On the schizophrenia of celebrating and mourning Aleppo.
17 December 2016
It seems the only way to isolate yourself from the tragedies of Aleppo is to be in Damascus.
While most of my Syrian friends abroad are posting about Aleppo on social media, my friends in Damascus are talking about late night pizzas, posting photos of graduation ceremonies and of the wet grey asphalt after a short night rain, and celebrating autumn. Maybe the only way to shade your eyes from this calamity is to care about your own survival.
The evening of the 14 December, while people were slaughtered in Aleppo, the Syrian Symphony Orchestra held a classical concert lead by Missak Baghboudarian in Damascus Opera House.
Since I left in 2014, I stopped asking myself why the people who do care in Damascus are doing nothing to stop the tragedies in Syria.
I know the fear, the frustration and the survival mode you get into. When I was there, I was thinking about the blackouts, about how much the chicken will cost tomorrow and, most of all, about how to get out of there.
I was a coward from the beginning, giving myself excuses as a daughter for two parents who would lose their minds if I get hurt. But, I was simply too afraid to act.
I am filing my final paper this semester, while reading the endless tweets and posts about Aleppo. I am sometimes too afraid to speak with the people there.
My last contact was yesterday when Hisham Eskef, a member of a rebel group that participated in the past truce negotiations for Aleppo, told me that 800 people were taken by the regime while they were getting evacuated from east Aleppo.
I am the hypocrite who would talk with the people in east Aleppo, hear their pleas, cry and then go back to reading Lee Hamilton's thoughts on the "creative tension" in the American democratic system.
I am the hypocrite who would say to those trapped in Aleppo, looking death in the eye, that I am with them.
But, I am not. I am the Syrian who spends her day wondering how a horrible massacre could produce surreal images, such as those of a woman in a wheelchair and her husband who was frantically trying to save her.
I am the Syrian who just read a long interview with Sadeq Jalal Al Azm, who died in exile on December 11, talking about the right to revolt and at least referring to what happened as a revolution.
We never learned about him in our textbooks, we didn't read his thoughts on love and religion, many of my Syrian friends don't recognise his name in the first place. And some would ask: "Where was the Syrian intellectual elite in this revolution?"
I am the Syrian who would see photos of an old friend reporting about the "tense sunset" in the distressed city of Aleppo. I would see photos of a belated honeymoon taking place alongside a "victory" over an anguished city. My friend went there, with the man she just married, to report for pro-Assad media about the greatness of a victorious army.
Among some of her photos that stuck with me were images of the long line of young men who were forced to fight with the army in order to get to their families in east Aleppo, and an image of a mother in a black headscarf crying bitterly at the sight of her destroyed home. Her attempt at image poetics disturbed me.
Eventually, I had to tell her that this victory is built on people's misery, that while the operation went well, the patient is dead now. She told me that this is war and, in wars, there is always a winner and a loser.
On my news feed, I would see another pro-regime friend checked-in in Aleppo with a photo of the old partly damaged castle, a picture of Assad crowning its top. On the same feed, a friend based in Gaziantep would post photos of the graffiti that residents left in east Aleppo before being forced to evacuate; "Walls are the notebooks of the rebels," he captioned it.
I read the comments of all Syrians, those who are mourning the slaughter and those who are celebrating it. They both see Aleppo as the "sacred" city, where it's always worth taking a last selfie with the rubble before departure. Aleppo is a city to be lived, not to be described.
It is a city where resentment had all the reasons to grow into a vicious monster. Is this the type of resentment that allows one to justify a massacre and celebrate it?
What is happening in Aleppo is truly historic, as Assad said the other day. It is the spectacular tearing apart of a once united nation, to the point that its people can no longer agree on basic principles of humanity.
In our last politics seminar this term, we discussed nation-building. Nations need a foundational myth or a story keeping people together, giving them a reason to live together under the roof of a "nation". While our professor was asking my colleagues about their nations' stories, I was anxious because I didn't have one. Not before, and not any more.
Our story, I am afraid, would be that one day we were so different that we killed each other, and we celebrated this killing with chocolates and gaudy Christmas trees. That one day we were so different that we only cared about our own survival and the death of others did not matter.
Riham Alkousaa is a Syrian journalist covering refugees in Europe and conflict in Syria. She is currently a masters' student of Politics and Global Affairs at Columbia University, Graduate School of Journalism.
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