It was summer 2010, we were sitting in a cafe in old Damascus, drinking Arabian coffee, listening to music, smoking our hookah. A typical Friday night out with friends, laughing our hearts out till the sun began to crawl up the sky, reminding us it was time to go home. We walked outside with Ms Nada, a successful advocate in Damascus. She was about to drive home to Aleppo to spend the weekend with her family. I looked at her and exclaimed: “You’re driving four hours, 360 km, all by yourself?” She smiled: “Waiel, this is a weekly ritual for me. I go home and come back Sunday morning for work!” “Don’t feel scared?” I asked. “What if your car broke down?” Nada laughed out loud. “Why should I be scared? It’s happened many times. I wave to passing cars. Eventually, someone helps. This is Syria, doctor. Here, we are safe and we help each other out”. Rather, this was Syria’s reality…before 2011.
And who could stop talking about Aleppo! Full of life, with its 5.5 million people, busy markets, the hum of 1,500-plus factories…. Why, for over two years of the war on Syria, did Aleppo not see one demonstration against the regime? Because its people rejected sectarian politics and stayed out of trouble. Often they were accused by the radicals of siding with the regime. Sarcastic, humiliating jokes abounded. Yet they didn’t succumb. Being one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world means you have a settled culture; and it’s a secular one. Bang in the middle of the Silk Route’s Mesopotamian end, with a continuous history going back 11,000 years, Aleppo has seen a whole catalogue of civilisations—Hittite, Aramaic, Assyrian, Persian, Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine and Islamic. In 1599, Vincenzo Dandolo, the consul of Venice, wrote: “Aleppo is a mini-India, with its vast havelis (khans), rich merchants and beautiful buildings”. Living in India, I could not agree more.
Then, in 2013, Turkey opened its borders to mercenaries and Islamists, all well-trained and armed. They surrounded the city; the drum roll of war began. Water was disconnected, power plants blown up, factories dismantled and sold at token price in Turkey. On its streets, blockades, snipers and falling cylinder bombs awaited you. Nada now dare not travel alone.
Sunday brunch with my family reminds me. Every day, Mazen, a Syrian expat in Delhi, would find time to call his mother and ask: what are you eating today? Always she answered: kimajeh bread, burgul (a dish made of broken wheat) and barley soup! No salads, fruits or desserts. There was never enough water, power or supplies to make the dishes that once brought families together. Mazen is furious. Where was the media outcry for east Aleppo, he asks, when for three years the people of the city survived on bread. The city was dying in silence, shops being burned down, old markets blown up, heritage sites destroyed, artefacts looted and smuggled through Turkey into Europe. Where was the global humanitarian aid? The Facebook filter? The hashtag?
My love for Aleppo goes back to the ’70s when my father sent me and my brother to our relatives, Abdulla and Adeeb Aljerf, at the air force academy. Retired brigadier Adeeb was a MiG fighter pilot, and father had wanted us to join the force. As a young boy, I walked through Aleppo’s streets; the steep narrow lanes of the Armenian colony, all marble stone, chilled by the breeze under cloudy skies. Once we stopped at a street-side stall, next to a pistachio tree. Breakfast was fava bean foull, hummus, falafel and taboula salad, washed down with a glass of sahlab, a hot and rich drink made of milk, sugar, salep flour and musk essence!
It was the Armenian massacre by Turkey that had swelled their numbers. William Dalrymple wrote in his 1997 book, From the Holy Mountain: “Before WW1 there were only 300 Armenian families in town; by 1943, (it) had topped 4,00,000.” And then, the Suriani and Greek orthodox refugees. “The influx turned Aleppo into Noah’s Ark”. Life brought me to India, which I call home. From here I look back at Dandolo’s mini-India. At all the suffering, at the smear campaign in the West against Syria’s attempt to liberate Aleppo from terrorists—crocodile tears meant to mask a sinister plot to divide Syria. I look to the day when it’s all over, when wounds can heal, and simple pleasures of life can again be found in breakfast bowls.
The Syrian government forces have regained control of about 60 per cent of the war-torn city from the ISIS. Almost all of east Aleppo was retaken this week.
The writer is a senior Syrian journalist based in New Delhi
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