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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
the desperate moment when we discover that this empire, which had seemed to us
the sum of all wonders, is an endless, formless ruin, that corruption's
gangrene has spread too far to be healed by our scepter, that the triumph over
enemy sovereigns has made us the heirs of their long undoing.
Aleppo is unlike being from anywhere else in the world. We walked on history so
deep, we did not understand it -- we simply learned to call this place, older
than all others, home. We grew up knowing that our insignificant existence was
the thinnest layer of dust on the thick geological strata of empires, kingdoms,
and generations, which lived within our stone walls. We knew without doubt,
from an early age, that we were nothing but a blink of our city's eye.
When you are
from Aleppo, you are plagued with a predicament: Nothing here will ever change.
For some people, living in the city that never changes becomes too difficult.
The city's permanence and your inability to make a mark on it push you to
eventually leave Aleppo, trading comfort for change. After you leave, no matter
where you are in the world, you know that Aleppo is there, waiting exactly as
you left it. Instead, it is you who returns in a reinvented form each time you
come home -- a university graduate, a bride, a mother, each time proudly
carrying your new ideas and identity to your patiently waiting city.
you grow up worrying if your legacy will ever be worthy of your city's. But you
never worry about your city's legacy -- which we thoughtlessly leaned on -- for
how could we, ever, change Aleppo's legacy?
Calvino's city of Lalage, a city of minarets on which the moon "rest[s] now on
one, now on another." It is a city of churches, temples, relics, and graves of
revered mystics. It is a city where the spices of Armenia meld with the tastes
of Turkey. It is a city where Arabic, Kurdish, and Armenian tongues speak
parallel to each other, with an occasional French word mixed in here or there.
It is a city of trade and industry, where men are constantly bargaining and
negotiating in the same souks as their fathers before them. It is a city where
girls walking down the streets in tight jeans and high heels pass by women in
long black coats and white veils pinned under their chins. And they know they
all belong right here, to Aleppo.
A man who is
not from Aleppo recently told me, "When you travel to Aleppo, you don't see it
until you arrive." I had never noticed that. Perhaps, because I was always inside
it, I never searched for it when we returned. I never doubted that it would
always be there, exactly as I left it, untouched, unchanged. But he was right;
Aleppo is an inward-looking city; it sees the world reflected in itself. And
because we've lived here for generations, we became like that too.
sits on an oval hill in the heart of Aleppo. This is where you bring every
visitor. You guide them up the steep stone steps in the summer heat, always
promising the tourists trailing behind you that inside will be much cooler. And
it is. You take them through the fortress's massive gates and winding interior,
which once protected it from attack. You lead them out once more into the
bright hot sun, wincing as your eyes adjust from the darkness to the harsh
Aleppine light. You continue climbing up, pointing out the Citadel's mosque to
your left and the amphitheater to your right. You buy a bottle of water at the
cafe because by now, the heat has melted you as well. Then you are at the very
top, and as always the breeze from the west surprises you all.
your arm toward the majestic view, as the city of stone and minarets unfolds
in front of the guests, like magic. It is the moment you've waited for, to turn
to them and say with pride and certainty, "This is where I'm from. This is my
city." The cameras click in applause. The city, I imagined, was amused at its children's
Citadel is no longer a stage for impressing visitors. It is no longer a
protected UNESCO World Heritage site. It has reclaimed its original purpose --
a fortress in an active battle between Syrian sons, a site to be occupied and
captured once more. The ancient nails and iron horseshoes that once adorned the
indestructible doors are now twisted and the wooden planks are broken. The
castle's narrow slits, once used for archers, now hide sniper nests. The
limestone, untouched for centuries, is riddled with fresh bullet holes, and
the newly repaved street below is
bloodied with fallen victims, corpses that sometimes rot for days before they
can be reclaimed. As activist Sami from Aleppo says, "We are watching remains
pride has proved us unworthy of this history that we could not protect. The Old
City, the Citadel, and the souks were not just a stage for us to perform upon
in front of others -- they were the heart of every Aleppian. Being from Aleppo
is in our blood, and this blood now flows down the cobblestone streets. The
broken city is no longer amused at the pastimes of its children.
become the land of topless minarets and headless little girls. It seems in
every video there is always something missing, something broken, something that
can never be mended. You learn about things when they are broken --
friendships, love, people, and even cities. I learned from watching the
revolution that when things are broken, they take up more space.
objects are compact and efficient. A child's long intestines coil perfectly,
unseen inside her flat stomach, unlike the sheer mass of tangled pink flesh
that spills out next to her slaughtered body. The sharp edge of a broken skull
penetrates another child's forehead as if it had been a concealed knife all
along, posing as a smooth, white, curved shield. A minaret is sleek and
graceful standing in the sky -- but when it falls, it breaks into mountains of
rocks in the street, its top tiers taking down a face of a building along with
it. Even Syria itself, a once quiet country that seemed not to take up any
space at all before the revolution, is now a regional crisis, clogging
newspaper headlines, international political discussions, and social media
forums with millions of words and images.
on new, unimaginable forms when they are destroyed. Concrete floors fold into overlapping
vertical sheets along the walls of buildings. Charred bodies become smaller,
forever frozen in their tortured positions. Metal doors of shops crumple like
tin, separating from their frames. Even pleasant memories are twisted with
destruction: The crackling sound of burning wood will never comfort me again,
as it will always remind me of the crackling wooden doors of Aleppo's historical
shops when they were set ablaze.
are destroyed, you realize, too late, how fragile it all once was: bones,
stones, walls, buildings, cities.
of destruction and the change it brings comes in waves -- like grasping that
your family is in exile or understanding that places from your childhood have
disappeared forever. The dark spaces of the city begin to match the dark places
in your mind.
friend laments, "When we went to the Old City, we never took pictures. Who
would ever take pictures in Aleppo?" And it's true; my photographs of Aleppo
are all with visitors. They increased in number over the years, when I became a
visitor myself. Now we excavate what we can find, using our photographs as references
for the city that we mistakenly treated as an unchanging background in the
composition. Who would ever have thought that we would stay and she would burn?
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
those who pass it without entering, the city is one thing; it is another for
those who are trapped by it and never leave. There is the city where you arrive
for the first time; and another city which you leave to never return.
Calvino's Almema, the city of the dead, where "you reach a moment in life when,
among the people you have known, the dead outnumber the living." In Syria, we
are living aberrations to life itself. We have seen what no one is supposed to
see, the insides of children and the primal sins of men. We have watched with
horror as our air force's planes drop barrels of explosives onto sleeping
villages. We have defied the laws of nature. Just as no parent should ever have
to bury their children, no citizen should have to bury her own city.
shifts in a city like Aleppo simply do not happen in one's lifetime. It is no
longer a given that my city will outlive me.
Our home is
sick, and we are homesick. My mother tells me she is a stranger in other
people's home, as strangers live in our home. My father talks about locking up
and leaving, the key in his pocket, thinking he will return -- but now return
is an impossible dream.
supposed to live and die in an Aleppo unchanged, just as our grandfathers had
before us, but instead we broke the laws of nature and pass on what we had
inherited intact to the few survivors, in ruins.
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
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.