The immense dignity in a shelf of crockery

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If there is an obverse to the bleakness of the canyons of rubble in Syria’s Aleppo, we can find it in the uncanny resilience of the refugee kitchens  (Cosmopolis column in the Hindu Business Line [published 5 November, 2016)

Last year, Liz Sly, the Beirut bureau chief of The Washington Post, spent some time in Syrian refugee camps. She posted pictures on her Instagram account from the inside. There was a small school with blue plastic walls where children sat around scraps of paper and a handful of pens. A father held his baby — who had been delivered in the camp, a refugee from birth — under the sagging cardboard roof of his shack. I was moved by a detail common to all Sly’s pictures of refugee shelters: even as rain leaked through the roofs and as the tarpaulin walls let in the cold, families kept their dishes and cups perfectly washed and stacked, their utensils neatly arranged, their jars of salt and spices in orderly rows. Sly noted that this tidiness was a feature of all the refugee lodgings she had visited. Forced from their homes into the powerless purgatory of the refugee camps, Syrians still refused to surrender to defeat. The home, whatever it may be, is a battleground as well, where we wage our little wars against the disarray of the world outside. There can be immense dignity in a shelf of crockery.

I recall these images when seeing — as we all have in recent months — pictures of the devastation in Aleppo, completely smashed by shelling and bombing. Drone footage emerged from Aleppo in September that showed the extent of the destruction in what was once Syria’s biggest and most bustling city. It is now a grey, almost lunar landscape. Brackish green ponds have formed in bomb craters. Meadows of blasted masonry stretch alongside a cemetery. All the windows seem blown out in what buildings remain, leaving the structures lidless and haunted. Some buildings are partially collapsed like men slumped to their knees. Others remain standing somehow, so gutted and stripped to their skeletons of beams and knotted wires that they look like somebody forgot to finish building them in the first place.

The danger in dwelling on the architectural carnage of Aleppo is that it abstracts the nature of human loss in the city. It is a lifeless scene, awful in the extent of its horror. If there is an obverse to the bleakness of these canyons of rubble, we can find it in the uncanny resilience of the refugee kitchen, the insistence that a home must survive even when it is hardly a home at all.

That struggle for dignity in a refugee tent is an attempt in miniature to salvage what has been blown to bits on a vast scale in places like Aleppo. It is a reminder of the banal bravery of a home in a time of war. I find it chilling to survey neighbourhoods crushed to the ground and to imagine how many kitchens, how many well-worn stoves, how many plates and cups that have been used and washed by generations are now just more indifferent debris — all those lives and their traces pounded to dust. And it’s even more chilling to think that upwards of 250,000 people persevere in their war-zone of a city, still trying to maintain the shelter of their homes against a brutal world.

In the spring, I presented a radio series on the BBC called Museum of Lost Objects. We picked 10 ancient sites or artefacts that had been destroyed or looted during the recent upheavals in Iraq and Syria, and “reconstructed” them through interviews with Syrians and Iraqis who could narrate their significance in personal stories. One of the objects was the minaret of the Umayyad mosque in Aleppo, an elegant 1,000-year-old tower that was toppled during fighting between the Syrian regime and rebels. It was iconic in the landscape of the city and evocative of its history, meaningful to many modern Aleppenes. I was surprised to learn that the mosque had been destroyed before; in 1260, an alliance of Mongols, European crusaders, and Armenians sacked the city and razed the great mosque to the ground.

Aleppo is no stranger to war. It is one of the oldest cities on earth and has been fought over by countless warlords and emperors. The 12th-century Arab traveller Ibn Jubayr was struck by its contested history. “How many battles has it provoked, and how many white blades have been drawn against it?” he wrote. Despite the ambitions of various conquerors, he felt that there was some permanent spirit sustaining the city. “The town is old as eternity yet new although it has never ceased to be… Oh city of wonder! It stays, but its kings depart; they perish but its ruin is not yet decreed.”

I hope that Aleppo’s ruin (and Syria’s) is not yet decreed. Perhaps a hundred years from now (or maybe just decades), when the city has long recovered from this trauma, we will recall this period of devastation abstractly, in the same way that we read about the grisly slaughter of Aleppo’s Muslims and Jews in 1260 as but a footnote to the city’s transfer between dynasties.

The loss of human life seems less horrible, less meaningful to us as events recede into the past. That is a tendency we must resist. As Ibn Jubayr noticed, a city isn’t defined by its rulers, but by the striving of its people. The glory of palaces is nothing against the humble order of a kitchen.

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