September 29, 2011

The Angel of Sheikh Sa’eed

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Do you ever wish you could say “thank you” again? Sometimes I do.

I wish I could fly back to Aleppo, Syria’s second largest city. After arriving, I’d pass through customs and catch a cab downtown, to the citadel that rises out of the city like some ancient mountain only crudely hewn by hand of man. I’d disembark there and walk, through the summer’s dry heat or the winter’s chilly rain.

There’s a poor neighborhood about twenty minutes by foot from the citadel, called Qastel al-Harami. It’s well-kept, with a little market where bizarre craftsmen long extinct in the West still ply their trades: cobblers, blacksmiths, tinkerers. But Qastel al-Harami is not our destination. We’ll pass through it, having to cut through the hilltop graveyard with its endless, well-kept blue tombs. There’s a path through the middle of that graveyard. Grey concrete walls rise up on both sides of us, and we walk through this silent, grave-lined corridor.

On the other side, a new neighborhood: the streets unpaved, the cinderblock buildings uniform. Children play on the trash heaps, laughing jumping sliding, digging useless pits earnestly as only children can. We’ve got to weave between the rubble as we slip down an alley; it looks like there’s a road on the other side, maybe a way out of this maze. These narrow alleys are vaguely menacing; foreigners, even those trying to blend in, draw furtive glances. Ahead, a paved road, trucks occasionally rumbling by and trailing smog. If we take a left, maybe we can loop back around to the citadel. It’s a long walk now, and we’re getting tired, but we can’t take a cab because I don’t know the name of our destination, or of the man I want to talk to. But I think I know where to find him, that young man who looked like an old man, treated roughly by time.

Yes, I wish I could go back, even if I had to circumnavigate those rubble piles again, endure those suspicious gazes. I wish I could, because that day, finding myself lost, I met an angel and didn’t realize until he was gone. I’d take that left up the road, walking uphill. I’d pass the garbage heaps rotting in the stale heat, I’d pass the stray cats slinking in the shadows, I’d pass the disused farmland and the rusty railroad tracks. And in the end, I’d arrive at a village of sorts, perched on the slum outskirts of Aleppo: Sheikh Sa’eed.

I didn’t know it was called that at the time, last April. Reaching the top of a hill, I turned about to find my bearings, see how to get back — and was stunned to see that the citadel, from where I had begun my journey, was now on the horizon. A two-hour stroll had carried me from the downtown metropolis of Aleppo to Syria’s deeply impoverished backyard, the cities and villages that linger just out of the public eye. I looked up and down the deserted dirt road — no cops here, not a soul to help the lost foreigner who is deep, deep in over his head.

I took another left and walked into this village, hoping that on the other side might lie a road, a shortcut back to Aleppo, salvation, safety, something. Around the puddles of wastewater, past the blue metal doors of the homes, to the end of the street — and nothing but a fenced-in wasteland. A man emerges from a door, and begins to walk quickly away. I call out to him, “Peace be upon on you and God grant you happiness” — the Arabic greeting to get someone’s attention.

He stops and turns toward me. “And upon you peace, God make you happy” — the traditional reply.

“How do I get back to Aleppo? I’m not from here.”

“Where are you from?”

“America.”

“What are you doing in Sheikh Sa’eed?”

“Just taking a walk.”

He looked at me like I was crazy, and glanced around to see if anyone was watching. He directed me to the main street and told me to catch a microbus; but then, as if on second thought realizing that I might not survive the walk there, he beckoned me to follow him. And then we were off, down the street and around the rubble and puddles of who-knows-what, out of the maze. Reaching the main road, he hailed a passing microbus built to carry nine passengers, but holding 17. He told the driver where to drop me off, then turned and left while I was thanking him. 20 minutes later, I was at back at the citadel, by the grace of a man whose name I will never know, an angel in Sheikh Sa’eed.

Jonathan Panter is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at jpanter@cornellsun.com. The Storyteller appears alternate Fridays this semester.

Original Author: Jonathan Panter