(Yassin al-Hajj Saleh is considered one of the most important observers of Syrian politics. He spent 16 years in Syrian prison, an experience about which he recently wrote a book. One Syrian scholar rejected the description of Yassin al-Haj Saleh as a political observer or analyst and instead he considers him the ultimate historian of the Syrian Revolution. Recently he wrote a short essay on Aleppo, a city with which he had an intimate history. With his permission, I translated his contribution about Aleppo. The title “Aleppo: A Tale of Three Cities” is mine. –Elie Chalala)
I lived in Aleppo for about seven years, in two periods separated by about 17 years; the late 1970s and the late 20th century.
The first Aleppo was a depressed city, heavily permeated by a harsh political/security presence, and a deadly impersonal system. The regime sought to establish itself as the only decisive personality in the city as a whole. The city was also suffering from overpopulation, and rapid, expansive development without balanced growth in services, all influenced by increased widespread religiosity and an intensification of conflict.
As a non-native resident of Aleppo, I had never lived in a city that was so withdrawn. At the university we formed a mixed group of students coming from different parts of the city, including its countryside, and from different religions and sects, Palestinians included.
And the city resisted the regime’s infiltration. Its universities, trade unions, political activists, and religious groups were the most active in opposing the regime of Hafez al-Assad. Apart from the universities, the opposition was urban and mainly from Aleppo.
Aleppo was conquered in the spring of 1980, when all opposition groups were crushed. That era marked the end of an autonomous cultural life, the end of a relatively free debate on campus, and also of the cinema. This was the second Aleppo.
Like all Syrian cities, Aleppo was heading toward being soulless and impersonal.
Syria’s second city is as large as Damascus, but it is like all of Syria: no opinion, no culture, no policy, no public sphere in which people associate with each other, no apparent religiosity, although everything implies its religiosity.
In the first Aleppo, my nomadic college life led me to move between seven homes, all in central neighborhoods unmentioned by the satellite TVs covering the revolution. In the second Aleppo, I lived in a peripheral neighborhood, Sheikh Maksoud, inhabited by Arabs, Kurds, Muslims and Christians.
When Hafez Assad died in June 2000, residents of major neighborhoods rushed to stock up on bread, canned food and vegetables, and human traffic on the streets slowed down. But none of this happened in the peripheral areas of Aleppo where the lives of the inhabitants rarely intersected with the lives of presidents and their deaths.
The third Aleppo, the one now in open revolt, started from the rural parts and from the most marginalized slums: Salahuddin, Alsakhur, Alklaseh, Bab Alhadid, Al Shaar, Al Zabadieh…. As if these neighborhoods had retained their spirit and personality while the major districts had become devoid of them, with the state having sizable presence, capital and domesticated religiosity.
When it comes to the spirit and personality of a city, the regime exhausts itself trying to eliminate them and pursue their ghosts. When it feels endangered, it kills. It has already killed Homs, Deir ez-Zor, and nothing will deter it from killing Aleppo if it could. If left alive, this wild monster will kill all of Syria.