Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.
In Italo Calvino’s novel, Invisible Cities, a world traveler named Marco Polo describes the cities of a vast but crumbling empire to its ruler, Kublai Khan. Over time, the intricate descriptions of the cities begin to overlap until the khan slowly realizes that his appointed traveler has been describing the same city, an imagined city, over and over, in fragments — each vignette exposing another perspective, unveiling yet another city, where death mirrors life and cities are named after Italian women. Each city is suspended between reality and imagination, structured on a set of absurd rules, reminding the reader that a city can only be absorbed through short glances, each glance anchored to an object, a story, or a memory.
I’ve been reading and rereading Invisible Cities for over a decade. Before the Syrian revolution, Calvino’s poetics were safely rooted in the realm of fiction. When I recently picked it up to look for a quote, I began to read it once more — this time sneaking a few pages at a time between my daily intake of endless streams of gruesome images emerging from our all-too-real Syrian cities. For the first time, Calvino’s words detached from fantasy; Syria’s cities became embedded within the lines of the Invisible Cities. I listened, along with Kublai Khan, to Marco Polo’s narrations and tried to understand how cities become invisible.
Watching death has become a pastime of the revolution. There is much to learn from it. Death is sudden; it is shorter than a short YouTube clip. Death is a man wrapped in his shroud, bloodied gauze strips tied around his head, cotton stuffed in his nostrils, and the bluish-gray tinge of his skin. Death is the camera panning over mass graves where children’s bodies are arranged in long, perfect lines, then covered with rust-colored dirt. The death of Syrians accumulated so fast it seems impossible to comprehend over 40,000 lives lost in less than two years.
But the death of a city is different. It is slow — each neighborhood’s death is documented bomb by bomb, shell by shell, stone by fallen stone. Witnessing the deaths of your cities is unbearable. Unlike the news of dead people — which arrives too late, always after the fact — the death of a city seems as if it can be halted, that the city can be saved from the clutches of destruction. But it is an illusion: The once-vibrant cities cannot be saved, so you watch, helpless, as they become ruins.
Ruins are sold to us as romantic and poetic. As tourists wandering ancient sites, cameras dangling from our necks and guidebooks in hand, we seek beauty in the swirling dust over the remains of a dead civilization. We imagine what is was like then, before empires decayed and living objects became historical artifacts. But that kind of romanticism is only afforded with the distance of time and geography. In war, ruins-in-the-making are not beautiful, not vessels of meaningful lessons, not a fanciful setting for philosophical contemplations on the follies of men. When you witness it live, when it is real, and when it happens to your city, it becomes another story altogether.
It is the desperate moment when we discover that this empire, which had seemed to us the sum of all wonders, is an endless, formless ruin, that corruption’s gangrene has spread too far to be healed by our scepter, that the triumph over enemy sovereigns has made us the heirs of their long undoing.
Being from Aleppo is unlike being from anywhere else in the world. We walked on history so deep, we did not understand it — we simply learned to call this place, older than all others, home. We grew up knowing that our insignificant existence was the thinnest layer of dust on the thick geological strata of empires, kingdoms, and generations, which lived within our stone walls. We knew without doubt, from an early age, that we were nothing but a blink of our city’s eye.
When you are from Aleppo, you are plagued with a predicament: Nothing here will ever change. For some people, living in the city that never changes becomes too difficult. The city’s permanence and your inability to make a mark on it push you to eventually leave Aleppo, trading comfort for change. After you leave, no matter where you are in the world, you know that Aleppo is there, waiting exactly as you left it. Instead, it is you who returns in a reinvented form each time you come home — a university graduate, a bride, a mother, each time proudly carrying your new ideas and identity to your patiently waiting city.
In Aleppo, you grow up worrying if your legacy will ever be worthy of your city’s. But you never worry about your city’s legacy — which we thoughtlessly leaned on — for how could we, ever, change Aleppo’s legacy?
Aleppo is Calvino’s city of Lalage, a city of minarets on which the moon “rest[s] now on one, now on another.” It is a city of churches, temples, relics, and graves of revered mystics. It is a city where the spices of Armenia meld with the tastes of Turkey. It is a city where Arabic, Kurdish, and Armenian tongues speak parallel to each other, with an occasional French word mixed in here or there. It is a city of trade and industry, where men are constantly bargaining and negotiating in the same souks as their fathers before them. It is a city where girls walking down the streets in tight jeans and high heels pass by women in long black coats and white veils pinned under their chins. And they know they all belong right here, to Aleppo.
A man who is not from Aleppo recently told me, “When you travel to Aleppo, you don’t see it until you arrive.” I had never noticed that. Perhaps, because I was always inside it, I never searched for it when we returned. I never doubted that it would always be there, exactly as I left it, untouched, unchanged. But he was right; Aleppo is an inward-looking city; it sees the world reflected in itself. And because we’ve lived here for generations, we became like that too.
The Citadel sits on an oval hill in the heart of Aleppo. This is where you bring every visitor. You guide them up the steep stone steps in the summer heat, always promising the tourists trailing behind you that inside will be much cooler. And it is. You take them through the fortress’s massive gates and winding interior, which once protected it from attack. You lead them out once more into the bright hot sun, wincing as your eyes adjust from the darkness to the harsh Aleppine light. You continue climbing up, pointing out the Citadel’s mosque to your left and the amphitheater to your right. You buy a bottle of water at the cafe because by now, the heat has melted you as well. Then you are at the very top, and as always the breeze from the west surprises you all.
You extend your arm toward the majestic view, as the city of stone and minarets unfolds in front of the guests, like magic. It is the moment you’ve waited for, to turn to them and say with pride and certainty, “This is where I’m from. This is my city.” The cameras click in applause. The city, I imagined, was amused at its children’s performance.
Today, the Citadel is no longer a stage for impressing visitors. It is no longer a protected UNESCO World Heritage site. It has reclaimed its original purpose — a fortress in an active battle between Syrian sons, a site to be occupied and captured once more. The ancient nails and iron horseshoes that once adorned the indestructible doors are now twisted and the wooden planks are broken. The castle’s narrow slits, once used for archers, now hide sniper nests. The limestone, untouched for centuries, is riddled with fresh bullet holes, and the newly repaved street below is bloodied with fallen victims, corpses that sometimes rot for days before they can be reclaimed. As activist Sami from Aleppo says, “We are watching remains become remains.”
Misplaced pride has proved us unworthy of this history that we could not protect. The Old City, the Citadel, and the souks were not just a stage for us to perform upon in front of others — they were the heart of every Aleppian. Being from Aleppo is in our blood, and this blood now flows down the cobblestone streets. The broken city is no longer amused at the pastimes of its children.
Syria has become the land of topless minarets and headless little girls. It seems in every video there is always something missing, something broken, something that can never be mended. You learn about things when they are broken — friendships, love, people, and even cities. I learned from watching the revolution that when things are broken, they take up more space.
Whole objects are compact and efficient. A child’s long intestines coil perfectly, unseen inside her flat stomach, unlike the sheer mass of tangled pink flesh that spills out next to her slaughtered body. The sharp edge of a broken skull penetrates another child’s forehead as if it had been a concealed knife all along, posing as a smooth, white, curved shield. A minaret is sleek and graceful standing in the sky — but when it falls, it breaks into mountains of rocks in the street, its top tiers taking down a face of a building along with it. Even Syria itself, a once quiet country that seemed not to take up any space at all before the revolution, is now a regional crisis, clogging newspaper headlines, international political discussions, and social media forums with millions of words and images.
Things take on new, unimaginable forms when they are destroyed. Concrete floors fold into overlapping vertical sheets along the walls of buildings. Charred bodies become smaller, forever frozen in their tortured positions. Metal doors of shops crumple like tin, separating from their frames. Even pleasant memories are twisted with destruction: The crackling sound of burning wood will never comfort me again, as it will always remind me of the crackling wooden doors of Aleppo’s historical shops when they were set ablaze.
When things are destroyed, you realize, too late, how fragile it all once was: bones, stones, walls, buildings, cities.
Comprehension of destruction and the change it brings comes in waves — like grasping that your family is in exile or understanding that places from your childhood have disappeared forever. The dark spaces of the city begin to match the dark places in your mind.
A childhood friend laments, “When we went to the Old City, we never took pictures. Who would ever take pictures in Aleppo?” And it’s true; my photographs of Aleppo are all with visitors. They increased in number over the years, when I became a visitor myself. Now we excavate what we can find, using our photographs as references for the city that we mistakenly treated as an unchanging background in the composition. Who would ever have thought that we would stay and she would burn?
The people of Aleppo have been divided about the revolution since its birth. Unlike other cities like Daraa, Homs, and Hama, they did not join it willingly. Some resent the armed opposition fighters who they claim entered the city unprepared to fight the regime. They blame the destruction and devastation of Aleppo on the opposition fighters and conveniently forget the violence the Assad regime inflicted on their city for over four decades.
When Hafez al-Assad fought the Muslim Brotherhood in the early 1980s, he crushed the city of Hama — killing tens of thousands in February 1982 and leveling an entire historical neighborhood — in what became known infamously as the “events.” But people forget what had happened before, the earlier “events,” when Aleppo lost thousands of sons — disappeared in Assad’s notorious jails to be tortured, executed, and eventually erased from memory.
But Hafez al-Assad never forgot Aleppo’s rebellious side. He ruled it with an iron grip, crippling the city’s economy and stunting its development. The entire neighborhood of Bab al-Jneen in the Old City was razed and replaced with a series of concrete government eyesores that obnoxiously towered over the historical urban fabric. The lot in front of the area remained empty for two decades. We used to study the map of the Old City and visually connect the narrow streets across the large gaping hole, imagining what had been erased from our history.
People forget that the reason Aleppo was the best-preserved historic Islamic city in the Middle East was a result of neglect rather than care. Later in the 1990s, when the regime discovered the benefits of trendy buzzwords like “restoration” and “preservation,” millions of dollars poured into Assad’s coffers from abroad to renovate the Old City. But everyone forgot that Bashar, like his father, never cared for the city of the north. Not for its buildings, its history, or even its people. What had been painstakingly rebuilt stone by stone, refurbished, reclaimed, and reinvented, is now destroyed in minutes. Nothing was deemed sacred, not the Great Umayyad Mosque, not the old souks, not the Christian quarters of al-Jdeideh, and not even the symbol of the city, the Citadel.
The people of Aleppo resemble the people in so many of Calvino’s cities in their amnesia. They forget that silence and fear have lost their currency in the post-revolution market. They forget that Assad’s shells do not discriminate between a silent citizen and a brave one.
Our country is a landscape of urban and rural rape by the Assad dynasty. They leave the land, like the Mongols did before them, covered in smoke, rubble, and blood. The regime redefines barbarianism for the new millennium — cynically cloaking the country in false modernity for decades, funneling international resources for personal gain and glory, then bombing the country to pieces. In a final insult, they blame it all on a conspiracy.
We hear rumors of our antiquities disappearing through the open seams of our country — our objects excavated and looted, snatched up and traded for weapons to kill more Syrians. Our artifacts leave Syria to live in other homes, where people will tell their children tales about an ancient place that once was, before it was invisible. Before it died.
Aleppo, like Calvino’s cities, is a woman. Her complete name, Halab al-Shahba, refers to the milk of the prophet Ibrahim’s ashen cow. It is no surprise that Aleppo’s name would hold meanings both holy and earthly, of sacredness and sustenance. It is a city of milk and marble — nothing nourishes Aleppo’s spirit more than its stone and cuisine. Now, Aleppo is a city of ash and blood. Now the milky limestone has turned gray and black, with veins of red. The white has disappeared, except for the traces of salty tears on our ashen faces.
During war, we learn to look at our cities in fragments, each scene uncovering a part of ourselves we did not know, or pretended not to know. Every day we are forced to confront the ugly parts of ourselves that we naively thought belonged only to other people. For only other people would kill each other; only other people would bomb buildings occupied by innocent families; only other people would loot and rape; and only other people would slaughter a child. These actions, we believed, did not define us. We were not like that.
People who are not Syrian ask me the most painful question, “Why do your people kill each other?” I usually give long-winded explanations, gesturing with my hands but without eye contact, offering historical and logical precedents of tyranny and oppression and revolution and freedom. But I don’t tell them what I should, not out of kindness, but out of pity and because it scares me to admit how hardened I’ve become over the last 20 months: Don’t you dare, even for one second, believe that your people and your cities are immune to what happened to my country, my friend. None of you are.
For those who pass it without entering, the city is one thing; it is another for those who are trapped by it and never leave. There is the city where you arrive for the first time; and another city which you leave to never return.
Aleppo is Calvino’s Almema, the city of the dead, where “you reach a moment in life when, among the people you have known, the dead outnumber the living.” In Syria, we are living aberrations to life itself. We have seen what no one is supposed to see, the insides of children and the primal sins of men. We have watched with horror as our air force’s planes drop barrels of explosives onto sleeping villages. We have defied the laws of nature. Just as no parent should ever have to bury their children, no citizen should have to bury her own city.
Tectonic shifts in a city like Aleppo simply do not happen in one’s lifetime. It is no longer a given that my city will outlive me.
Our home is sick, and we are homesick. My mother tells me she is a stranger in other people’s home, as strangers live in our home. My father talks about locking up and leaving, the key in his pocket, thinking he will return — but now return is an impossible dream.
We were supposed to live and die in an Aleppo unchanged, just as our grandfathers had before us, but instead we broke the laws of nature and pass on what we had inherited intact to the few survivors, in ruins.
No one, wise Kublai, knows better than you that the city must never be confused with the words that describe it. Yet between the one and the other there is a connection.
At some point, trust breaks between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan. Storyteller and listener separate into worlds independent of each other. Kublai Khan eventually doubts his narrator and accuses Marco Polo of weaving fantasies out of nothing. Do these cities even exist, he asks, or did you make them up?
Cities are both real and imagined. In peace, they are a backdrop, quietly absorbing your ego, waiting to be noticed when someone visits and sees her anew, while we drag our heels, unappreciative, along the pavements. You dream of leaving this place that never changes, leaving behind the burden of history where you will never amount to even a speck of dust in its never-ending tale. You dream of a place outside this place where the possibility to escape the past and become someone else seems easier. You never imagined that one day, the city will be the one that is exposed, unprotected, and vulnerable — you never imagined that one day, your city, not you, will be the one that needs to be saved. In war, the city becomes precious, each inch mourned, each stone remembered. The city’s sights, smells, and tastes haunt you. You cling to every memory of every place you had ever been to and remember that this is what it was like. Before.
But memories are deceptive. You weave them into images, and the images into a story to tell your child about a city you once knew, named Aleppo. A city of monuments and milk, of sweets and spices, a city so perfect and so beautiful it was named after a prophet’s ashen cow. Its minarets once changed shape from square to round to thin spindles, and every call to prayer was a symphony of voices across the neighborhoods echoing each other, as if in constant dialogue. You continue the tale, skipping certain details: the fleeing people, the smoke, the ashes, the fallen minarets and the silenced athans, the blood in the bread lines, and the relentless stench of death. Unlike Calvino, you gloss over the dark underbellies of society, overlooking the evils of men, the betrayals of people — in fact, you ignore the people altogether because you have become convinced that without the people, a city can remain innocent.
Never mind; those details don’t belong here; what matters is holding on to what once was. And you speak faster, describing the homes of grandparents and great-grandparents, pretending they are not empty. You speak of ancient neighborhoods of great-great-grandfathers, rebuilding them with your words in perfect form and not as they are now — the centuries-old gate a smoldering heap of crushed stone, the jasmine vines broken and dead, the tiled courtyard fountain dried up and covered with dirt. All of this you skip in the narrative, trying to keep the nightmare separate from the dream, for you have not completely learned from Calvino’s wisdom: Cities exist in their dualities.
And the child will ask you, because children always do, Mama, does it really exist? Or are you making it up? And you will not know what to say, for the story is both a falsehood and the truth. At once it is real and in the next moment it is intangible, even as you hold the photograph in your hand and the memories in your mind. Despite all your efforts, or perhaps in spite of them, it changed.
And with my words, both said and unsaid, I had finally rendered my city, invisible.