Marwan Hisham writes: I first moved to Aleppo 10 years ago. At that time, the city was the world for me: the glorious past and the present, the bitter and the sweet. I attended university in mid-Aleppo’s wealthy neighborhoods. To get there, I took the bus from my apartment in the crowded Al-Myassar, one of Aleppo’s poorest slums. We rode by the ancient gates of Bab Al-Hadid and Bab Al-Nasr, through which the Silk Road once curved. Old Aleppo’s walls had vanished over the years, but its gates survived as if to remind residents of their history: the city may have been destroyed before, by Mongols and by earthquakes, but every time it got up on its feet again.
Aleppo wore its heritage with pride, but beneath its beauty lurked darker contradictions. Aleppo’s western half was a rapidly modernizing playground for the elite. But inhabitants of the city’s east, who had fled their villages to seek better prospects in the city’s outskirts, stayed mired in poverty. While the government labeled these slums agricultural plains, on the ground they were a maze of concrete cells, run by clans of organized criminals who dealt drugs and extracted “taxes.” The government used these clans as enforcers—especially when the revolution’s wind briefly blew on Aleppo in 2011.
During this time, I was a student at Aleppo University. My classmates and I saw the campus transformed by these enforcers and by the Mukhabarat, or the Syrian secret police. They planted informants amongst students and persecuted student protesters. Hundreds would disappear forever into the Mukhabarat’s dungeons. Despite this, students kept challenging the security forces. Revolutionaries across the country nicknamed the school “The Revolution’s University.”
But most of Aleppo regarded the Arab Spring with indifference. When the revolution broke out in earnest later that year, much of the city distanced itself from the turbulence. Demonstrations remained confined mostly to slums like Al-Saladin, Bustan Al-Qasr, and Al-Marijah. Protests were brief, with demonstrators chanting before running from the security forces. [Continue reading…]