Letters from Syria: Aleppo Between Past and Present

Aleppo Between Past and Present : Saleh Razzouk
People remove belongings from a damaged site after an air strike Sunday in the rebel-held besieged al-Qaterji neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail
People remove belongings from a damaged site after an air strike Sunday in the rebel-held besieged al-Qaterji neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

1. After 2013:

After 2013 the city of Aleppo entered a a mine field. Today, no one can move or go around the city without complications. The life itself became a rare gift, and precious one. Stray bullets became normal phenomena, like birds. Once, lovely birds used to chant on branches of trees in every corner of a blessed city considered by many to be the oldest city in the history of the human kind. Now, we listen to bullets.

2. Early beginnings:

The early beginnings of the city of Aleppo date as early as 2000 b.c. The ialeppo001p4place took its name from the Assyrian and Aramaic languages. It was called at time Khalpeor Khalibon which means ‘White’ in a direct reference to its light-grey earth.

Muslims and Arabs then called it Halb Al-Shahbawhich means in Arabic: White Aleppo.

In the era of crusaders, the city was a frontier. But soon it became a cultural centre. After independence from French mandate in the 20th century, life bloomed in Aleppo – it became a major source for trade, industry and culture.

3. The literary scene of Aleppo:

First examples of modern novels in Arabic literature are attributed to writers from Aleppo, such as Francis Marrash who wrote The Forest of Truth, in another version The Forest of Justice around 1865, before first vantages arose in Egypt in 1924 by the lawyer Mohammed Hussein Heikal the author of Zaynab. So, one might argue that Arabic novel was born in Aleppo.

Importantly, one can observe great difference between these two authors, as Heikal was of Islamic tone as to maintain interests in pathological not structural ethics, while Marrash was the opposite. He maintained the spirit of inner allegory. He concentrated on hidden sphere rather than the scenes and physical surrounding. He used the eye of the mind not the eye of the head, as Dr. Nazir Alazmeh puts it. This, too, perhaps, gives one a vivid idea of Aleppo’s literary perspective.

In 20th century, Aleppo has also produced the early pioneers of the romantic revolution against the classical mindset. In the 1940-50s, two brave attempts  at challenging the metric poetry took place– when Myasser published his only book surreal, and The Sufi cleric Kheir Al-Dein Al-assady published Songs of the doom. Both were considered blasphemous and experienced difficulties and hardship with the common readers and the authorities alike. This gives one a perspective on Aleppo’s poetic heritage and place in Arabic poetic tradition.

Before WW2, two periodicals started in Aleppo: AlDad (a mouthpiece of immigrants mainly Christians who fled the country to Latin America or the US in search for safe future, motivated by economical reasons and religious intolerance) and Al Hadieth (a mouthpiece of the conservatives).

Soon after the military took power in 1963 the state established many imagescultural frameworks dominated by angry young men who found in social-realism the podium to express their vision of better understanding of spiritual and social matters.

Revolutionary Youth union provided budgets and all possible efforts to enhance new waves of literary trends. National union of students took similar steps.

In 1970, a Union of Writers had been established. It had an office of two rooms and a theatre for presentations. It also had a basic library.

As time passed, cultural activities and sources spread all over Aleppo. Some cafés devoted certain weekly hours for literary readings. By 1980s, Aleppo was a center for literature, drama, and publishing houses.

It became station at cross roads that every popular writer of the Arab world had to visit.

In addition, some world’s literary groups came to the city all the way from East Germany, China, Soviet Union, Egypt, Jordan, and the UK.

Before the war, Aleppo had British and French cultural centers.  At the Scientific Institute of Aleppo, where I studied English for free during the summer, it also had the unforgettable creative writing course which gave me the spark to write my story: A day of kafka’s, published in Damascus in 2003).

4. Then War Came

Could we have responded to war differently?


But whatever way one responds, it is a time of Sorrow. Today, the independent cafes either have been targets to car bombs or to bankruptcy. Some went into rubbles and dust. One easily mistakes them for new graves.

State-operated art centers are still open, but are empty, without audience. Since intellectuals are afraid of exposing themselves to the police and also to the armed groups who force Islamic law (Sharia) on all aspects of life.

In the opinion of those armed groups, modernism is a blasphemy; moustaches, long hair, and tight style clothes are now a sin in our city.

After 8 p.m., you cannot find a single person walking through the streets of Aleppo.

Last year, I went on an excursion around the city– from my flat near the university campus to a park nearby the railway station.

I cried. Trains stood still on the rails. Soldiers took shelter inside the trains.

When I reached George Salim church in the middle of my way I could see a man. With long dark coat, grey hair, and two hands in side pockets. Lonely man looked like a ghost in a deserted dead town.

He was silent, folded onto himself. On the threshold of the church I heard a tiny whisper and saw him falling on his face.

I froze in my place. It was a sniper bullet, for sure.

Glad to be alive, but too sad to see that man go into this heavy darkness like a pile of old clothes, I continued my way without saying a word.

Aleppo – 2016

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