Robert F Worth writes: One morning in mid-December, a group of soldiers banged on the door of a house in eastern Aleppo. A male voice responded from inside: “Who are you?” A soldier answered: “We’re the Syrian Arab Army. It’s O.K., you can come out. They’re all gone.”
The door opened. A middle-aged man appeared. He had a gaunt, distinguished face, but his clothes were threadbare and his teeth looked brown and rotted. At the soldiers’ encouragement, he stepped hesitantly forward into the street. He explained to them, a little apologetically, that he had not crossed his threshold in four and a half years.
The man gazed around for a moment as if baffled, his eyes filling with tears. The regime of President Bashar al-Assad had just recaptured the city after years of bombing and urban warfare that had made Aleppo a global byword for savagery. This frail-looking man had survived at the war’s geographic center entirely alone, an urban Robinson Crusoe, living on stocks of dry food and whatever he could grow in his small inner courtyard. Now, as he stumbled through an alley full of twisted metal and rubble, he saw for the first time that the front lines, marked by a wall of sandbags, were barely 20 yards from his house.
Three months later, in March, he sat with me under the tall, spindly orange tree in his courtyard and described how he barricaded himself in when the fighting started. He goes by the name Abu Sami, and he has the mild, patient manners of a scholar; he taught at Aleppo University before the war. In the early days of the rebel takeover, he said, his nephews used to drop by with fresh bread and meat. But starting in 2013, the shelling grew worse, and he would go six months or more without seeing another human face. There was no water, no electric light; he gathered rainwater in buckets and boiled it and used a small solar panel to charge his phone. He made vinegar from grapes he grew in the courtyard. He treated his illnesses with aloe and other herbs he grew in pots. Once, when a rotten tooth became too painful, he yanked it out with pliers. He cowered by his bed when bombs shook the house to its foundation.
Most of all, he sustained himself by reading. He carried out a stack of books from his bedroom to show me: treatises by Sigmund Freud, novels by Henry Miller, histories of science and psychology and religion and mythology and cooking, a book on radical theater by the American drama critic Robert Brustein. Some were in Russian, a language he learned as a young man. “I read these things so I wouldn’t have to think about politics or current events,” he said. He read plays — Shakespeare and Molière were favorites — and in his solitude, he found that he was able to see the entire drama acted out in his mind, as if it were onstage.
He led me upstairs to see his dusty study, where the walls and ceiling were shredded with dozens of small shrapnel holes that let in fingers of sunlight. He picked up a bomb fragment, rolled it in his palm and laughed. He pointed to the house next door, where his neighbor, a quiet man who kept pigeons on the roof, had lived until a group of rebels arrived, shouting, and dragged him from the door. They brought back his corpse half an hour later.
I asked Abu Sami why he never left. He gave the same answer that so many others gave me: because it was his house. And because day after day, year after year, he kept thinking, Surely this war is about to end. [Continue reading…]
Worth interviews a factory owner, a lawyer, a gay shopkeeper and someone who calls himself O-Assad. That’s likely to produces results that make the rebels look like vermin.
People are not merely categories. As a category, Abu Sami could neatly be slotted in with other academics finding refuge among his books and seclusion — but that would be a dreadfully narrow reading of his story.
Unfortunately, when it comes to Syria or any other issue around which activists are aligned, the only narratives deemed worthy of consideration are those that buttress the activist narrative. Those who impose on themselves this kind of starvation diet might find comfort in the internal coherence of the world they’ve constructed. I, on the other hand, prefer to include more of the world’s many ambiguities.