We often think of cities as their streets and buildings but they are also a collection of journeys. These can be the daily commute or a trip to a market, journeys so routine, so automatic that we barely register them. But when you leave a city and cannot return, those urban trails take on a deeper significance; the stops along the way take on an importance in your memory that they lacked before.
The journey that comes back to me most often is the walk from as-Suleimaniyeh, where I lived in Aleppo, to al-Jamiliyeh, a district about two kilometres away. My friend Harout Bardizbanian, also known as Che for his determination always to go against conventional ideas, would call and ask “Shall we go to Jamiliyeh?” The answer was always yes.
We started by walking through al-‘Aziziyeh to the public park. There aren’t many parks in Aleppo so it was always a pleasure to walk through the garden, designed in a classical style with fountains and parterres by a French engineer during the Ottoman era. It used to be well cared for with palms and other trees. In summer the Quwiq River would run low with stagnant water that gave off a bad smell, a problem that the city never managed to fix.
One of the park’s southern gates leads to Sa’adallah al-Jabiri Square. It’s a busy and vibrant square where you could find noisy vendors selling balila (corn) or other street foods. Across the street there were open-air book stalls where I always stopped to browse. Second-hand book stores can tell you a lot about a country. Here the stands always had copies of biographies of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro – my friend Che’s favourites — and many works on the Arab-Israeli conflict, particularly the 1973 war. The most sought after books were fiction, something that took you away from politics.
From the book stalls, it was a ten minute walk to Iskenderun Street to buy DVDs. Access to the internet and to websites like Torrent had opened up movies and television for Syrians. From the latest Hollywood blockbusters to old Syrian TV series, the electronic shops along Iskenderun have everything for just 25-35 Syrian pounds (around 50-60 cents). Only later did I find out that the DVDs were pirated and downloading from Torrent is illegal. Nobody in Syria ever mentioned that, they just enjoyed watching the movies.
Shopping can make you hungry. Al-Jamiliyeh is one of the best places in Aleppo to eat and no visit is complete without a falafel from al-Nuzha, a shop on Iskenderun Street. For just 15-25 Syrian pounds and after just a three-minute wait, you get one of the best sandwiches in the city, one that is tahini sure to drip sauce onto your shirt.
Al-Jamiliyeh is of course much more than shops. The neighbourhood dates back about a hundred years when the Iskenderun road was built to connect Aleppo to what was then a port in Ottoman Syria but was later taken by Turkey. The district was known for its mixed Jewish-Muslim population but many Jews left after violence in Aleppo in 1947 when the UN declared the State of Israel. Aleppo once had one of the oldest Jewish populations in the world – local lore had it that a general appointed by King David 1,000 years BCE laid the first stone of the synagogue. According to Syrian historian Sami Moubayed, about 15,000 Jews were still living in Syria during the United Arab Republic (1958-61) but the number fell to just 200 by the end of the century. The last Jewish family left the city in 2015.
Throughout the conflict, al-Jamiliyeh remained in the government-controlled part of Aleppo. Currently it is about 1.5 km away from the nearest frontline.
We would head home on the same path. By then we would have covered a wide range of topics: politics, political philosophy, globalization, the failure of U.S. policies in the Middle East, emigration to Europe, the Syrian economy, etc. Che is still in Aleppo. He is one of my few friends who did not leave Aleppo since the beginning of the conflict. He is working in a bank and heading a student committee.