Captured and Lost — Storied Aleppo

It’s a Wednesday morning in mid-December. I sit eating breakfast alone at my kitchen table, listening to the news while glancing at the day’s headlines in the New York Times. Ten time zones away, Eastern Aleppo is falling to Russian-backed Syrian government troops. There are reports of eyewitness accounts of terrified citizens being shot as they flee their homes. No one is immune to the brutality. Not women or children or the invalid man in a wheel chair.

My appetite squashed under the weight of the unfolding tragedy, I push my uneaten plate aside and stare into space, conjuring an Aleppo that no longer exists except in books.

This is the Aleppo I first came to know through my high school and college literature courses; the Aleppo where William Shakespeare’s Othello takes his life and where and Vladimir Nabokov’s “V” contemplates his own end. It is the city where Laurent D’Arvieux , the 17th century French memoirist, traveled to by merchant ship and proceeded to write more than six volumes about his there amid its covered souks and bleached stone citadels. It is the Aleppo of Ali Baba and Aladdin of 1001 Arabian Nights and of Agatha Christie’s Orient Express and the British officer Thomas Edward Lawrence, better known to the world as Lawrence of Arabia.

I go to my office and find Lawrence’s faded gray linen covered book, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and read the words: “Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo were the four ancient cities which native Syria took pride. They stretched like a chain along the fertile valleys between the desert and the hills. Because of their setting they turned their backs upon the sea and looked eastward.”

In Aleppo, Lawrence wrote, “The races, creeds, and tongues of the Ottoman Empire met and knew one another in a spirit of compromise… “

Lawrence, many scholars believe, held a prescient view of the civil war that would one day ravage Syria, reducing to rubble its great cities, including Aleppo.

Flash forward three months.

It’s early evening on March 15th, the day Syria marked the sixth anniversary of its civil war with suicide bombings and stalled peace talks.

Reading through the day’s news accounts, I again struggle to reconcile the contradictory narratives of Aleppo’s past and present. It’s not the altered landscape that throws me so much as the fate of its characters. Are they not the same everyday people who captured the imaginations of Lawrence and Shakespeare and Christie? How do they survive the current plot?

I fear that future writers and poets who summon the name of Aleppo and Damascus and Hom in their work will do so more out of ignominy than inspiration and that their narratives, however well-crafted, will be full of loss.