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[This is the eleventh installment of Amal Hanano's diary of her trip back to Aleppo. You can read previous posts here.]
The hours before leaving are always the worst. It is the curse of al-mahjar, the diaspora, no matter how long you have lived away from home, a part of you is uprooted every time you leave. On departure days, you suffocate in a fog of gloom. But this time was not every time, this time the contradiction between the fragility here and the stability there, magnified my sadness.
The fear mounted slowly, as I thought of the final frontier, the airport, and I hated myself for submitting to it again. This fear had a different taste, a different color, it was an entirely different sense than the fear when I came, that abstract fear based on hypotheticals. As I packed, I lined up all my incriminating materials on the desk: phone, camera, voice recorder, notebook, and laptop. I wrapped my notebook, which entered the country blank and intended to leave half-full, with my jeans, and slipped the recorder in the pocket. I was too overwhelmed to purge my laptop of the emails, files, and pictures, because I knew I couldn’t completely erase every trace. So, I half-heartedly organized my files; placing one folder inside another with a random name was my high-tech, sophisticated process of burying the evidence. I knew if I was stopped, it would be for a real reason not an imagined one. It was too late to change anything; too late to hide who I met, what I said, what I wrote, what was already posted online. The possibility of betrayal was everywhere, it surrounded me, I feared it from every angle I could think of, even from you, my readers.
In the middle of the night, at the airport, the distance between the car and the plane felt like a field of land mines. My navy blue booklet, my universally protective armor, was as flimsy as a plastic shield. It was time to act Syrian, but not let anyone forget that I was American. So I spoke Arabic only, but kept my passport in my hand, in partial but constant view, as I distributed bright smiles as generously as my tips. One crisp bill to any mustached man who even glanced at my bags. I was beyond patient, no rolling eyes, no audible sighs, no under-my-breath complaints, nothing but smiles and tips. Outside I was ice, but inside my knees felt like water.
A security screener asked me, as my bag passed the x-ray machine, “Do you have a laptop in there?” I nodded as if it were no big deal. He shook his head slowly, disappointed, but waved his hand in annoyance for me to move on to the check-in counter. Afterwards, I approached the desk of the highest-ranking officer I would confront just before passport control. He looked at my passport and asked about my father, if he was still outside. I told him, yes he was, in fact he was waiting for me to pass security, hoping that he would understand not to mess around with me. He said, slyly with a greasy smile, “Why, do you think you are not going to be able to get out?” One question and I panicked, but forced myself to laugh with him; we both knew the the rules of this game of intimidation, by heart. If I were writing my Hollywood screenplay, this would be the climactic moment of the story, when my worst fears became reality.
But the truth was nothing happened, I was treated very well in the airport, no laptop searches, no extra questioning, nothing. And just like that, with a final stamp, I was past security and officially in transit. Alone with my absurd fear, once again inflated and unjustified. Except for one small, metal, rectangular detail, material proof, that I was not the only one who was scared. Our old Nokia phone with a temporary SIM card that always stays in Syria for whoever comes back to visit, was still in my bag. I knew my father must have spoken with someone to get me through so easily, I knew didn’t get this special treatment for “the blackness of my eyes,” as the Arabic saying goes, or my charm. But even he, was not completely sure I wouldn’t disappear in the space between security and my seat on the plane. He made me promise to call him from the plane, after the doors were shut, and not to even think of opening my laptop until then.
I walked back through the same sickly green tunnel to the rhythmic thuds of carry-on wheels rolling on the bumpy rubber floor. It did not seem as ugly as I remembered it when I came, and I worried that I had become desensitized. For some reason, my aisle seat was mixed up and I had to sit at the window. Thankfully, the two Syrian-American teenage boys sitting next to me weren’t interested in small talk. The three of us sat in a row, silent, bleary-eyed, plugged into our iPods, locked into our thoughts.
I don’t ever remember saying goodbye when leaving Syria without crying. It is an unbreakable ritual from my youth that I never grew out of. But this time, my eyes were so dry they itched: dry when I said goodbye to my grandmother, kissing her thin, veined hand, dry while my best friend sobbed on my shoulder, dry when I said goodbye to my parents at the terminal (thankfully theirs were as well). We were in a kind of shock, beyond tears, there was an unspoken question between us that we did not want to face: when would we see each other again? Although I hate to admit it, at some level, we all fear the unknown.
I thought the tears would come, as they usually do on the plane, before take-off, during those lonely moments every person who exists between worlds knows very well. But my eyes stayed dry, as I looked out the portal, detached, as if I were looking at a dismal postcard of bad socialist architecture in a city I didn’t recognize. The window turned out to be a blessing. As we circled over the city, I took picture after picture, most of them blurs of swirling light, because I didn’t use my flash, a habit I had picked up during this trip, to avoid your flash at all costs. The streets were cobwebs of light across the sleeping city, the massive flag still visible from the sky on the dark, oval silhouette of the citadel. I could see the eye of the man in front of me, reflected in the window, suspiciously looking back at me, silently asking why I was taking these pictures. I ignored him, we were in the sky now, what was he going to do, call the in-flight shabbiha?
[Silhouette of the citadel in Aleppo. Image by Amal Hanano.]
As Aleppo slipped behind us in the distance, I thought of the gap I felt before, watched it literally widening again before my eyes. This gap I struggle to close, is one that will always be gaping open, breaking at the seams as I try to pull the sides shut. I live inside that gap, but Syria now lives inside it as well, in its black hole. I finally realized why I came, to say goodbye to this country on my own terms. Next time, everything will be the same as before or completely different, the past or the future, those are the choices. But this moment when everything was possible, will have become history, dissolved into the realm of memory, reduced to a few lines in our journals, to a few pages of a blog.
A light box installation by Iraqi visual artist Adel Abidin, was a graphic image of what I felt in those moments. It was a carnival of lights surrounding two bold, capital words, “I’m Sorry.” He designed it inspired by his trips to the U.S. after 2003. Every time someone would ask him where he was from, he would reply, Iraq. Their response was always the same, I’m sorry. What were they sorry for? For him being from Iraq? For what has happened to Iraq? For feeling guilty about the unjust war? Eventually, he felt he should just respond “I’m sorry” every time he was asked, as if he needed to be sorry for where he was from, as if his country itself was an apology, named “I’m Sorry.”
[© 2011 Adel Abidin]
For many years, whenever I met someone from Lebanon, I would apologize immediately for being Syrian, and tell them that Aleppians loved the Lebanese and were not like the sell-out, selfish, government-loving Damascenes, we were different, stronger, more defiant, more independent. (I was very wrong.) Now I can’t believe I find myself having to apologize to Syrians for being from Aleppo, after being raised to have nothing but deep pride of my origins, of my city. Not all people from Aleppo are like that, there are many brave ones, I met some of them, I say, and try to make excuses for the rest that fall fake even on my own ears. Will we always have to apologize for who we are, for what has become of us?
I’m sorry that my city is still mostly silent while my country is dying. I’m sorry that my neighborhoods are still silent while the impoverished al-Sakhour area is bravely rising up alone to defend Aleppo and Syria. I’m sorry that the whole country (and the world) was silent twenty-nine years ago while tens of thousands were butchered in Hama, when we learned the bloody lesson of waging half a revolt. I’m sorry I was able to safely visit my family when many could not. I’m sorry that I was able to leave so easily, while others are harassed. I’m sorry that this revolution divided our loyalties instead of uniting us. I’m sorry for the friendships that I lost because politics ripped us apart. I’m sorry that my fear of being traced was so great, I had to use VPNs, proxies, and layers of electronic protection so strong, they corrupted my files and wasted so much time of many kind people at Jadaliyya, who struggled with every upload. I’m sorry for the betrayals, and for the truths that I did not conceal, but maybe should have. I’m sorry I didn’t do more or speak up more. I’m sorry I left you behind, alone, bare-chested, to wage this war for the rest of us. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. And we drown in Syria, a sea of sorriness.
Later, I found this passage from a favorite book, If on a winter’s night a traveler, by Italo Calvino, which perfectly describes my journey home: “You fasten your seatbelt. The plane is landing. To fly is the opposite of traveling; you cross a gap in space, you vanish into the void, you accept not being in any place for a duration that is itself a kind of void in time; then you reappear, in a place and in a moment with no relation to the where and when in which you vanished. Meanwhile, what do you do? How do you occupy this absence of yourself from the world and of the world from you?”
The narrator’s answer in the novel was to read, but in terminals, and as planes moved westward, I wrote. And I didn’t stop writing, typing, my music creating a cocoon of isolation. And when batteries died, I wrote by hand on random pieces of paper to the insistent throbbing of the engines. When the pilot finally announced we were landing soon, I looked up, exhausted, at the screen in front of me, at the tiny plane icon mapping the journey we had just made across the ocean. Two ovals, one dark, one light, covered the world, marking the time. We were in the light and they were in the dark.
I realized a day had passed and I was neither there nor here. I was nowhere. I had vanished in Calvino’s void in time, between these lines, within these words. The gap, the absence, the pain, the guilt, I felt them all at once. The tears that I had been holding in for days, flowed freely now. A kind lady sitting next to me handed me a napkin and said, “Landing makes me nervous too, dear.”
When the wheels smoothly touched American ground, she smiled at me, “See, it wasn’t so bad, was it?”
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