I 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.
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