Another late night spent online, doing my routine toggle between Skype, YouTube and Twitter. It was a night like many I have spent since the Syrian uprising began, except this was different: I wasn’t alone. That night, my family huddled around my screen with me as we watched the videos emerge from our home of Aleppo.
The “mother of all battles” was raging as the Syrian regime directed its tanks and helicopters towards the historic northern city, attempting to quell the now-militant uprising. Bombs shook the buildings and smoke covered the stone skyline of the city. My city; not Homs, not Deraa, not Damascus not even some rural landscape. It was our Aleppo. Even after watching the same violence plague Syria for months, nothing prepares you for the scene of army tanks rolling down streets that you know so well. As one activist in Aleppo told me: “I’m shocked, even though I knew it was coming. I’m not used to it yet.”
My father was the last of my family to leave Aleppo. As the violence escalated dramatically last week, the ways out of Aleppo had quickly narrowed. The road to Turkey, once the guaranteed backup escape route, had been closed as the Free Syrian Army had taken over the Bab Al Hawa border. The road to Beirut was open but dangerous and flooded with thousands of cars crossing into Lebanon. Flights out of the airport were unreliable, and the highway was punctuated with checkpoints and unpredictable clashes between Assad forces and the FSA. After a few days of constantly changing itineraries, my father finally managed to leave.
When I was young, I once asked my father, why do you like living in Aleppo? He’s the kind of person who quotes from American sitcoms as often as timeless Aleppian sayings, so he said: “I want to live where everybody knows your name.” This was a fundamental part of his life, to meet someone on the street who would say, I knew your father or I knew your grandfather.
Generations of our family had walked the same streets. Each generation’s home had moved with the city’s expansion, from my great-great-grandfather’s home tucked deep within Aleppo’s ancient walls, to my great-grandfather’s home overlooking Sa’ad Allah Al Jabri Square, to my father’s childhood home near Sabil park, and finally westward where he raised his family in one of Aleppo’s newer neighbourhoods.
Over the past weeks, my father had prayed in his mosque at sunset. Afterwards, he would watch the rockets launched from Aleppo’s military academy towards towns outside the city, towards Anadan, Hraytan and Azaz. He said it was a sight he would never forget, so beautiful and terrible: the boom of each rocket as it was launched and the red fiery sphere hissing and arcing over their heads. But he did not hear the rockets meet their targets some 20 kilometres away.
The aftermath of destruction -charred bodies in burnt homes and bloody limbs strewn across dusty roads - was left to the imagination, or to be seen on television later.
Now the shelling is redirected inward, falling on Salah Al Din, Seif Al Dawleh, Masaken Hanano and Al Hamdaniyeh, neighbourhoods with defiant names inspired by heroic figures that still resist regime forces. Schools fill with thousands of Aleppians fleeing their homes and the now-violent streets. The abandoned University of Aleppo dormitories are home to refugees. Extreme shortages of fuel, cooking gas, bread and electricity plague residents and have brought Aleppo’s usually vibrant Ramadan life to a complete halt.
During the brief phone calls we could make when landlines were working, my mother asked my father to do seemingly mundane - yet strange - tasks: leave the curtains open but lock the balcony doors; move furniture away from the chandeliers. Fragile objects were wrapped and placed on the floor in case of shelling; doors barricaded in case of looting; valuables moved elsewhere. The house was slowly stripped of what made it a home, until the moment arrived when it was stripped of its final inhabitant.
Choosing to leave was tainted with guilt; guilt that our family was lucky, that we were the ones who could leave, the ones who had another country to call home and the ones who had not lost a relative yet. So we were ashamed to speak of trivial, material things. But we did speak of them, because it’s our home.
I wonder what my father thought of while he packed, and what he dreamt about on the last night. Was he thinking that the unimaginable had happened? That the day had come when he would leave Aleppo to move to a place where nobody knew his name?
My father taught me long ago, just as we were leaving home on a trip, to trace with my index finger on the wall near the door the words: “We are from God and to God we shall return.” The words were a talisman, supposed to guarantee that we would return home. It always struck me as strange, to use words usually reserved to announce someone’s death. But now they make sense, because we have become a people who speak about return. Thousands of displaced Syrians ask, will we return or die somewhere besides our homes?
And so our family reunites across the ocean, to watch our country from afar, like thousands of other families who have crossed Syrian borders as refugees in exile. Like our Iraqi friends did a few years ago and our Lebanese friends did a couple of decades ago. We live like them, anxiously, where the only certainty is uncertainty. And the only link to our home is the invisible trace of the letters that my father’s fingers marked on the stone wall near the door.
Unlike my mother - the practical one in the family - my requests were more obscure: a vial of sandalwood oil, old postcards from my grandmother’s home, a jar of sour cherry preserves. Scents, images and tastes of memory. The last thing I asked of him was to take picture from the plane as it left Aleppo, so I could add it to the aerial photographs I took last year, a final image of our city from above. But when I asked him about it later, he said, “I couldn’t take any pictures. I couldn’t see anything. It was too hazy.”
Amal Hanano is a pseudonym for a Syrian American writer
On Twitter: @amalhanano