Alleyways of Trust
A photo of the citadel in the ancient city of Aleppo from the turn of the 19th century. The building was destroyed in 2010 and reopened to the public in 2018 (public domain)

Alleyways of Trust

The Aleppo of Old
Paulina Wilk
time 13 minutes

Aleppo used to be an intricate tapestry of chatter, crowds, shaded courtyards, temples and baths, history and the present. In a word: a community. A few years ago, its markets turned into trenches and its gardens into graveyards. Nonetheless, in one of the longest-inhabited places in the world, hope never dies.

Midday, boiling hot. My friends and I get off the bus on swollen legs. We’ve just made a week-long land journey from Poland via Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria, and Turkey all the way to the Syrian border, where we will now spend long hours waiting for an entry stamp, under the piercing gaze of portraits of Hafez al-Assad and his son Bashar. It’s summer 2001; Assad senior died the previous summer and his son assumed power. We understand little about this, maybe only that we’re about to enter a country in which half of the world’s websites are inaccessible and every waiter can be an agent of the regime.

Aleppo welcomes us with hubbub and dust. But its inhabitants are paragons of friendliness. Vendors of sweet coffee, as well as self-appointed guides and drivers, are all hospitable and curious. They pile on the questions, offers, invitations to talk in French—they’re so glad to have someone with whom they can converse in the language they learned at high school, but use rarely. No, it’s not about money. In Syria—at that moment, I was certain of this—we’re welcomed by the joy of encountering newcomers, although ultimately we don’t represent anything promising. Just three female students and one guy, a little older, ginger-haired.

Around the Clock

We sleep the cheapest way—on the roof of a little hotel somewhere in the heart of the old city. We play backgammon and smoke the hookah with some Syrians until late at night; below the city rustles on, working and busy at all hours. We doze off, woken up again and again by the noise of store shutters (some businesses are closing, some are opening), laughter from cafés, the roar of engines, and the shouts of men unloading trucks full of tires in the dark. Aleppo never sleeps. In order to stock its bazaars, dispatch sacks of wheat and oats, receive spices, send off fabrics, fruit, and vegetables, one needs to work all the time. Even on the brink of the new


You’ve reached your free article’s limit this month. You can get unlimited access to all our articles and audio content with our digital subscription. If you have an active subscription, please log in.


Also read:

An Open Home, A Wandering Home
Illustration by Joanna Grochocka
Dreams and Visions

An Open Home, A Wandering Home

Living in Poverty
Paulina Wilk

It might have no walls, yet buzzes with life. Or the other way round, protecting its lethargic innards with a solid exterior. How do the poorest of the poor live their lives? And how does one go through life without having a place to call one’s own?

He is tiny and naked, only learning to crawl. His hands pressed to the path, paved with brownish tiles. Right behind the two palms come shuffling his tiny knees and thighs, their skin the hue of dark honey. A flash of pale soles. A metal bracelet glistens in the sun, pushed on the boy’s ankle as the Hindu custom has it. Wobbly and unsure, the boy keeps getting closer to his destination several feet away: a crushed plastic bottle lying right there on the kerb. In a few moments, it will become a toy. The only entertainment available, the only object whatsoever the child can grab and push into his mouth. The boy sits. He’s trying to gnaw on the bottom of the bottle, but it’s too thick and won’t fit inside his tiny mouth, so he moves it, turning the new toy around, and swallows the narrow bottleneck instead. He chews on it a little with toothless gums, momentarily rapt with this new experience. Around him, unforgiving Mumbai roars on.

Continue reading