Novelist Nihad Sirees on Aleppo Then, Aleppo Now, Aleppo Imagined

Nihad Sirees will soon be in London, appearing with Golan Haji and Robin Yassin-Kassab at the Southbank Center (Jan 29), with Malu Halasa and Ghalia Kabbani at Waterstones Piccadilly (Jan 30). But currently, he is at Brown University on an International Writers Fellowship; he wrote from there for PEN Atlas about his memories and reflections on his home town, Aleppo:

sireesIt begins:

Here in Rhode Island, I lie in bed at night where lately sleep does not come easily. The news coming from my home city of Aleppo has started to wear out my nerves. The war continues there, and from this faraway place, the war seems to me even more fierce and more destructive. I keep tossing and turning in my bed, tired from chasing sleep while alone. Huda, my late wife, died six years ago, and my worries over my daughter and my son in Aleppo are growing every day. I think of my daughter’s pleas for me to leave Syria, because the regime is killing the intellectuals in the country, and putting the blame on the opposition. Since I left Aleppo, the violence has intensified and became more brutal. No city or village in Syria has been spared from the destruction machine of the regime. Now the war is going on in the oldest city of the world and the most exotic city in history.

The entrance to the Aleppo Citadel has been shelled, and part of its wall was damaged. This 1,000 year old citadel sits on top of a hill in the middle of the city which grew and extended around it. It is a place where the secrets of history are kept. As children, we used to climb the hill surrounding the citadel on which it sits, looking over the city like a vulture protecting it from the mice of darkness. At that time, we were eager to discover some of the citadel’s secrets. The elders used to tell us there was a deep subterranean passage, leading far from the citadel to parts of the city, used to supply foodstuffs to the citadel when it was surrounded by invaders so that the defenders would be able to resist them. The Aleppans used to move into the citadel at times of attacks, and shut its gates. This passage was critical at both times of war and peace, when the ruler of the city would run away if the population rose against him. It was also used by lovers who used to go discreetly in and out. But we could not find the passage, though everyone knew it existed.

I remember one day they started to demolish an old house to construct a new building on the site. Excavations were going on when a dark passage was unearthed. It was part of a canal that ran under the city homes, just like the subway tunnels in some cities now. The vaulted ceiling was built with stones, while water flowed from its source and spread throughout the ancient city.

That was a very important moment in my life as a boy. My friends and I went down to examine it. It was a real world of magic and at the same time scary. We waded in the water that came from Hilan, a village to the north of the city. In every home, there was a well connected with the canal running under the ground.

In my novel The North Wind I wrote about how men used to hide in their homes from the eyes of the Ottoman Recruiting Units which were looking for young men to draft to fight in the First World War. When these young men felt the danger of these units which raided their homes, they went into the wells to hide in the canal, where their neighbors supplied them with food by ropes. It was also used by burglars and lovers. They would sneak out of the well at night to carry out their business, and then go down again into this ramified world that could take them to wherever they wanted. Keep reading on English PEN.

PEN also shared a video interview Sirees did with his English-language publisher, Pushkin Press:

If you’re in London, go see Sirees. Otherwise, yes, ArabLit’s Nadia Ghanem and Sarah Irving will be there on your behalf.

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