The peaceful city

The newspapers here in Canada (as elsewhere in the West) have been full of commentary lamenting the recapture of Eastern Aleppo by the forces of the Syrian government. For instance, in today’s copy of The Globe and Mail columnist Doug Saunders says that ‘The Libyan option was preferable. … Libya is an unstable mess verging on a civil war of its own. But it is not the site of the sort of enormous-scale monstrosities, involving hundreds of thousands of deaths, that it would have been if Moammar Gadhafi had been kept in power.’ Saunders suggests that the Western world should have done in Syria what it did with Gadhafi and overthrown Bashar Al-Assad when it had the chance.

Elsewhere in today’s Globe, though, is an article by reporter Justin Giovannetti entitled ‘What the world lost by ignoring Aleppo’. Despite the headline, this contains a somewhat different message.

The article cites a former resident, Bakri Azzin, saying that before the war, Aleppo ‘was a warm, welcoming city, where you could spend your days in peace’. Giovannetti records that in those days, Aleppo was a ‘cosmopolitan’ city, which was ‘shaped by every major empire since the Roman and thrived through centuries of relative peace and stability.’ It ‘was a city that didn’t sleep’, says Mr Azzin, ‘I’ve never seen it anywhere else, whenever you wanted to go out, you could always find a restaurant that was open.’ Giovannetti writes that, ‘Centuries of trade had made Aleppo a welcoming place, where helping strangers was considered a duty, according to Mr. Azzin. If you got lost, you could knock on a door and get helpful directions.’

Similarly, the article cites a book about the city by British historian Philip Mansel, which says: ‘Until 2012, Aleppo was distinguished by its peaceful character. For 500 years, whatever their origin, its inhabitants had lived together relatively harmoniously.’ Giovannetti then quotes Canadian Tania Frangié, whose family lived in Aleppo for many years:

‘There was a joie de vivre in Aleppo, there was constant excitement,’ Ms. Frangié says of a city that has always loomed large in her life … ‘The biggest part of Aleppo that I remember was the harmony. … There was a marvellous energy everywhere’, she said. When her father returned from a trip to his hometown in 2000, she says he could barely contain his joy about how much the city had changed. Money was pouring in and new districts were going up, while UNESCO’s attention had helped propel conservation efforts in the city. ‘He was just so impressed about how modern it had become’, she said.

Finally, the article cites ‘Len Davis, an American film-maker based out of Seattle’, who ‘visited Aleppo during the same time as Ms Frangié was there.’ Mr Davis ‘says he was struck by its international feeling’, adding that:

Drinking in the shadow of the city’s centuries-old citadel, he later met a gay artist lobbying the government for more liberal acceptance in the art scene. ‘It was a capital of creative thought as I understood it’, he added.

But wait! Who was ruling Aleppo when it was such a booming, ‘modern’, ‘cosmopolitan’ and ‘peaceful’ city, in which one could meet ‘gay artists’ lobbying the government for a more liberal arts scene? It was Assad!! And how much of this cosmopolitan ‘creative thought’ would have been likely to survive if the rebels had secured full control of the city? Given the rigid Islamism of many of them, not a lot, I suspect.

After four years of internecine violence, the fighting has now almost come to an end. Peace is returning to Aleppo. Let’s not listen to those who want to unleash the dogs of war all over again, but instead do what we can to see that the cosmopolitan Aleppo of old is reborn from the rubble.

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