“Her husbands to Aleppo gone, master o’ the tiger,
But I’ll in a sieve and thither sail, and like a rat without a tail,
I’ll do, I’ll do, and I’ll do . . . “
Back in 1994 I was a graduate student at the American School for Classical Studies in Athens. I had the chance, that year, to walk almost literally every inch of mainland Greece in the course of four or so months. In December the school gave students the option, that year, of a special trip to Syria. Things were relatively good between Syria, the US and Israel that helped to allow it. I was in the country for about ten days, and it was one of the most memorable educational experiences of my life. One, among many, of the greatest experiences I had was two nights and three days in Aleppo. It was remarkable – a real medieval Arab city working in much the same way as it had for the past three or four thousand years.
The entrance to the citadel fortress in Aleppo as viewed from the side with its bridge.
The entrance to the citadel in Aleppo.
Its claim to fame is that it is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities on earth – second, in that respect, only to Damascus. In Arabic its name is Haleb, and one thing I picked up in my brief time there talking to Syrians was how much they loved the city. They spoke of it as the Italians speak of Rome or Venice. Packed into two or three days, for me, is literally a lifetime of memories: seeing a table with Lawrence of Arabia’s name carved into it. The magnificent citadel. The architecture which recalled, for me, cross cultural influences with the architecture and stone work of Italian Renaissance buildings in Florence, Siena, San Giminagno, and elsewhere. The smell of coal, spices, and smoked meats from the souk. The ramshackle archaeological museum. The beautiful streets. The grand and historic mosque at the center of the city.
But above all was its historic covered bazaar. I recall walking down its ancient streets all day as if in an enchanted trance. At one point a young boy in a kafiyeh riding a donkey, shepherding a herd of sheep forced us to take cover in a shop as the animals crowded the street. He was heading to the meat bazaar. Each street was dedicated to an individual commodity – meat, silk, gold, brass, spices. Turn the corner of one of its mazes and you were confronted with a street of gorgeous rugs. Turn the next corner and there was a street of dazzling gold, where I bought my wife Lori a golden locket in the shape of the Qu’ran inlaid with lapis lazuli and gold lettering – the first sura from El Kitab, The Book. Turn the corner again and there were hanging sides of lamb and goat, with piles of smoked lamb hocks and heads. At night I recall men in flowing robes carrying torches, and by day men huddled near braziers for comfort in the December chill. All of these scenes took one back into a world that, for the west, was literally centuries in the past. It opened up and entirely new world for me, and had I not been so knee-deep in Classics at that point, had I made the trip as an undergraduate, my career trajectory would have taken a decidedly different turn.
A view of the grand bazaar or souk in Aleppo.
Shops before opening in the grand bazaar.
The bustling streets, crowded with animals, in the souk.
One of Aleppo’s historic streets outside the bazaar.
Needless to say, the Syrian civil war, the infiltration of the country by ISIS, and the destruction of its cultural patrimony has pained me deeply. I speak of Aleppo: but I could speak with equal warmth of the fabulous sites I visited besides during my visit: Damascus, Crac de Chevalier, Phillopolis, Saladin’s castle, Halibya, Ebla, Mari, Rassafah, Dura Europa, and Palmyra – the beautiful Arab-Romano city situated in a dazzlingly red Martian landscape of the Syrian desert. Vistas of the Euphrates, the Syrian desert, the Lebanon. But this is not a post about exotic travel.
Beautiful stone work in Aleppo’s historic mosque.
An inside view of the grand mosque in Aleppo.
This is a post about history, elections, mobs, ignorance, and consequences. East Aleppo has been under siege for some time now. In the past two weeks, President Al-Assad of Syria and Vladimir Putin of Russia have been using World War II style bombing to flush out the remaining rebels. The rebels will not allow the civilian population to leave, and they are taking the brunt of the bombing casualties. Neither Assad nor Putin have taken any measures to protect or deliver humanitarian aid to the civilian population, and they took the US election as a green light to commit a singular act of barbarity, which is at the least a war crime, if not a crime against humanity. The president elect has implicitly voiced his support for their actions and green lighted this latest outrage against our Arab, our human, brothers and sisters.
A historic street scene in one of the world’s greatest cities, that is now extinct. How can one help but wonder the fate of the man in the picture?
And how much did the media press our president elect on these matters? How much time was spent on the comic farce of tweets, on the risible questions about Hilary’s emails, on the utter lack of commitment by the media on informing us about the willfully cruel GOP policies aimed like a loaded pistol against the least among us? It means nothing now to most people, but perhaps it will when one day someone, now a child from East Aleppo, learns to fly a plane without landing it. On that day we will once again wonder why they hate us.
And let us not forget the origins of this supreme mischief. We did not need to invade Iraq. We did not need to ignore climate change. We did not need to embrace a culture of militarism, triumphalism, cruelty; we could have said no to the Dance Macabre that is money, oil, politics, war, racism, imperialism, authoritarianism, and corporate profit. But we have decided that history is to be one goddamned thing after another. And we could have said no – no to the killing of our muslim brothers and sisters everywhere. No to profits. No to weapons. No to anything but a just and peaceful co-existence. Instead we have decided to breed violence, like syphillus, and to spread it like the disease it is, all the time invoking, like a mentally unstable man composing comic farce, the name of Jesus.
The People did not elect the man about to occupy the presidency. The Mob did – one as ignorant of the world, one suspects, as it is of its own interests. And this does not divest the candidate of his complicity in this crime, but rather envelopes the whole state, and half the nation, in the willful sin of violence. Where dwells the spirit of God in any such men (if they be even worthy of the name men)? Where does it reside in the Mob? The question is itself absurd, for clearly, it does not. It has been cast out like a demon in reverse, and in its place is occupied by the idolatry of state violence, of personality cult, of a purely self-indulgent hate. To ask the individual pieces of the mob to examine its conscience would be like teaching a pig to sing. Cast not thy pearls before swine.