Seven years into the war, Syria has become a country devastated by conflict, associated with images of rubble, death, and unimaginable tragedy. Before the war, of course, Syria had a completely different identity. Tourists flocked to the country for its barbecue, its culture, and its rich history, eager to explore several of the oldest cities in the world. In today’s issue, we’re reflecting on Syria before the war. A Syrian friend of mine shares a few memories of her home city. Then Karen Yuan asks Robert Kaplan, a journalist who covered Syria for The Atlantic in 1993, how he imagined the country’s future, 25 years ago.
Memories of Aleppo
As told to Caroline Kitchener, Photos curated by Alan Taylor
Aya Aljamili, a current graduate student at American University, grew up in Aleppo, Syria. Watching the devastation from afar, she’s been horrified by pictures of a city that looks nothing like the one she remembers. In December 2016, Alan Taylor, our photo editor, curated a photo essay called, “Aleppo Before the War” (the captions used here are in his words). I used those pictures to illustrate Aljamili’s memories of her home city, before it was ravaged by conflict. The quotes below are Aljamili’s recollections, as she recounted them to me, lightly edited for clarity.
Balconies are a very important thing in our culture. They surround all sides of most houses in Aleppo. From the sitting room or the bedroom or the kitchen, you can go outside to the same balcony. It was narrow, but long. If you walk on the streets in the summer, if you look up, all the people will be out on the balconies. They are talking to guests. They are doing barbecue. You barbeque at any time of the day or night. Nothing will stop barbeque.
In elementary school, one of my best friends lived in the house right behind mine. In the summer, since my parents didn’t allow me to play in the street late at night, we had our toys on the balcony and we would just play, each one of us on our separate balconies. In the street, men would come by selling barbecued or boiled corn. You call from the balcony—“hey, Ammo,” which means ‘uncle,’ “I’m coming down!” This was our favorite part of the summertime.
There is a unique type of fabric in Aleppo. The wool is real wool. There have been sanctions in Syria for a very long time, so it’s very rare to find clothing brands that you would recognize in the United States. You find the original things, not the manufactured ones. If you want those brands, you have to have clothes smuggled from Lebanon, or other places.
I would go to the Umayyad mosque with my friends, just to hang out. It’s not only a mosque in the traditional way, where you come to pray. People also come to read and relax, to sit and talk. You can go into one of the rooms on the side to meditate. It’s very peaceful. The churches and the mosques in Aleppo are very ancient, so you feel like the spirit in the places is different.
One of my best memories from Aleppo was when I went to the citadel with my friends. We gave money to the guard so we could go in at night, after hours, and see Aleppo from the top of the castle. It’s the highest point in Aleppo, and it’s a circle, so you can see all the city from all sides. The people who haven’t seen that view before, they don’t know Aleppo—even if they’ve lived there their whole lives.
All of the houses in Aleppo look similar. If anybody from Syria goes to Aleppo, they will recognize the unique shape and color of the stone. The stone is not dark, it’s white. You can’t find that stone in any other place.
A lot of people from all over the world come to see our city. If you go to any market, if you go to the Old Town, if you go to the castle, there are plenty of people from all different countries. And that was a joy for us.
Was the Syrian Civil War Inevitable?
By Karen Yuan
In June of 1976, former Atlantic national correspondent Robert Kaplan took a bus from Damascus, Syria, to the countryside town of Ghouta. When he arrived, he saw a column of tanks, with soldiers glaring out of the hatches at a completely silent crowd. Nobody cheered; nobody booed. The chilling scene “spoke to the level of oppression in the place,” he told me. It was the beginning of Hafez Al-Assad’s regime, and Kaplan’s first time traveling to Syria.
He would visit again in the early ’90s and write a story in The Atlantic about what he saw as the imminent end of the aging leader’s rule. “Assad's passing may herald more chaos than a chaotic region has seen in decades,” he wrote. Much of what Kaplan saw then foreshadowed the civil war that broke out under the regime of Assad’s son, Bashar Al-Assad, nearly 20 years later.
Each one of Syria’s geographic regions is occupied by a different ethnic or religious group. In the center, in Damascus, live the Sunni Arab majority. In the remote southern mountains of Jabal al-Druze live a group of heterodox Muslims. In Aleppo, in the north, live an eclectic mix of Kurds, Christian Arabs, Armenians, and Jews. And in the west live the tiny minority group of Alawites, to which the Assad family belongs. “The country was drenched in color and variety,” Kaplan said. “It was a cross of civilizations.”
There was no unified national sentiment in Syria under Hafez Al-Assad’s rule, Kaplan told me. Aleppo, for example, had historically belonged on a trade route linked to Mosul and Baghdad in Iraq. Its alignment with Damascus was more artificial. “The great tragedy is that Assad didn’t build a sense of nationhood,” Kaplan said. Before Assad, there had been 21 changes of government in 24 years, driven by violence between Syria’s different sects. During his 30-year regime, he kept a tenuous peace in the fragmented country, but only through oppressive governmental control. Underneath the veneer of stability, Syria still lacked a national identity. “The root cause of today’s civil war,” Kaplan said, “is the fact that the elder Assad failed to build that.”
As a minority Alawi, Assad had to rule with an iron fist. In his book Greater Syria, quoted in Kaplan’s Atlantic story, the historian Daniel Pipes wrote that "an Alawi ruling Syria is like an untouchable becoming maharajah in India or a Jew becoming tsar in Russia.” During the French occupation of Syria in the early 20th century, the Alawites paid lower taxes and got larger subsidies than the majority Sunni Arabs in the French effort to stifle Arab nationalism. Because they’d also been encouraged by the French to join the occupying armed forces, by the ’60s, Alawites dominated the military in Syria. An Alawi who came into power through a military coup, Assad ruled a country full of communities that historically resented people like him.
“Syria faces a day of reckoning when his control over the country weakens,” Kaplan wrote in 1993. What he didn’t foresee was how bloody that day would be. “I never imagined it would be this bad,” he admitted to me. The Syrian civil war has devastated the country, with a death toll that likely exceeds half a million (the UN has stopped counting). Leadership of the country, instead of passing, as expected, to the oldest son, Bassel Al-Assad, went to Bashar Al-Assad after his older brother died in a car accident. Bashar Al-Assad, who never aspired to be in politics, inherited a country primed for turmoil.
Twenty-five years ago, Kaplan wrote about the potential for an Alawite state to be carved out of Syria. Even a few years ago, that would have still been possible, Kaplan said. “Assad looked weak, and retreating to an Alawite state was reasonable.” But since the Russian intervention, Assad has taken so much territory in Syria that an Alawite retreat is no longer necessary.
When Kaplan wrote his story in 1993, Yugoslavia was also in the midst of a bloody civil war. Like Syria, it was geographically split into different ethnic and religious groups—Christian Serbs, Christian Croats, Muslim Bosniaks, and Muslim Albanians. The country disintegrated after the war. Watching what was going on in Yugoslavia, Kaplan worried that Syria under Hafez Al-Assad was a pressure cooker. “Syria will not remain the same,” he wrote. It may be the only thing that was certain then, and stays certain now.
Today’s Wrap Up
Question of the day: Are there places that you have strong memories of that no longer exist in the same way? Where are they, and what happened to them?
What’s coming: On Wednesday, we’ll look into the art of presidential speech-making.
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