a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
The clouds were infinite and sunlight rare. It was a rainy day in Vancouver and I had a desire to go back to Aleppo, my birth place, the love of my heart. It was February 2017. It rained so hard in Gastown that it felt like bullets. The hostilities in Aleppo seemed to be over, the weather in Vancouver made me miss my homeland more and I had no reason to delay my visit. Nostalgia and the urge to be back home overwhelmed me. It had been five years since I had last seen Aleppo. Watching the news and hearing the horrific stories of destruction over the phone made me all the more eager to visit. Every cell in my body felt the urge to visit Aleppo—to see how an ancient city could be crushed like cardboard boxes.
It took a few hours to reach the highway leading to Aleppo. A caravan of trucks and taxis stood at the foot of the hill. The taxi driver informed us that, every morning, the government cleared the highway of explosives and rounded up the ISIS fighters. At night Daesh took control of the road again. We waited for twenty minutes while the highway was cleared. I was less anxious about going to a war-torn country. The numerous check points that we passed did not give us any trouble. The driver would fold 200 Syrian Pounds inside his palm and shake the hand of a soldier at a check-point, leaving the money in his hand. Occasionally, a soldier would ask the driver to go inside a grey brick room to leave our names and personal information but we didn’t have to leave the car. Right then I felt the gap between the news reporting and the reality on the ground.
We reached the border of the city of Aleppo. The landscape was filled with oversized government posters and the smell of crushed buildings. I asked the driver what that strange and inhuman smell was. He said “this is the smell of carpet bombing. This is the smell of every conventional and unconventional weapon decimating culture, homes, civilizations, and the human will to survive. The smell of greed, the smell of billions of dollars poured into a proxy war.” Right then I regretted my decision to come back home. Was I a mad man to be coming to Aleppo when my people are begging to go to Canada?
As we made our way further into the city, recognizable neighbourhoods flashed before my eyes, and I would look back through the window utterly in shock. As we passed what used to be a grocery store now covered in ruins, buildings on both sides were disfigured as if by a landslide. Road blocks and check points perforated the city. As I watched the destruction, I felt like I was sitting in a very difficult exam and knowing only half the answers. We crossed the intersection leading to our home. I wasn’t sure if the home where I grew up had survived the bombing. Six months earlier, a missile crashed through the ceiling of the apartment above us, turning that apartment into rubble.
At first I felt uneasy about seeing our home again, like an old friend I hadn’t seen for many years. I rang the bell and my mother rushed to open the door. We embraced then I sat in the living room. My mother asked me if I wanted breakfast. I said coffee first please. Coffee was much more than a beverage. It was a symbol of our culture. It carried, beneath its skin and smell, stories of generations. The smell of coffee reminded me of visiting my maternal grandmother and going with my father to the neighbourhood he grew up in to visit his distant cousin. It was October 14th, 2017, and it was a bright sunny day. I remember playing on the main balcony with my brothers and sisters. I could see the view of a hill planted with pine trees, the faded colour of the walls, the bullet holes in the kitchen windows. It was easier than I thought to come back home. Our place was in Western Aleppo and was almost undamaged except for bullet holes. To Western eyes, bullet holes and shrapnel disfiguring the walls count as damage. To Syrian eyes it may be nothing. Eastern Aleppo and the old city were the most damaged. A rush of emotion consumed me as I went around the house inspecting every room. I saw cracks in the paint and the shrapnel that disfigured the walls of the staircase.
I looked at the hill in front of our home and remembered the countless hours I played soccer with my friends, and how, when I looked at our house, I saw my parents on the balcony waving. Now that world seemed so far away. A machine gun fired a few rounds into the dark skies, then silence. The sound of different metallic parts colliding into each other and the explosive sounds of higher caliber bullets sounded worse than the scream of an angry bear. The whole building shivered. In the afternoon I tried to nap but the sound of artillery fire kept me awake. Then it was so quiet I could hear the sound of rustling sheets as I tossed and turned in my bed. Another round was fired without any return of fire. This was not a real war where two armies of comparable might are fighting each other but a war by permission. This means that if you see your enemies and can take them out but you don’t have orders to kill them—you don’t. Thus the war drags on for months and years until the different factions who backed the war decided that it was in their financial and political interests to stop the war. The absurdity of the situation sent my mind reeling in every direction. Was it a reminder that the hostilities had not ended? Or a reaffirmation of military might? Another bullet, this time a single bullet. The echo was more feared than its impact. What does a single bullet do in the scope of a war when it could be a bunch of soldiers drinking tea and shooting guns?
Was this really the home I grew up in? Was this a dream or was I really seeing this? Was I really in Aleppo while the war was still raging? Every time I had doubts about where I was geographically, I would count the machine gun and other artillery fire in view to remind me. Right then a cannon fired fifty rounds shaking all the windows around me. It even vibrated the steel railings and I could hear cement particles moving inside the walls. Thus began my journey back to the city I held so dear to my heart. It was part of my soul. Aleppo meant everything beautiful to me. In its diversity and history I learnt about time. Distant empires rose, fell, where I drank tea and smoked my water pipe after school. Every corner was a reminder of history, communities that flourished and set their roots there.
During the earliest days of my return visit, I lived inside safety zones and avoided areas that were not safe, where I felt I didn’t have the heart to witness hate and destruction. It was simply not safe to go some places. I heard stories about people who had had strokes or died at the sight of seeing their destroyed shops. At home, I remembered the joy when our house would be full of relatives and the kitchen’s seductive smell of vine leaves cooking. I felt grateful to see the house in one piece, as opposed to scores of destroyed buildings on the way there.
The first time I planned to go to the old city I got traveller’s diarrhea, which left me in bed for two weeks. Just wanting to go to the old city was enough to cause my stomach to turn. Residents avoided going there. Some were deeply disturbed by seeing the old city. The second time I attempted to go there I had the flu and was sick for ten days. The third time I planned to visit the old city, anxiety rushed through my stomach, up to my shoulders, and head. I felt dizzy as if something were going to kill me when I again saw the ruins of seven millennia of history. I scratched my stomach. I put my left hand over my heart to protect it. My head was buzzing with doubt and felt so heavy, like a ton of steel. My breathing got heavier and shorter, as if it were a near-death experience. I was so afraid to go yet it was all I wanted to do. I was afraid to see so much destruction of the old city that I had loved all of my life. I was afraid to not see the minaret of the Umayyad mosque in the same place. The only way I could protect myself and give my heart a rest was by not going.
The artillery on the western front of Aleppo keep firing, one blast after another. It shook the concrete walls of my room and rattled my eardrums. Every time a bomb blasted, it sent shockwaves to my brain, numbing it slowly and, it seemed, for eternity. While the cannon fired its shells, four blocks from where I was in Western Aleppo, about seven kilometres from the old city, people lounged in a coffee shop sipping tea and smoking a shisha water pipe. The thick white smoke from the shisha filled the air outside the coffee shop. Another bomb exploded and it sounded like the Judgment Day. Pain shot through my head. The military controlled all major intersections in the area. I watched Russian soldiers standing in front of a busy coffee shop.
The azan for afternoon prayer was called, but the bombs didn’t stop. They fired one after the other like disjointed, avant-garde music. I could hear the afternoon prayer simultaneously with the sound of bombs and shelling. The first one made a faint sound like it was fired in the far distance. I could make the same sound with my tongue. As more bombs exploded, the sound got louder, the rattling sound of concrete and shaking windows haunted our existence. My stomach somersaulted with the last gasps of life. I hoped each bomb would not crash into my room and I’d end up on the front page of the newspaper. I listened to the absurd sound of bombs dropped, one after another, the intonation, the spacing between each one, the sound of crumbling buildings collapsing, the echo of bombs through weeping windows. The sound got closer. I felt the shells in my room, in my body, I felt them in my heart.
Finally I found the courage to go to the old city. I walked over rubble in the AlJdiedeh district in Eastern Aleppo. The entire neighbourhood had been evacuated. Walls crumbled into the road. Sahet AlHatab, which was the centre of tourism, a community of artisans and craftsmen, now lay in ruins. Rubble, splintered glass, covered the courtyard. The palm trees were burned. It was so disfigured that I could not see where it began and where it ended, like the war itself. The limestone tiles that I had walked on so many times, the benches of the courtyard where I enjoyed coffee with friends, now lay in ruins. What was full of life and a point of pride for many people here was now full of despair. Stores without gates, without doors, merchandise looted. A row of ceramic art tiles drew me towards an empty store covered with bullet holes.
A man in his fifties appeared from an abandoned alley and said “Alsalam A’laikom” and continued walking. Another man in his early thirties greeted me with a frown on his heavily tanned face and looked at my phone with suspicion, as though asking who I was and what I was doing there. I continued to take some photos of lives evacuated and walked towards another neighbourhood. Still no sign of any humans living there. At the turn of the alley I saw a truck parked and construction workers rebuilding a home.
Since my earliest memory, the Umayyad minaret marked the horizon. On the street leading to the mosque, there was a string of commercial buildings crowding the minaret. There was the minaret towering over the centre as though drawn like a grand artwork in the sky. Every eid, every Ramadan, the minaret was there to greet the people of Aleppo, as well as people from surrounding cities and villages. As I sat on the golden steps under the limestone arches every opportunity I got, the serenity of the Grand Mosque of Aleppo (as locals called it) was unlike any place I’d been in my life. The back door of the mosque had opened directly on the ancient souk, now the sight of shameful ruins. The mosque was now closed to the public.
Grief sat heavy in my heart and mind. My head felt heavier and heavier. I felt like a tsunami wave were hitting me, crushing my skull against a broken arch. I searched for a meaning to the war, reasons someone would destroy something that meant everything to me. I saw rows of stones stacked along the side of the cobblestone alley from the crumbled ancient market. Abandoned shops that were the centre of tourism were left for looters. Broken store fronts and corrugated sheets. High arches stained with the flames of war. Arabesque facades perforated with bullet holes.
Darkness ghosted the souk. I walked slowly. I was the only person walking under the wide arches. I could see the other end where light seeped through the devastated market. I slowly emerge from darkness to light. Destruction surrounded me like the Pacific Rim. I stood among Arabian homes, their arabesque patterns covered in mud. A construction worker carried a large industrial bag filled with rubble and other remains that could not be used in the rebuilding. He gave me a sweeping look and continued to walk. AlSwaika, one of the busiest commercial districts in prewar times, stood empty, desolate. Not a single person walked through it. Doors of homes and storefronts savagely ripped apart as if by a grizzly bear. Shops reduced to their skeletons. I wonder who stole these goods. Did they sell them or vandalize them? What were their owners doing? Were they alive or dead?
The stress of seeing my city in ruins was so heavy I started to lose my balance and wobble drunkenly. I felt my memories and pride splintering in my head. The stress paralyzed my heart. Before the war I would tell friends and acquaintances from around the world to come see Aleppo, the oldest continually inhabited city in human history. Visit the old market, the Umayyad mosque, or the citadel. Now it would take decades before I could say that again. Possibly never.
As I continued to walk through the destruction I reached AlAkaba, a neighborhood built on a hill. It stood taller than most neighbourhoods in the old city. I stood by its fence and saw all of Aleppo before me. The bombed buildings, abandoned hotels, and ruined markets. I walked down a narrow alley and spotted a fractured minaret; I looked closer, and noticed that it was a Sufi zaweyeh of the Naqishbandi order. I felt happy to see a mosque with historical significance that was not crushed by the war. I climbed the stairs of the mosque to look at the arabesque design on the wall and calligraphic inscription. One of the neighbourhood people called to me and pointed out that the mosque was closed. I continued to climb the stairs until I reached the top and read the calligraphic inscription that said I depend on god and another that praised the Sufi master. The man greeted me and showed me around the neighbourhood. He showed me the homes that were destroyed and the ones in danger of collapsing. It was heartening to see kind people like this man in a war zone that robbed many people of their morality.
I felt lucky to be walking in my city again where fierce battles had taken place. As I walked past the Omayyad Mosque, my thoughts took me back to my youth when I used to come to this mosque with my father and his friends. I walk up the hill towards the citadel—one of the few monuments that was not destroyed by the war. A magnificent structure built on a hill to keep invaders and conquers out for centuries. It was one of the major landmarks of Aleppo. I walked around the citadel and gazed at the destruction and felt a sense of a denial at what I was seeing. Buildings cut into half like a packet of butter.
I continued towards my school, Alkhusruweyeh, a madrasah built by the famous Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan, now covered with rubble. I looked through the steel fence to see what was left of it. The mosque, the garden, and the courtyard were covered with debris. I thought of my memories inside this magnificent structure. Under the arches and around the garden, I left a piece of myself there. A series of arches had formed over the classroom area. In its centre stood a sun clock as a witness to history, to time, to an infinity of bullets and missiles, all now facing destruction. As I stood there, I remembered the school before the war, limestone tiles polished by the footsteps of students memorizing lessons from textbooks. The mosque was grand—it could be seen from all the windows of the classrooms. The door was covered with arabesque patterns. A Quranic inscription crowned the entrance. Inside the mosque was a tapestry of carpets forming a symphony of colours. We would kneel and pray, supervised by our teachers. At lunchtime, we ran around the garden and the school freely. A mountain of rubble had ghosted the school.
Only a few arches and the sun clock were spared—survivors and witnesses. Years after I left the school I would occasionally come for noon prayer when I was in the old city. I would pray and sit on the porch where the cool wind blows. I watched the limestone and arches washed with time and memory. The place that provided peace to so many people was now a site of rubble and ignorance. I walked through the alley leading to the side door of the school—a soldier stopped me and said this street was closed. “I went to this school,” I said. He replied, “Your school was destroyed.”
The war reached every heart and every mind in the city. I saw it in the despair of shop keepers, in the hollow eyes of industrialists who couldn’t rebuild their factories; in the seniors who couldn’t look after themselves, their bodies shrunken and frail, and their clothes too big to fit them. Their boys and girls fled towards the unknown and the dream of equality.
I ventured through the naked darkness. My eyes were stripped of all the familiar sights. Sharp neon lights pierced my eyes as I walked through AlFurkan district, Express Avenue. This used to be an upper middle class neighbourhood in Western Aleppo close to the University area. It was built in the 70s. Its owners overdid their display of wealth, limestone building carved with the finest and most elaborate arabesque patterns. It was buzzing with people and cars now. Half of its residents fled to Europe, Egypt, and Turkey. Only the lights of storefronts were still shining bright. Neon-saving lights patterned the Avenue. Trees were wrapped with strips of LED lights, the kind that are used for signposts. Beyond the top of storefronts, darkness flooded my vision. I barely saw what I was walking on. I walked slowly so I could look out for holes in the sidewalk. Every ten steps or so, I felt the markings of shrapnel with my shoes. Many missiles were fired at this area but it was not as damaged as the old city. Women and children sat at the side of plant pots the size of benches. Young women with their lovers under the age of military conscription enjoyed a warm beverage. Ground floors converted to coffee shops and stores. Coffee shops full of young people to the very last seat. Shisha smoke fills the place like a big cloud. There are so many people here that it felt like an open-air bazaar.
After spending several months in Aleppo, I started to feel at ease with what was around me. Even though conventional and experimental weapons were being fired in the distance, I got on with my daily life. I had heard that my secondary school had been converted into a Russian base. For many months I avoided going to see the school because of the considerable danger I might be in. One day I was nearby and felt the urge to walk around the school. The warm sun rays were broken by limestone walls. A tall pine tree sent its prayers towards heaven. The neighbourhood seemed evacuated. The only sound I heard was a power generator polluting the air.
I looked at the girls’ school and remembered the time I stood with my friends at its corner to watch and impress girls. We would keep a lookout so that the principal didn’t see us. It was a bright day, and the quiet blue sky cast a gentle light on the school’s fence. It was made from white stones, a pattern of geometry and carved texture. I walked towards my school now and saw boxes of ammunition stacked on a rooftop. They were painted army green. Long rows of wooden boxes stacked sometimes in single, double, or triple rows. I lowered my gaze so no one could see me. I felt like I was in Orwell’s 1984. Against the beautiful pattern of the fence, I saw a surveillance camera pointed at me. I could probably grab it if I reached for it. Fear crept into my chest and a million calculations went through my head. What if they saw me? I thought to myself. I just hope that no angry soldier would come to get me. I continued to walk and look up again to see what was behind the green painted boxes. Sometimes I stood on my toes for an extra inch of height. I turned left and saw the familiar iron door of the school painted black. The name of the school was painted over in black too. I continued further, to find the fence of the school shelled. A metal bar with barbed wire was in its place. The impact of shelling was visible where rain has accumulated from the day before. At least six rows of ammunition had been stacked on the rooftop. Balcony railings and big rocks were scattered in the courtyard. Behind them was a corrugated sheet. Painted on it, in Kufic calligraphic script in dark green, was Aleppo the Capital of Islamic Culture, splashed with bullet holes. I had an overwhelming urge to take a picture of this space where I had played endless hours of soccer and basketball.
At the same time, an intense fear ran through my heart. I walked two steps then stopped. I finally found the courage to take a picture. I walked back and snapped a quick photo. I looked at the brick room built in the middle of the sidewalk, which functioned as security for the base. It seemed abandoned because otherwise someone would have asked me to move. Fear went through my heart, coexisting with a string of sweet memories of playing in the courtyard. I looked at the green hill and enjoyed a moment of peace. The sound of azan towers on the horizon. I recognized the voice of the mouazzin calling for prayer. The call for prayer came from the same mosque where I had done Quranic summer school. I felt nervous standing in front of the military base so I grabbed the first taxi I saw and went home.
 Arabic for Sufi centre.
Mohamad Kebbewar was born and raised in Aleppo. Immigrating to Canada at age 19, Kebbewar earned a degree in history from Concordia University before becoming a graphic designer. Recent poetry chapbooks include The Soap of Aleppo, Evacuate, and Children of War. He is putting the final touches on his novel The Bones of Aleppo.