When Aleppo's widows speak

For each husband killed in Aleppo, there is a widow struggling to provide for her surviving family. Our writer heard dozens of these women’s stories first-hand; an experience that sent him into an "abyss" of drugs and mental disturbance.

I returned to it, and was determined to rebuild my relationship with it. Was I broken at the time? Why? I don’t know, and perhaps it doesn’t matter. What matters is these earnest intentions of mine were one-sided, as I would learn.

From the end of 2014 to the end of 2015, the city was not a place, in the wider sense of the term, not for me at least. Nor was it a home. I felt that emptiness that exists when a place means nothing to one at all. More than anything, I felt estrangement, a concoction of feelings I can’t explain now, which made hashish and pills of Tramadol and Baltane urgent necessities in helping me retain some balance.

I would leave the house at every massacre. I would see blood and body parts lying about, and take a few photos before starting to help the wounded. I wanted to feel fear; or what they call timor mortis; but alas, the depraved numbness of the drugs coursed arrogantly through my veins.

Around that time, I met a person who irritated me at first, but soon became my only acquaintance in Aleppo. We were sitting around on a day like any other when some friends played a prank on an old man with a shaggy beard and dirty djellaba, telling him with mock-gravity that the jihadists of Jabhat al-Nusra were looking for him due to rumors he was a “secularist.” Paying no heed to this childish talk, he let out a booming laugh and replied, “Show them to my house.”

When I asked one of the others in a whisper who this man was, he pointed to him and said, “You don’t know him? That’s Abu Adnan the Secularist.”

 

Records of the dead

 

Perhaps I’ll tell the story some other time of Abu Adnan, that most noble and poor man, who I later came to know well. Here, however, I’ll recount the experience that brought me to him in the first place.

I participated in statistical fieldwork for an NGO in the spring of 2015. The NGO ran a social program that supported orphans, each according to their circumstances and needs, and required my help in compiling profiles of each family, in order to determine what was needed in each case. A questionnaire was drawn up to gather information about the families’ lives.

This questionnaire went into such details as names of family members, living and deceased, and their ages; levels of education; previous job of the deceased father and current job of the mother. The paper probed the families’ social statuses and the houses and areas where they resided, and whether they owned, rented, or “borrowed” their accommodation.

At the very bottom, there was one wretched section asking about the parent’s cause of death. “You’re in a war zone, what do you expect the cause of death to be?!” I asked myself. What a stupid question; obviously they died from the bombing, or the clashes, or hunger. I didn’t think up other possibilities; I imagined death was more decent than to take viler forms than these.

We agreed with local councils on dates for orphan families to be present, and on a list of documents each family would have to provide for us to avert the chance of fraud, which had become a full-time profession for many in Aleppo, as elsewhere.

To process applications, we were given a room with two tables, one for me and the other for Abu Adnan, and chairs packed tightly around us to make the space less crowded.

Each application would take at least fifteen minutes to complete, during which time we’d ask the widow, usually accompanied by one of her orphaned children, about her husband’s death. They would reply, as if it were normal, with sentences like, “His head exploded in an airstrike on al-Halwaniyeh market;” or, “A barrel bomb landed on our home, killing him along with our two sons, and I unfortunately survived with our three daughters,” caressing the head of one of these daughters as she says it; or, “He was sniped at the Bustan al-Qasr crossing point;” or, “He was tortured to death in prison.”

I would listen to these stories with a deeply cold expression. Some women prefer to stay silent in such situations, but those I met were generally keen to share these traumatic details with anyone who would listen.           

There were women who spoke about things wholly unrelated to why they were at the office. Others would jump from one story to another until eventually complaining of their hardship and asking for assistance. Had I anything to offer them at the time I would have done, though that would open floodgates not easily closed again, and so had to be firmly resisted. Abu Adnan, on the other hand, who would often go days without being able to feed his own children, asked to borrow 200 Syrian pounds (US$0.40) from me on the first day to give it to a widow in the office. Only with time and difficulty did he learn to resist his compulsion to help those in need, as his generosity far outstripped his means.           

Two days of these non-stop death stories passed without instilling any semblance of fear in me. I tried to affect shock; tried to focus all my attention and feel as much as possible; but I failed, until the Bedouin woman arrived, and with her simple narrative style stirred the immobile glaciers within me.

Originally from Aleppo’s southern countryside, she had been forced by the dire situation there to relocate to Aleppo City. When she arrived at the office, she wasn’t alone—she brought her whole family along.

“I had nine children, two were killed, and here are their children,” she told me as she found her seat. I scanned the children’s faces and saw their young mothers, not one of them older than twenty. I began a new application and recorded some of their personal details. When I reached the dreaded blank space to be filled with the death story, I lit up a cigarette and passed another to the woman at her request.

“God has blessed us,” she began. “Our situation was great, my children worked in many professions; laborers, merchants, teachers, and state employees. We lacked for nothing. My home filled up with an army of grandchildren. Were it not for the fickle wheel of fortune, you’d never have seen me here.”

Ahmad, 35, was an employee in a government department. He left his job when he enlisted in the Free Syrian Army in Aleppo, thinking this was best for him, on the basis that from time to time people would provide him with the salary from his previous job. Yet his salary was soon cut off, and in mid-2014 he was killed, leaving behind his wife and children. When I asked who killed Ahmad, his mother replied, “The Islamic Dawn Movement of the Levant—or, more accurately, his brother.”

There had been a dispute between the brothers over a small plot of land in a village in southern Aleppo province. When the Islamists began imposing themselves over certain parts of Aleppo, Ahmad’s brother seized the opportunity to accuse his sibling of being a shabbih, or Assad regime agent, on the grounds that he had technically been a state employee. Ahmad was murdered straight away, without the briefest investigation or inquiry into the truth of the allegation.

Did my anger show on my face at the time? I don’t know, but I did ask her more questions trying to find an answer that made sense of this fratricide. Yet all she said was the brother fled to Turkey afterwards, leaving his children with her as well. When they confronted the Dawn Movement about this unjust summary execution, the latter responded, “We have nothing to do with it; if he was lying [about his brother’s allegiance to the regime] then the blood is on his hands.”

Such is life: one can’t expect it to be fair or logical. This has always been the way. At the height of euphoria, life raises its spear, poised to strike. In the darkest of places, a hope springs eternal. You turn to try and anticipate whence the daggers will fall, only to be surprised with a gentle and rejuvenating breeze. It’s a stroll followed by slips and falls, then momentary recoveries, and so on until death.

I looked at the family Ahmad left behind; his children and wife. One by one, I got to know them. Then the mother started telling me about another of her sons.

His name was Khaled; he was twenty years old. In his short life, he experimented with various different lines of work until settling on the sale of diesel. Diesel was unavailable in East Aleppo’s neighborhoods, and most of the oil fields in eastern Syria were under Islamic State (ISIS) control. ISIS in turn was in need of gas in its own territories, which opened a profitable trade corridor whereby cars would drive northeast from Aleppo to the ISIS-controlled town of al-Bab laden with gas, while others would make the reverse journey back to Aleppo with diesel.

Khaled was taking this trip on a daily basis until ISIS stopped him one day in al-Bab and searched his car. After he was made to exit the vehicle, one of the ISIS members slipped a weapon inside it while talking to him, so as to accuse him of smuggling arms to “apostate” territory.

When his mother went to collect his corpse, they refused to hand it over, telling her they’d left it for some “hungry dogs.”

As she stood up, marshalling her army of children to the door, a shiver ran through my body.

 

How could the noose have closed round that throat?

 

“What’s your name?” I asked her. She didn’t respond right away. She handed me the family document, and I filled in the necessary details on the application. “How did he die?” I asked her. She looked at a random point in the distance, and, after a few seconds’ pause, said, “He hanged himself.”

The mental image of a lifeless body hanging from the ceiling alarmed me. What an idiot! Why would he hang himself when death was being distributed for free all around?

“Okay... but how?” I asked. With the great unease of one who’d already told the story hundreds of time with nothing to show for it, she began to narrate.

“He was emotionally unstable in the last two weeks of his life. Sometimes he would get angry and shower us with insults, banging his head against the wall. Other times he’d cry with such intensity his eyes would turn to glowing charcoal. Now I understand why. How could he stay in control of himself when seeing me and his three daughters going door to door begging for loaves of bread, or whatever else people could spare?”

“Our house was in the Ardh al-Hamra neighborhood; the neighborhood most intensely bombed in all of Aleppo, almost entirely reduced to rubble.”

“My husband was a butcher. He was in his store when the shrapnel maimed his foot, leaving him completely incapacitated. From there we sought refuge in the Tariq al-Bab neighborhood, settling in a house built without an official permit, abandoned by its owners, who’d fled the area. Given my husband’s condition, I had to take up the duty of providing for the family.”

“I knocked on the doors of aid organizations of every kind, and when they gave me nothing, I became the beggar you now see before you. One day he surprised me by insisting I go immediately to look for food, telling me to take the children with me too. After a heated argument, I complied. When we returned in the afternoon, I saw him suspended in the air.”

“So are you going to give me something now, or later? Let me know when I should come back.” This was what she asked me, as I stared into her eyes with complete numbness.

 

Grave-digger, why didn’t you dig your own grave?

 

I was in front of a face brimming with astonishment. She looked into my eyes like she wanted to understand something, her own eyes asking me the question a dozen ways: “Why?”

I began to feel my whole body react to every application I had to process. I developed an intuition for the level of pain each case would bring me.

“Tell me,” I said to her. So she told me.

“He was a blacksmith, and took up grave-digging because of some silly conversation we had. He left smithery because it no longer brought in enough money. We talked once about fleeing Aleppo for Turkey, but he refused. I spoke to him about the death all around us, and suddenly the idea came to him to take up grave-digging.”

“Is death ever intimidated by those it meets regularly? I wish I knew. My husband’s new profession boosted our standard of living to an unbelievable extent. Within a short space of time we had all the luxuries people in our community dreamed of—certainly, this was opulence for wartime. I was happy then, so happy I forgot about leaving for Turkey with him. Then in February 2015, I was told my husband had died. It came to me as an odd and impossible idea; how can a grave-digger die?”

“I learned the details later on; he was digging a grave for someone, and at the moment he finished, he stood upright and looked around, only to fall in the grave he’d just dug. A piece of shrapnel pierced his skull and killed him.”

Futility everywhere! I was thinking at the time of writing a report on graves in Aleppo, especially since, because of all the death, there was no more space to bury new bodies. As a result, a fatwa had been issued permitted the opening of old graves in order to add new bodies to them.

I imagined Yusuf before his death there, resting his ax on his shoulders while wandering around the cemetery he knew grave by grave. I pictured him feeling the soil to ascertain which grave was oldest, then digging it up again with his ax, to lay another corpse over the crumbling bones that were all that remained of the old one beneath. I imagined all this, and forgot to ask the woman who ended up digging the grave for her husband.

 

The child widow

                                                                    

The stories above, and others I’ve not included here, formed a mix of deep sadness and intense fear within me that threatened to explode any moment. Later, they would transform into nightmares of a sort different to the normal ones; these were nightmares made of words.

At the same time, I noticed I began to be heavily invested in the orphans that frequented my office. I used to try to make them laugh and talk to them more, developing a sort of “maternal” tenderness towards them, as though learning for the first time the catastrophe to which they were witness every day and the trauma that would accompany them for the rest of their lives.

One time, I was at work, trying to hide the anxiety and agitation building up in me while a woman and her young daughter holding an infant took their seats.

I talked to the young girl first, asking her about her school, her friends, and her favorite games and toys. Her fretful answers were dismissive. I called her habibti (“my dear”), trying to make her relax; trying to put my “maternal tenderness” to use.

While doing this, I noticed something wrong in her mother’s glances, which I took to be annoyance with their present circumstances. I went back to my conversation with her daughter; “Habibti, do you like chocolate?” Her mother’s looks grew sharper still, and I knew there had to be something wrong I didn’t know about, but I didn’t think it could possibly be the way I was speaking to her daughter. For one, she was a young child, and secondly, she must have seen I spoke to all the kids the same way. My tone of voice and innocent smile suggested no wrongdoing on my part. I stuck to my earlier conclusion that she was frustrated by her situation, and moved on to recording their information.

Husband’s name; age; former job; cause of death (clashes on one of the Aleppo frontlines): I wrote these down quickly and turned to the mother, asking for her name, present situation, education history, and other details. Then I asked for her year of birth. Her tone of voice was vanquished, hardly so much as mumbling as the sounds escaped her mouth. I complained to myself about others never appreciating the effort you put in to help them, then reminded myself I knew nothing, really, about her life.

When her reply came, it was patently absurd; she said she was born in 2002. I smiled and clarified that I meant her age, not her daughter’s. “Why do you want to know my age?” she snapped. “What do you want with me?”

I tried my best to maintain composure and explained I would take the information about her young daughter after I was finished taking hers, since she was the widow.

“The girl you’ve been flirting with is the widow,” she said.

Blood rushed to my head, and my face went hot as bread fresh out the oven. My lower lip went numb, and I slipped downwards.

I remembered all the incidents I’d personally seen of women being exploited, especially widows: in the crowded bakeries; at the aid organizations trying to get food packs. I remembered how a widow once gave me her address and phone number and signaled to me that I could talk to her, setting aside her conceptions about noble virtues and resorting to taboos to hasten the receipt of aid.

I imagined myself as one of those disgusting sexual predators that prey on vulnerable women in war. This must be how she saw me too! 

I was in a state of total blindness; for many seconds I was oblivious to all around me. Everything was spinning. I looked again at the small child, the widow, her gaze locked onto her infant. I flicked my eyes to the mother, who was still glaring at me with that expression I’ve been unable to this day to fully comprehend; an expression that made me feel the guiltiest person on the planet.

“Why did you keep quiet till now, do you see me holding a gun to your head?” I asked the mother indignantly, after which further words failed me. I finished her application as quick as I could and rushed outside the crowded office.

 

A farewell

 

Without doubt, I became a bona fide addict in the wake of this experience. The only way I could keep going was with Tramadol pills (cheap and always readily available); without these, I wouldn’t last two hours of the day.

Yet the larger problem was the abyss inside me. At first, it took the form of completeness numbness about everything; then an excessive sensitivity to certain things. How is one supposed to deal with that?

In addition, my nightmares took on an intensely symbolic and strange character. They would comprise a short word or sentence whispered by an unknown voice, its echo reverberating in dark corridors. Gradually the sound would transform, and with it my sense of rhythm, until it became so dreadful I longed to wake up from it.

I was not well at all—not only due to this experience, but all the additional circumstances that made Aleppo seem as limited as the range of its bullets. I was unable to build anything out of so stifling an environment, and so I took the first opportunity to leave.

At the end of 2015, as I left Aleppo behind me, I saw the rows of villages lining the road to the northern countryside, as well as the checkpoints, and sellers of diesel and petrol that stood in for the gas stations that no longer existed.

“Let’s go, brother?” The smuggler’s voice pricked me out of my stupor, and we set off to the nearest part of the Turkish border. The stories of Aleppo’s widows walked with me, as did their faces, especially that child with the furious mother. Borders are not soft things, and nor was the faraway city I left behind.

 

[Editor’s note: This article was produced as part of Al-Jumhuriya’s Fellowship for Young Writers. It was originally published in Arabic on 25 January, 2018.]