x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

The walls of the past are broken down by this new Arab unity

After decades of living in the shadow of walls – both physical and metaphorical – Syrians have decided to tear them down. Why hasn't my beloved Aleppo followed suit?

Out of all the pieces of me, those little bricks that build what we call identity, the one I can never change is being from Aleppo. Although I no longer live in the ancient Syrian city, it is the place I call home.

Growing up, my origins were a source of extreme pride. As my father never ceases to remind me, we are not only from Aleppo, but we are from dakhel al sour, "inside the walls", of the old city. Our ancestral neighbourhood is indicated on my Syrian identity card, although neither I nor even my father ever lived there. Being from inside the walls is not something you can acquire in a generation or two; you are born that way.

The privileged families from "inside the walls" eventually moved westward, establishing affluent neighbourhoods outside the city gates and forming the foundation of Aleppo's elite class: Muslims and Christians, liberals and conservatives, a mix of professionals, businessmen, and factory owners. The indisputable agreement of all in this diverse group: there is no place on earth better than Aleppo.

Over the last 41 years, under the Assad regime, the city lived a story of famine followed by feast. The once-defiant Aleppo was the base of the late 1970s revolt. Although Hama suffered the 1982 massacre that violently quelled the dissent, Hafez Al Assad punished Aleppo as well, imprisoning thousands and economically crippling the city for the next 20 years. Bashar Al Assad eased his father's stranglehold and the city's economy flourished. The younger Al Assad executed the perfect recipe for a city famous for its cuisine: a recipe for complete control. The regime bought, threatened and enforced absolute loyalty. Today, that loyalty translates to deafening silence.

On March 15, Syria began to rise, except Aleppo. Early on, when the Arab Spring was still actually in the spring, I anxiously hoped every Friday that my city would also stand against the tyrant and for justice. After weeks of disappointment, I looked away.

Instead, I watched as Syrians from everywhere else took to the streets, bare-chested, to face one of the most brutal regimes in the region. They came from the cities, towns and villages, eventually even from the university and less affluent neighbourhoods of Aleppo itself.

I watched, inspired and ashamed. The YouTube clips - of protesters facing tanks, tortured bodies, mass funerals and murdered children - stripped away my pride until there was none left. While fearless Syrians chanted under the threat of bullets, the rich slept, partied, counted their money and ate kibbeh.

An Aleppian friend messaged me in a moment of despair: "What do I do now?" I had no words to comfort him; I was tormented by the same question.

I looked beyond the Syrian borders, across the tumultuous landscape of the Arab world. I may no longer recognise the people of my city, but I recognised millions on the streets of other cities. Our differences disappeared and our boundaries were erased, as our narratives melded into one. It was an unspoken bolt of recognition we saw in each other's eyes, and read in each other's words. A strong, undeniable feeling: I know you.

The blood of our people continues to spill on to the streets of our countries. A dark cloud of uncertainty hovers over us, although it is much lighter than the cloud of oppression. A few more dictators still rule, but we have changed as a people. Maybe this is what pan-Arabism really meant. Not the utopian dream of borderless Arab unity with one capital and one ultra-dictator to rule us all. And not the belief that what united us was merely our language, culture, geography and resources.

What really united us was our refusal of humiliation and our demand for liberty and justice. What united us was our humanity.

Pan-Arabism is watching Lebanon, Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, Syria, Iraq and always Palestine, united in that feeling: we know you.

What we were had nothing to do with where we were from, but everything to do with recognising the strength of our will to live.

I will always be from that northern X on the map of Syria. I will always be the daughter of Aleppo. When I visit the cobblestone alleys of the old city again, I will imagine the laurel-scented courtyard of the house I have never entered. I will imagine the secret meetings my great-grandfather and grandfather held with the revolutionaries of their time, plotting to overthrow the Ottomans, and later, the French. One day, I will take my children there, but tell them there is nothing here that defines them. We are from a place unburdened by walls, the stone or the metaphorical.

One mid-December night last year, although I didn't know it yet, I went to bed Aleppine and isolated, and woke up, after a Tunisian man named Bouazizi had freed himself from oppression and humiliation. He had threatened: "If you don't see me, I will burn myself." His ultimate sacrifice posed a haunting question to the rest of us: Do you know me? And we did, seeing ourselves within the flames of his burning body.

This is the true meaning of the Arab Spring, the Arab Awakening. After decades of living in the shadow of walls - walls we thought would never shift, walls we built ourselves and walls that were built for us, those prisons of fear, exclusion, shame and doubt - we decided to tear them down with our voices, topple them with our determination and destroy them with our blood.

One day I woke up. Not only did I know millions, I finally knew myself.


Amal Hanano is the pseudonym of a Syrian American writer who has published a series of articles on the Syrian revolution in Jadaliyya