Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.
In Italo Calvino's novel, Invisible Cities, a world traveler named Marco Polo describes the cities of a vast but crumbling empire to its ruler, Kublai Khan. Over time, the intricate descriptions of the cities begin to overlap until the khan slowly realizes that his appointed traveler has been describing the same city, an imagined city, over and over, in fragments -- each vignette exposing another perspective, unveiling yet another city, where death mirrors life and cities are named after Italian women. Each city is suspended between reality and imagination, structured on a set of absurd rules, reminding the reader that a city can only be absorbed through short glances, each glance anchored to an object, a story, or a memory.
I've been reading and rereading Invisible Cities for over a decade. Before the Syrian revolution, Calvino's poetics were safely rooted in the realm of fiction. When I recently picked it up to look for a quote, I began to read it once more -- this time sneaking a few pages at a time between my daily intake of endless streams of gruesome images emerging from our all-too-real Syrian cities. For the first time, Calvino's words detached from fantasy; Syria's cities became embedded within the lines of the Invisible Cities. I listened, along with Kublai Khan, to Marco Polo's narrations and tried to understand how cities become invisible.
Watching death has become a pastime of the revolution. There is much to learn from it. Death is sudden; it is shorter than a short YouTube clip. Death is a man wrapped in his shroud, bloodied gauze strips tied around his head, cotton stuffed in his nostrils, and the bluish-gray tinge of his skin. Death is the camera panning over mass graves where children's bodies are arranged in long, perfect lines, then covered with rust-colored dirt. The death of Syrians accumulated so fast it seems impossible to comprehend over 40,000 lives lost in less than two years.
But the death of a city is different. It is slow -- each neighborhood's death is documented bomb by bomb, shell by shell, stone by fallen stone. Witnessing the deaths of your cities is unbearable. Unlike the news of dead people -- which arrives too late, always after the fact -- the death of a city seems as if it can be halted, that the city can be saved from the clutches of destruction. But it is an illusion: The once-vibrant cities cannot be saved, so you watch, helpless, as they become ruins.
Ruins are sold to us as romantic and poetic. As tourists wandering ancient sites, cameras dangling from our necks and guidebooks in hand, we seek beauty in the swirling dust over the remains of a dead civilization. We imagine what is was like then, before empires decayed and living objects became historical artifacts. But that kind of romanticism is only afforded with the distance of time and geography. In war, ruins-in-the-making are not beautiful, not vessels of meaningful lessons, not a fanciful setting for philosophical contemplations on the follies of men. When you witness it live, when it is real, and when it happens to your city, it becomes another story altogether.