No one, wise Kublai, knows better than you that the city must never be confused with the words that describe it. Yet between the one and the other there is a connection.
At some point, trust breaks between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan. Storyteller and listener separate into worlds independent of each other. Kublai Khan eventually doubts his narrator and accuses Marco Polo of weaving fantasies out of nothing. Do these cities even exist, he asks, or did you make them up?
Cities are both real and imagined. In peace, they are a backdrop, quietly absorbing your ego, waiting to be noticed when someone visits and sees her anew, while we drag our heels, unappreciative, along the pavements. You dream of leaving this place that never changes, leaving behind the burden of history where you will never amount to even a speck of dust in its never-ending tale. You dream of a place outside this place where the possibility to escape the past and become someone else seems easier. You never imagined that one day, the city will be the one that is exposed, unprotected, and vulnerable -- you never imagined that one day, your city, not you, will be the one that needs to be saved. In war, the city becomes precious, each inch mourned, each stone remembered. The city's sights, smells, and tastes haunt you. You cling to every memory of every place you had ever been to and remember that this is what it was like. Before.
But memories are deceptive. You weave them into images, and the images into a story to tell your child about a city you once knew, named Aleppo. A city of monuments and milk, of sweets and spices, a city so perfect and so beautiful it was named after a prophet's ashen cow. Its minarets once changed shape from square to round to thin spindles, and every call to prayer was a symphony of voices across the neighborhoods echoing each other, as if in constant dialogue. You continue the tale, skipping certain details: the fleeing people, the smoke, the ashes, the fallen minarets and the silenced athans, the blood in the bread lines, and the relentless stench of death. Unlike Calvino, you gloss over the dark underbellies of society, overlooking the evils of men, the betrayals of people -- in fact, you ignore the people altogether because you have become convinced that without the people, a city can remain innocent.
Never mind; those details don't belong here; what matters is holding on to what once was. And you speak faster, describing the homes of grandparents and great-grandparents, pretending they are not empty. You speak of ancient neighborhoods of great-great-grandfathers, rebuilding them with your words in perfect form and not as they are now -- the centuries-old gate a smoldering heap of crushed stone, the jasmine vines broken and dead, the tiled courtyard fountain dried up and covered with dirt. All of this you skip in the narrative, trying to keep the nightmare separate from the dream, for you have not completely learned from Calvino's wisdom: Cities exist in their dualities.
And the child will ask you, because children always do, Mama, does it really exist? Or are you making it up? And you will not know what to say, for the story is both a falsehood and the truth. At once it is real and in the next moment it is intangible, even as you hold the photograph in your hand and the memories in your mind. Despite all your efforts, or perhaps in spite of them, it changed.
And with my words, both said and unsaid, I had finally rendered my city, invisible.