Nihad Sirees, author of the PEN award-winning The Silence and the Roar, writes for PEN Atlas about his memories of growing up in Aleppo, Syria, and the way his sensual memories of the past now struggle with the violence and horror of the present

Here in Rhode Island, I lie in bed at night where lately sleep does not come easily. The news coming from my home city of Aleppo has started to wear out my nerves. The war continues there, and from this faraway place, the war seems to me even more fierce and more destructive. I keep tossing and turning in my bed, tired from chasing sleep while alone. Huda, my late wife, died six years ago, and my worries over my daughter and my son in Aleppo are growing every day. I think of my daughter’s pleas for me to leave Syria, because the regime is killing the intellectuals in the country, and putting the blame on the opposition. Since I left Aleppo, the violence has intensified and became more brutal. No city or village in Syria has been spared from the destruction machine of the regime. Now the war is going on in the oldest city of the world and the most exotic city in history.

The entrance to the Aleppo Citadel has been shelled, and part of its wall was damaged. This 1,000 year old citadel sits on top of a hill in the middle of the city which grew and extended around it. It is a place where the secrets of history are kept. As children, we used to climb the hill surrounding the citadel on which it sits, looking over the city like a vulture protecting it from the mice of darkness. At that time, we were eager to discover some of the citadel’s secrets. The elders used to tell us there was a deep subterranean passage, leading far from the citadel to parts of the city, used to supply foodstuffs to the citadel when it was surrounded by invaders so that the defenders would be able to resist them. The Aleppans used to move into the citadel at times of attacks, and shut its gates. This passage was critical at both times of war and peace, when the ruler of the city would run away if the population rose against him. It was also used by lovers who used to go discreetly in and out. But we could not find the passage, though everyone knew it existed.

I remember one day they started to demolish an old house to construct a new building on the site. Excavations were going on when a dark passage was unearthed. It was part of a canal that ran under the city homes, just like the subway tunnels in some cities now. The vaulted ceiling was built with stones, while water flowed from its source and spread throughout the ancient city.

That was a very important moment in my life as a boy. My friends and I went down to examine it. It was a real world of magic and at the same time scary. We waded in the water that came from Hilan, a village to the north of the city. In every home, there was a well connected with the canal running under the ground.

In my novel The North Wind I wrote about how men used to hide in their homes from the eyes of the Ottoman Recruiting Units which were looking for young men to draft to fight in the First World War. When these young men felt the danger of these units which raided their homes, they went into the wells to hide in the canal, where their neighbors supplied them with food by ropes. It was also used by burglars and lovers. They would sneak out of the well at night to carry out their business, and then go down again into this ramified world that could take them to wherever they wanted.

The alleys in the ancient city, some of which are no more than 1.5 meters wide, diverged irregularly. Rooftops are attached and linked to each other. Since they are flat, it is easy to walk across them, moving from one rooftop to another. It is very suitable for burglars and those running away from the police, or from their parents or from jealous spouses. I myself used to move around these rooftops, to enjoy watching other people’s homes from the top. When I was a boy, before I was a teenager, there was a house where I saw a pretty young woman lying on a mattress beside a fountain in the courtyard. She used to wear bright, colored, see-through dresses. She would toss around waiting for someone, who never came. Was the world empty of men? I wondered.

Lately I heard that the fighting between the government troops and the opposition was taking place in the old city, which has resulted in the destruction of many houses there. This news scared me to death, and brought to mind my first visit to the Bahsita quarter in the heart of the old city. Bahsita is a place every young man must have visited at least once in his lifetime, either to have sex with a woman, or just to watch the women there. It is full of narrow alleys and houses like the traditional houses in the old city (I have described this quarter in my novel The Pastoral Comedy). In the evening the quarter becomes crowded with both visitors and spectators, while women sit in the courtyard of their houses, or in front of their houses in the narrow alleys wearing the scantiest clothes to expose their bodies to attract customers. There were also street vendors who sell sandwiches and tonic drinks for the men to restore their energy after they had sex, which was in most cases quick, but enjoyable. In this place I lost my innocence when I was sixteen years old. An experienced friend took me there to visit a woman who was in her forties, who, he said, understands young virgin boys, and helps them with patience. Indeed, he was right, because she understood my awkwardness at that time.

News of the battles going on in Aleppo’s ancient souk, and the fires that burnt a large number of shops there, made me think about the souk which is called al Medina, that is “the city” and considered the backbone of our lives. Al Medina is a network of narrow streets and alleys lined with shops on both sides, even though the alley is two meters wide or even less. For each trade there is a market, and discovering these thirty seven souks is an exciting tour I used to take before the holidays. These alleys are eight kilometers long and occupy seven hectares, all covered with vaulted roofs, and lit by the rays of sun through small windows at the top. More than twenty khans (caravanserais) occupy a part of these souks, decorated with striking architectural designs. These khans in the past were commercial centers receiving the convoys shuttling the Silk Road. Today they are very important commercial and industrial centres in the Syrian economy.

Discovering these souks filled me with joy in my boyhood. In every step I discovered a new and surprising secret, in particular, the Niswan Souk “the women’s market” which specialises in selling women’s stuff, from bridal dresses, to underwear and lingerie. Usually, the souk is crowded with women, and with one visit to the souk, one can discover what women wear for their husbands to make them continue to love them. In a shop window I once saw a two-piece underwear set which flashes with a light when touched by the husband. I wanted to discover the secrets of the world of these souks and khans. So I wrote the television series The Silk Market which observed and recorded the social, economic and political life in the 1950s to the early 1960s, in a period full of political turmoil. The series was filmed in the actual places, the traditional old souks, khans, alleys and homes in Aleppo, where the battles are taking place now, and where the government forces are bombing them using warplanes and artillery… Oh, my God!

It is not only the stones dating back to antiquity, but also the inhabitants of the city that keep its secrets. Foreign travelers and writers could not uncover the secrets of this city. They presented to their readers the surface image only, while the inner image remained uncovered, in particular the community of Allepian women, and their relationships. Specifically, a hidden phenomenon called the ‘intimate girls’.

Every Aleppian knew or had once heard about those intimate girls in the society of Aleppo. In order to understand the secret of this long tradition we should know that the local society used to separate women from men. However, women developed relationships with the same sex, even on an emotional level, for they were seeking a passionate and intimate social daily relationship. Men prevented their wives and daughters from mingling with men, but they allowed relationships with other women. Such a relationship developed sometimes, to its utmost limits, with men’s consent, or at least with their silence. We know the importance of music in the city. You can hardly find a home in the city without the musical instrument, the Oud, and some parents allowed their daughters to learn music and singing in order to have parties at home. Women used their musical skills in their daily meetings, especially, the intimate girls who used to meet on a certain day of the week. There, every woman would sit beside her girl friend, whom she calls Abla. They would sit very close to each other, wearing revealing clothes, singing and flirting. They would address each other with love lyrics, and dance together, caressing and kissing.

A long time ago I heard about these relationships and the intimate girls. I decided to write about those women so I wrote a novel A State of Passion. When I began my journey of study and research for the novel I found the only thing written about this in past literature was a few lines in the Comparable Aleppo Encyclopedia which addressed the linguistic, cultural and social aspects of the city. Therefore I set out to interview dozens of the well-known intimate girls, their acquaintances or relatives. The result was amazing. I discovered a wondrous hidden world of women’s relations, whose mainstay was friendship, love, intimacy, music, singing and dancing. It was a world of love, jealousy, betrayal, touching, and most often a world of sexual intimacy. A world where women with traditional lives and a husband away from home 12 hours a day found pleasure and emotional life without cheating on him with another man

I hope that the words I used to describe my city, Aleppo, do not become some kind of obituary for a dead city.

About the Author

Nihad Sirees is a civil engineer who lives in Aleppo. His novels include Cancer, The North Winds, A Case of Passion, and Noise and Silence. Of his many television dramas the most widely acclaimed, Silk Market, set in Aleppo during the political turmoil of the 1950s, was shown throughout the Middle East, in Germany and in Australia. His latest series, Al Khait Al Abiadh (‘The First Gleam of Dawn’), provides a frank depiction of the country’s government-controlled media. After increasing surveillance and pressure from the Syrian government, Nihad Sirees left Syria in 2012. He is currently at Brown University in the US on an International Writers Fellowship until the end of February 2013.

Additional Information

Nihad Sirees is touring the UK this month. He is appearing with Golan Haji and Robin Yassin-Kassab at the Southbank Centre on the 29th of January. To find out more information please follow this link.

He is also appearing at Waterstones Piccadilly on the 30th of January, alongside Malu Halasa and Ghalia Kabbani. To find out more about this event please follow this link.

The Silence and the Roar is translated by Max Weiss.

Nihad Sirees is interviewed by his UK publisher Pushkin Press below: