Invisible Cities Ode to Aleppo
“All people are children of Syria. We are open here.”
When I was in Aleppo, Syria in 2007, I climbed the ancient citadel and took in the view of the city. The streets were filled with souks and stalls of fragrant bharat and oddly shaped soaps made from olive oil. I had been in the country for a few days, preparing to make a documentary about the medical work of the nonprofit I had left to test my mettle as a full-time creative person. Film was my love and focus, and so I took on the role of writer and director for a documentary that was funded by a Middle Eastern cable network, similar to PBS in the US.
Though being covered for a foreigner was not required in the city known as the “jewel of Syria,” I wore long skirts and sleeves at all times, especially outdoors. The walk to the covered market area was only minutes from the hotel and my wanderings along the aisles, where ornate scarves covered tables below rows of hanging meat, always brought curious stares. One seller asked me if I was American and what it was like to be a Black American. The days of George W. Bush were coming to a close and the general sentiment was one of distrust and cautious anticipation for his successor. The Iraq war had taken its toll on the borders in the region which had opened their doors to the displaced citizens of Baghdad and its outlying areas.
I found my cameraman through a search in the region for film professionals. Hassan was a chain smoker who’d made his way to Syria after leaving his film company and ties behind in Baghdad. We did not talk much about his family or the circumstances he had escaped just a short distance away by car or plane, though evidence of his trauma could be seen through the shaky images he’d captured on an unsteady camera.
He had assured me that he was up to the task of filming what would be my first paying job as a director/writer. I explained the needs of the television program that would air to a large Middle Eastern audience; as well as that of the nonprofit, whose doctors had been sent to Aleppo to work with local physicians on saving eyesight and improving eye care awareness. Hassan nodded with weary enthusiasm as I described the scenes we would cover in the local hospital and later in a patient’s home if we were lucky.
My Arabic was minimal though I had established a rapport with the hotel staff and souk owners with well-uttered greetings and the occasional phrase or query.
“Sabah el hehr.”
“Sabah el nour.” I replied, giving the greeting of light after the customary “good morning” salutation.
In the land where dates and figs held a sweetness only found in the native soil, my love of dried fruit brought me every few days to the stall of Ahmed and his wife, Jamila, which allowed for a steady if uneven conversational exchange.
“All people are children of Syria. We are open here,” Ahmed said, waving his hand over a plate of falafels and yogurt. I would nod and sample my own dish filled with mint and flatbread. We discussed my interest in seeing other cities in the country. Jamila encouraged me to explore as much as I could.
“ Min yadri mataa sawf yaeud.” She patted my hand.
“She said that you will never know when you will return.” English and Arabic were constantly interchanged. Ahmed’s translations were welcomed and crucial to our growing friendship.
They were curious about my work and hoped to meet the cameraman who made films in his home country. This was a profession with “much risk” but “is very respected here,” Ahmed said. This was also the sentiment of others I had met in Aleppo. When asked if I had ever seen a Syrian film, and I confessed I had not, it was highly recommended that I find The Night (Al-Lail) , 1993, directed by Mohammad Malas. He was a revered filmmaker in his country and was said to be living in Damascus. After reading the synopsis of his epic film and learning of his reputation as a pioneer in his field, I attempted to find him for an interview as a side project, but on my later trip to the “City of Jasmine,” I was told that he was away.
I wandered along the main road in Aleppo, which bustled with traffic in the absence of streetlights. I waited to cross to the other side with locals who looked quickly from left to right while Kias and other imports came to a reluctant halt. I had been told to visit a nearby health food store to find the odd remedy, locally made body product, or tea that I made it a habit to collect on every foreign trip.
A photo of Syria’s President, Bashar al-Assad, hung on a wall behind the counter as a dark, green powder was being measured into a small paper bag. “This is good for sleep. Do you sleep?” the shop assistant asked. I was still jet-lagged and felt the lack of orientation that comes with long journeys, foreign tongues, and a street map drawn in the margin of a hotel place mat.
“I am still on New York time,” I responded, as if in slow motion.
“This will help. Put in hot water. Twice a day.”
I accepted the small bag, handed her what I hoped was the correct amount of money, and thanked her for her advice. My Syrian pounds were held in a paper clip in my “US” wallet. I had not had time to separate the currencies, whose aesthetics were as drastically different as the countries themselves. My one-hundred-pound note held a drawing of a train and elaborate building, which I later discovered was the Bosra theatre and the Hajaz railway. The train ran from Damascus to Medina in Turkey from 1908 to 1920, with an original plan to end its route in Mecca. I imagined what this trip would have entailed as I paid a visit to the station and pictured the train steaming its way along the Mediterranean Sea.
As patients relayed their eye care histories to the visiting and local doctors in the Aleppo Eye Specialist Hospital, Hassan and I filmed their exchange, relying heavily on Hassan’s translation. The cases ranged from massive cataracts to adolescent glaucoma. At the end of the medical screenings, a man entered the waiting room with his young daughter. A doctor gestured for him to sit on the folding chair that had been occupied by an elderly woman who was told she was a candidate for cataract removal. This, we were told, would allow her to see after decades of partial blindness. The man sat, pulling his long brown caftan above his knees, which revealed a faded pair of jeans and black sneakers.
“I am here for her,” he said, pointing to his daughter who had made her way to his lap. “She fell when a bomb hit the ground near our home.”
Hassan continued to translate. “She was standing on a chair, helping her mother in the kitchen. Suddenly the floor shook and she fell like this.” The man pointed to her eye and demonstrated the impact of her landing. The doctor asked to examine her eye, bloody and red where the white should have been. The incident had occurred somewhere on the Iraqi border. The man had heard about the eye doctors from the US organization and had taken a bus to Aleppo in hopes that his daughter would receive treatment. She was given a slot for surgery the next day. Hassan told the man that he was also from Iraq. The man smiled. “I know. I can tell by your accent.”
I had some days off before resuming our work in the hospital. We found a patient who was willing to let us film her at home after her surgery, which would cure her lifelong case of strabismus (cross eyes). The hotel had recommended a driver who was trustworthy and spoke fairly good English. Hassan would return to Iraq and salvage what he could from his film company office. His partner had taken their cameras to the place out of the city that he shared with relatives.
“I will come back. Don’t worry,” he said, lighting a cigarette. “Oh sorry.” He waved the smoke with his free hand. “I forget Americans don’t like this.” He smiled and handed me the tapes from the day’s filming.
Omar arrived at the hotel before sunrise. He drove from a village a few kilometers outside of town and greeted me with a pleasant smile and a well-conceived plan for our trip. We would begin in the sacred city of Palmyra. The drive, which would take most of the morning, brought me closer to the heart of the country which boasted vast desert landscapes and unfiltered sunlight. Omar knew the desert well, and its intricate roads, and was proud of this familiarity. “Even the people here need someone who knows this place if they don’t use the main road.” He smiled, observing my reaction in the rear view mirror. Later, I read that our route was not advised. Many had gotten lost in the desert terrain and found themselves several kilometers from their intended destination.
The famous ruins of Palmyra came into view before any sign of its residents. We drove slowly through the Corinthian marked monuments and tombs as I took photos and asked Omar more about the ancient desert trades that extended to India, Mesopotamia, and Rome. He described his Bedouin roots and upbringing which fostered his appreciation for the wanderer and a nomadic way of life; I had forgotten that I was a woman alone traveling with a man I did not know through a Middle Eastern desert. We stopped at a rug store owned by Omar’s friend. This was the customary way on non-Western terrain: Bring the tourist to a friend’s shop and everyone wins. I admired the rugs and chose one that would fit into the new suitcase I was yet to buy. The owner took my photo, and said that he had never met a New Yorker before. I’d heard from a friend who visited the shop weeks later, upon my recommendation, that the photo had been taped to a wall near the door with those of other tourists.
When looking through a pile of business cards a few years ago, I came upon one for Omar’s taxi. It had been tucked inside of the pocket of a jean jacket that I wore during our travels. Oddly or perhaps, in perfect alignment, I found the card while on my way to an Arabic class I was taking that semester in film school. I told my classmates about Omar and how kind and knowledgeable he had been during our journey to Palmyra and Jordan.
“I doubt this guy is still alive,” my teacher said, looking at the card and shaking his head.
I hadn’t thought about Omar for a while and felt a sadness that brought me closer to the headlines. I had attempted to contact my friends I had met in Syria. No one had concrete information on their statuses or whereabouts. On a whim I called the number on Omar’s card and hung up quickly when a crackling noise sounded on the other end.
I had met Harout, a translator, who covered this task during the last phases of my work with Hassan. The camera had gotten shakier during our interviews. Harout was a calm presence as the tension shrouded our final days of filming. Hassan was having second thoughts about returning to Aleppo after his visit to Iraq. He had seen a few friends there and did not feel at home in Syria.
“I wanted to finish this job, then I’m not sure what I will do.”
I was told by the city’s administrator not to conduct any interviews on the street. This would, he warned, not only result in losing our filming permit, but also the arrest of all involved. I had planned to interview Ahmed and Jamila, but worried that this could be perceived as a “street” shot. We decided that it was not worth the risk.
Hassan and I parted ways on my last day in Aleppo. He was glad to have worked on our project and apologized for being “distracted.”
I took the last afternoon to visit the souks and buy gifts to bring back home. Ahmed and Jamila were waiting for me.
“Insha’Allah, you will be back and we will meet your husband and children.”
At their insistence, I filled a small plastic bag with bharat and another with figs for my journey. “Shukran,” I said, as I put my arms around their shoulders and promised I would send an “I Love New York” T-shirt, as requested by Ahmed. And a set of knitting needles for Jamila.
I climbed the Citadel once more and shared the view with tourists who spoke Farsi and wore black chadors. We raised our cameras in unison as the sunset bathed the ancient stone in brilliant shades of yellow and orange. The modern buildings held its glow in their glass facades, while large billboards of Al-Assad overwhelmed the side walls of large apartment blocks.
It is hard to believe that this and more has been destroyed.
I was to meet friends in Lebanon the next day and would travel there by taxi, which was highly recommended by my Syrian friends. My American comrades had tried to discourage me. Omar had clients in Damascus and could not accommodate my request to make the drive. There was a taxi stand in Aleppo where all gathered who were making this journey. The yellow cabs sat in clusters as the drivers beckoned their passengers. The journey would take half a day. I had more luggage than when I arrived. The tapes were heavy and the rug had filled my newly acquired suitcase.
“No problem,” the driver said. “We have plenty of room.”