s influence, and might be better viewed from the perspective of sectarianism and secularism, with sectarianism being a reaction against the exploitative Western Consumerism which has it that “growth” can be indefinitely continued with finite resources, which it can’t.

      And this “spring” has lasted too long now to warrant the name, hasn’t it?

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