Aleppo - 1977
Updated: Jul 15
Rocky ridges shimmered as they wove across baking hills of rock, gravel, and sand. As the road wound between the ridges or over them when no gap could be found, we descended into an undulating landscape where words like hell and inferno found meaning. Over a number of miles, the ridges succumbed to sand dunes that inched towards the East. Blustery winds cast handfuls of sand from the dunes’ peaks and, in doing so, moved the dunes eastward more than the width of an atom, but far less than an inch, most days.
Heat had replaced the coolness we had enjoyed at higher altitudes. It was not the warmth of a summer’s day, but rather the intensity that could transform dough into a crusty French baguette. I traveled in my own metal box, thankfully not an oven as a baguette would require. My SUV gushed icy air into its interior. Even in that artificial, chilled atmosphere, I still sweated. Despite the cold air, observing my surroundings made me wonder how I would feel if I were a baguette.
The road flattened and began to weave a course through the dunes, each one immense and impressive, but each so fragile the wind could mold or sculpt its features. Sweeping turns carried our path around the base of each dune, mesmerizing me. I considered the majesty of each dune, and they were majestic, but they were nothing more than piles of sand. But their size and uniformity humbled me. To drive through such huge, but fragile, structures left me awe struck. I suspected each of those piles contained more grains of sand than the number of human beings who have ever walked upon this earth.
Gradually, the size of the dunes diminished and our surroundings transformed into rocky salt flats. Vast open expanses danced in the heat. The road, with no need to weave around dunes, became a flat straight strip that narrowed into a line. It merged into wavering images where the horizon and sky became a blur. The blur was nothing more than layers of pastel shades that subtly shifted with each passing mile.
An unnatural rectangular block emerged from the horizon’s haze off to our left. Another followed it and then a strange shaped tower appeared. Out of the visual ambiguity that had been our far distance, the concrete solidness of a city stamped its unwavering reality upon the scene.
The road being straight was ingrained in my mind, so when it dared to take a sweep to the right, I sensed an internal act of defiance swell up. I countered my defiance and found the road swept into a newly constructed junction with a large road sign in both Arabic and English
“Do we want to stop in this place?” I asked. “The sign says it’s called Aleppo.”
My two companions were of one mind. “Yes. We need to buy fresh supplies.”
I braked immediately, but still sailed past the junction before I stopped. Thankfully, the road was empty, and I reversed back to where I needed to make the turn.
I drove the couple of miles to reach the outer limits of this city that I suspected had stood for over a thousand years in the baking, arid desert. I could see no reason for the city existing in the middle of a harsh desert, but trading caravans had passed this way many centuries ago. I had heard of communities being started around watering holes where caravans stopped to fill their water sacks and trade. These communities grew as local people provided supplies and taxed the traders. Now the origins of these cities have been buried in the shifting sands, but such cities had histories.
Driving along Aleppo’s streets, surrounded by concrete apartment buildings with market stalls lining the edge of roadways, children playing, and people shopping and haggling felt surreal. What an eye-opener? To place myself in any of those peoples’ shoes was beyond me, but I was near them, I could see into some of their eyes. They were human beings like myself and I could not conceive how they lived, what were their values, what societal norms affected their decisions, what expectations or dreams did they have? That feeling of separation still haunts me.
We stopped near one of the main mosques and walked across to several stores on the other side of the street. We found what I may have called a grocery store. It was in the end unit of a block of concrete walled stores. Each store was 8’ deep, 6’ wide, 7’ high, and was open to the street with a steel roller shutter to secure the store when closed. We spotted a tub of sodas, chilling in ice, among boxes of produce that spilled onto the pavement. With our limited Arabic and much pointing, we ordered various snacks and drinks for the upcoming miles of driving. We were amused by the owner’s dexterity. He sat on a small carpet in the front of the store and with a thin pole, he was able to pull whatever he needed from shelves around him. Payment for our purchases proceeded despite the language barrier until we came to actually pay. Unfortunately, we had a larger denomination bill that he could not immediately change. He grabbed a nearby satchel and shot vertically to stand upright in an instant. I couldn’t fathom how he managed that maneuver, but he then skipped across several crates to join us on the pavement. I examined the spots where his feet had touched down. Small gaps existed between cardboard boxes and yet he had landed in them and didn’t disturb the boxes. He rummaged in the satchel before giving us change and then danced back to his carpet. His legs concertinaed and he rested once again on his carpet. Was the carpet he sat upon a magic flying carpet? We shook our heads and moved on.
We enjoyed some of our drinks and snacks under the shade of an olive tree. As we rested, I noticed a group of young boys playing soccer in the road. They raced after the football with a flagrant disregard for the temperature. One wild kick sent the ball toward me. I stepped out into the road to kick it back. I stopped when I realized my suspicions had been correct. The football was not a ball and, thankfully, it was nothing gross like a goat’s stomach. No, it was a brown paper sack stuffed with other sacks and pieces of trash the boys had found in the road. The ball was kept in a roughly spherical shape by a few feet of string tied around it. I wondered what those boys would have done if I could have sent a real football out for their game. Instead, I punted their ball back to them and hoped it wouldn't break.
As I watched the game, I noticed a little girl, maybe three years old, sitting on the curb on the far side of the game. Her hair fell in matted clumps to her shoulders. I wondered if her older brother was supposed to keep an eye on her. She sat on the curb, holding her doll and nuzzling it to her chest. She stared for a few seconds at the boys before returning to her doll, whispering to it. I looked more closely. Her doll was a stick, wrapped in a tattered remnant of fabric. I watched transfixed, her mothering and protective instincts were so apparent in her play. Her doll was a stick and yet she showed all the love and caring any of us could ever seek in life. There sat a tot, dressed in not much better than rags, covered in grime and dust, demonstrating to me the beauty, the joy, and the wonder of being granted a human life. She had very little, but I thought her imagination filled the voids, and I suspected she held an entire world in her mind.
The boys’ football came onto the pavement, close to me. I looked over as one boy chased after it. He sent the ball back and I turned to look at the girl again. She was gone.
The image of her, holding her doll, became a memory. I have no idea why, but she returns to my thoughts frequently. Images of her still bubble into my conscious mind, almost 50 years later. Memories of her have been indelibly stamped upon my thoughts. I am not sure if I interpreted her apparent love for her baby doll correctly. But images of her, and a few other situations, have blessed my life, reminding me happiness will not be found in material “toys” but will be found in compassion, connection, and love.
Aleppo – Reflections
Of late, my thoughts have often drifted back to the little girl in Aleppo. If she grew up in Aleppo, married, and raised a family, there was a good chance she stayed in the city. She would now be approaching 50 years of age if she’s still alive. But, if she stayed in the city and if she’s still alive are two huge provisos.
Aleppo was seen as one of the major centers for factions opposed to President Bashar al-Assad – remember the Arab Spring, in Syria it started in 2010. Al-Assad had shown himself to be a brutal dictator. During the conflict, we saw several reports of chemical weapons being used against civilians in Aleppo. Then in 2015, the Russians, under Putin, decided to support their puppet, al-Assad. They destroyed much of Aleppo by bombing and shelling huge swaths of civilian neighborhoods. Sound like something we all have witnessed lately?
What became of that little girl? Did she have children of her own? How could she protect them? What happened to her brothers and sisters? These questions will never be answered, but they hang in my mind.
However, I do not look upon those questions as burdens, weighing me down. No, I see them as the motivation driving a sense of responsibility or a need I feel. I traveled more than most when I was young and gained many beautiful and a few terrifying memories. They all have informed my life and allowed me to see the beauty that human life could offer. But also, I saw how human greed could ensnare and corrupt some people. The responsibility I felt was how to share, explore further, and explain that understanding. I wasn’t an academic who could postulate philosophical or sociological thoughts. I had no large audience or following.
But what I realized I did have was being a storyteller. I believed through stories, readers might be opened to understand the world in ways that they might have not seen before. It was not like creating propaganda, as misused by many current US “politicians.” When I thought about stories with underlying truths, they sat comfortably in my heart, whereas thinking about fake news jarred in my mind. But, such a distinction required me to think about what I was reading, not just gloss over the superficial content. Sorry, certain people will have to work on their seven second attention span – authentic thoughts take more than just a Twitter post.
I believed my telling stories that availed readers with new ways to see the world around them was a blessing. It has taken much of my life to recognize the power of stories and words. Now I write most days, crafting short stories and working on a series of novels.
Writing a novel that involved violence, which I have done, does not mean I condoned violence. No, I abhorred violence and still do. But I could not write a novel with a central theme of anti-violence unless I allowed my characters to be involved in violence and for them to eventually understand what violence achieved – misery, not peace and happiness.
When I thought about Syrian people, I didn’t think of them as terrorists. They were kind and wonderful people, who were artists, chefs, mothers, administrators, traders, and philosophers. They were as diverse and capable as any other country on this planet. They suffered grief, illness, bankruptcy, and pain. They loved to laugh, savored moments of joy, and engaged in deep and meaningful discussions. Walking along the streets and pathways of Aleppo, I witnessed their lives. Children chased each other, people beat sand out of rugs, traders and customers haggled over prices, men fervently discussed ideas over cups of tea or coffee, and everything stopped when the muezzin called the time for prayer.
They were no more violent than we. The only difference between them and us was they were ruled by a brutal authoritarian dictator.
I didn’t live in Syria. I passed through it over a 30 hour period and in that time I sensed fear and oppression. Soldiers patrolled areas with automatic weapons. Police in impeccable uniforms raced around cities in groups of polished patrol cars with sirens blasting. On the sides of apartment buildings, huge pictures of the faces of the president and the leaders of his military stared down upon the populace. I suspected people in the cities still remembered those lost when innocent protesters were slaughtered because they wanted change and gathered in the streets.
Considering the countries in which I’ve lived and experiences I’ve had, I can see a thread tying all that I have written together. The thread conveys the message that the human spirit is stronger than fear, and the human spirit is unstoppable. It will prevail when guns have used up all their ammunition and armies / militias have lost their lust for victory. The human spirit will stand tall and true when it comes to overcoming adversities and upholding the sense of community and support that being human offers every single one of us. None of us are separate or special, we each may be unique and diverse, but we are all humans, all coming together to form a oneness, humanity. A single and, if we allow it, a glorious oneness.
As I said, we are all human and my particular uniqueness was this, I found meaning in numbers. They could be used to explain the world around me, but I failed to understand that this was not everyone’s perception. For many, words were the medium through which they understood the world. I now recognize neither alone is adequate, but it is a combination of both that portrays a better understanding of life at a deeper level and for a wider audience. And so, while I still have time, I will wrestle to commit thoughts to paper with words and numbers in the hope that I may facilitate one reader finding a more positive way to see life and other people, which may then ripple out to influence others.
The little girl in Aleppo was the source of the ripple that caught me and set me moving along this path, which has brought me understanding and joy. I may never know that I have influenced another with the ripples I send forth, and that is okay. Knowing I am trying is enough because that little girl walks alongside me, guiding me.
Barry D. Hampshire
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