In a souq in the center of Damascus, a crowd has gathered. In the center of the crowd stands a man dressed in rags, a child huddling close to him. Word has spread he is a refugee from Aleppo. “Were you there?” asks a man in the crowd. The stranger nods. “What have you left behind?” asks the man. The stranger replies: “Starvation and horror.” Another voice in the crowd asks: “What has become of Aleppo?”
“Nothing remains standing but towers of skulls,” says the man. [From Historical Miniatures, by Saadallah Wannous.]
I started my Arabic lessons with Mazen in early 2007. Twice a week, I would take the microbus from my home in the center of Damascus to Yarmouk Camp, five miles south of the center. I’d get off by the hospital, cross the busy main road, head down an alleyway, pass the corner store, and take a short and winding path to the high metal gate of Mazen’s house. If the weather was good, we would sit at a table in Mazen’s small courtyard, crowded in by climbing plants and hanging laundry. Other days we would sit inside his one-room flat, surrounded by his vast library: the hundreds of books, journals, plays, and multivolume dictionaries that covered his walls.
Munamnamat Tarikhiya, which is best translated as Historical Miniatures, was the first reading assignment Mazen gave me. Written by Saadallah Wannous, a contemporary Syrian writer, it is a play set in Damascus in 1401, when the armies of the Mongol leader Tamerlane were heading toward the city. The armies have reached as far as Hama, leaving a trail of destruction behind them, and it will be only a matter of days before they arrive in Damascus. The Sultan and his army are absent, having left the city to deal with an uprising in Egypt, and there is panic among the remaining political leaders and religious authorities.
The towers of severed heads in Aleppo, Mazen told me, were a Tamerlane trademark. There was a logic to these massacres; the news of a city’s destruction would soon spread, leaving the wider population terrified into submission. But Tamerlane did not kill everybody in the city. The finest artists and artisans were often spared the slaughter and sent to Samarkand, the imperial capital. There they would set to work decorating Tamerlane’s palaces, painting pictures of his victories and paying tribute to his glory. [Continue reading…]