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Outside the Walls

[Bouazizi. Image from Unknown Archive.] [Bouazizi. Image from Unknown Archive.]

Out of all the pieces of me, those little bricks that build what we call our identity, being from Aleppo is the one I can never change. Although I no longer live in the ancient northern Syrian city, Aleppo is the place I call home.

Growing up, being from Aleppo was a source of extreme pride. As my father never ceases to remind me, we are not only from Aleppo, but we are from dakhel al-sour, inside the walls. “Inside the walls” is an exclusive term which means your family hails from one of the neighborhoods within the original city walls. Our ancestral neighborhood is indicated on my Syrian identity card, although neither I nor even my father ever lived there. Being from inside the walls is not something you can acquire in a generation or two; you are born that way.

The few privileged families from “inside the walls” eventually moved westwards, establishing affluent neighborhoods outside the city gates. These families formed the foundation of Aleppo’s elite class: Muslims and Christians, liberals and conservatives, a mix of professionals, businessmen, and factory owners. The indisputable agreement between this diverse group: there was no place on earth better than Aleppo.

Over the last forty years, under the Assad regime, Aleppo lived a story of famine followed by feast. Aleppo was once one of the most defiant of Syrian cities, the base of the late seventies Muslim Brotherhood revolt. Although neighboring Hama suffered the 1982 massacre that eventually quelled the dissent, Hafez al-Assad punished Aleppo as well, imprisoning thousands and economically smothering the city for the next twenty years. Over the last eleven years, Bashar al-Assad slowly eased his father’s stranglehold on the city and Aleppo’s economy flourished. He executed the perfect recipe for a city famous for its cuisine: a recipe for complete control. The regime bought, threatened, and enforced absolute loyalty. Today, that loyalty translates to deafening silence.

On March 15th, Syria began to rise, except Aleppo. I could not understand how the people I had grown up with could ignore the suffering right outside Aleppo’s borders. Early on, when the Arab Spring was still in the spring, I woke up every Friday, hoping this would be the day my city would join the rest of the country to stand against the tyrant. After weeks of disappointment, I looked away.

Instead, I watched as Syrians from everywhere else took to the streets, bare-chested, to face one of the most brutal regimes in the region. They came from the cities, Daraa, Hama, Homs, Deir al-Zor; the towns, al-Rastan, Jisr al-Shughour, al-Rakka, al-Qamishli; the villages, beautiful al-Jassem, witty Kafar Nubbul, and brave Anadan right outside Aleppo; and eventually even from the densely populated but less affluent neighborhoods of Aleppo itself, like al-Sakhour and Seif al-Dawleh. Most recently, the University of Aleppo students have mobilized in larger numbers to protest in spite of the security forces’ violence. I watched this red, pulsing map of my country, inspired and ashamed. Every YouTube video dispelled decades of superiority. The daily uploaded clips—of protesters facing tanks, tortured bodies, mass funerals, and murdered children—stripped layer after layer of my Aleppian pride until there was none left. While fearless Syrians chanted under the threat of bullets, the rich slept, partied, counted their money, and ate kibbeh. An Aleppian friend messaged me in a moment of despair, “What do I do now?” I had no words to comfort him; I was tormented by the same question.

I looked beyond the Syrian borders, across the tumultuous landscape of the Arab world. I may no longer recognize the people of my city, but I recognized millions on the streets of other cities. On a recent visit to Paris, I stepped outside the doors of Charles De Gaulle, jet-lagged, without a guide book or a map, just my minuscule French. But my Algerian taxi driver understood me perfectly. We didn’t stop chatting the entire ride to the city. Before, we acknowledged such incidents with a short hello in Arabic and a small smile, because there was an invisible wall between us, marking me as Syrian, him as Algerian. Before, there was nothing in common, nothing to say; but the revolutions changed everything. At the Gare St. Lazare, I held up a long line behind me as a Tunisian man at the ticket counter wouldn’t let me leave. I asked him how it felt to be liberated and he shared his concerns for Syria. I joked and laughed with these delightful men; our differences disappeared as our narratives melded into one.

Over and over, it happened in exchanges, physical and virtual, that unspoken bolt of recognition we saw in each other’s eyes, and read in each other’s words. A simple, strong, undeniable feeling: I know you.

The blood of our people continues to spill onto the streets of our countries. A heavy cloud of uncertainty hovers over us, though much lighter than the weight of oppression that had once buried us. A few more dictators and all the monarchs still survive, but we have changed as a people. Maybe this is what Pan-Arabism really meant. Not the rigid definition we were taught to memorize in school, that utopian, yet impossible dream of Arab unity. Pan-Arabism wasn’t the concept that the most brutal trio, Saddam, Qaddafi and Hafez, manipulated into the cornerstones of their dictatorships. Pan-Arabism did not mean literally erasing our borders and choosing one capital with one ultra-dictator to rule us all. And it was not the faux nationalism that made us believe what united us was our language, culture, geography, and resources, because that wasn’t what really united us. Not at all. What united us was our refusal of humiliation and our demand for liberty and justice. What united us was our humanity.

Pan-Arabism is watching Lebanon, Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, Syria, Iraq, and always Palestine, united in that feeling: We know you. 

What I thought it meant to be Aleppian turned out to be nothing but a cracked veneer. What we were had nothing to do with where we were from, but everything to do with recognizing the strength of our will to live.

I will always be from that northern x on the map of Syria. I will always be the daughter of Aleppo. I cannot change that part of my history, nor would I ever want to. When I visit the cobblestone alleys of the old city, I will imagine the courtyard of the house I have never entered, the scent of laurel from the soap factory next door mixing with the jasmine blossoming from the brick-red soil. I will imagine the secret meetings my great-grandfather and grandfather held with the revolutionaries of their time, plotting to overthrow the Ottomans, and later, the French. One day I will take my children to the place where their history began, but tell them there is nothing here that defines them. We are from a place unburdened by walls, the stone and the metaphorical.

One mid-December night last year, though I didn’t know it yet, I went to bed Aleppine and isolated, and woke up, after a Tunisian man named Mohamed Bouazizi had freed himself from oppression and humiliation. He had threatened, “If you don’t see me, I will burn myself.” His ultimate sacrifice posed a haunting question to the rest of us: Do you know me? And we did; seeing ourselves within the flames of his burning body.

This is the true meaning of the Arab Spring, the Arab Awakening. After decades of living in the shadow of those ancient walls—walls we thought would never shift, walls we built ourselves and walls that were built for us, those prisons of fear, exclusion, shame, doubt—we decided to tear them down with our voices, topple them with our determination, and destroy them with our blood.

One day I woke up. Not only did I know millions, I finally knew myself.

A condensed version of this essay was first published in The National.

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14 comments for "Outside the Walls"


This is the great feeling to be from Aleppo .. Great piece of art about our beloved city. Keep it up Amal

Halabibnhalab wrote on December 29, 2011 at 01:06 PM

One more time NOT a word about not-so-unarmed opposition, about sectarian murders, about USA/Qatari/Zionist support for opposition, about the opposition calling for NATO bombing... Could it be that at least some Syrians are NOT eager for such "liberation"?

By the way, what about pro-regime supporters? Sure they are not Syrians, right?

In Tunis the dictator was supported to the end by the same French from which Syrians freed themselves before. In Syria, the same French are SO ready to liberate Syrians by arms. I see a bit of difference here, unlike the author.

In short, a half (?) truth is worse than an outright lie.

lidia wrote on December 31, 2011 at 05:37 AM

Great Alepian sentiments from which one would sense the scent of MaZahher And Maward of Sakatiya and Sook AlAttareen with the good tidings of prevailing. Your feelings are shared by not only the Alepians but by all the free Syrians who are suffering. Victory of the righteous people is coming sooner than expected and evil will be defeated. Wake up Aleppo, your knock out punch will lead to the deliverance.

mumen belnnasr wrote on January 02, 2012 at 07:26 PM

Thank you Halabibnhalab, love your name! I’m happy that you read this as a tribute to our beloved city. All my love and respect to the brave people of Aleppo who are rising in larger numbers everyday to defy not only the brutal security forces and shabbiha but the still-in-denial people of our city as well.

Lidia, it’s obvious from this comment and previous ones that we’re not on the same page. There are many others who debate conspiracies, international players, and the countless ways to defer accountability. A simple Google search will provide you with plenty of reading material. If you would like to see a positive acknowledgment of regime supporters, who are indeed Syrian (delusional but still Syrian) you will also have to look elsewhere. All I have to give is the truth, and it is my truth alone. If you can see a part of yourself reflected in that truth, great. But if you can only consider it half a truth or less than, or even a lie, there is really nothing more to say, other than that it marks you as dismissive as you accuse me of being. Thank you for reading.

Mumen, thanks for your comment. Greetings to beautiful Saqatiyeh and Souk al-Attareen. I believe in victory and an Aleppo awakening as well!

Amal Hanano wrote on January 03, 2012 at 07:48 AM

Amal, very nice of you telling me to google. What about googling some Libya staff and find 3 differences from Syria.

It is not conspiracy, it is pretty open - even now about Syria and very open about Libya after it was "liberated" by the same forces you support. And regarding accountability, so-called "peaceful protesters" somehow boasts about killings. You could google it as well.

Of course, it is YOUR truth, but also a truth of Obama (the great friend of Arabs), Ehud Barak (even better friend) and Saudi rulers (the most democratic of all Arabs, just ask Bahrain people)- it all is in Google, in NATO and Saudi and Qatari media which tell us also how Iran, and NOT Israel is a threat for peace in the ME. Some truth, indeed. In short, you are in good company.

I, on the other hand, am not posting here articles which is full of very trifle use of facts, I simply pointed on it in your article. if you do not want such critics, do not post such pieces.

And I was NOT asking you to love Syrians whose truth is not the truth of NATO/Zionists/Gulf royals. I just asked why are you speaking about Aleppo citizens as if they are just do not good enough to support your truth. In answer you called them delusional. I wonder, what name is fitting for somebody who agrees with NATO/Saudis being the solution for Syria problems?

lidia wrote on January 03, 2012 at 12:54 PM

Lidia, when your beloved Bashar and his father were back and forth with Chirac and Carter/Bush I / Bush II/ Clinton and the royals, everything was fine for you. Now your beloved guys atrocities are exposed, these people are no good! Remember, Ehud Barak was sitting to one table with your Sharaa and other Syrian officials..what happened in White Plantation dear patriot? I just ask you to visit one intel branch of your lovely mukhabarat, then talk this empty Bathist slogans. The only problem I see in Asad followers is they are selfish and selfish and selfish!!!

Bara Sarraj wrote on January 04, 2012 at 12:36 AM

Dear Lidia,

That’s typical regurgitated regime apologia: OMG it’s the Zionist Qatari Saudi Arabia Al Qaeda Muslim Brotherhood Aliens Freemasons Nato Abo Abdo Al Fawwal Sectarianism Armed Gangs.

As long as you do not acknowledge that Syrians are entitled to the same rights as others, don’t expect anyone to take you seriously. But of course that’s not your intention. No one who lumps all these red herrings about Nato Zionism and Qatar being behind the uprising could be interested in a serious conversation.

What you don’t realize is that your regime failed INSIDE the country by committing mass murder and abhorrent acts of oppression. Your failure didn’t stem from outside factors.

As your beloved botcher himself said, if the country was immune to conspiracy, nothing would have harmed it.

What activists, writers, opposition figures, commentators and average Syrians who are sympathetic with the fight for freedom are trying to do is communicate this failure and this barbaric crackdown to the world. There’s absolutely nothing wrong in that, whether by exploiting a satellite channel like Al Jazeera or talking with world power.

Your lousy regime has been kissing ass on global scale for years to be accepted back into the world community. It’s not only hypocritical, it’s actually hilarious that regime mouthpieces continue to appear on Al Jazeera despite Qatar (according to them) being a part of the conspiracy: why don’t you boycott the conspirator?

You see, your arguments would have worked in the 80s when daddy Assad the big botcher could get away with mass murder because no one knew what was going on. Not anymore. The world is watching, reading and hearing, thanks to Syrians like Amal. You’re better advised to ask your beloved Bashar to save face and ح-ع-ط

NuffSilence wrote on January 04, 2012 at 01:35 AM

I started reading the article in a mind set to debate notes, but your words just moved me from the inside and could not hid the tears in my eyes (people started staring at me in my office at work). When I decided to leave Halab years ago, i did because i thought at the time that people are dead in the inside, and no hope to feel any pulse from a dead body. When Arab spring started i felt ashamed for loosing hope of my friends and family and I knew I will be holding my head high when I say I am from halab. Day after day i keep thinking this week, now halab will change everything, halab will finish this, but nothing was happening. I started discussing with friends of reasons, security is more tight in big cities while in rural area there are hardly one or two police man, or Halab traditionally have not much representation in the army like Rastan or the membership in Baath party so let those who brought these murderers take them out. But after a while these excuses expire (if ever had any meaning), what bother me the most is the facebook pictures of friends partying and dinning while all this is happening, people lost the ability of empathy to follow sitizens (even if they dont agree with them). I dont know how we ended up like this, but I think I was right in my early assessment that people are dead in there, what i did not know that Syria WAS NOT only halab is.

faris wrote on January 04, 2012 at 05:09 AM

1) I wonder, when I have said something about me loving Assad? Could my detractors cite it please, or they just call me names? 2) I see that to some people (who also call me names instead of arguing) NATO and Zionists are NOT real, or at least are not a threat, and Saudis are OK. I have no words which could convince such people, if the fate of Iraq, Lebanon, Libya and Palestine could not. I just hope that Syria will be speared such fate. But it seems that my opponents do not mind mass murder if it is done by NATO, or Saudis, if they ask for help form them. Some people were saying that nothing could be worser than Saddam :(

regarding Assad links to western imperialism, by the way - did such links help Libya against NATO bombs? SNC (a copy of LNC) just called for "no-fly' in Syria. Are my detractors ready to have Syria bombed to "liberation"? On the other hand, they made fun of my mentioning sectarian murders, so I suppose my question is irrelevant :(

One more time - it is NOT a "conspiracy", it is open for those who do not go willfully blind.

lidia wrote on January 04, 2012 at 01:04 PM

Amal, your article was absolutely amazing. I loved every sentence of it. I wish we can all go back to visit a proud liberated Aleppo

Yaser wrote on January 04, 2012 at 02:27 PM

Lidia, I didn’t realize that it was an insult to refer you to Google, but maybe Google is part of the conspiracy as well. The problem with your comments (and they are all the same) is that they are out of place in regards to this article. Of course you are free to criticize as you wish. But it would be nice if your criticism was relevant to what was written. You scan my words looking for what you want to see, while knowing it will be absent. Feel free to continue to do so, but also know the words will continue to disappoint you. Hence, the Google advice. You didn’t ask in your first comment why I think the way I do about the pro-regime Aleppians, although it’s obvious. Delusional is the kindest way to describe them, criminal is probably more appropriate. Anyone who still supports the president after all the bloodshed cannot be excused. And to answer your final question (from the comment before last), I have to say, I don’t know. Maybe you can ask the people of Baba Amr: What name is fitting for someone who is against the murder of their family members by a dictator? And for someone who is so sensitive to “names,” why do you even ask such a question? If you don’t want to hear people’s responses to your comments, I suggest you follow your own advice (in one of the comments above). Btw, no one said that you loved Assad. I hope that you don’t. That would so not be cool.

Bara and Nuff, thanks for your valuable contributions to the “dialogue.” Although it would be heartbreaking if Abu Abdo al-Fawwal was truly part of the conspiracy!

Faris, your comment was so moving. Yes, the Facebook party pictures are extremely difficult to see. But have faith, Halab is not entirely dead inside. Just the Halab we knew. Now we know the real Halab that exists (and always has existed) outside our own walls.

Yaser, thank you for reading and your lovely comment. A proud, liberated Aleppo is exactly what we want.

(In an effort to defer your next comment: No, the above sentence does not mean a “bombed to liberation” Aleppo, Lidia.)

Amal Hanano wrote on January 04, 2012 at 09:26 PM

Lidia, i really do not know what you want, but I leave you with this. DO NOT expect us to be mass murdered, tortured, deported, robbed, humiliated then do nothing. We are going to oust Asad BY ANY MEANS NECESSAY. Period!

Bara Sarraj wrote on January 04, 2012 at 11:40 PM

Dear Lidia,

When you regurgitate Assad media and apologists’ fabrications about the revolution being a Qatar, Zionist & Nato conspiracy, then you’re an Assad supporter.

When you portray a peaceful uprising as violent and sectarian, then you’re an Assad supporter.

When you basically spout the kind of BS that no one believes but Assad supporters, then you’re an Assad supporter.

OK, in case you’re not an Assad supporter, then my apologies. Let’s get down to business: how do you reckon we should topple him? Objective is to topple him ASAP.

NuffSilence wrote on January 06, 2012 at 12:32 AM

Lidia, Just listen to the cries for help and wailing of Tal AlMalouhi, Yaman Qadri, the deceased Zainab AlHousni before her mutilation and to the mothers, the wives and the daughters of so many Syrian yuong men. All those are typical Syrians who have been murdered, assulted, raped and mutilated at the hands of AlAssad's Holding goons. Victory is coming soon from God only. Aleppo will rise and blow the final kock-out. (The so-called Flower in the Desert) Asma, Boushra and Anisa will then have their turn of wailing and mourning. Mumen

mumen bilnnasr wrote on January 07, 2012 at 06:32 PM

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