By Talyah Basit
A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit the United Nations building. After meeting with representatives from two European countries, we were offered a tour of the premises. The tour guide, a slight woman from Madagascar with a penchant for irony, explained the layout of all the important meeting rooms and the significance of the discussions held there. In one of the most spectacular halls, she informed us that a meeting on the Syrian refugee crises had occurred recently. Leaders from all the important countries in the world had convened to discuss a resolution to the calamity.
On the way home, as the lights from the city dimmed, I wondered what it means to be considered a burden, a problem that the world can choose to ignore. The silhouette of the city was visible across the water, as it always has been during our countless trips to and from our suburban towns. The notion that the city could disappear overnight is unthinkable; in our consciousness, the innumerable skyscrapers will always stand subordinate to the Empire State building, all guarded by the watchful gaze of the Statue of Liberty. Scores of people will weave through its street and the spectacle of humanity will continue, in all of its glorious and mundane moments. There is a permanency to historical cities that memory may distort but the essential foundation will remain intact.
Aleppo is considered one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world: the World Heritage Convention dates it to 2000 B.C and its archaeological remains suggest a lengthier history Facing unremitting bombardment, mass destruction, and a humanitarian crisis that belies description, the city of Aleppo is expected to be “totally destroyed by Christmas” according to the United Nations special envoy for Syria(1). Such a succinct statement cannot possibly encompass the full weight of the forces of history, culture, and religion that have shaped this ancient metropolis. Most urgently, what happens to the residents of Aleppo and its surrounding regions as the city is being destroyed? The people of a city remain, in its ruins or in exile, even after the last brick has fallen. Certainly, they carry the memory of their city, their homeland, within them. As Abbas Beydoun reminds us in his poetic rumination on the destruction of a Lebanese suburb,“Here, there were scores of men and their fragrant tobacco smoke, and the unnamed freedoms; here there was a love of overcrowding, of being lost, of wandering about in the streets and neighborhoods; and here, there were people; there was hospitality.”(2) The suburb of Dahiya was completely flattened in the 2006 Lebanon war, but Beydoun emphasizes that a city, as an entity comprising people, continues to breathe, even after mass destruction.
Although it was probably meant as a call to action, the phrasing of the United Nations statement struck me as attributing an almost cursory tone to an event of tremendous personal, political and historical magnitude. The devastation of this ancient city, this mecca for the cultured and adventurous, should not be another caption on the timeline of the history of the Middle East. We should critically evaluate why it seems more natural to attribute vast statements without consideration for nuance or context to non-western countries. The indignation that should arise from a statement like “Aleppo will be destroyed” should not differ in intensity from a statement that involves cities that are familiar to western audiences. Aleppo is home to one million people, although the number is steadily decreasing due to war casualties and people fleeing the country(3). A city that has been the locus of several civilizations and bred countless generations of luminaries, teeming with personal narratives, cannot be reduced to rubble in the course of a few months.
Writing about Syria is one of the most difficult tasks I’ve ever faced. Part of the difficulty stems from the bleakness of the entire situation and dismay at the world’s treatment of the Syrian refugees. Another point to consider is the capabilities of a writer’s contributions to an issue that has been dissected in the public sphere, usually without much help to the refugees at the center of the crisis. How do you add value to your words when the rhetoric is reduced to platitudes and empty promises? How do you convey the immensity of the situation without misinterpretation? This issue has been revisited and rethought in the wake of atrocities and calamities. Theodor Adorno’s famous (albeit often misquoted) statement is now part of our cultural consciousness –“to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric”–but even Adorno ultimately accepted the necessity of “expression”. It is precisely this expression that should be valued and upheld as Syria is besieged on all sides from different forces. The nameless swath that the word “refugee” evokes denies the individuality of the residents of Aleppo and other cities. Let us consider the personal histories of the people of Aleppo, who belong to one of the oldest cities in the world. Let us remember the schoolteacher, the bus driver, the father holding his son at the intersection of a busy street. As the world debates on a resolution to the war and refugee crisis, recall the words of Abbas Beydoun: “Can a poet say anything about ruined places that need topographers, astronomers, city-planners, cineastes, computers more than they need poets? The place consists of heaps upon heaps, of plains of ruined heaps. Can we be deviant and speak about beauty here? Or is the real ruin on our tongues?”
In the case of the citizens of Aleppo and Syria as a whole, let us not fail them with our tongues as we have with our actions. The world’s dismissal of their humanity by categorizing them as potential security threats or burdens on host countries should not be added to their constantly expanding list of traumatizing experiences. We need to ensure that the transition from “here is” to “here was” does not materialize in actuality, if it already has in memory.
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1 – Wintour, Patrick. “Eastern Aleppo Could Be Destroyed by Christmas, Warns UN Syria Envoy.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 06 Oct. 2016. Web. 06 Nov. 2016.
2 – Beydoun, Abbas. “A Possible Poem on Dahiya.” Lebanon,Lebanon. Saqi Books, 2006. 17-21. Print.
3 – BBC News. “Profile: Aleppo, Syria’s Second City.” BBC News. 22 Sept. 2016. Web. 06 Nov. 2016.