A Peaceful Warzone by Hannah Elkak

During the first 12 hours in Aleppo, we hadn’t seen any war. It was almost as if everything we had seen on TV and the harrowing pictures splashed on front pages were a fabrication. On the street outside the flat, Wissam’s uncle and I waited in his car whilst Wissam ran back home to collect his passport. While we waited for him to come back, I asked if we would need our passports on us at all times during the trip. He responded, “not if you’re with me.”

For the journey to the Citadel, I sat in the front of the car so that I would have the best view of the city. The wide streets that we drove down were not dissimilar from those in any European city. Already, I preferred Aleppo to Beirut because of the sense of familiarity it gave me. However, as the streets narrowed into Old Aleppo, all familiarity disappeared. It was then that the vast and devastating extent of the destruction became obvious.

Houses, businesses, places of worship -- nothing had been left untouched. At the side of the road, a team of builders were working on the restoration of a bombed-out mosque. The stone had been reclaimed from the wreckage and cleaned and would be used in an attempt to re-establish Aleppo’s identity as a place of rich heritage. They were working to make the place brand new but old again.

As we drove further in, I rolled down my window and pulled out my phone to take photographs. A soldier came towards us in protest of my getting snap happy. “Fair enough,” I thought as I questioned my own humanity. What kind of tourist takes pictures of a war zone? Now, though, the emotion that is lost between my notes and my memories is captured in every little pixel of the photographs I took. Looking back is the only thing that can truly take me back to that time and that place.

Round the next corner and along a cobbled street was the Citadel. All around us, buildings had been bombed to the ground. Turned from grandeur to rubble was the Carlton hotel, which had stood inexorably grand even in the shadow of the Citadel. It was the only building that had been entirely destroyed, because it had been blown up from inside underground tunnels. Whilst the other buildings had become skeletal – you could make out what they should have been, but whatever had given them life was now missing – the Carlton hotel was indistinguishable amongst the rocks and rubble.

The Citadel is grand and imposing. It was, for the most part, untouched by the war. Although the rebels had surrounded it, only the regime and its allies had the means for airstrikes and they weren’t about to bomb their own castle. The Citadel is closed to the public, but Wissam’s uncle is well-connected and made a few calls to see if he could get us in.

While we waited, I wandered over to what used to be a mosque. Wissam followed me over and we decided to go in. It was no longer a sacred place, but a shell. The rebels had used this as a place to house snipers during the height of the civil war. Stones had been rearranged to make uncomfortable beds and a labyrinth of rooms. The main room looked out directly to the castle. A perfect spot for any shooter. The human excrement further into the destroyed building suggested that this place was a far cry from being abandoned. There was nobody there, but there had been -- and recently.

A shout from the distance confirmed that we would be going up into the Citadel. The word citadel means ‘little city.’ I didn’t know that before we went, but that’s exactly what it was. With old baths, a royal hall and an amphitheatre, it didn’t take much imagination to transport back to a time when this place would have been alive. Graffiti on the walls left by school kids on a boring excursion was a stark reminder that the people here had been, and are, just like us.

I’d been walking alone for a while, and when I turned around Wissam was nowhere to be found. Tracing my steps back, I found him chatting to Hassan, one of the soldiers on duty. “What are you talking about?” I’d asked. As Wissam started to tell me, Hassan hurriedly shushed him: “please don’t tell her anything!” Outsiders are not unwelcome, but their questions are.

What Hassan had told Wissam was that during the war the Syrian Army had been largely unprepared and under-manned. More soldiers were needed elsewhere, so a team of fewer than 50 had been responsible for securing the Citadel. They had worked tirelessly night and day to create formations that looked far larger than they actually were. A quick survey of the people we knew told us that the trick had worked; in the worst days of the war, to outsiders, it had looked like there were upwards of 1000 soldiers protecting the castle.

This trait is not unique to Arabs, but it I have found it especially prominent in my time in the Arab world. They are masters of creating façades; I once worked in a university whose massive marble library had spiral staircases and large fountains, but not a single book. Outward appearances are everything to Arabs; this is what you are judged on. So many times, I have met friends and family members of my husband who have told me, “you look prettier in real life,” “your lips are very thin, do you know there’s a surgery for that?” and – my personal favourite – “you’ve lost weight, you were much fatter on your wedding day.” This obsession with the aesthetic, however frivolous it may seem, could just have been the very thing that saved the Citadel from what can only be described as the lunatic rebels.


Hannah Elkak is a teacher and aspiring writer from the UK, living in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Hannah dreams of life away from the desert, breathing fresh air and going for long walks. After spending six years in the Middle East, she has a lot to write about it.


  1. Nice post! I love it ��

  2. Superb read! Loved every bit of it.

  3. What an interesting read, thank you for sharing.

  4. Great stuff. Evocative and honest.

  5. Frightening informative brilliant... I love the last bit about thin lips and surgery!!!

  6. wow! this is great!!!

  7. It's a real pleasure to read it. I wonder if you have more stories published somewhere else?


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