Aleppo Pepper

Syria 2011 (193)I look into the cupboard and see the jar I want, the half-worn word Aleppo written on it, in my handwriting. The dish I’m making calls for Aleppo pepper, a dried chili pepper used commonly in Middle Eastern cooking. I grab it and think of Aiman, my friend and former guide in Syria, who is from Aleppo, but now lives safely with his family in Turkey. His apartment building, where he took us for cookies and tea one day four years ago, is probably a ruin now. Aleppo has been in the center of the Syrian conflict recently. The Russians are probably shelling it as I cook.

In March 2011 I went to Syria with a group of friends, including my father, just as the so called Arab Spring was beginning to get hot. We went to see antiquities, not war. We began in Aleppo, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. It was there, in the Suq al-Zirb, the central market, that I bought a keffiyeh headscarf, the kind Yasser Arafat used to wear. Although mine was red and white, the Syrian colors, not the Palestinian black and white.

In the center of town loomed the Citadel, a medieval fortress built to protect the city from marauding Christian Crusaders in the 12th Century. After lunch we climbed the hundreds of steps to the top and walked around the formidable structure. One of the many defense features was a hole where the defenders could pour boiling oil down on to potential invaders. Aleppo has known war. Afterwards, as we sat sipping coffee, gazing out at the town below us, our peace was shattered by a group of about 20 school girls who came storming through. When they saw us they started giggling and laughing. “Hello, I love you!” one of the girls shouted, and they all started chanting the mantra. They stopped and had their pictures taken with us. We knew no Arabic and their English seemed limited to love prose, apparently, but we nevertheless made them laugh before they ran off again.

Last week a coordinated attack killed hundreds in Paris, in what is being called the worst act of terrorist violence in French history. The week before two suicide bombers killed 45 people in Beirut. Meanwhile Aleppo continues to burn. Whether violence occurs in Ankara, Bagdad, Paris, Beirut, or a school in our own backyard, we have all become hardened to it, and directly or indirectly, we are all victims of it. We are all Paris; we are all Beirut; we are all Aleppo.

I pour some pepper into my hand, inhaling its sharply pungent smell. I toss a bit on my pasta, giving it a splash of crimson on the white yogurt sauce, the same colors of a Syrian keffiyeh. And I wonder, just as I’m sure my friend Aiman does, when this Syrian crisis will end, and if I’ll ever be able to see Aleppo again.

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