Filmed and narrated by female Syrian journalist Waad Al-Kateab, the 2019 documentary For Sama followed five years of Waad’s life in war torn Aleppo with Hamza Al-Kateab, her husband who worked as one of the few doctors remained in Aleppo, and Sama, their baby girl who was born and raised in Aleppo during the bloody civil war. Her first person account of daily life in the rebel held Aleppo, and in particular, documentation of how warfare was affecting the innocent children in the city was heartbreaking. For Sama did generate some international attention at least in the film circles. It was critically acclaimed worldwide and won a number of the year’s best documentary award, including the BAFTA and Cannes. The documentary was a visual testimony for Waad to tell her story to her own child Sama, explaining to her what they were fighting for during the Syrian uprising, why they have insisted to stay in Aleppo to operate the only hospital left in the rebel territory, how they have attempted to support each other in the diminishing local community, how they have lived through the Russian and government bombardment in their neighborhood at a regular basis, and how they have witnessed death and desperation day in, day out for five long years. For Sama reminds me of the Syrian children we have encountered during our sojourn in Syria back in 2006. We could never fully comprehend and truly feel how terrible the situations must have been for each of these children during the decade long civil war. Our hearts go out to every one of them and their families, and hope that they can return to Syria and rebuild their homes as soon as situation allows.
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Before hiring a Jordan-bound service taxi from Baramke Station, we wandered in the old city of Damascus one last time. In a narrow alleyway, we saw a group of school boys, all dressed in blue school uniforms, perhaps just finished their morning school. We soon encountered another group of cheerful school children, this time they were all girls. We followed the girls to a popular neighborhood ice-cream parlour. How lucky we were. After the girls picked up their cones, we got ourselves some of the best vanilla ice-cream we had during the trip, and each cone was only 15 cents USD. Another group of school children arrived at the parlour as we were about to walk off.
At Baramke, we hired a taxi to make the trip to Amman of Jordan. We picked a driver in his fifties. Wearing a grey blazer despite the heat, the driver drove between the Syrian and Jordanian capital regularly. It didn’t take us much time to go through the passport controls at both the Syrian and Jordanian sides. After 1.5 hour we were already arriving at downtown Amman. We dropped off our bags at Sydney Hotel, and headed off immediately to look for the guidebook-acclaimed Palestinian juice stand for a cup of refreshment.
Before leaving Damascus, we wandered in the old city one last time.
Houses that have stood for centuries might have gone forever after the civil war, especially for cities like Aleppo where even the UNESCO World Heritage listed old city was bombarded by explosives, poisonous chemicals, and missiles from Russian warplanes.
It is always the most innocent and vulnerable people would suffer the most during wartime. Seeing the deaths of families, the fleeing of school friends, and the destruction of neighborhoods, and living along with the deafening noises of gunfire and explosives everyday is just too much for the children to bear.
We followed a group of school girls to a neighborhood ice-cream parlour.
We were curious about the school children and so were they on us.
Scenes of cheerful school children buying ice-cream from a neighborhood ice-cream parlour was perhaps a regular daily scene in prewar Syria. Now it may only happen in a handful of government strongholds.
For us, the ice-cream was delicious and affordable, but the most essential thing was the joy that it brought to everyone of us, school children and curious travelers alike, at that particular moment of spring 2006, in one of the narrow alleys of old Damascus.
No fancy shop decoration or special ice-cream flavours, just simple vanilla ice-cream has brought out the purest happiness from the Syrian children.
Every time seeing news of devastating destruction and haunting human sufferings in Syria would make me worry about all the children that we met during our visit.
Despite our brief encounter might only involve exchanges of eye contacts and smiles, these simple smiling faces represent the most unforgettable and precious imagery of my Middle East trip.
I sincerely wish that one day all Syrian children may safely return to their homeland, and have the chance, resources and freedom to rebuild a better country for their next generation.
A looming sense of loss comes to my heart when writing about a Syria that no longer exists. Revisiting the brief travel experience in Syria consolidates my feelings and fragmented memories of places that we visited and faces that we encountered. It was sad to revisit the photos of Syria, knowing that much of the cultural heritage we visited have been destroyed and people we met have gone through a painful decade. Nonetheless, we thought it would be a valuable thing to share on our blog a little account of the prewar Syria, when the Middle Eastern nation was a fascinating country to visit as a backpacker, despite it was labelled by George W. Bush as part of the so called “Axis of Evil”. It was the least touristy country among the nations we visited in the region, and had a great wealth of cultural heritage and friendly people. Our Syrian story began in Aleppo, the largest city in Syria before the war and one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world.
We arrived at Antakya of Hatay near the Turkish and Syrian border at 08:00. Immediately we hopped onto another bus for Aleppo in Syria. Going through the customs and passport control was easier than I thought. Once crossed the border into Syria, I felt that I had finally arrived in the authentic Middle East, a desert nation still out of reach from global commercialism. Aleppo is about 100km east of Antakya. The city was noisy, dusty, crowded, and unique. A few minutes of rest at Spring Flower Hostel was enough for us to revive our energy. We walked to the Old City towards the famous Great Umayyad Mosque of Aleppo, the 8th century World Heritage Site that is the largest and oldest mosque in Aleppo. Before visiting the mosque, we picked up some kebabs on the way. At the gate of the mosque, we took off our shoes and entered the marble courtyard, where pilgrims and tourist agents mingled. The beautiful courtyard had two roofed ablution fountains. Beyond one side of the surrounding colonnade stood the famous minaret. Built in 1090, the minaret had been the icon of the mosque for more than 900 years. In April 2013, the news of the minaret being reduced to rubble shocked the world. Apart from the minaret, much of the mosque was also badly damaged. The most iconic religious monument of Aleppo was turned into a bloody battlefield, and now a large restoration site closed to visitors.
The 923 year old minaret was one of the most notable cultural heritage casualties from the Syrian Civil War.
The 45m minaret was cladded with pinkish beige stone and Arabic inscriptions. Now it only exists in old photographs and collective memories of Syrians.
With two ablution fountains and marble stone flooring, the beautiful courtyard was badly damaged during the war. Both the rebels and government blamed each other for the destruction.
Despite the heat, the courtyard was a lovely place to hang around for people watching. According to online news, restoration work has begun in 2017 to repair the World Heritage Site.
Inside the mosque, we found the coffin of Zechariah, the father of St. John the Baptist.
Outside the mosque, local shoppers were busy chatting with vendors. Such bygone vibrant scenes may take a long time to recover.
The street right outside the mosque was lined up with a series of well-preserved traditional houses.
In the evening, the main street was a great place to take in the lively atmosphere.
The timber mashrabiya of houses around the mosque were quite spectacular.
The busy shops around the famous mosque may not exist anymore.
We had a brief encounter with a young cheerful vendor outside the mosque. It is sad to imagine the fate of all the Aleppo citizens we met.
According to World Vision, 5.6 million Syrians have become refugees, another 6.2 million have been displaced, and nearly 12 million need humanitarian assistance, and more than half are children.
A peaceful evening outside the Great Mosque of Aleppo has become a memorable image in my heart. A battlefield for almost ten years, Aleppo would take a long time to return to the former liveliness.
The majestic minaret of Great Umayyad Mosque fell amid heavy fighting between rebels in the mosque and the Syrian army 200m away. The destruction of the minaret was a tragedy for all.
After 1300 years as the religious centre of Aleppo, the Great Umayyad Mosque is currently closed for restoration. Whether it could return to its former glory remains to be seen.
Originally a Greek agora during Hellenistic period, and then the garden of the Christian Cathedral of Saint Helena in Roman era, the Great Umayyad Mosque was erected in the 8th century during first Islamic Dynasty. 1300 years on, no one can be certain how its story will continue to unfold.