On Wednesday, I surfed a quiet break on the southeast coast of Australia while the Syrian government, aided by Russian forces, closed in on the final rebel stronghold in eastern Aleppo. At the beach, the day was dark and rainy and a fierce cross-wind was sewing disorder amongst the waves. In Aleppo, I suppose, the skies would have been grey as well – that same dusty grey that accompanies the biting cold which blasts through during the week before Christmas.
As the bombs fell on that distant urban battlefield, I rode the same wave again and again, wondering periodically, between sets, what was happening to the town I’d called home for a few months before the war.
It was 2011 and a week or two after New Year’s. The day was cold and the skies were grey – that cold, lifeless grey that hovers over desert places in the winter. Beside the plaza beneath the Citadel, I sat on an open-aired divan in the warmth of a heatlamp, quietly taking in my surroundings. Our final Arabic exam was over we’d gone out for shai and shisha to celebrate. The others had since left but I’d chosen to linger a little, people-watching by myself outside. The waiter had already come and the hookah had been taken away but the air around me still smelled of apple-smoke.
Above me, atop the sweep of stone and dirt that formed the castle mount, a pair of Syrian army soldiers were stood, in view and a little apart from each other, on the stony-walled ramparts looking down at the square. Assault rifles hung from their shoulders. There was a certain newness to this pair of Syrian Army soldiers and I noticed this newness because these soldiers had not been up on those walls during my previous visits to the square.
Still, though I remarked on the change, whatever that change might indicate, I thought very little of it, because down in the plaza everything looked the same. A young man in an ankle-length qamis sat by himself on an oblong bench beneath a lamp-post, his slippered feet flat and uniform on the smooth stone beneath him. Beside him, another man, apparently unknown to him, was quietly eating his lunch. A hundred or so metres away, at the Citadel’s entrance steps, an Iranian family was scattered in a photo-taking gaggle, smiling and trading places in the pictures. Meanwhile and aloof from both groups, on the far side of the square – a pair of Eastern European women with dyed white hair, powdered faces and form-fitting clothing (clothing which suggested their profession without explaining their profession) was stood next to the retaining wall, sharing a fume-cigarette between them.
They are Romanian or Bulgarian perhaps, I mused. Here in Aleppo though, it didn’t matter because Syrians simply called all such women “Russi”. “Russi” – meaning “Russian” in Arabic – had a very different meaning in this context.
My time in this city was coming to an end and even though I’d had my ear to the ground just long enough to pick up a few such colloquialisms I really knew nothing of Aleppo. I knew, of course, those humdrum factoids that every foreign visitor learns on arrival and that every Aleppan is quick to remind you of when you strike up a conversation about their hometown: that Abraham was supposed to have milked his herd here (from which the city gets its Arabic name “Halab” – as in “haleeb” meaning “milk”); that even though Damascus is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world Aleppo appears in the written historical record much earlier; or that the capture of Aleppo marked the final victory of the Arab Revolt and that TE Lawrence was known to enjoy a nightcap in the swanky lounges of the Baron Hotel.
I knew those kinds of factoids. In truth though, I knew very little. So, while my friends went back to the hotel to smoke those thick, heavy cigarettes which you can only buy in the Middle East, I’d decided to delay my journey home, embarking on a final wander through the city – to feel its rhythms one last time.
I stood up and walked across the square and, finding the entrance to the Old Souq, I slipped down the steps and into the tunnel. It was late in the day and the market stalls were beginning to close up. The hawkers were still hawking but their hawking was more languid now – quieter, calmer, less desperate. One or two or three of them were drinking little shot-glasses of sweet tea, incuriously watching me from behind an over-stuffed rack of cheap Chinese-made toys.
I walked past the bath-house where some friends and I had had the best wash of our lives but the bathing time was later in the evening so the door was bolted shut. I moved on past a row of spice and fruit stalls remarking, as ever, the colourful arrangements of cinnamon, saffron and dates in their hessian baskets. The aroma of cardamom hung heavy on the air.
I passed the little hole-in-the-wall that had become a favourite for an after-class snack. Freshly-squeezed juice (the unsweetened-but-still-sweet kind that leaves tassels of pulp between your teeth) with flatbread and a tray of humus dripping in olive oil. They’d finished making juice for the day but I bought a half-dozen circles of bread to go with dinner. The bread wasn’t fresh-baked like it was around lunchtime but even if it was a little hard and a little cold it would do for supper.
Bagging the bread, I took off again with the ancient tunnel arches of the marketplace still overhead. Taking a side exit then, I wandered out into the open air – still cold and still grey – and past the Ummayad Mosque – the centrepiece of Aleppan Sunnism. The minaret, with its gingerbread stonework, towered above the street but the muezzin was not calling because prayer-time was over and the faithful were flooding out into the cold air as well – the women in their hijab, the men in their taqiyah – dispersing into the streets as they set off on their way home for dinner and rest.
A few blocks and a series of side-alleys later (the exact route of which I cannot remember) and I stood before the big black iron-clad door that marked the language institute in which we’d studied. The door which led into our classroom – a medieval vault – was slammed shut now and Ali, my Arabic teacher, would be going home tomorrow. “This place is a powder-keg” was the last thing he’d say to me before he left.
I turned the alley-corner and passed by a grated booth in the wall, and though everything was closed now I knew that there was a government-run bakery inside – one which issued loaves of bread around lunchtime – a scene of daily subsidized chaos.
I was halfway home now and turning the corner again, I wondered off through the local meat market – a vegetarian’s nightmare – cow’s heads on plates, dead chickens with hooks through their necks – and I passed out into the street again – past a take-away joint with a neon sign reading “Mr Chicken” in English and a line of backgammon halls, always teeming with coffee-sipping patrons, where Don and I had gone one afternoon to learn what all the fuss was about.
The main street which led back into the Christian Quarter was teeming with traffic – old, smelly cars driven by leather-jacketed locals honking furiously in the grey-golden light of peak hour. I walked past the white-walled boundary of an international hotel – perhaps it was the Carlton, but I can’t quite recall anymore – and, stepping over the carcass of a dead street cat, made a decisive bid to cross the street. The cars weaved around me, the drivers adjusting their trajectories accordingly.
Reaching the curb opposite, I mounted it and moved to a small shop where a man stood behind a counter stirring a giant vat of a viscous white something. For weeks I had frequented this little stop-and-shop on my way home, buying and drinking this viscous white something without knowing exactly what it was. The beverage they made here, I would learn long after I had made a habit of drinking it, was called sahlab – a sweet dessert made from the flour of orchid tubers. It was thick and milky-coloured and until I learned its actual name I had simply used a number of inappropriate English nicknames in everyday conversation.
Learning the name though, was of no real substance to me because the stuff was delicious. So, trading five pounds for a cupful of sahlab – whose name I knew at last on my second last day in Aleppo – I tipped it slowly to my lips, letting the aroma waft and steam beneath my nose, before draining the lot. It was warm and smooth and thick as it slid into my belly and, satisfied, I looked up and the grey sky seemed a little less grey.
I handed the cup back for a refill, and drinking my takeaway as I went, I crossed another road and plunged into the Christian Quarter with its cobbled alleys and ornate stonecraft. A block further and the day seemed to have fled from night’s black banners because the sky was black now and all the streetlights were turned on.
I had bread in my backpack but I took the long way back to the hotel and visited the supermarket – a French chain called Monoprix – on the way home for extras. Meanwhile, seamlessly around me, Aleppans lived out their lives. Two blocks away was the university, bustling with students. A few blocks beyond that was the little resto owned by a pair of Iraqis. Best bread I’ve ever eaten.
A statue stood in my path on my way back to the hotel and even though I’d passed it many times on my walks about town, I realised then that it might be the last I’d see of this statue for a while so I concluded that perhaps I should expend a little extra time actually looking at the thing. The details are hazy now but I remember that the statue was dark and strong and prideful – standing tall and indifferent against the chill of a January night.
“Acacius,” read the plaque on the block at the statue’s feet. “Bishop of Aleppo”. There was something else on that plaque – a collection of dates, or places, or an elegy or a quotation perhaps. But I can’t quite recall any more.
Indeed, I’d be lying if I said that I will always remember Aleppo just the way she was during those few months I walked her streets. As the cold of that night grows more and more distant the details grow hazy – even if these memories in their present form are only five or six years old. Still, I remember what I remember and the Syria I remember was a Syria that I could live in even if a brutal dictator was in charge of it all. We used a proxy server to access many internet sites and the secret police were going through the garbage but still there was sahlab and humus and bread and for Syrians themselves there was something resembling normalcy even if that normalcy was not free.
There are, was then, always has been Syrians who wanted more than what Assad was offering. You could hear this sometimes in faint whispers, trailing at the ends of the occasional sentence. A sly joke about Bashar here and there; a one-time mention of what Bashar’s father Hafez had done to Hama in the 80s; but still, if you’d asked me, I never would have guessed what would happen in Syria just months after I left. What would eventuate in Syria would be a surprise to me even as I bore witness to the early tumult of the Arab Spring in Cairo.
It’s possible that there was a real “Spring” at some point during Syria’s civil war – a wellspring of hope injecting itself into a political system which had, for decades, stifled anything and everything resembling liberty. But the Arab Spring, the one I watched happen on TV during a cold Syrian December, had always looked to me like the beginning of an Arab Winter – a season of grey skies and political disquiet when a cold swell was washing against the Lattakia coast. A month when a cold frost clung to the cobblestone alley-ways in the side streets around the Ummayad Mosque. The beginning of the Long Cold.
Somewhere along the way it seems, a truly popular revolution was destroyed, either by Assad himself or by internal forces – jihadist or otherwise – who came into the picture at an opportune time to hijack both the message and the manpower. Things fell apart as, in hindsight, they were always going to. And in this instance, there was nothing that I nor anybody in the Western world could have done about it. To think otherwise would be foolish – and revoltingly ethnocentric.
I personally witnessed nothing of the Syrian Civil War as it happened, on the ground. I simply watched as Syrian friends went quiet on Facebook or as friends from other walks of life ended up in the midst of it all, dying there in circumstances still too complex and strange for me to fully understand.
All I know for sure is that the Battle of Aleppo was a loss, even if one side, as seems now to be the case, has claimed victory. Nobody won the Battle of Aleppo – least of all Aleppans. For who, really, could see success in the wholesale destruction of a living, breathing city? Who could read victory in the devastation of Aleppo’s Souq, its Citadel, its Mosque and its Inhabitants?
As I nosed my board through the trough of a towering breaker, emerging out the back a second later, I looked out to sea at the grey sky and the distant-falling raindrops on the long-forming swell.
Grey skies. Grey skies here. Grey skies there. Grey skies over Aleppo today, for sure. Grey skies everywhere.