Google-Mapping a Syrian Childhood
Beth BakerI load the map of Aleppo and it materializes on my screen, pixellated at first, then resolving into a sprawling city webbed with streets. I zoom in and I’m rushing down toward the Syrian city of my childhood, falling from above at a great speed through vast distances of time and memory.
“What part of town did we live in?” I ask, cradling my cell phone against my shoulder as my mouse wanders along the wide highways transecting the city. My Dad and I recently discovered Google Earth as a means of taking a virtual walk down memory lane together. The streets seem so innocuous on the computer screen, though daily news reports suggest otherwise. On the internet, BBC News tells me that people are dying in the streets. And here are those same streets, sun falling across them and casting shadows. The streets in the Google-Earth images are empty and as static as my memory of them. Aleppo, to my eight-year-old self, had palm trees lining the median, herds of sheep dusty and bleating in the streets, rose water sticky on my fingers, and was crowded with characters both real and imagined.
“New Aleppo, I think,” Dad says after a long pause, his voice distracted. I can picture him hunched over the computer in the sun room in Minnesota, his nose scrunched and red as he squints through his glasses at the screen. He and I both have trouble focusing on more than one task at once, and here we are, trying to exist in Minnesota and Montana and Syria, in the past and present, in the real and virtual. It is dizzying. I look up from the screen to clear my head.Outside my window in western Montana, maple leaves are just tinged with red. The hills around town are bare and golden. I haven’t been back to Aleppo in over twenty years. I wonder what I’ve forgotten or misinterpreted, and what I never understood as a child. I hold on to a few thin sureties, like the smell of the Russian olive tree in our Syrian backyard, the pollen sweet and musky and the way it dusted my fingers if I touched the leathery leaves. Or the silver bangles that are now too small to fit my wrists, purchased after much begging in a souk that is now destroyed. “Where in New Aleppo was our house?” I ask Dad, remembering the name from a BBC article about clashes between government forces and rebels who were trying to take the city.
“No, no, I forgot. We lived north of New Aleppo. North and west,” Dad says, revising his directions as he reacquaints himself with the city. Directions are complicated by the fact that the Google-Earth map is half in Arabic, half in English. We both have to stop from time to time and sound out the Arabic letters, search our memories for recognition.
Dad and I have the Middle East bug. He caught it when he went to Lebanon and Jordan during college, then returned after he graduated to spend several years there as a missionary. I was the oldest of my siblings when we lived in Syria, and perhaps for that reason the place went the deepest with me. My memories of Syria are strong, and I have longed to return. Though I studied abroad in Egypt, and after I graduated from college, moved to the Occupied Palestinian Territories for two and a half years, I haven’t been able to get back to Aleppo. The closest I’ve gotten is to Damascus. And these days, even that is too dangerous. I must be satisfied with this screen, this map, which I mine for familiarity. Today I recognize a round shape in the center of town which can only be one thing. The Citadel. Dad has found it too.
“If you zoom in on the Citadel, you can see a Syrian flag around the walls,” Dad says.
I click my mouse, edge closer to the circle, and watch as the sloping ramparts of the ancient castle come into focus. Yes, there is the flag, a long ribbon of white, red, and black circling the walls, with the occasional double stars. I feel like I am an intruder, invading the privacy of this place, and yet I’m eager for more. It makes sense to me that the software for this program was developed by a CIA-funded company. It also makes sense why so many people besides militaries and spy agencies are fascinated by it – there have been over a billion downloads of the program. It is a shift in perspective, this looking at earth from a different angle, from above, via a vast patch-worked array of images. I wonder about the politics of Google-Earth, about some of the more private countries, who may wish to keep certain of their activities covered up from the satellite camera’s all-seeing eye. I wonder that so much detail is available in a time when national security is all-important.
There is something about the shape of the buildings, the shadows that fall over the Citadel’s walls, the palm trees in lines down the streets that makes my heart ache. To the south of the Citadel, a building has a domed roof that seems familiar, and I wonder, what is familiar about it? Is it the actual building, or is it the domed shape of the roof, a style of architecture that can be seen in most countries in the Middle East? Do I really recognize this one particular building from Syria, 20 years ago? Or is it familiar from Egypt, ten years ago? Or perhaps from Palestine, five years ago? It is hard to dissect memory, to tease apart the layers and locate the origin of recognition.How close to Aleppo can you get with Google Earth? I drag the lever closer to the plus sign, and the image tips toward me, as if I am in a swan dive straight down to the roof tops. They blur, details indistinct, much like memory, and so I rush to fill in the details, cross-hatch my own stories onto this place.
This hazy street here, it looks narrow and dirty, like the one I’m conjuring from my childhood. The street could be greasy with motor oil and the built up burnt ash of centuries, like the one I remember, walking down with Mom on our way to buy chickens. I don’t remember what shops we’d have passed, but having lived in two large Middle Eastern cities since Aleppo, I can fill in the details that Google has blurred. The fish shop, with scaly effluence running in redolent streams to the gutter, cats lurking in the shadows by the garbage. The spice shop, with cones of golden turmeric and russet sumac piled high, the shopkeeper sitting behind the spices with his neatly trimmed mustache and his white skull cap. And ah yes, the poultry shop. Cages of chickens line the shop inside and out. Birds huddle and flap, two or three to a cage, the pens made of wooden spindles that look ramshackle and easy to break. Mom points to the bird she wants, bright eyed and healthy, and I don’t understand what is happening until the shop keeper reaches into the cage and grabs the chicken by the neck and walks with it flapping and squawking to the white marble counter top at the back of the shop. Places both hands around the chickens’ neck and breaks it with a quick twist of his hands. I huddle into Mom’s skirts as the shop keeper’s laugh echoes up and down the street and up to me, staring at the street through my computer screen.
I zoom back out, head north and east to see if I can find home. The roof tops become crisper, white and dark squares and tilted shapes, and the indistinct scrabble of tree leaves. The photo must have been taken in the summer or perhaps fall, when the grapes are in season. I don’t recognize street names or place names, and this makes me think. What hold do I have on this city, what kind of belonging can I claim, other than a scattering of memories, an occasional painful tug at my heart, and a longing that I can’t erase?
Is it unrealistic to think that I will be able to find home, after 20 years away? We lived on the outskirts of the city. Aleppo’s boundaries have surely shifted and grown. The unfinished building across from our apartment is probably done now; the Bedouin no longer herd their sheep past our gates to shrubby vacant lots. I search more for a sense of recognition than any real understanding of where we lived. We look for home, Dad and I, but in the end, we don’t find it. I am outside the city limits, trekking virtually above squares of brown earth dotted with trees before I give up. Nothing is familiar.
I scroll back into the city, and flit over a mosque, its spiked minarets tilted as I zoom past, the domes of the mosque green, and I remember a thousand memories of muezzins calling the faithful to prayer, men hurrying to perform the obligatory ablutions before standing in long lines and prostrating, the hush of an entire city fallen quiet, waiting. This mosaic of memory bolsters me, though I am not a Muslim and don’t know exactly what I believe about God.This Google-mapping, though, seems to be in some ways akin to faith. Another reality exists just out of sight beyond the screen, the tingling breathing touchable city erased behind bland indistinct images. No whiff of smoke on the air, no seethe of gunfire in the distance, no people to inhabit the place.
Some people Google-map to find out where to go. Dad and I, though, Google-map to find where we have been. It is an uneasy stand-in for our actual memories, or for going to a place. But when a place is off-limits, as Syria is to us now, for the forseeable future, we exiles take what we can get. We stare at screens, and try to reconstruct previous lives. It is a dangerous past-time – those frozen shadows and patches of light, they might take the place of other earlier memories and images. Superimposing the virtual over the actual, lines become blurred.
It is a strange thing; we Google-map to remember our past lives, but as we do so, these newer images take the place of our twenty-year-old memories. Other newer images compete, these days, with the tightly held memories of my Syrian childhood. Handsome, wild-looking rebel gunmen with hard eyes and neat beards, who could perhaps be my childhood schoolmates, overlap with memories of Hussein, the first boy I kissed, with his sweet dimples and brown eyes. Queues for bread in the street could be the street I ran down outside our apartment, leaping over tiny shrubs, just to see how high I could jump. Bombed and blackened souks. Tiny tarnished silver bangles. All these are real, all exist at once, layers upon layers of memories and the present and the unwritten future, all hover together above the dim empty streets.