ISSUE #2 THE SQUARE, SPRING 2013
CREATIVE WRITING
In Search of a Tahrir Square
After an apparently buoyant beginning to the Arab Spring, a city and a country are brutally destroyed.
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I

Politics had taken a back seat; nothing had changed for fifty years; the proverbial armchairs in homes whose doors had been flung wide open revealed nothing but a heap of bones bemoaning difficult times. The loss was personal, for all of us. And then the eighteen glory days of Cairo’s Tahrir Square rekindled the dream, and our ossified forms revived the instant Mubarak fell. Change was possible after all. We celebrated for days on end. We danced and sang fearlessly, drank to the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions, and debated for hours. “Perennial dreamer,” said the dubious look on my friends’ faces as I spoke passionately about the forthcoming Syrian revolution. While we carried on heated and heady debates, Syrian society at large remained shrouded in silence. For me, it was a chance to look more closely into the cracks that had already started to appear in our political edifice. The very real risks and the many pertinent questions involved would have to wait until after the first spark was lit. The spark was up against some mightily rotten and moldy chaff, I thought, and the fire it set off would smolder rather than crackle, but once it was lit, the regime would not be able to snuff it out.

Little by little, we began wading into the moldy vaults. Young men and young women who had been completely apolitical began engaging us, and we responded in kind. The dialogue was launched, and at the end of the night, in bars, cafés, and restaurants, tables would be pushed together by people who’d never met before, and all was well. In people’s eyes, in their handshakes, and their bear-hugs was a sense of exhilaration, a new vitality.

Truly, a new scent filled the air. Whenever I ran into friends of an evening, they’d call out, “What’s going on?” I invariably answered, “We’re searching for Tahrir!” My buddies and I were dead serious, calculating surface areas and recruiting our architect friends to examine the suitability of Umayyad Square. “It won’t do,” they said, “it’s too open and too close to sensitive government locations. We’d pay a terrible price, and furthermore, it’s a soulless place.” I thought about how a square has a soul when it becomes a symbol of liberation.

A few days later, I discovered that thousands of Syrians had been doing exactly the same thing. They too had been looking for a Tahrir Square, but they were realists. Their disappointment was tinged with sadness – they knew what this regime was capable of. Deep down, we all knew that replicating the Egyptian revolutionaries’ Tahrir Square would be tremendously costly. We just never imagined how high the the actual price would be.

In mid April 2011, I witnessed with my own eyes the assault on Abbasid Square when tens of thousands of people from Douma, Jobar, Harasta, and the countryside outside Damascus converged like a swollen river in the square, only to scatter as live ammunition was fired and dozens of demonstrators dropped dead on the ground. Busloads of shabeeha parked bumper to bumper were stationed all around the square, with not a centimeter of space between them. And after the bloody scenes at Clocktower Square in Homs, Assi Square in Hama, and Tahrir (Freedom) Square in Deir El Zor, I finally realized that the dream of our own Tahrir has evaporated. Romantic dreams of revolution were over.

Yes, our discussions had been absurd, but they had been a good exercise in love and peaceful revolution, which Syrians creatively enacted in myriad ways. It ended up being only a dream because Syria’s young men and women then discovered what monsters had been living in their midst all these years. Stunned bewilderment are the only words that come to mind when I think of life in Syria in the decades ahead. I will nevertheless persist in telling the story of the joyful search for our own Tahrir Square.

II

My father didn’t take me by the hand to go and explore Aleppo together as fathers did with other children. My mother lived and died in her city without ever knowing how to get to her daughter’s house on the other side of town. We were left to explore on our own. My childhood friends and I would get lost in the warren of alleys that crisscrossed the city’s small residential districts. We would inevitably end up at the public park, an ideal venue that the French had designed and left for the flaneurs, passersby, and early morning walkers from Baghdad Station and Aziziyyeh. A stone pavilion sat in the middle of the glorious park: it had small, raised platforms for musicians to stand on and an arched ceiling with wonderful acoustics. I consider myself fortunate to have had the chance to hear a string quartet perform there. The gate on the southern flank of the park led straight to Saadallah Al Jabiri Square, an open plaza lined with trees and dotted with water fountains that extended all the way to Souk Al Heil south of the city center. In less than five minutes by foot, you were at Bab Antakya (Antioch Gate), and from there you could go all the way to the Citadel by walking through Aleppo’s historic souk. The famous bazaar is a richly layered, filigreed place whose memory is unlike that of any other place in the world.

III

My initial taste of the place is something I carry with me to this day. The first photograph of me in the public park was taken when I was in the fifth grade: I am holding onto the reins of a mule that its owner rented out to photographers, supposedly as a horse. The mule man stood beside a lofty gateway at the entrance of the park, near a statue of the poet Abi Firas Al Hamadani and graded water fountains that cascaded into pools where ducks swam. I can’t say for sure whether there really were ducks bobbing in those little pools that tumbled from the water fountains or whether I dreamt them up and the dream stuck. I’m reluctant to check this out with old childhood friends because, whenever I ask them about some memory I have of Aleppo, I’m struck by how much better their recollection is than mine. However, when I do finally surrender to the enticement, I discover that they too have a penchant for reconstituting the place as they please. When exchanging reminiscences, I find that, like me, they tell the same story hundreds of times so as to lodge it in their memory. My questions come up out of the blue, and I’ve been known to call my childhood friend Zakaria well past midnight to ask him, for example, about the name of the place that used to sell ijjeh (omelette) just inside Bab Al Nasr (Victory Gate). Initially, he bristles at the ill-timed call, but he soon relaxes and begins to recount all sorts of details and stories that I remember in a completely different way.

IV

Whenever there was a religious holiday, ZakariaKarazon and I would spend it together in the city center along with our gaggle of friends. It was a tradition we observed throughout our childhood and well into our teenage years. First, we’d go to Cinema Opera to catch a movie starring NajlaFathi, Mahmoud Yassin, Mirvat Amin, or Suad Hosni, and then we’d get ourselves a tasty sandwich, which we would wash down with some freshly squeezed juice from a stand in the Cinema Halab Passage – an arcade-like space buried under a large building, swarming with a myriad of little shops and storefronts. After that, we’d go home exhausted, having marked the occasion by getting our picture taken at the park before we got grubby downtown. There is not the slightest doubt in my mind that were it not for those wonderful adventures, my childhood would have gone wholly unphotographed. My family never owned a camera, and I myself wasn’t particularly interested in photography. Even now, whenever I buy a new camera, I carelessly misplace it among my things where it quickly collects dust and becomes obsolete – as if one had to lose things in order to appreciate their worth.

V

After posing for the photo, we would exit the park from its western gate and walk around the wall of the nearby power company building toward Saadallah Al Jabiri Square. I never once felt any kind of affection for that square; deep down, I loathed it. I do not want to part with the old image I have of it, which remains indelibly etched in my mind. I felt that the transformed square was an affront to Kuwatly Street, an elegant, tree-lined drag with handsome 1930s colonial buildings on either side, extending from the park gate all the way into Al Jamiliyyeh. The buildings were constructed at a time when the municipality of Aleppo adhered to urban planning regulations, and there were no bribes or political favors to be traded.

The area, as it used to look, is still alive in my memory today: its French Mandate–era clinic, stone balconies, wrought-iron railings, and architecturally compatible buildings overlooking the old square next to the park fence. In one corner stood the ten-story Tourist Hotel (or was it only eight stories high?), and across from the imposing post office builing, there was a large, outdoor, summer-only restaurant situated amidst gardens that backed onto Souk Al Heil. It was there that Aleppo’s finest mid-twentieth-century singer, Mohammad Khayri, dropped dead in front of his audience, forever linking the place to the tragic death of singers in my mind. If you looked out from the stage to the right, you would see the French-era buildings stretching all the way to the park gate toward Al Jamiliyyeh. This was the image of the square to which I clung and never wanted to revisit because, like so many places in other Syrian cities, it had stopped being a welcoming and open space. People no longer went there, and it became little more than a symbol of the regime and the party; for me and for others of my generation, it was simply the location for mass party rallies where we were packed in like sheep.

VI

Aleppo’s students, workers, and civil servants would converge on Saadallah Al Jabiri Square from the four corners of the city. As sheep who were the playthings of wolves, the only thing that saved us was our sense of humor; when all else failed, derision and irony came to the rescue. As two columns of students flooded into the square in separate streams, one from the girls’ schools and one from the boys’, we would dissolve into the crowd. The day before whatever occasion was being marked, we’d have agreed with a group of girls from Moawiya and Nablus schools to sneak off and make a mockery of the whole affair. Sticking our tongues out at the informants among our schoolmates, who pretended not to notice we were gone, we’d head for one of the nearby cafés, where teenage boys from Al Mutanabbi and Maamoun high schools, as well as the private boys’ school, would rendezvous with girls from Moawiya, Al Jamiliyyeh, and Al Ismailiyeh. The young informants would stand there clutching pictures of the “dear leader” and holding up banners and flags, which would be returned to the youth division in due course. Every such occasion was an instance of “the struggle” – whether it was to vilify Anwar Sadat and other Arab leaders who disagreed with the country’s leadership or, more often, to glorify the dear leader and the leading party, not to mention the leading country and the leading comrade, whom they designated to join the officials lined up on the veranda of the Tourist Hotel. Once the “human tide” – a coinage of state-run television that has stuck – had formed, the comrade-in-charge would begin his speech, denouncing imperialism and calling for the liberation of the the Golan over and over again. All the while, we would be lost in the charged atmosphere of the café, where French music played in the background as our hands brushed inadvertently against those of the girls, and stolen glances fed rosy fantasies of innocent love.

VII

The Baathists occupied Aleppo’s most beautiful buildings: the city’s youth leadership division building, the criminal justice building in Al Aziziyyeh, and the Abdel MonaemRiyad Youth League with its affiliated school, which took over one of Al Jamiliyyeh’s oldest buildings – a grand old structure that was wrecked by supposed renovations in the early 1980s. Gorgeous old buildings made from solid Aleppo stone, richly ornamented with friezes, old-style calligraphy, and other decorative elements, with small windows perched high over the city’s avenues, were transformed in the blink of an eye into hideous, cheap concrete structures that smelled of hatred. Everyone in Aleppo knew the names of the contractors and building supply merchants who colluded with the city’s corrupt officials – there were countless violations during the tenure of one man in particular, under whose watch not a single historical building remained standing in the city center. Trees along the sidewalks were ripped out, and façades of old buildings were vandalized at night so that the following morning a corrupt commission could divest them of their historical status and usher in their demolition. That is how the city was disfigured – stripped of its distinct flavor as easily as one might gulp down a drink of water. Over the course of a few years, the old district of Al Jamiliyyeh that merged into the square was transformed into a haphazard assortment of ugly and soulless buildings. To anyone who knew the city’s history, it was clear that Aleppo had fallen to barbarians.

VIII

The new Saadallah Al Jabiri Square was designed by engineers from the Military Housing Division in the late 1970s. The organization’s head of research was the architect HaythamQitaa, a native of the city and a friend of mine. Few natives of Aleppo had heard of Haytham or knew anything about his style. He designed the new Saadallah Al Jabiri Square, Kaweek River overpass, new municipality building (Aleppo city hall), and dozens of other lovely structures. However, few people had any interest in a visionary with tremendous imagination.

During the mid 1990s, we’d leave his office around midnight, making our way through the silent city and park near the museum in order to take a tour of the recently completed city hall building, which had been thirty years in the making. He would point angrily to all the errors that had been introduced to his original design, while I listened sympathetically. One day, however, I felt compelled to tell him that I hated the new square with the Soviet-style statue in the middle, which had no redeeming artistic or aesthetic value. Haytham said nothing. Later, he told me that he had designed the squares of his city with all the passion he could muster and that his designs were implemented with all the hatred the authorities possessed – their only concern being the creation of human cattle pens before which a corrupted man could forever deliver speeches.

During my last visit to Aleppo in April 2012, the square had been taken over by shabeeha. They had occupied the entire space and erected tents to preempt any kind of protest nearby. I sat at my old table inside the Tourist Hotel café. The same old-time waiters were there, and they greeted me like a long-lost friend. I sipped my coffee, unable to talk, and just looked around and took it all in. The city began to stir. The shabeeha got up and immediately started blasting songs glorifying their leader. The square was their mirror-image, I thought: like them, it too would disappear into the bowels of history. Only a few weeks later, the self-styled Kataeb Al Jabhat Al Nusra, a militant group self-described as Jihadists, blew up the square and the surrounding buildings.

Now there are ruins everywhere, and only rubble remains. The Tourist Hotel is just a concrete skeleton, and the entire square has disappeared. Simply put, there is nowhere left for my friends to dream of their own Tahrir Square. I thought about how, when we last met, their eyes brimmed with hope following the protest they had started on the university campus and then taken into the city in spite of the tyranny we had witnessed and recounted. They are lost now and once again searching for a freedom square in a city that will never bow down to barbarianism. 

Translated by Maia Tabet

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