This year, Aleppo will produce no soap. The late-medieval souks in which craftsmen fashioned blocks of the famous olive oil and laurel savon d’Alep succumbed to a conflagration during battles at the end of September. The Jubayli family’s soap factory inside the Mamelukes’ thirteenth-century Qinnasrin Gate survived the inferno, but relentless combat has left it inaccessible to workers and owners alike. By late November, following the harvest in the groves west of Aleppo, residue from the olive oil presses should be boiling in vats and poured onto carpets of wax paper stretched over stone floors. Sliced into two-by-three-inch blocks, the bars would be stacked to dry for six months before being sold. Deprived by war of the soap, fabrics, processed foods, and pharmaceuticals its region has so long produced, Aleppo is drawing on reserves of basic commodities, as well as cash and hope. All three are dwindling rapidly.
“You don’t need to go to Aleppo,” an Aleppine friend in Beirut told me. “All Aleppo is here.” Some of Aleppo’s exiles, mainly the industrialists who provided much of the region’s employment, were congregating in the cafés along Rue Hamra, some pro-regime, others anti-regime, delicately preserving friendships despite political disagreements. Playing bridge and backgammon, they await the day when it is safe to return, if it ever comes.
When I was in Aleppo last Easter, those mercantile exiles had yet to leave and their businesses were still functioning. Aleppo’s soap was plentiful in the labyrinthine souks of vaulted stone near the Citadel. Most people shared relief bordering on complacency that their city had avoided the violence engulfing the rest of the country. Aleppo’s cosmopolitanism, they seemed to feel, made it different. The only pogrom against its Christian minority had taken place in 1851, when the number of dead was small, and the crime was never repeated. The city’s relative prosperity kept much of the population satisfied, despite the suppression of political opinion.
Aleppo was Syria’s workshop and marketplace, and its region generated as much as 65 percent of the national wealth apart from oil. Factories making textiles from Syrian cotton, as well as medicines and furniture, dominated the industrial zones outside the city and provided work to thousands. The regimes of Hafez al-Assad since 1970 and his son Bashar since 2000 had left the gracious city center with little to rebel against, even if the rural poor—driven into the suburbs by drought, unemployment, and ambition—had legitimate complaints that went unnoticed in the lavish villas along the River Qoweik. Many of Aleppo’s inhabitants were old enough to remember the last time the city was the scene of a rebellion, in 1979. Its outcome gave them little hope that a repetition would be anything other than disaster. Yet with…
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