- “Kandoush, where you at? We’re at the public park—come on, join us.”
- “Coming soon but first I’ll pass by my place to change. I’m wearing a mini skirt and it’s not appropriate for the public park.”
- “You don’t need to change. We are sitting close to the gate near the train station.”
- “OK. On my way then.”
This is Aleppo… This is the public park….
This is the place that accommodates all the contradictions in the whole Syrian nation.
Only here can you find the children’s playground where women are allowed to enter. The father is not allowed to bring his kids and play with them because it is the job of the mother–or maybe because women want to “feel free and own the space.”
One man stands surprised at what he sees at the public park while another man is surprised by such a reaction to what he sees as normal. The second man is ready to attack the first if the first tries to go in and check on his children.
In a different corner are two old men enjoying the sun and “warming their bones after a harsh winter”.
A girl in her twenties with long hair wearing luxurious clothes that shows she comes from a rich family is walking her little puppy “Donny”, who starts barking by the time “Lucie”, the neighbor’s dog passes. This puppy friction might spark chemistry between the girl and the son of the neighbor when the time is ripe.
Another girl is reading her book and smoking her cigarette without a care in the world about the attempt of many to sit next her or flirt with her. “And because she is smoking in a public place, she must be a b****”.
A man is eating his falafel sandwich quickly to be able to catch his bus after a long day trying to finish processing paperwork in some government institution. This usually ends up with him being told to come back the next week because the employee in charge is on sick leave, so he needs to pray for her quick recovery and come back the next week hoping that the drama of signing an official paper will come to an end.
A poet sits contemplating and looking for inspiration…. A girl searches for her dream husband…. High school students playing hooky come here to smoke cigarettes…It is the place where an endless number of love stories start and end…
The public park in Aleppo is 17 hectares in the shape of an unregulated hexagon surrounded by a stone wall. This park contains a social diversity that might exceed its plant diversity. It is only a small representation of the historical and cultural diversity in Syria.
The park was opened in 1949 in the Mahatit Baghdad neighborhood by the decision of Mr. Majd Addin Al-Jabri, the elected head of the Municipality of Aleppo since 1947. When his relatives opposed his decision to open a public park in the city center of Aleppo, Mr. Al-Jabri responded by saying: “This is a property of the city of Aleppo. My grandfather Nafi’ Pasha got it as gift from the Ottoman Sultan, and now I give it back to the people of Aleppo.” And this is how the park became the destination for every Aleppine to visit. Unfortunately, the park got its share of pain and destruction just like any other part of our beloved homeland. The physical damage of the park might be small compared to the rest of the city, but what could be worse than this kind of damage?
This place is where I used to pass on my way home after work to rest, get some fresh air and relax. Sometimes I would just go there to people-watch. Now I avoid even passing by its fence. Our park has become the shelter of displaced families. Blankets have become the walls and bed sheets have become the ceilings of these families. Some with mental and psychological problems found refuge here after the mental hospital turned into a military barrack shifting control among opposing parties.
The happiness and satisfaction—the park’s former glory—turned into tragedy.
The place I used to go to searching for relaxation became a melancholic miserable one. I could not help but cry when I had to pass by the park once, although I did my best to pass quickly. I had a very strange feeling of guilt towards those people. Maybe because my flat was still safe and standing, maybe because I still have a bathroom where I can take a shower or maybe because I still have food in my fridge. I had a strange feeling of guilt about something I did not do.
Sometimes, feeling guilty can have positive effects. It might generate the desire to help others or find a solution to some of the problems or at least to try to do so.
The same place which once accommodated all the different shades of the Syrian society could be the starting point for bringing people together again. I think this park should get special attention now due to the central role it can play in making people feel at ease with each other as it did before. I believe that building bridges between people now is more important than reconstructing destroyed buildings.
In my opinion, we should start planting the concept of love and community among the children as they are still pure and innocent and do not have the same harsh prejudices that the older generations developed in the last five years.
We need to think about creating activities that bring children from different religious, economic and ethnic backgrounds to destroy the imaginary walls the society created before and the conflict has emphasized recently. These activities should have a clear objective that serves to rebuild stronger social ties in the city. For example, we can start a children’s city choir where children can study music and learn songs that they can perform on the International Day for Children or on the Valentine’s Day.
Another example could be a theatre group. The group could perform puppet shows or short plays that have strong positive messages to emphasize values such us forgiveness, cooperation and coexistence. The plays could be written and performed by the children themselves.
A football or basketball tournament can be a good idea but with unifying names like “The Aleppo Team” rather than dividing names like “Al-Ittihad” (Union), “Al-Hurriya” (Freedom), or Al- Jalaa (Independence), clubs which denote ethnic affiliations.
We should be hopeful to build a new generation that listens to music and believes in love—a generation that does sports and belongs to humanity. We should keep dreaming and work hard to achieve this vision. Those kids who are paying the price of the recklessness and selfishness of the older generation might be the seeds of a new peace. Those children who were playing here twenty years ago and now are destined to be enemies might have children now who can play in the park and bring the country together again in the future.