been arranged without her knowledge or permission. Her son Yoni in New York had called his local rabbi with concerns about his family, and the rabbi had contacted anti-Assad activist Moti Kahana, who in turn rang his contacts in Syria, who hatched a plan. Two photos from the undertaking filled the screen. In one Mariam was in bed, silver hair disheveled, crooked mouth agape, as though she’d been woken, as if this was the very moment she’d been told it was time to go. In another, she was walking arm-in-arm with men whose faces were blurred out. She looked frail in an oversized blue blazer, a patterned scarf wrapped around her head so that she might pass for a Muslim. She looked forlorn. She was missing teeth. The driver of the getaway car took a circuitous route to the Turkish border to avoid military checkpoints. After a stop in Istanbul, the women made their way to a coastal city north of Tel Aviv. Clearly Mariam needed help, I thought. And surely it was preferable to save one daughter rather than gamble on the lives of both. Wasn’t it? Like some sort of alternate Sophie’s Choice? Aleppo, Halab, Aram Tzovah in the Old Testament. I envisioned the Jewish cemeteries nobody would visit. The pews in which nobody would pray. Sponge. Highchair. I scrubbed until my shoulder ached. The stains refused to dull. Take away the minaret of Aleppo’s Great Mosque, poised for 1,200 years like a finger pointing at the sky. Take away the National Museum and the curators who camped out inside it, shuttling cuneiform tablets into its basement, trying to preserve civilization amidst savagery. Take away the rug stalls and sheep heads and whole slabs of the Citadel: grand steps, fortress walls.
Here’s what happens when you slip inside someone else’s body. When you chant alongside his father on Shabbat. When you eat his mother’s lamb pies and pickled peppers. When the glasses out of which he peers get knocked from his face, and his head—your head—bashed against a wall. Here’s what happens when you assume their nation, their faith: your eyes change. You feel a sudden affinity for the Arabic writing on your neighborhood storefronts. You smile at the Hasidic women pushing strollers past yours on the sidewalk. No one, including you, looks exactly the same. I had fantasized about visiting Aleppo, city into which I imagined my way. When its structures crumbled, when its people cried out, I felt ravaged in a way I suspect others in my circles did not. The destruction felt personal. But what did I really know of Aleppo? What can I say about honeysuckle flowers I never smelled? About a sun whose warmth I never felt on my face? The only Aleppan I ever got to know was Henry. The truth is, I didn’t fall in love with Aleppo. I fell in love with my dreams. There’s a Reuters photo of an al-Qaeda fighter standing erect in an olive grove outside Aleppo. The only skin visible in his head-to-toe black ensemble is a strip over his eyes—dark, with dense brows—and his hands. One of them grips an assault rifle. All around him and behind him are rows of squat green olive trees. The tip of one skinny branch, a crooked finger, pokes his elbow. There are no birds in the photo—perhaps gunfire scared them off—but if I squint hard enough, I can refashion a speck in the sky into a torso and wings. I want to believe it is Noah’s dove, dispatched to see if the earth is drowning or in bloom. What I can’t tell is if he’s flying toward us, or away. --- Courtney Zoffness writes fiction and nonfiction. She won the 2017 Arts & Letters Creative Nonfiction Prize, the 2016 American Literary Review Fiction Prize, and fellowships from the Center for Fiction and The MacDowell Colony. Her work has appeared in dozens of publications. She directs the Creative Writing Program at Drew University. *
million more from the rest of the country. Sprinkle themlike ashes across theglobe.Watch them settle in the nooks: Greece, Germany, Canada. Arizona, Illinois. New York. Hear their wide vowels. Let their soft shhhs quiver in your ears. I called Henry recently. We hadn’t spoken in a decade. I was sad about Syria. I was sad about politics at home. He was pleased by the call—and stunned to hear about my life. I never thought you’d have a family, he said. You seemed like such a rebel. Me? I said. Really? He couldn’t explain why he thought this. Perhaps he thought it rebellious to be a secular Jew? I was in disbelief. How little did he know me? How little did we know each other? He said it broke his heart to see what had happened to his birthplace, that he still thought of Aleppo as the most beautiful city in the world. It is, I wanted to say. It was. Instead I asked what he thought about the political climate. You’re a writer and an Ashkenazi, he said. Of course you hate Trump. You shouldn’t generalize, I replied. I was, after all, a rebel. When you study Talmud, Henry said, you learn the art of deduction. I could tell where this was going and my stomach clenched like a fist. You voted for him, didn’t you, I said. He doesn’t mean everything he says, Henry replied. He just wants to sell newspapers. Heat climbed my neck like a weed, encircled my throat. What about the Muslim ban? I said. Henry’s childhood best friends were Muslim. And wasn’t it a Muslim who risked his life to save Henry when that anti-Semitic mob came calling? Maybe he’ll be good for Israel, Henry said, ignoring my questions. For the economy. Let’s wait and see. But you fled Syria, I persisted, because of intolerance. Don’t you see that you helped elect someone who’s doing the same thing? He muttered something in Hebrew. Or maybe it was Arabic. We’ve been trying and failing to make peace for so long, he said, and petered out. Listen, he said finally. We each have bigotry inside of us. You do, too.
Take away every hospital in the city. Take away 31,000 Aleppan lives. Remove half the city’s remaining inhabitants—a million, all t o l d — a n d ten
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.
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