Sunday, October 02, 2016

The Most Beautiful City I'll Never See

Once, before the bad days, I had the chance to visit Aleppo and I never took it, something that I now bitterly regret. Perhaps one day, when this is all past us, and by some miraculous coincidence, I may walk through its narrow streets and think back to these days. But it wouldn't be the same city. The stones might get put back together again in a bastardised version of what it once was, but I'll always know this isn't the same place. There'll be a spiritual scar that will take a long time to heal. One day there will be a generation of people who will have forgotten about all this, about us, and about what we saw and felt, and the suffering of this time will simply be a paragraph in a book. Something that happened a long time ago, but faded from the collective memory because the present pushes with it a thousand little problems that are more important than the memory of a time from before their grandparents - from our present. 

I know that what's in the past will stay in the past, but as I sat on a train today thousands of miles away I thought of this city, of the space it occupies in my mind, and of chances not taken. I felt myself taken back to that internal world where people who are long gone still live. That place I can only visit unexpectedly. When I sit with a group of people my mind sometimes drifts far away. It doesn't take much. A word, a smell, a phrase, and I'm transported there, to that place nobody can reach. I call it the Dream Place. And while everyone carries on talking, I nod and politely pretend to listen to them, while my feet wander through the streets of a far away city. I'm on the train, and now I'm in the Dream Place. Things were easier back then, before the bad times, when I could get on a big bus, not like the "microbuses" in Damascus, and put my headphones on to listen to music as the driver hurtles dangerously through the traffic. I close my eyes and try to ignore the uncomfortable seats and the dryness of my throat from the air conditioning. Every now and then, I would look out of the window and see the landscape slowly change from city to suburb and then to the odd village or town. They flash by in a series of images as we move from the familiar to the unfamiliar. I close my eyes again. The journey goes by mercifully fast. I'm in Aleppo now and my cousin greets me. I know that I am still in Syria but it is both familiar and alien to me. The delicate Aleppine accent, so strange to me and yet so exotic, fills my ears. It is as if the people of this city want to make a statement. We are here, they say, and this is our city and it has always been here and always will be. 

I'm tired but I hunger for more and the city beckons. The sun is setting and I lose myself in the narrow streets of the old town. I enter the covered bazaar and the lights are on for all the shops now. Their owners welcome me, spreading their arms over a thousand and one containers of brightly coloured spices and herbs and grains. In other stores, roll upon roll of delicate fabrics fit for a princess are spread out for all to see. Copper pots, pans and plates hang from the walls as a man taps delicate words of magic into yet another addition to his stock. The smell of cardamom and freshly ground coffee fills my nostrils. I breathe in the air of the market, drinking it into my soul. It is the scent of life, of a city that has seen a thousand generations wander through these same streets. Near an overflowing green bin the bored street cats yawn and stretch idly, hoping to catch scraps from the food hawkers and passers-by.

Other shops have sweets on display, baklawa and mabroomeh and countless pistachioed delights that I can't even begin to name, all arranged in rows and circles and spirals. Packaged and ready for all occasions in gold and silver ribboned boxes. Sacks of purple skinned Aleppo pistachios are laid out before me as I walk on. I love all this, the city's wonder, it's confidence, the warmth of the people. My long gone relative insists we go to the citadel, and I stare at the narrow path leading to its gate. From the ramparts, I feel the gentle breeze of the land and I know what it is as I did when it sighed in my face once in Antakia, in another life and another place, and it's the smell of home and love and gentle long nights pining for someone who will never know. Of the ache of love for the sake of love. And it's where I want to be and where I am right now, in this dream place, real even though I know it's not because it's in my heart. 

The city lights twinkle amber and green all around me from the dark, and a call to prayer echoes across the night. I think of all the people who have stood on these walls over the centuries, right at this spot, and I feel a connection with them. Did their heart flutter in their chests in the same way? We wander through the winding streets again, leaving the citadel behind. The city sleeps now and I walk alone. Even the street cats have disappeared. Then, out of the corner of my eye, there is a movement. An Aleppine princess, combing her long red hair in front of a mirror, sits delicately by an open window. She doesn't know that I'm watching, and I don't know how, but I know it's a beautiful ivory comb she holds in her delicate white hands, with mother of pearl on the handle. I stand in the gloom, afraid to breathe for fear it would startle her, afraid, perhaps, to wake up from my Dream Place and leave this wonderful daydream. My eyes burn with anguish and longing. Wishing I could be part of this picture, part of this world. To not be a stranger anymore, always looking in from the outside, cursed to forever watch from afar. The princess gets up and walks away from the window and the lights go out. I stand alone again, bathed in the orange street light, and the moment has passed, forever a secret known only to me. 

The sound of loud thuds hurts my ears and the ground shakes beneath my feet, but there's nowhere for me to hide. I see images of the same market I'd passed through earlier, but it is a ruin, smouldering, burnt by some unseen calamity. The citadel's lights are off and it's walls stare down menacingly over us all. I look around but there is nobody about, and in the sky thunder claps loudly though there are no clouds. The street cats hiss at me from a corner, driven mad by fear, and a stench of dust and decay fills the once fragrant air. There is no breeze here, no happiness or welcome, only a dead, stale nothing. Terrified, I look up to the window again, looking for my Aleppine princess, but the window frame is hanging loosely by one flimsy hinge, its glass broken, and I can tell, again without knowing why, that the house is now empty.

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