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.