Grieving for Aleppo, One Year After Its Fall

“Every day I wake up and have to make peace with loss and devastation, with guilt and shame.”

A man walks past damaged houses in the old city of Aleppo, Syria July 13, 2017. (REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki)

Last autumn, we watched as Bashar al-Assad pummeled the life out of east Aleppo. His barrel bombs collapsed stone apartment buildings into concrete slabs, crushing their inhabitants between the layers. Those who survived were left with hunger, disease, and despair. Death surrounded them. With devastating detail, the siege taught us the full meaning of “kneel or starve,” the Syrian president’s strategy for defeating “the terrorists”—basically, anyone who opposed him. In mid-December, the Assad regime’s menacing green busses forcefully evacuated tens of thousands of civilians to Idlib, where local humanitarians scrambled to erect enough plastic tents for the families as snow began to fall.

For a few months, the world watched as Aleppo captured the attention of hashtags and headlines. And then it turned away.

During the destruction of Aleppo, my childhood home, I could not cry. I barely read the news and gave up Twitter. Instead, I was glued to Facebook. For me, the only meaningful words left to read were those of friends and activists from Aleppo who posted heartbreaking status messages in Arabic, instead of the usual English. We had moved past broadcasting tragic events as they unfolded in Syria, abandoning our naive and failed logic that if people only knew what was happening, then it would stop. By choosing to grieve in Arabic, we carved a semi-private space to mourn our homeland.

It took the most unexpected of losses to dissolve the layer of defensive numbness I had built up: On Christmas Day, George Michael died at the age of 53. When I heard the news, I first froze in shock, then began to sob. For those of us who grew up in Aleppo under authoritarian rule, pop music was one of our few windows to the world. As teenagers, we consumed Western music as fast as we could get our hands on it—George Michael, Madonna, Michael Jackson, U2, and, later, REM, Oasis, and the Spice Girls. Actually getting the music itself was as big a deal as listening to it. We caught wind of new albums from America and Europe from people who traveled outside Syria, or from visiting cousins who brought us those coveted tapes.

Mostly, we discovered new artists at local music shops. My first music store was Queen, a half-underground shop in Aleppo’s Aziziyeh neighborhood. My high school friends and I would walk down the steps past its neon sign and enter another world. As we carefully selected from the bootlegged mix tapes—created from originals, most likely smuggled in through Lebanon—we talked about pop culture and shared celebrity gossip. A few years later we upgraded from Queen to Floyd, and then to Radio One (where CDs eventually replaced the tapes). The bootlegged albums and mix tapes were our own shared, private culture, far from the state-controlled media outlets. We memorized the songs by heart and blasted the music in our rooms, and then later in our cars on repeat as we drove in loops around Aleppo.

Few artists made us feel happier or dance harder than George Michael, one of the few popular western artists to “cross over” onto the regime’s English-language television channel. His videos, for songs like “Last Christmas,” “Faith,” “Father Figure,” and of course, “Careless Whisper,” played frequently. In the late 80s, a rumor circulated that the stubbly beard and aviator sunglasses worn by Bassel al-Assad, Bashar’s late, older brother, were an imitation of Michael’s signature look.

On my last trip to Aleppo in 2011, I drove around the city with Lady Gaga playing on my iPod. I had returned that summer from my home in America to visit my family. While Daraa, Homs, the outskirts of Damascus, and Hama, had erupted during that fateful spring of the revolution, Aleppo was still quiet and unfazed. The city was as it had always had been, ancient and sleepy, where nothing ever changed. On satellite news during the day, I watched the protests and rising death tolls in towns just a few hours drive from our home. At night, during late dinners at chic cafes, my friends would discuss fashion, sports, Obama, anything but domestic politics. When the protests (and atrocities) came up, it was in fearful whispers. They found it easier to deny they were even happening at all.

Back at home in my childhood bedroom, I finally cleared my desk of hundreds of plastic cassette boxes and swept them into trash bags. It was time to move on from the past. I thought of the tapes as an end of my youth and of outdated technology. I didn’t know it was just the beginning of the end of everything.

Today, one year after the fall of Aleppo, many of my Syrian friends on Facebook still post in Arabic when they mourn for their country. Once, these people—mostly high-profile social media activists—wrote primarily in English. It was their job to tell the story of Aleppo to a wider English-speaking audience. But during the besieging of the city, many began to post in Arabic, as processing the pain became a private ritual—the writing was for us only. It no longer mattered that many followers would not understand. Their status messages, once full of news of revolution and war, now wrote about depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and suicide. One well-known activist from Aleppo recently posted on Facebook after discussing her struggle with depression and therapy, “We are more than our Facebook profiles. We didn’t just come into existence in 2011. We are humans, with our losses, our stories, our romances, and our brokenness. I wish with all my heart for everyone who is struggling to find a safe space to heal.”

There is a slow, collective effort to take stock of our trauma. We suffer from acute hopelessness. The guilt of survival cripples us, while our oppressive optimism insists that we “not give up.” And while these two forces remain in constant tension with each other, an unspoken question haunts us all: What was all of this for?

The social media feeds of those who stayed in western Aleppo—largely unscathed compared to the east—and those who fled but remained silent through the years suggest a different reality. These Syrians, apologist elites as well as those who kept quiet out of fear or apathy, have taken to loud gloating. They post smiling selfies taken in front of the Citadel, the ancient castle in the heart of the old city, and photos in the ravaged historic quarters with captions pledging to rebuild Aleppo “better than before.” When I scroll through their videos, I see comments with crying emojis and obligatory declarations: May God punish whoever caused this. I no longer wonder if they’re being subversive or ironic. They aren’t. As an exiled cousin of mine put it after watching an Instagram “tour” of some of our cherished restaurants and shops in Aleppo, posted by one of her “silent” friends: Those of us who didn’t stay silent “are the ones who missed out the most.” Truly, war brings on its own extreme FOMO.

Sometimes, the destruction in the videos is so absolute, there’s nothing recognizable left. But in my mind, I conceive of my past as a memory map: Here is where I bought my first mix tape. Here is where I tasted my first green almond. Here is where I learned to draw. Here is where we danced under the stars, in Club d’Alep where “Careless Whisper” played for years (long after it was cool).

These days, pundits and politicians talk about Assad winning the war, as if it doesn’t matter that his victory came at the cost of cities now reduced to rubble, and the lives of hundreds of thousands of his own people. Nothing seems to matter—neither the refugees nor the dead nor the disappeared. All are irrelevant. Those of us who spoke out are the irrelevant ones today, left to live with a brutal reckoning we didn’t deserve, with old songs playing on repeat in our minds in streets we will never see again. In the seven years since millions of people across the Middle East rose up against the dictators who ruled them, it is the ones who ​crossed their arms, turned away, and ​stayed silent as their fellow citizens were slaughtered, disappeared, and exiled, who became the relevant ones. For now, at least.

Every day I wake up and have to make peace with loss and devastation, with guilt and shame. Unexpected memories—a song, a scent, a photograph, a taste of home, the news of a beloved pop star’s death—push the trauma to the forefront, piercing me. So many of my friends, now scattered across the globe, suffer from the same pain. This is the process of becoming a survivor: to be able to look towards the future with hope while carrying the pain of what’s left of the past.

When despair hits, I try to concentrate on what is relevant. I redefine hope from its oppressive, absolute, and static form, into practicing thousands of small actions that carry the potential to make things better in the long term—like rescuing Syrian refugee children from child labor, or telling my children stories about my beloved city so they can create their own secondhand memory maps of Aleppo even if they may never go there. Hope is the belief that the accumulation of these actions will make our vision of a just and free future not only relevant but real. That is our battle now. And often, it is mostly with ourselves as we learn to survive.