A requiem for Syria.
BY AMAL HANANO | DECEMBER 11, 2012
Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.
In Italo Calvino’s novel, Invisible Cities, a world traveler named Marco Polo describes the cities of a vast but crumbling empire to its ruler, Kublai Khan. Over time, the intricate descriptions of the cities begin to overlap until the khan slowly realizes that his appointed traveler has been describing the same city, an imagined city, over and over, in fragments — each vignette exposing another perspective, unveiling yet another city, where death mirrors life and cities are named after Italian women. Each city is suspended between reality and imagination, structured on a set of absurd rules, reminding the reader that a city can only be absorbed through short glances, each glance anchored to an object, a story, or a memory.
I’ve been reading and rereading Invisible Cities for over a decade. Before the Syrian revolution, Calvino’s poetics were safely rooted in the realm of fiction. When I recently picked it up to look for a quote, I began to read it once more — this time sneaking a few pages at a time between my daily intake of endless streams of gruesome images emerging from our all-too-real Syrian cities. For the first time, Calvino’s words detached from fantasy; Syria’s cities became embedded within the lines of the Invisible Cities. I listened, along with Kublai Khan, to Marco Polo’s narrations and tried to understand how cities become invisible.
Watching death has become a pastime of the revolution. There is much to learn from it. Death is sudden; it is shorter than a short YouTube clip. Death is a man wrapped in his shroud, bloodied gauze strips tied around his head, cotton stuffed in his nostrils, and the bluish-gray tinge of his skin. Death is the camera panning over mass graves where children’s bodies are arranged in long, perfect lines, then covered with rust-colored dirt. The death of Syrians accumulated so fast it seems impossible to comprehend over 40,000 lives lost in less than two years.