No more music, no more jasmine: A Syrian-American’s reflections on Aleppo

By — June 24, 2014

“There are the sounds of bombs a few streets away from us.”

“Our entire building is shaking.”

“No water today. No electricity.”

“Another family member has fled to Turkey hoping to find work.”

These are the things my relatives in Aleppo, Syria, tell me when I speak to them every week—if the Internet connection works. But this was not the norm before the peaceful uprising against Bashar Al-Assad started more than three years ago.

Back then, Syrians were accustomed to a country of plenty. Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, and where my family is originally from, was the business hub of the country and a bustling city with a population of more than 2 million. The majority of my relatives ran businesses that were in the family for generations—from tin-container productions to thread and textile factories. My maternal and paternal grandfathers and their families had put their hearts and souls into preserving their business and supporting their families, employees, and their local and national economies.

As a young Syrian-American child, visiting Aleppo in the summer with my family was the highlight of my year. When I visited as an adult, up until two years before the crisis began, Aleppo had a special place in my heart. It was truly the city that never slept. If you woke up early in the morning, you could smell the sweet scent of jasmine that abounds in the gardens of most homes, mixed with the aroma of Turkish coffee. The markets would be alive with the fresh produce brought in from the outskirts of the city: Fresh pistachios, figs, cherries, and apricots were all on display. Sounds of produce carts, car horns, motorcycle engines, and Fairuz—the Lebanese singer whose songs must be played only in the morning because that is what Middle Eastern culture dictates—filled the morning air.

And when the sun set, that was when Aleppo shined most brightly. The smell of barbecue would waft throughout the city into the wee hours of the night. Cafes and restaurants under the watchful eye of Aleppo’s grand citadel were always full of people enjoying the cool night breeze. Even Aleppo’s weddings and parties were known to not end until daybreak.

Children play among the debris from bombed-out buildings in Aleppo. (Freedom House)

But the city’s landscape has drastically changed. In the media, Aleppo has been dubbed “the world’s most dangerous city”—and for good reason.

A sniper killed my husband’s cousin two years ago. A young man in his 20s, a distant relative and close friend of my maternal family’s side, was kidnapped and later found dead at a hospital morgue. I believe there is not a single Syrian family that has been untouched by death as a result of the crisis.

Most of my relatives have left Aleppo. They are scattered in Turkey, Lebanon, and Europe. For a family as close-knit as they were, this has been the most difficult part of the entire ordeal. My 94-year-old grandmother is moving to her third home in two years in Turkey—she has moved from city to city within Turkey, trying to find a way to live with her son and grandchildren and great grandchildren. My paternal 93-year-old grandfather remains in Aleppo. He cannot fathom leaving.

My relatives who are still in Aleppo—a few aunts and uncles and cousins—tell me I would not recognize the city today. Barrel bombs have destroyed entire districts, including the main manufacturing district on the outskirts of Aleppo. Missiles have shattered homes, schools, cars, and, of course, lives. Entire livelihoods have been devastated. They tell me that the pictures in the news do not do justice to the enormity of the devastation.

And then there’s the water, the basic necessity of life. About a month ago, the water supply was shut off to the entire city for more than 10 days. Drinking water was hard to be found. No one was able to bathe their children. No one knew when their next shower would be. They were not able to wash laundry. These were all things that Syrians took for granted not too long ago. Neighborhood mosques began opening their doors to allow people to fill water from their wells. No one is sure who is to blame for this: The regime blames the rebels and the rebels blame the regime, but the citizens of Aleppo pay the price.

The electricity is also disconnected on a daily basis. Aleppo residents get two hours of electricity in a 24-hour period. The entire city is now abuzz with the sound of generators, just to keep the basics running, such as a refrigerator.

And, of course, the city lives with the ultimate anguish: the thousands and thousands of lost lives. Children, women, men—no one has been spared. And yet, when I speak to my relatives, they still say, Alhamdulillah (thanks be to God), we are still alive, so many have it much worse than us.

But these struggles just scratch the surface. The wounds in the Syrian conflict are deep, and have reached the core of every aspect of Syrian life.

I have worked with the Women’s Media Center’s Women Under Siege project for the past two years, documenting sexualized violence in Syria in real-time. Documenting these crimes involves anguish at another level. Reading and reporting what these Syrian women, girls, and even men and boys have gone through affects you in an entirely different way. I literally become sick to my stomach and cannot eat or sleep well after reading these reports. I think to myself, What type of monster does this? How can soldiers try to force a young girl’s brothers to rape her and, when they refuse, kill her brothers and then rape her themselves? How do soldiers rape a 13-year-old girl then shoot her in the back, leaving her paralyzed?

I cannot understand how any human being can impose this type of cruel, unthinkable punishment on another. It is unfathomable. It is sickening. And then I get angry. Angry because we have been covering this for two years now and still nothing has been done to stop it. Where is the world’s outrage? Where are the human rights activists? Where is humanity?

And while physical injuries can be catastrophic, there is always the hope that there will be healing: a broken bone can be mended, a wound healed, the bleeding stopped. But when someone is violated in the most grotesque ways imaginable, that can never be mended. The world’s silence and inaction are merely more wounds for these victims.

The mental scars of sexualized violence are persistent. Even with years of therapy and counseling—which most Syrians do not have access to at this point—survivors often never truly heal from this invisible pain. One 14-year-old Syrian girl who was raped and tortured tried to commit suicide three times after being released to her family. She told a UN investigator, “My life has no value. I lost everything. What has gone will never come back.”

We live in a digital, “real-time” world. These heinous crimes are being recorded and almost instantly downloaded to YouTube or other social media sites. Survivors are talking, albeit usually anonymously, but they are still telling their stories. The reports we receive for our map are most likely just the tip of the iceberg. Sexualized violence is a taboo topic in Syria, as it is in many parts of the world, including in the United States. It is certainly not a comfortable topic. Blood and gore and death—those are somehow easier, less personal, certainly less stigmatized.

The world knows. Yet so little is being done to stop it. We hear world leaders talk about previous conflicts. They say, “We can’t let this happen again.” And yet it continues. These numbers—more than 160,000 people killed, almost 3 million displaced, more than 9 million in urgent need of assistance—are not meaningless. Scattered now throughout the world or stuck in Aleppo, they are my family. They are my friends.

When the basic necessities of life such as water are a precious commodity, we can only expect the consequences of war to become worse. Illnesses flourish in these conditions, just as they do when crimes of sexualized violence are kept hidden because of shame and stigma.

My fear is for the future. I fear for the generation of Syrians to come. This traumatized generation will be responsible for rebuilding the country in the aftermath. But if they do not get the support they need, the future of Syria will be bleak. With each passing day, the citizens of Syria endure more pain. With each passing day, the consequences multiply for the survivors of the violence and for the future generations of Syrians. Meanwhile, all I can do is tell my relatives: “We’re trying to make sure the world hears you.”