All of the young men I met that day, on the way to my pharmacy in the village square in Hayan, were talking about how the battle for the northern part of Aleppo province was drawing near. They were all saying that the army was around the corner, about to arrive.
But there was not an air of fear in this small village — the only village to have withstood the advance of Daesh. A slight young man was repeating the same thing to all of us, over and over again: ‘They will not uproot us from our soil!’
‘It’s fine, we’ve fortified our berms.’
‘But the civilians need to get out — why are you still here, Sir?’
The sound of aerial bombardment was the same as on any other day: the sky over the village was not empty of planes even once. The sound of machine guns being reloaded was all that broke the silence among us. Then Abu Jamil, our lookout, said: ‘The pig has dropped his load and he’s coming back for more, God damn him.’
‘He dropped it on our heads, Abu Jamil.’
‘It’s like he’s saying: “Come on then, you MANPAD heroes!”’
They all laughed again, and noticed I was still there. ‘Honestly, Sir, there’s nothing for you to do here, why don’t you get out for a few days, and then come back?’
I look into their faces, and I look at the packets of medicine and the dust on the shelves, and at the village that took me in after barrel bombs destroyed my pharmacy in Aleppo. I see their generosity, and the respect they show for life and death, and I feel that this ‘inner land’ contains all of my new memories, and that to leave it would be to rip my heart out all over again.
One of the village lads took me to I’azaz, where I found thousands of people like me waiting. I could see they were all overwhelmed by utter exhaustion: they were lying on the ground, sheltering among the rocks and trees as best they could.
Women, children, the elderly and the young, in whose faces what was there just a few months ago could no longer be seen: they were all looking in the same direction now, towards the smuggler who would take them across to Turkey. We’ve all been duped by that man, we’ve all dreamt of crossing the border — of going just a hundred metres and passing over into Turkey, the ‘land of dreams’: a land free from the sound of planes, barrel bombs and frontlines, free from beards and religious division.
A strange friendship springs up in moments of fear: you find yourself being friendly to someone whose face you can’t even see, but whose breath alone is enough to reassure you. Perhaps he was wearing a long grey coat like mine? I think I glimpsed the cotton trousers he had on. In March 2013 I was here, also wearing cotton trousers.
Aleppo was a smouldering ember, afraid for its own survival — as if it had already had the lion’s share of killing, destruction and fear, just like in the eighties when the Muslim Brotherhood movement began their activities there. They found ears and hearts brimming with hope, and the movement rose up shouting with all its might, strength, and weapons.
I don’t know what really happened, as talk of it was tantamount to risking one’s life, and I was still very young at the time. After that everything went weird: there was a murderous blackout, and new slogans we repeated every morning at school: ‘We pledge to confront imperialism, Zionism, and reactionism, and to crush their criminal puppet devices, the Muslim Brotherhood gang.’
None of our parents had the strength to tell us that the slogans were all lies, and that history is written by the strong, as the saying goes. My father — like all of his contemporaries — was desperate to avoid any mention of his friends from childhood and adolescence, whose bodies were rotting in prisons like Tadmor and Sednaya, or in mass graves that no one knew about. Perhaps the accusation was based on nothing more than one innocent person mentioning another innocent person's name, but it would be enough to get them dragged off into the unknown, where they could not even be asked after.
Aleppo is a city that keeps a careful and expectant eye on what’s happening. None of the households there had fully recovered yet from the memory of what had happened in 1980s. In a passing chat I had with an elderly taxi driver once, I was talking loudly as if talking with one of my friends — perhaps because his age, his white beard and the traces of extreme fatigue on his face made me persist, talking more freely than I might otherwise have done. I spoke at some length about the balance of power, about ignorance, underdevelopment, and the poverty that held us in its grip.
The taxi driver pulled over, and asked me to get out of the car. He spat in my face and called me an ‘Americanised Jewish dog.’
I laughed at the time. Perhaps he thought I was testing his patriotism, and the extent to which he would defend our wise leaders. I continued my journey without him, crossing over the deathly pass between East and West Aleppo on foot.
The planes constantly bothering us were not capable of killing our collective inner dream, and freedom coursed through our every inhalation and exhalation. We dreamt about how the new face of our city would look. ‘Exile this way,’ I said in irony, gesturing over the border with my hand. They envied us for staying, they envied the hope lingering on our faces.
The camps were our pain, and our contradictions. They were swimming in mud and oppression:
‘What is it that compels anyone to leave their home, their roots, and their memories, and allow it all to turn into this absurd feeling full of humiliation and shame?’
‘Death does.’ His voice sounded like the truth.
‘And maybe it’s necessary to stay here,’ I laughed sarcastically. This time I turned towards him to shout in his face the question of my existence: ‘Isn’t death the destiny that’s written for us?’
Everything was, at that time, suggesting a real revolutionary maturity: relief organisations, revolutionary thought, the dream of a new city, and the people of the country as comrades in arms.
He didn’t answer the stupid question I had just put to him, while he and I awaited the smuggler, fleeing death while wanting to stay.
I had a lover who had taken part in the first uprising and the first demonstrations with us, and had shared our revolutionary vehemence. The security forces followed us right into our dreams, and with the first chant we forgot everything and got lost in the roar of freedom, oblivious to prison and death. Life stretched out ahead of us like the lights of a fairground painted by a child who has forgotten the taste of sweets — the idea of ‘living with dignity’ was all that was going round inside our little heads.
One of our female friends was detained, and the security forces began looking for my lover; so she travelled to There, to Faraway. Once again I gestured with my hand over the Turkish border. Maybe I got the direction mixed up — I only really have a sense of direction in my own area, not around here. I lit a nervous cigarette and blew the smoke out hard, hoping that the wind might help me catch my breath again.
She travelled over to There, and I took up a machine gun.
‘Who else can protect the country, and liberate it, except the sons and daughters of this land?’ Our ideas needed some power or other to protect them, as words are wasted in air that is saturated with gunpowder. And life’s not fair, my friend.
The clearest and liveliest idea – which filled all of us up – was that the intellectuals and honest people of this country must carry guns, so that the revolution would not be stolen like the country had been. Who said that a machine gun is no good at poetry, and doesn’t know about longitude and latitude, and only knows about killing and destruction? How do you protect your rights, your place, your country and your ideas, if some cruel twist of history has given your enemy the capacity to bury alive the idea – and the person who thought of it – in cold blood?
It wasn’t a hunger for killing that drove us, but an instinct for emancipation.
After we liberated the area known as ‘Base 80’ near to Aleppo international airport in February 2013, men were poems, my friend, and for every metre of ground there was a martyr, and life began from here.
The cannons didn’t have that frightening sound, back then, as we all used to chant together. National unity, cohesion, and bright faces sang together and grew together: we would write our wills together and hug each other just a few hours before going in, blowing our cigarette smoke into the air and praying to God together. The voice of a friend — cast out into exile now, who knows where — used to sing, ‘God help you, my country, father of civilisations.’
Twenty hours and the bare earth falling away in front of us, no mountains or screens to protect us. Land like the palm of a hand, and faith like a solidly anchored mountain, and a longing for freedom – that sums up the scene. Bullets raining down like in the film ‘The Last Samurai,’ whizzing past you and not killing you, and shouts of ‘God is great!’ making your heart fly like a bird.
I had decided to travel, at that point – so, I asked myself, What stopped me from doing so? I am from there, one of the men from Base 80, one of Aleppo’s men, one of the city’s dreamers and revolutionaries and intellectuals, the protectors of the city and its stones.
Gaziantep was a city I didn’t know, and it was where the majority of displaced Syrians were gathered at that time, as well as being a gathering place for relief organisations, humanitarian organisations and ‘revolutionary’ organisations. I put on my cotton trousers, I bought a wheeled suitcase, and I asked my friend to take me there. The weather was very cold, and we were praying it would not rain, because if it did the border area would be impossible to drive out of, a muddy prison. My friend and I rode on his motorbike from Aleppo to his village on the outskirts of I’zaz. Imagine, all those roads were ours – Masakin Hanano, the industrial area, Al-Mushat School, Tel Rifaat, I’azaz. We didn’t feel the cold, as the country was warm. Ismail the smuggler was going to get us to Shamareen, cross the border area with us, and then take us to a vehicle that would get us over to Kilis.
The heavens opened, and it rained like never before: it was as if Noah’s flood had returned to Earth. Ismail left us at the beginning of the road. They are all liars. According to what he’d told us we just needed to run fifty metres down the road and we would find the vehicle waiting for us. We ran for a full hour, but there was no one there. We stood in the road and laughed, our feet sinking into the mud, our clothes like clods of earth. But eventually we made it, and the owner of the vehicle took us to Kilis, which was really just a little village where the Syrians could be counted on one hand.
Just ask – anyone can tell you the way to Sanko Park. I repeated to myself what she’d told me, whilst talking to the driver in Arabic, as if I were in Aleppo. I noticed after a while that he was talking in another language, and I slapped myself, but I didn’t stop. I wanted him to take me to Sanko Park, and so I made use of the few English words I could still remember, but in vain.
He dropped me off at the bus station, and my journey in search of Sanko Park began in earnest. Long story short, I got there, imagining that I was reconquering Constantinople: a man in love crossing the border to enter her city all by himself, singing as he goes ‘Between you and I is a barbed wire fence.’
She still had that same old shriek of hers, and that same sharpness – she even imagined that I would stand behind her while we shouted together like we used to do. ‘Weapons and the armed revolution have disfigured the revolutionary idea, and will spawn an ill and distorted generation,’ she said, as if blaming me, or blaming us.
‘If you want to talk I will have to fire a round of bullets first so that people listen to you: we all believe that revolution consists of building, but we were forced to do this. The drums of war were beating, and we had to find a way not to smash the hopes that people had – they were going to die or rot in prison. How would you convince a man who has lost his four children to a passing barrel bomb that he must draw a flower rather than pick up a machine gun?! Or that he must shout in the face of oppression rather than kill the oppressor?! And when this hell is over we will need you — yes, we will need you all to build, and for our children, and for us, for gardens and cafes and poetry, for mosques and prayer and faith.’
I went back from Gaziantep after that, to live with all of the contradictions and the changes in Aleppo, living as a condemned man this time. The Islamic princedoms followed each other around all over the area: the revolution had been stolen by 2014, and we were just the remains of a revolution there, men who had tired of defending their convictions. They used to shout, ‘It’s time for freedom, and not for criticism.’
Many new faces began to appear, in new dreams and new laws: we were simply no longer able to convince people that this was a revolution against oppression. Perhaps the length of time that had passed by this point had a big role to play in this, and perhaps we needed revolutions to break out within the revolution; and maybe we had got worn out by the people’s fatigue. Many people were saying that no nationalist ideology could ever be victorious, so we needed to follow a different fad this time – we needed to transform religious thought and turn it into a basis on which to build a new revolution.
But who says we were against religion? We were against oppression, whatever its source. There ended up being many more checkpoints in the liberated areas than there were regimes checkpoints, and you ended up having to bribe your way through them. Every commander ended up appointing himself king of a geographical area, and we ended up as Kharijites (members of the earliest sect in Islam), apostates, revivalists, infidels, and secularists.
I left my machine gun and fear began to eat into what was left of my soul, the idea of ‘living with dignity’ biting along with it. And here I was, now, in December 2015, waiting for another smuggler. This time I found neither my friend nor his motorbike, my wife and my little son were with me, and the cold was eating what was left of my limbs. I was wearing jeans, in the hope that they might make fleeing easier.
This time I was fleeing my city as an exile, as a refugee. The sound of a man screaming woke us all from our hushed sleep: he had opened his suitcase and begun taking a few items of clothing out of it, and setting them on fire, shouting ‘The children are dying of cold!’
People told him off: ‘The border patrol will see us, put the fire out!’ But he carried on burning what was left in his suitcase, and saying ‘I don’t want to cross the border anymore,’ while his children sat near the fire. When there weren’t any more clothes left in his suitcase he took his trousers off and threw them on the fire. He looked round at me and said ‘What did you say? Rebuilding, love, Gaziantep, what else?!’
I cast my eyes down in embarrassment, and fled from the eyes of the crowd, over to my wife and son.
The smuggler’s voice pierced through us: ‘Come on lads, let’s go – there’s no security patrol now.’ I picked up my son and our luggage – a hessian sack with our clothes in it, this time – for a journey into exile that didn’t resemble us. We ran so as to stay, this time. Perhaps crying from the cold is different to crying from sorrow and injustice? The cold and my bare feet helped me to cry, as we reached the other side of the border area. I completed my journey slowly, without looking up at the sky, because now was the time to look down at the ground: asylum means that you’ll never be back here again.
On the way to Gaziantep a police patrol stopped us and asked for our Turkish ID card, which they call a ‘kimlik.’ None of us had one, so the police got us out of the vehicle and pointed at the road back to Kilis. This time I didn’t speak Arabic like I had that other time, I settled for heartbreak. I went over to the other side of the road, got in a car and travelled back to Kilis.
Gaziantep only welcomes conquering heroes — as for the defeated, they must remain at the border.