Twelve Stories of Aleppo
Two boys barely in their teens who want to be untethered, to fire a gun and become men in place of their missing fathers, climb the stairs to the apartment tower’s rooftop where lies hidden under a scorched plate of sheet metal is an old rifle, abandoned by a man now gone—dead, jailed, or married and fat. They place it on the crumbled concrete ledge overlooking the half of Aleppo that lies flat and empty, an ancient neighborhood seemingly eroded like sand castles on the shores of Lake Assad. The boys take turns shooting at targets on the desolate street below. They start with the inanimate: a defiant traffic sign standing among the remains of what was once a busy street corner, the black skeletons of bombed out cars thrown about as if heaved by giants, a faded face on an old election poster hanging on a pockmarked wall.
A ballerina poses nude in the airless living room of her apartment with curtains drawn.
Inevitably the prosaic builds toward bloodshed as the boys graduate to moving bodies, hopelessly firing at the white dot of a plane crossing the pale blue sky, then placing crosshairs on a frail stray dog crossing the street below and blowing up dust in its wake as it races to the sanctuary behind the booted feet of a group of men. The boy with his finger on the trigger fires a stray bullet and motivates them to dance. The men answer back with a fireball that shrieks through the air toward the boys and those under their feet, feet still growing into the footsteps of their fathers.
A ballerina poses nude in the airless living room of her apartment with curtains drawn. Every night at six on the dot she used to assume this position with friends in a nearby studio but clothed under the eyes of a merciless instructor. Now she is alone in the city, where the heat is only slightly less suffocating than the fog of loneliness. Even the vantage points from which to spy her nakedness through the open windows are gone, reduced to dust and hollowed shells. But she wishes the entire city, the entire country, could see her now, for she is going to break the record. She closes her eyes and lets her imagination take her to a new theater, not of war but of performing arts. She stands on the polished stage of the Damascus Opera House under a spotlight of sunbeams shining through cracked glass. The battered living room walls unfurl into an audience of well-dressed men and women reclining in cushioned chairs. She takes a deep breath of stagnant air then begins to spin on one pointed foot. Though malnourished and weak, she dances; in the face of death, she fouettes. Sweat begins to sparkle on her wispy frame. She spins and spins, faster and faster, the pain rising with every turn—eighty, ninety, one hundred! The audience explodes in thunderous applause; she exhales. The applause turns deafening; she gasps.
She is woken by crackling gunfire and a bittersweet thought: Mother will die today. It was in a vivid dream, the feelings of which freshly reverberate through her body. She was crossing a deserted street when something drew her attention to an open window above. Standing at the window was a painted glass woman with the thick brows of her mother. Suddenly she fell like a glass pushed off a counter top and shattered into a million pieces. The impact was so heavy, the glass shards blew into her face and tickled her skin with the gentle caress of a lover saying goodbye. She pushes herself up and looks over at her mother, who lies on the other side of the bed still sleeping. Perhaps it was not a vision, but a dreamy enactment of a subconscious wish. Her mother tosses and turns and moans as gun blasts echo outside. “Idiots,” she softly hisses. “Don’t they know some of us are trying to sleep.” Though she wanted to say “grieve.” She strokes her mother’s face to soothe her, her fingers gliding around hollowed eyes and cheeks on caramel-colored skin fading to a dull gray. Her mother’s breath cackles like television static. She will die, if not today, soon. The silent monitor next to the bed stringed with dry IV bags is a testament to that. She can prepare to leave now, to flee north, to wake on a hard metal bed with strangers traversing a bumpy road under quiet stars. She sits and swings her legs over the bed, but as soon as she places a toe on the floor her mother sighs in the same mellifluous pitch as she did to catch her breath after a fit of laughter. It sends a wave of guilt crashing into her, and she falls back upon the bed as if plunging into a pool of water, drowning in solitude. Then a shadow fills the room and they both sink deeper into the mattress.
“The floor is hot lava,” the boy shouts as he jumps atop the end table while his sister runs across the sofa to the armrest. The room transforms into a volcanic wasteland. The furniture turns an oily black and hard. From their obsidian perches, the siblings survey the oozing, orange fiery river that moments before had been a worn hardwood floor. They laugh at their tormentor, for once they can see it and evade its reach. The girl crouches as she gathers the courage, drawing on the repressed energy from forever being told what not to do, to take the biggest leap, a five-foot gap to the solitary armchair-shaped island rising in the open lake of fire. Before she can jump, her brother springs to her side and places his hand firmly on her right shoulder. He’s been told to protect her, to keep her from treacherous situations. But to her surprise, he reaches down and locks his hand with hers and then crouches down, too. They launch themselves into the thick, gaseous air and release heartful, excited cries. Halfway across, above a neatly carved rectangular stone sprouting ash trays, the sky opens and thrusts them down into a sudden cascade of lava.
The man on the floor curses his toes. He begs forgiveness, then starts over. The verses of the Quran roll off his white, chapped lips. It’s a marvel he can still feel his toes at all, lying in prostration all day on the floor of his dilapidated apartment, cutting off the circulation in his legs. Pale and thin, his bones protrude through the skin, resembling a desert carcass. His friends and family refer to him as a pile of grief decorated in soiled clothes. The first few days after the tragedy, they brought food, but the parade of well-wishers stopped as the dishes collected on the kitchen counter, cold, spoiled, and untouched. Food could not be wasted on a man who chooses not to partake in the ritual of survival. They thought his grief was so heavy he couldn’t even rise to his feet, unaware that it is he who is applying the pressure, interrupting his perpetual prayer only for the all-powerful thirst for water and the need to use the toilet. Now, after fourteen days of fasting and prayer, he’s betrayed by twitching terminal digits. He tries to swallow but his mouth is as dry as the wind blowing through the shattered windows. He feels a sharp pain in his stomach and yet a euphoric dizziness. Rising from the floor, the figures of his wife and five children appear in a gentle white glow. Reality itself seems to be tearing at the seams. It’s finally happening, he thinks, his devotion is being rewarded. His family is coming home. Every fiber left in his withered body twitches with the desire to stand and embrace their ghostly bodies, but he does not want to lose them again. He forces himself to remain still, to pray faster, his lips moving in a fervid pitch. Even as his mind violently spins. Even as he stumbles over the verses. Even as the fire in his joints flare. Even as the children above pound on the floor. Even as they tumble down atop him in a crash.
Seven stories above an idling windowless van, a family scrambles to pack their belongings. The children finish first and obediently stand by the door, each clutching small backpacks stuffed with clothes and toys. All they’ve been told is that they are going on a journey to a place with quiet skies and endless sweets. Their mother and father shuffle from room to room, hastily chanting “no” back and forth. They step into the spare bedroom that serves as the father’s prized library, shelf after shelf of books on epistemology and ethics, thick and worn, the ones that taught him and the ones he used to teach his pupils. He begins to weep. “All of them,” he says. “No! How could we carry them?” their mother says. “Come, we need only you,” she pleads as she pulls at his sleeve. “But, they are me,” he says. The driver of the waiting van honks wildly, ending the debate. “Hurry!” the father says. He plucks one weighty tome off a shelf and drops it into the small unsuspecting hands of the youngest child, who nearly topples over. In panicked movements, their mother and father grab anything in sight and put as much of it as they can into large canvas bags and their outstretched arms. The family lurches toward the door, burdened by their life’s possessions and the building pressure of their surroundings and of vanishing time. “It’s all so heavy,” one child says. So heavy they do not leave Aleppo.
Apartment 6A tells a dark mystery. You push open the door hanging off a hinge and enter. The first thing you notice is the smell. In the tiny kitchen to your left, the refrigerator is wide open, stocked with rotten food. The apartment is silent, not even the low hum of electricity is present. You walk around the counter into the hallway and find the apartment turned upside down. The furniture is smashed, and the floor is riddled with clothes and broken glass. Now you follow the dark trail on the floor leading into the master bedroom.
Before father threatened to light her on fire. Before twenty years of family dishonor and separation.
It’s difficult to see in here. The only light in the room is that which outlines the edges of the window shades. Yet, you make out five black blots with thick clumps descending in height along the far wall—six feet, five feet, four feet, three feet, three feet. You peel back the shades to let the light in. Then you look again and realize the colorful splashes are dried blood and brain matter. There are no bodies, except for the nameless faces in picture frames on the dresser against the opposite wall. You can search for clues of who died and why, but you won’t find a satisfying answer. You can stand in any place in history and ask for eternity, “What happened here?” You stay too long in 6A, and the mystery consumes you.
Newlyweds embrace on the floor behind pinned sheets secluding their corner of the bedroom. Though privacy for the two young lovers is only a thin plane of cloth, it does not stop them. Wedded in ceasefire, they now consummate as the sounds of war ring out again. They gently roll and grasp and thrust and the echo of gunfire does not stop them. The coarse carpet is rough on their skin, leaving cherry red marks, but that does not stop them. His overgrown beard chaffs her mouth, but she does not stop kissing him. She thinks of the boy he once was, hesitant to ask girls at parties to dance. On the dance floor, his delicate touch made her feel as if she was dancing with a ghost. But that shyness does not stop him now. Pain for once feels good. Lost in the excitement and nervousness of the first time and the hope for a child, the grim world beyond the sheets does not stop them. Their heavy breathing aligns like a sweet asthmatic duet. They reach climax and shake in ecstasy and the whole world shakes with them. Then everything stops.
In apartment 4B, an elegy populates on a green-lit screen:
Brother I don’t think we’ll make it
I can’t speak if they hear me they will take my phone or my life
I wanted to hear your voice one last time to say good bye to thank you for trying
What is the matter brother, where are you now?
Huddled on the beach, tired and cold waiting for the sun to set so we may flee in the night
I don’t think the sea will hold us
I thought we paid dearly for better
Brother, don’t despair, don’t lose hope
For now, the road to freedom will just have to be crossed on anything that can float
I’m sorry if you’ve wasted our fortune on me
The price is worth it for the hope of us all
I will follow you soon, brother
We are treated like animals
You are brave and strong, you can make it
They are beating people for more money now, women and children
Send the last payment now in case they come for me
Here they come send the money now and save me
Hold on I hear gunfire
Send help now brother
Two sisters turned widows drink hibiscus tea. After days of forced conversation, they share a comfortable silence. The first since they were teens. Before the oldest sister ran away with a bad man. Before father threatened to light her on fire. Before twenty years of family dishonor and separation. Before she unexpectedly appeared at her younger sister’s door, both now old and alone. They catch each other stealing glances, then exchange smiles and divert their eyes, wanting to preserve the moment, to keep it like a framed photo in their minds. The younger sister opens her mouth to speak but quickly closes it. The ember of ire still burning inside impels her to lunge for the paring knife on the table. She reaches for it and lets her hand hesitate above the plastic hilt, but then eagerly grasps for her sister’s chaffed, worn fingers. They lock hands and reassuringly shake them for a few, long exaggerated seconds, as if actors on the soap operas they religiously watched after school, waiting for the credits to roll and the director to call “cut.” The sisters lean into each other and embrace. The tea cups rattle on saucers like the jubilant applause of a porcelain studio audience. Then they fall into each other’s arms forever.
When the body is worked to bone, it forgets. The body of a man coated in dust forgets to shower. The heavy, bearded man forgets to remove his soiled clothes and battered white helmet. He submissively topples onto his bed as if executed. The sounds of silence long forgotten, phantom phone calls and ambulance sirens ring in his ears. He has forgotten he lives alone, because the dead won’t let him forget them. He pulls the bedsheet over his head to hide. Exhaustion finally overcomes him. He drifts away to sleep, but he’s forgotten how to dream. He only has nightmares where he forgets to stop working. In this one, a shadowy figure trapped atop a mound of rubble cries for help. It calls out in a voice he’ll never forget, the voice of his daughter. He scrambles up the broken concrete blocks toward her. But the mound starts to rise higher and higher, taking her away like an unforgiving manmade swell. He loses his footing and tumbles down to the ground. When he picks himself up, bombs start to fall around him like raindrops. He tries to flee but he’s forgotten how to run. His legs just move in place. The circle of a shadow over him grows bigger and a howl from above comes nearer. He is hit and the real cellphone rings and sirens can’t wake the body.
Class is in session in the confines of a bunker-like room in the basement. The yellow glow of bare light bulbs illuminates a young music teacher trying to save the world. She claps at a swift tempo. CLAP. Small young boys and girls sit on the cold, bare floor and clap along. CLAP. CLAP. Mothers and guardians loom behind them CLAP. They sing songs in Arabic CLAP and Kurdish CLAP and Circassian CLAP. Songs from Damascus CLAP and Hama CLAP and Homs CLAP. The teacher strikes with the cleaver of music CLAP to open a crevice CLAP in their minds CLAP, so they may understand one another CLAP. On the strike of hands CLAP the lights cut out, casting them in darkness. A thunderous ROAR fills the room, as if a train is approaching ROAR. The children start to SCREAM. SCREAM. ROAR. The ground and walls tremble, then crumble. ROAR. The screams of children die SCREAM in the wave of thunder ROAR. CRASH. SILENCE. A moment passes, then the survivors wake, and sounds begin to register in their conscious. The clink of concrete shards bouncing CLINK CLINK down the tower’s remains. Moans and cries OHH arise from somewhere in this dark cavern created by someone above. The young music teacher opens her eyes to find all is black. She cannot move OHH. Suddenly, a sliver of light appears in the darkness, flickering like a star. SCRATCH. SCRATCH. As her vision refocuses, she realizes it’s not a celestial object SCRATCH. She is looking up, toward the surface SCRATCH. What she sees are hands, tiny hands digging through a crack SCRATCH. The light of the sun breaks through, and the tiny hands shine as if they are the source emanating the light, a light that leads the way out SCRATCH. The future is in tiny hands of light SCRATCH. The teacher feels the lightness of hope and a cool breeze on her face as if she were standing before an open window. SCRATCH. SCRATH. The breeze grows heavier now, as if she is a bird in flight. She hears the wind rush in WHOOSH.