Scrolling through art pieces online of urban Aleppo, I come across one piece which enchants me. I check the price – far too pricey for an unemployed-fundraising-for-masters individual at the moment – I favourite the piece and carry on scrolling down. My eye craves a second look at the picture, so I return. I enlarge it and gaze at it. The birds. The domes. The satellites on rooftops – a perfectly imperfect urban landscape; rusty and beautiful. Ancient, yet full of life. Which type of magic can be so powerful that a mere still picture can completely captivate me? My heart throbs.
I turn up the music playing through my headphones, Mohammed Hamadiyeh’s “Al-Turath Ensemble”, and return my focus to the picture, zooming the lens on the birds beautifully captured in the centre. The ghazal of the Syrian ensemble and the picture take me back in time to a times simpler – to market places and curled slippers slapping the cobbled pathways of Aleppo; to moustaches and shrouds; emanating athan and after-prayer remembrance; rhythm, and a sea of elegant twirling white; night gatherings; ensembles filling the night sky; a free soul enjoying the warm, sweet scented air of a majestic city – once capital of commerce, literature, and free spirits.
The swift change of melody in the ensemble compliments my focus, it speeds up slightly, and my mind stops reflecting on the distant past, swiftly moving me through pages of history. I imagine the picture in front me changing slightly as the pages of history in mind flick till they find the present – the image fades and sharpens – colours brighten and dull according to the period in question – more buildings appear – and the birds travel back and forth. My zoom hovers over the two places of worship – standing side by side – a mosque and a church – barely differing in features; the church defined by a dome, and the mosque by piercing minarets. I can almost hear the voice of worshipers rising through the bustle of streets – I can envisage the single pathway leading both respective sanctuaries to each other; the children who yet know neither of formalities nor of despise, visiting each other in the different places of worship – turning each into their own heaven of memories and tales yet to be told – on the brink of being lost.
Finally, the zoom lands on the buildings in the distance. They fill the expanse of the urban landscape. My imagination invades the privacy of the families within the buildings as it travels across the many yards and jumps through the windows. I live with the families – I see the husband entering the flat carrying a gas tank on his back, calling for his children to roll it towards the kitchen – the children saved by their father from their mothers’ wrath – angry at them for returning home drenched in mud. I see the father stifle a laugh as he watches his children try to escape their mother’s stinging ear pinch, and I see her as she catches his eye and softens for a moment, before hiding her newly-discovered bemusement with a frown lest the children see! I travel through the flats – through the walls – up and down the stairs, observing the lives of those who once inhabited the buildings, until suddenly, they vanish. Error detected. My imagination stalls momentarily. I zoom out and in – frantically – yearning to return to my observations. My mind refreshes. Diversion: it brings me to reality. The buildings. The same buildings. Destroyed. I zoom out – trying to escape this sudden radical change – but zooming out only magnifies the expanse – and the destruction – I keep zooming out in panic – until I’ve almost zoomed out of the entire country. And suddenly, I’m at loss. All I wanted was to find a canvas for my bedroom – one of my mother’s hometown, and my first love. And now – I’m amid destruction and chaos, engulfed in stillness. Absolute stillness. As if I were the only person left in the world. My eyes well up. How cruel of reality to throw me in this stillness of despair and destruction.
And as if it had heard me curse it, reality picks me up and throws me back to my seat. Manchester, 4 am.
I sit – unsettled – I glance at the picture, the root cause of my entire journey, probing – questioning – why? Why unsettle a lover in such way? Why drown a nostalgic in tears and despair? Why pull at the heartstrings of a vulnerable heart, stinging it with anguish? Why?
A moment of silence.
An anguished sob; she unleashes her response – why gaze at my beauty, and journey my pathways – why invade my privacy and taste the bitter and the sweet of my past if you wish to restrict yourself to vacant borrowed memories, and not create ones of your own? Why dwell in my past if you don’t wish to make yourself my present and future? Why settle in a loaded history, when my present is lonely and in need of company? Why reduce me to tears and imagination when I need you most? By my side? Rebuilding me. Saving me from this darkness. Bringing me back to life.
And just like that, the ensemble moves on from the slow sorrow song to a faster one – the famous song of the Qadoka al-Mayaas. The picture blurs and refocuses, it shines brightly – radiant despite its grief, I reach out to destroyed buildings and pull myself in. I stand in the middle of the rubble ‘anta ahla al-nas fi nathari’ (you are the most beautiful in my eyes) – she replies “la taqta3i al-amaal w la tantathiri (do not lose hope, do not wait). I kneel down, kiss the ground, and roll my sleeves.*
I can’t wait, Aleppo. I can’t wait Syria. I can’t wait to be standing in your very centre creating my own memories and your future. I can’t wait to purify my body and soul rebuilding you. I can’t wait for the countless canvasses of dirty hands and tired eyes. Of exhausted hearts and tears. I can’t wait for my first step on your liberated soil. To see acres of land upturning before our very eyes – for your rebirth. I can’t wait for the moment we build your first pillar – the instant we root the first column into your soil: rebuilding you – as a whole nation. I can’t wait to see you flourish and rise. I can’t wait for your first smile – the smile which cracks the ice and brings warmth back into your lands. I can’t wait for your dancing fountains. Your breathtaking sunrises. Your captivating sunsets. I can’t wait to feel your embrace – your love – for the first time. Most of all Syria, I can’t wait to fill my bedroom with enchanting canvasses and art pieces of your beauty, each filled with memories and hope, dreams, heartbreak, and love.
*Qadoka al-Mayaas is a famous Syrian folklore song, often attributed to heritage and classified in traditional ensembles. The two lines are part of the song – the latter where I have underlined the ‘la’ is my addition to the lyric, changing the meaning which originally meant ‘let go of hope and wait'; ‘la’ meaning no thus implying that Aleppo is refuting the song and telling me to not lose hope and to not wait – but rather to work – and hence my obedience depicted in the kneeling down and kissing the ground.
– For Mohamed Hamadiyeh’s “Al-Turath Ensemble” tape on YouTube, click here.
– For the canvas in question which inspired this post, click here.