From Brutality to Beauty: Collective trauma, culture and meaning – Part two

Read part one here.

In 2019 I travelled by taxi on the highway north from the Syrian capital, Damascus, to Aleppo. It was late April, the most beautiful time to be in Syria. I had last visited Aleppo a decade earlier, before the war, when it was still Syria’s largest city.

The war had raged for six years when my journalist father and I took that highway. We passed blocks of flattened suburban housing and ravaged industrial towns before reaching the green foothills of the western mountain ranges. The scenes of destruction we saw were the traces of so many news reports, so many supposedly clear narratives.

The land clung to its reputation as the heart of the once-Fertile Crescent despite losing a slow battle against climate change and desertification. For the moment, fields of poppies and wildflowers covered the dry scars that would emerge with the blazing summer months. Similarly, many Syrians still clung to their historical identity as the bedrock of civilisation – despite the devastation of an existential war.

Checkpoints had also become part of the landscape, uniformly painted in the horizontal red-white-black striped, double-starred national flag, but not so uniformly manned by soldiers of the national army and various pro-government militias. Checkpoints far from sensitive positions were manned mostly by young, conscripted men who had not sought refuge outside the country or in university studies, and members of militias who had been drawn into the vortex of a war economy.

They were also all sons, brothers, fathers, and our drivers saw and respected them as such.  Each greeting began in a sympathetic and encouraging tone and ended with a handshake embellished with a few hundred Syrian Lira, worth a dollar or so at the time. At highway rest stops, the same grubby and forlorn men could be seen scrubbing themselves clean in road-side bathrooms, eating a proper meal and buying sweets to take home on leave, alive for another month or so.

Our destination Aleppo, in ancient and medieval times had been a renowned city of connection, trade, and interaction between peoples. With traceable lines of connection to distant cultures through both time and geography Aleppans had created world heritage for over 4000 years. With the right mix of intellectual, artistic and material wealth, successive generations had built a city of truly interactive beauty. The arched stone laneways of the ancient souks remained the heart of the city’s commerce and daily life – until modern war arrived.

In war’s aftermath, my father and I had come to document the reconstruction of the Ummayad-era Great Mosque. It had been ravaged by fire, bullets and mortar rounds and an enormous subterranean explosion had collapsed its stone minaret tower from below. The mosque sat at the centre of the old city and had entrances directly from the souks. Aleppans’ daily lives of commerce and leisure bled into prayer and contemplation in the shadows of the mosque.

The stone blocks of the Great Mosque’s minaret being categorised in the courtyard in 2019. The Minaret has now been rebuilt.

Amid criticism from opponents abroad, the Syrian government had decided to proceed with the reconstruction of the mosque and sections of the old city before the larger project of rebuilding modern residential areas. The symbolic spiritual and cultural role of the mosque, argued the government, was crucial to restoring the identity of the city. Its reconstruction would, the authorities said, establish a neutral place of respect and sanctity to facilitate reconciliation after four years of division between government- and rebel-held areas.

The destruction of Syrian antiquities had often been deliberate, done to erase identity by those who sought to recreate the country in their image. It was in Bosnia that international law came to recognise the significance of heritage destruction not only as collateral damage, but to inflict systematic human suffering. According to Dr Amra Hadžimuhamedović, a leading expert on Bosnia’s post-war recovery, heritage represents community values and restoring it was one of the most influential factors in building a sustainable peace in that country.

On our first day in Aleppo’s Old City, I watched a small team of woodworkers and stonemasons chip away at the walls of the mosque. I admired the effort they put into a task that would be appreciated for generations. The men – mostly fathers with their sons and nephews – worked their ancient trade with an unquestioning sense of ritual and spirituality. In a barren and sanctioned economy, they were certainly not in it for profit, recognition, or status. The specialised teams were paid little more than subsistence wages. They worked from their hearts, filling each of the thousands of bullet holes with specialised composites developed to match the natural stone. They had laid out and categorised hundreds of blocks from the fallen minaret in the courtyard, ready to be gradually rebuilt.

Three generations of craftsman rest over lunch inside the Great Mosque.

After the mosque, I left my father at one of the only functioning hotels in the city to rest and compile his notes while I went to meet another man who had found purpose in the tragedy that had come to define his life.

Salah Maraashi waited for me on the edge of the old city near the once-grand Sheraton hotel. The area had been the front-line between the old city controlled by opposition fighters and the modern city held by the government. Caught along the frontline were some of Aleppo’s most beautiful ancient wooden houses. Shattered balconies cascaded onto the streets, mounds of crumbled stone lay undisturbed, and once-bustling streets ached with silence. The urban landscape had taken on the tumbling, rolling flow of a meadow due to underground explosions set off by jihadists trying to undermine government positions.

Having recently developed a passion for photography, I had scanned Facebook for Aleppan photographers. Salah’s work stood out through stunning 360-degree photographs of the old city’s streets. His pictures documented countless heritage buildings while simultaneously reminding you of their grace.

“In a way, I still find so much beauty amid this destruction,” Salah told me as we stepped over fallen stone walls and wandered through once-covered markets now open to the sky. Turn after turn alongside Salah revealed more painfully sentimental scenes of Aleppans seeking to re-establish their lives. Dark silhouettes with bags of bread and vegetables shuffled silently through the arched framework of a souk. Young boys sat on a pile of stones enjoying a falafel sandwich in a courtyard with no walls left standing. A rose-petal seller delighted at an opportunity to show off his fluorescent crop amid a haze of basalt-grey dust whipped up by the dry spring wind.

As sunset neared, we entered a two-storey building with an open courtyard at least 25 metres in length. Roman-inspired columns and date palms still stood in the centre surrounding a dry water fountain. The interior walls of the rooms adjacent to the courtyard were scrawled with graffiti and there was not an intact piece of furniture to be found. Along the ground-level perimeter of the courtyard, low barred windows in the stone indicated a subterranean layer. “This was an Al-Qaeda prison” Salah said. “It was once a school – can you imagine the difference?”

The Shaibani School in Aleppo will soon be rebuilt after being used as an Al-Qaeda prison during the occupation of Aleppo.

Climbing a crumbling stone staircase, we walked to an external balcony to watch the sun set over the city. Salah pointed out mosques, schools, churches and bazaars of historical significance. “We even have our own leaning tower now”, he joked pointing to a minaret displaced by explosives. The gentle pinks and bronzes of the sunset accentuated the destroyed city’s beauty, throwing God’s rose-coloured glasses over every bullet-riddled wall. “Tomorrow, I will introduce you to Abu Saeed,” said Salah. “He’s one of the most amazing men of the city, he knows everyone, every corner, every building, he loves the city like his own children.”

I did not dare to ask Salah about his personal experience of the war. He and his wife had taken care of four children throughout more than four years of fighting for the city. He lived on the modern, western side of Aleppo, which had remained in government hands. We were walking through the destroyed east, which had been captured by an assortment of rebels, criminal gangs and foreign jihadists in 2012. I sensed there was a lot more to his hospitable, cheerful exterior, but this was not the moment to deflate our unexpected encounter and appreciation of his city.

The following afternoon, I waited for Salah behind the Sheraton Hotel, where a once-grand fountain formed a roundabout in the last ‘new’ road before the tangle of ancient lanes began. The baking sun had prompted a gaggle of boys aged between eight and 12 to use the decorative fountain for a more practical purpose as a place to cool off. Dressed in polyester FC Barcelona jerseys and long-pants they performed great leaps from the fountain’s edge, oblivious to the bombed-out buildings surrounding the square. They would never really forget the war that defined their childhood, but for now they still retained the child’s superpower of imagination.

It was a photographer’s dream moment and I kneeled down to the boy’s level, brought the skeletal buildings looming above them into range and took the shot. Salah approached me, smiling gently. I could see in his eyes that he knew the sight well, and still appreciated the levity it brought. “Come, let me introduce you to Abu Saeed, he’s an amazing man,” said Salah.

Abu Saeed’s rotund frame moved gently through the ancient lanes, occasionally pausing to decide which hidden gem to show us next. “We residents consider these stones our soul,” he said as we entered the Roman Catholic Cathedral in Jdeide. Leaning into the wall and dragging his arm lovingly along the smooth sand-coloured stone he exuded a pride as if he himself had carved the massive blocks.

Abu Saeed’s knowledge of the old city was profound, and he greeted everyone like a fond cousin. He had run a shoe store in the old city before the war, in an area that grouped all other shoe-sellers, as was customary. He told me of his despair when he first re-entered the place after the rebels had been surrounded, bombarded and then bussed out of east Aleppo in a negotiated evacuation at the end of 2016.

“I fell into depression and indescribable sadness; sometimes I felt frozen and unable to speak,” he said. “There didn’t seem to be any way back from this. So, I just walked, walked to see what was left of the places, the people, our lives.”

Salah joined the conversation. “In a way it was easier to understand the city once it was empty of people,” he said. He was right. During my first trip to Aleppo in 2009, I had been dazzled by the life of the old city, the tangle of covered arched lanes denying an outsider a clearly traceable memory of exactly where they had been or how they had arrived there. That first visit was the start of my journey into Syrian history, culture and language, which included study at the University of Damascus.

The Jdeide Cathedral had fared better than the Great Mosque, with mortar shells damaging mainly the roof and courtyard. The church was closed but we peered through the doorway at the red-velvet and gold brocades and statues. After three years, repair work was almost complete and the smell of fresh paint clashed with the musky human smells of ritually worn carpet and incense filtered through anxious lungs.

Turning back to the now-spotless courtyard I noticed a lonely object sitting on a waist-high pillar under a single loquat tree. The object was dark brown and orange, and clearly man-made. As I approached, it became clear. I had seen it dozens of times in photos and video over the past eight years – the tail of a mortar shell. I didn’t know if it had been left there by accident or as a deliberate reminder of what had been, but it served to prevent the shinyness of the new from erasing the memory of the past.

Two boys enjoy lunch in a of a square where Aleppo’s best falafels were once found.

Just as Palmyra’s tombs, statues and columns had contributed to some of Syria’s pre-war national symbols, maybe the haunting symbols of modern war would one day contribute to the identities of future Syrians. By granting significance to tangible acts, symbols, or objects, through ritual and community, through art, devotion, music, and movement, humans find ways to create narratives about their experiences, and to access the intangible divinity of beauty that gives purpose and meaning to suffering.

Without professional psychological support and a supportive state, this was how Salah, Abu-Saeed and Tarek from Palmyra were beginning their healing, and how humans have done so for thousands of years.

By mid-afternoon Salah, Abu Saeed, and I had spoken to dozens of people recounting stories of loss and trauma. They were cautiously relieved to be able to welcome a moment of relative calm, and spoke of their hopes for to a return of the city’s identity and beauty.

As the sun’s glare began to soften and we strolled down a narrow lane, walled by grey stone rubble carpeted in spring foliage, two girls of around 10 years old came towards us.  One wore a white headscarf and the other’s fair hair was braided into a long ponytail. Arm in arm and heads bowed in excited conversation, the girls were lost in their own world and oblivious to the potent symbol of coexistence, choice, and freedom they embodied. The three of us could see it clearly, but none of us said anything.

“What are you doing?” they asked with a child’s curiosity. “We are taking photos of the old city and hearing people’s stories I replied.” “Beautiful” one of the girls replied.

“Did you live here during the war or did you just come back?” I asked.

“I stayed,” said the girl with the hijab, “but she left with her family. We are friends.”

“And how do you feel now?” I asked, surprised by the young girl’s maturity and frankness. Children can give you the easiest, raw photographic expressions and quotes, but they are largely unaware of the significance of what they are reporting, and the consequences of doing so.

“It’s much better now” said the girl with the hijab. “When the rebels first came, we thought we would be safe, they claimed to be helping us. But they stole everything,” she continued without skipping a beat. “They demanded our gold, and when we couldn’t pay them, they kidnapped my little sister until we paid to get her back.”

Despite her matter-of fact account, I could see her lungs constrict as she raced to get the words out. The little sister she spoke of could only have been only a toddler at the time. Stunned at the account I was hearing, I fought against the temptation to dig for more detail in order to publicise her story.

Stories like that young girl’s were left out of Western media narratives of the Syrian conflict. The foreign media had largely moved on now, and it would be up to Syrians, both those who fled and those who stayed, to create their own meaning, healing, and recovery.

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