Sometimes I’d submit a section and Henry would wag his finger, shake his head. I don’t think you’re working very hard, he’d say. I don’t think you’ve been listening. I could have blamed an inadequate tongue. I speak English and a smidgen of Spanish. Henry traded off between Arabic and Hebrew. He dreamt in French. I could have confessed that I passed on World History in high school in favor of Ceramics. But then I’d hand over a section and he would slap his forehead in delight. You’ve penetrated my brain, he’d say. It’s like you’re seeing through my eyes. How to know what would resonate? His memories commingled with my research and presumptions and inventions. His narrative, my sieve. His words in my mouth. What was real? What was imagined? Everything. Nothing. In 2014, warring blocs in the Battle of Aleppo merged and parted and reformed. While TV reporters struggled to keep track—the al-Tawhid Brigade, the Salafi jihadists, the al-Nusra Front—I peered over their shoulders. There, the pillar atop which Saint Simeon preached for nearly 40 years. There, the Baron Hotel, where Agatha Christie penned Murder on the Orient Express . I nursed my newborn son and watched palm fronds on the skyline wobble in the wind, the static photos in my books suddenly inspired. Aleppo! I thought. Aleppo was alive. Henry didn’t know about the Holocaust— not until hewas a grownman. Not until he left. He’d heard rumors, whispers in his boyhood, but it seemed impossible. How could six million people perish? By what means? In Syria, muzzled reporters skated over it. Books by local authors excluded it. Henry’s history texts favored Arab nationalism over the Final Solution. What to make, then, of Syria harboring Nazi war criminal Alois Brunner, so-called “architect” of the Final Solution? Just as well his family didn’t know how Brunner repaid his hosts: by sharing the torture tactics he used under Hitler. Some of Henry’s declarations seemed implausible, but I couldn’t know for sure. I was the first one in Aleppo in 40 years
to run away, he told me in one interview. I graduated from college as the best student in all of Syria, he told me in another. These statements might have raised red flags or led me to dismiss other recollections as hyperbolic, if not fantastic. But they didn’t. Maybe it’s because he had an elephantine memory for details about his home city, all of which were verifiable. Or maybe it was because he could summon his 1971 flight with painstaking precision. I can’t tell you too much about his escape—the story is his, not mine—but I can tell you this: it was Hollywoodesque. It involved a Bedouin disguise and a cigarette smuggler. It entailed hiking over mountains and riding in a tractor-trailer beneath rows of shitting sheep. It required aid from a synagogue community in Beirut and secret signals in a strange Lebanese café and an Israeli Navy torpedo boat. Eventually he made safe passage to Haifa and emigrated to the States. This much may seem unlikely, but it’s true. Aleppan Jews had a rich spiritual life. Henry attended a yeshiva—albeit an underground one—and studied with foremost scholars, vestiges of the city’s Jewish roots. His family kept kosher, observed the Sabbath, went to shul. I wish I could say religion bonded us, eclipsed our differences, but Henry and I knew different Judaisms—he, Orthodox Sephardic, I, Reform Ashkenazi. We spoke a few of the same Hebrew phrases but in our respective accents the words didn’t match. Our common holidays were feted with different customs. And while we knew some timeworn songs in common, we sang them to different tunes. What we did share were stories. Moses freeing the Jews from bondage in Egypt. Esther, Queen of Persia, foiling Haman’s plan to annihilate our ancestors. A flood that cleansed the earth of violence, sparing only Noah and his ark. What we shared was faith in tenacity. In resolve. In the olive branch Noah’s dove retrieved from an earth reborn. Miraculously, the Codex didn’t burn. (An act of God?) After al haraek, community leaders picked through the ashes of the Great Synagogue, assembled the Codex’s scattered pages, and re-
hid them. Over a decade later, it was secreted to Israel. Aleppo’s crown now resides in the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum. The poet who narrates Nabokov’s “That in Aleppo Once…” married a woman who doesn’t exist. Because she’s mythic, he must speak of her, he says, as if she’s a character in a story. And yet the woman is so real to himhe is tortured by her memory. How is this possible? Such madness, he fears, is hazardous. If I am not careful, he says, nodding to Othello’s suicide, “it may all end in Aleppo .” In other words, he doesn’t know if he can live in a fantasy. He needs truth to survive. I was sponging a tomato sauce stain off my son’s high chair when I heard the news on CNN: the last Jews in Aleppo had been saved. It was October 2015. I squinted at the screen half-expecting to see the names of Henry’s parents, to see images of the faces I’d assembled on the page. Instead I saw an elderly mother and her two daughters, one of whom would be denied passage into Israel because she’d married a Muslim and converted. Mariam Halabi, 88, would have to leave that daughter behind. The reporter said there was no electricity in the part of Aleppo where Mariam and her Jewish daughter, Sarah, lived. Water was scarce. The women sensed Assad’s army was inching closer. In fact when rebel forces pounded on their door in the middle of the night to transport them to safety, Mariam and Sarah presumed they were about to be arrested—or worse. Their fear was warranted. In the last moments of Aleppo’s battle the following year, when all remaining residents were presumed enemies of Assad, Syrian troops simply charged into civilians’ homes and slaughtered them. Mariam’s r e s c u e mission h a d Take away every hospital in the city. Take away 31,000 Aleppan lives. Remove half the city’s remaining inhabitants— a million, all told— and ten million more from the rest of the country. Sprinkle them like ashes across the globe.
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