Friday, September 9, 2016
What is Aleppo?
Ah, this silly season, when the oddest things can suddenly set the blood aboil. This week's tipping point was the tiny little faux pas committed by someone who, for whatever reason, appears to believe he's qualified to lead this benighted country...
What is Aleppo, someone asks? Well, among many other things, this is: a lovely and historic city, balancing its endless history with a civic beauty rarely seen in a region where cities are often cramped, overbuilt, and generally chaotic. It's also my friend Khaled's hometown.
It was one of the first things I knew about him, actually, back in my Sandlands days: "I have a farm, you see, just outside Aleppo. We're going to retire there."
Khaled had lived in the Sandlands for more than 30 years, working as so many do to keep the shiny principality that depended on his labor running in the total absence of local expertise. Working in this fashion requires a very special set of coping skills, all of which Khaled possessed in abundance. He and his family - a successful wife, a brace of handsome, accomplished children - had made a life for themselves, but they were always aware, as expatriates in the Sandlands have to be, that it was a precarious and definitely temporary one. The sheikhs are happy to have you as long as you're working, but the morning after you retire - and this really isn't an exaggeration, and often includes an escort to the plane - off you go to wherever you came from, thank you very much and goodbye.
But Khaled had a farm. As some people feel about the afterlife, that was Khaled's farm to him: both a dream and a destination. An old white house with a terrace on the roof, from which you saw the rose garden and the olive trees, a stable for donkeys and a horse or two (his daughter may not have had a pony, but by God his granddaughter would). When he retired, his real life would start, there on his farm outside Aleppo.
When the troubles started, Khaled was, characteristically, optimistic. He went home regularly, both to Aleppo and Damascus, to see the farm and to visit his mother. Anything going on was temporary, he assured us - Damascus is always a bore, and the police are getting crazier, but everything's fine in Aleppo. Then one trip he was delayed; it was better, perhaps, to move his mother from her flat in Damascus. Things were getting odder (the word he used, sounding for the first time a little puzzled) and she would be happier back home in Aleppo. A further trip, another delay. His aunts were going to Egypt, with no plan to return; perhaps it would be better for Mama to come to the Sandlands for a visit. Just a visit, really; things are happening, now, but everything will be fine. And the farm is beautiful. Someday you'll come and see...
Getting Mama a visa was an adventure in itself, but she did come. The visits home got fewer, the trips more fraught; the last one involved an unnerving weekend in a local "holding center" until a solution (slipped under a table in an envelope) could be arranged. Still, Khaled remained himself, a philosopher and against all odds a kind of dark idealist; one equally cynical (it's hard to work for 30-some years in the Sandlands and not be; hell, it's hard to be there for more than 30 days and not be) and filled with hope. And the farm would always be there.
We moved home, and I'm less in touch with Khaled now.
He wrote me, though, a year or so ago, asking for a letter of reference. His retirement approaching, he was looking for a visa. On the morning after his farewell party, after all, his life in the Sandlands - and that of his wife, and his son, and his daughter (Mama faded away, lasting only about a year so far from home) - would be over. And by now, while the farm may still be there, getting there is infinitely... odder (still his word of choice, still so puzzled, if by now also almost unimaginably sad). Someday we'll go back, he said, but until then he was trying Canada. The olive trees must seem very far away in Vancouver, where they are now, but I think of them - and the public garden, and the souq, and the old house in the center where Khaled's aunts presided just as mine did in my own childhood - every time I hear the name these days: Aleppo.
What is it, indeed?