The people of Aleppo have been divided about the revolution since its birth. Unlike other cities like Daraa, Homs, and Hama, they did not join it willingly. Some resent the armed opposition fighters who they claim entered the city unprepared to fight the regime. They blame the destruction and devastation of Aleppo on the opposition fighters and conveniently forget the violence the Assad regime inflicted on their city for over four decades.
When Hafez al-Assad fought the Muslim Brotherhood in the early 1980s, he crushed the city of Hama -- killing tens of thousands in February 1982 and leveling an entire historical neighborhood -- in what became known infamously as the "events." But people forget what had happened before, the earlier "events," when Aleppo lost thousands of sons -- disappeared in Assad's notorious jails to be tortured, executed, and eventually erased from memory.
But Hafez al-Assad never forgot Aleppo's rebellious side. He ruled it with an iron grip, crippling the city's economy and stunting its development. The entire neighborhood of Bab al-Jneen in the Old City was razed and replaced with a series of concrete government eyesores that obnoxiously towered over the historical urban fabric. The lot in front of the area remained empty for two decades. We used to study the map of the Old City and visually connect the narrow streets across the large gaping hole, imagining what had been erased from our history.
People forget that the reason Aleppo was the best-preserved historic Islamic city in the Middle East was a result of neglect rather than care. Later in the 1990s, when the regime discovered the benefits of trendy buzzwords like "restoration" and "preservation," millions of dollars poured into Assad's coffers from abroad to renovate the Old City. But everyone forgot that Bashar, like his father, never cared for the city of the north. Not for its buildings, its history, or even its people. What had been painstakingly rebuilt stone by stone, refurbished, reclaimed, and reinvented, is now destroyed in minutes. Nothing was deemed sacred, not the Great Umayyad Mosque, not the old souks, not the Christian quarters of al-Jdeideh, and not even the symbol of the city, the Citadel.
The people of Aleppo resemble the people in so many of Calvino's cities in their amnesia. They forget that silence and fear have lost their currency in the post-revolution market. They forget that Assad's shells do not discriminate between a silent citizen and a brave one.
Our country is a landscape of urban and rural rape by the Assad dynasty. They leave the land, like the Mongols did before them, covered in smoke, rubble, and blood. The regime redefines barbarianism for the new millennium -- cynically cloaking the country in false modernity for decades, funneling international resources for personal gain and glory, then bombing the country to pieces. In a final insult, they blame it all on a conspiracy.
We hear rumors of our antiquities disappearing through the open seams of our country -- our objects excavated and looted, snatched up and traded for weapons to kill more Syrians. Our artifacts leave Syria to live in other homes, where people will tell their children tales about an ancient place that once was, before it was invisible. Before it died.
Aleppo, like Calvino's cities, is a woman. Her complete name, Halab al-Shahba, refers to the milk of the prophet Ibrahim's ashen cow. It is no surprise that Aleppo's name would hold meanings both holy and earthly, of sacredness and sustenance. It is a city of milk and marble -- nothing nourishes Aleppo's spirit more than its stone and cuisine. Now, Aleppo is a city of ash and blood. Now the milky limestone has turned gray and black, with veins of red. The white has disappeared, except for the traces of salty tears on our ashen faces.
During war, we learn to look at our cities in fragments, each scene uncovering a part of ourselves we did not know, or pretended not to know. Every day we are forced to confront the ugly parts of ourselves that we naively thought belonged only to other people. For only other people would kill each other; only other people would bomb buildings occupied by innocent families; only other people would loot and rape; and only other people would slaughter a child. These actions, we believed, did not define us. We were not like that.
People who are not Syrian ask me the most painful question, "Why do your people kill each other?" I usually give long-winded explanations, gesturing with my hands but without eye contact, offering historical and logical precedents of tyranny and oppression and revolution and freedom. But I don't tell them what I should, not out of kindness, but out of pity and because it scares me to admit how hardened I've become over the last 20 months: Don't you dare, even for one second, believe that your people and your cities are immune to what happened to my country, my friend. None of you are.