“I’m like the fish, I can’t live outside Aleppo.” – Khaled, Last Men in Aleppo
In November 2015 the same night that 120 people were killed in the Paris terrorist attacks 43 people were killed in a double suicide bombing in Beirut, Lebanon. At the time I had just finished rock climbing and when I checked my phone there were messages, facebook security check-ins, and panicked tweets all over my home screen. I lost my breath for a moment. My friends in the US were concerned for my mental health and my French friends were letting me know they were safe. The entire drive back to campus was a blur of WhatsApp, Facebook, and text messages exchanged between friends and family. Things had shaken our world. Things had changed.
A member of the foreign language community at the University of Maryland we all held a sort of vigil; the department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures granted us a space where we could share thoughts, read statements, poetry, and mourn collectively. As a means of coping with the events that affected my life in the US and in France, while paying homage to those mourning in Lebanon, I read from Wajdi Mouawad’s novel Visage retrouvé in French and my friend Chris read my English translation below. In the passage the protagonist Wahib stares out his bedroom window, looking at the bombs fall over Beirut during the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990).
Time no longer goes by the same way it used to. That much is certain.
The bombs fall. I’m sitting on my bed. It’s nighttime. I hear the noise of machine guns. I hear explosions. Nobody is coming. We are used to all of this. I’m alone in my room. My sister is at a cousin’s house, my brother is at a cousin’s house. I call, but no sound leaves my mouth. I get out of bed. I push my bed. I climb on top of the mattress. I open the curtains. I open the windowpanes. The sound invades the room and penetrates my ears, taking over my heart. But my heart beats and I am strong. The strongest. I grab ahold of the shutter handle and spin it. If my mother saw me, she would still say that I am an irresponsible child. It’s stronger than me. I push with all my strength to discover the night and its carnage.
There’s war at my bedroom window.
It’s so beautiful. The buildings collapse. The city brought to its knees. Over there, a tree explodes! And these bombs that fall! Like a painter finishing his canvas with heavy brushstrokes! Mother! I cry, but nobody hears me! Mother! If war is so horrible, why is it so beautiful? So to not give up, I imagine that I’m a warrior. I ride my horse in the moonlight; twirling my sword, I throw myself into the bombs. The shadow of a woman with wooden limbs outlines the distance. I scream out of fear. I’m no longer alone. I’m no longer even at the window. I’m sitting on my bed, between my mother and father, attempting to comfort me.
Time passes, but I no longer know how. (Mouawad 25-26)
Scenes from Last Men in Aleppo, the 2017 documentary about the White Helmets by Feras Fayyad, remind me of Mouawad’s novel. With drones and Russian planes raining down missiles on a city already brought to its knees.
The viewer, I suppose, is in the same position as Wahib who cannot help but look at the sea of horrifically beautiful lights as they rip through the city of Aleppo, Syria. While the visual aspects of the film resemble Wahib’s personal narrative, the film is far from a documentary of juxtaposed images of war and destruction. Even in the devastating space of Aleppo, there is life, humanity, civility, family, and love.
The film follows a number of White Helmets, a civil force of volunteers who help save people from the rubble of fallen buildings and attend to the victims of bombings/missile strikes, including Khaled whose story perhaps best relates to Wahib from Visage retrouvé. In the novel, Wahib leaves Lebanon with his family for Montreal, but the war and his homeland continue to haunt him. Khaled, on the other hand, cannot manage to leave Aleppo. Numerous times in the film he asks people whether they can help his wife and children find safe passage to Turkey, or another neighboring country, in order to escape the Russian airstrikes and Bashar al-Assad’s civilian-targeted attacks.
Even though he wishes to help his family into exile, Khaled cannot imagine leaving Aleppo himself. At one point in the film, he purchases a number of goldfish and builds, along with his fellow volunteers, a pond for them outside of their headquarters. The pond provides a great deal of levity for the men as they enjoy building something together in a world predicated on things being torn down. While they are not sure the fish will survive, Khaled reassures them that the fish will be fine as long as they have water. Here is where Khaled realizes that he, too, is like the fish in a way, he cannot live outside of Aleppo.
Even though Last Men in Aleppo missed the Oscar nod, I still think everyone should watch this documentary. The ongoing bombings, targeting of the White Helmet’s bases, and the recent use chemical weapons in Douma make the case that the work being don in the film is unfinished––the people of Syria are denied the film’s radical humanity. While it is graphic––occasionally there are body parts being recovered from rubble, people both dead and alive being pulled from crumbled buildings, etc.––there is an inextricable humanity to the film and the filmmaking. The camera is not voyeuristic, the White Helmets are not reduced to a monolithic mass of saviors. Instead, the viewer is exposed to the subjectivity of people like Khaled, who live with their families in Aleppo and fight for the right to live humane lives, in spite of it all.