“The Ruins” is a term borrowed from pre-Islamic poetry, in which “weeping over the ruins” is a favorite gharad; the word gharad, which literally means “purpose” and roughly corresponds to genre, is used to indicate not so much a poem’s theme as the driving force behind its utterance.
Josh Calvo is a writer who also translates from Hebrew and Arabic, among other languages dead and alive. He can be reached at this email.
Then the rains washed over the ruins, like a book whose text is written and rewritten….
— Labid (d. 661)
For reasons he has kept to himself, Hakham Abraham Yeshaya Dayan–—born around the turn of the nineteenth century in Aleppo, and risen to become a rabbinic leader in its Jewish community, authoring several religious and scholarly books which have now become obscure, the world to which they are addressed having disappeared and the city in which they were to be read and applied having become in the hundred years since he lived unfathomably and irreversibly unrecognizable—decided suddenly, with the dawning of what would be the decade before his death, that the time had come for him to walk along the walls of his ancient city in search of signs from its long history. For want of some sense of his inner motivations, of what he beheld in his mind whenever he tried to see Aleppo in times he cannot have known, of what image of the city as he knew it over his own lifetime had been building itself in his memory, I can discover little more than he himself has admitted—or that has, by chance or by force, admitted itself—into his words. The nineteenth-century Hakham would not have needed to describe the impression left in mind by what he could still see outside: like the feeling of what remained of what once was: or the music of the undead voices of those who lived before: the cold stone of a synagogue surviving in the walls of a mosques: or the distant echoing of King David’s cavalry and Mongol horses heard faintly, aloft the wind from faraway mountains. And now that the Aleppo he knew has smoldered and will never again be seen, what remains are only these silent words by which it will never be described.
My own people lived there for centuries. Then, at the turn of the twentieth century, whether at the command of God or threat of revolt or for want of a better life, they left their home in Syria for another in America––for that city they had been visiting in dreams for some time, or so it must have seemed to them, when the gargantuan oceangoing vessel in the deepest basement of which they would have been wasting away slowly for some weeks docked loudly into Ellis Island and the huddled masses rushed the docks, and when their fellow Sephardi, in the form of a towering figure made emerald by the busy sea and disgraced by the dirt of all those who betray liberty, welcomed them to New York with a rousing sonnet and a raised torch––so it must have seemed to them in the rainy daylight, or what Manhattan allowed of it, when all that remained of the home they had for too long been imagining was a foggy image at the back of their minds of streets paved in gold—that they had once again, though for who knows how long, come home. The mouth of that center of the world swallowed them and all the Aleppo they brought with them as into the stomach of a leviathan, never to return. But to Aleppo many would come to return again in dreams––and since few knew the irony of their doing so while awake, it would have to be a city in Syria for which they were searching like blind men stumbling in the darkness of America.
Still, it was a glorious century for the Es Wyes, as these Syrians came to call themselves and their descendants. Having arrived, with all Hebrews so-designated, at the tenements of the Lower East Side (where they were denied rooms in Jewish boarding houses and asked incredulously why don’t you speak Jewish and what do you mean you don’t cook with shmaltz and do they even have it cut down there?) they peddled their way from the suburbs of Bensonhurst (where my great-grandfather served as hazzan at the first Syrian synagogue on Sixty Sixth Street, and taught his son in that musical art for which his home city was renowned and which I would someday fail to be taught) then settled, or seemed to, with riches beyond their first generation’s immigrant dreams, in the brownstone mansions of Flatbush by winter and the Southern-style homes of Bradley Beach by summer––only for some few industrious pioneers, having found the borough become too suffocating and inhabited, to decide, in keeping with the convents of our patriarchs and forefathers, to buy up open land in the largely empty township of Deal, New Jersey, a few miles north of Bradley, near where the fresh sea air at Long Branch could not stop the decreeing of President Garfield’s death, and where acres of farmland were soon to be bulldozed into suburbs––to build again, house by house, synagogue by synagogue, a community like that which they once left behind, in Aleppo.
I am writing from the second floor of one among many of the almost identical houses that ring the culs-de-sacs of these Jersey shoreside suburbs whence Hakham Yeshaya Dayan’s descendants have finally settled, this time for the last, but which he can hardly have imagined––and would only have found laughable, had he chanced to prophesy the fate of Aleppo’s Jews, being that his was a city several thousand years old and here is a twentysomething housing development roughly as old as myself. These words in English are searching for the same city where Dayan once walked; cast like doves to the undry world, they scuttle toward the margins and barely seem to find flight toward that landscape which is in me, but which they must know better. Nor is this the first time I have let the light writhe away and the room soak in night while writing or reading for hours by a helplessly dim lamplight, looking to learn something meaningful about how lives were lived then, in times lost, in that city whose name has in time began to work for me not as geographical locator, as with other names of cities around the globe, but as something of a charm or enchantment, referring to and invoking somewhere not entirely of this world, and appearing to my fading line of vision through the decay of thick clouds or in the curves of letters half-Hebrew, half-Arabic.
The Hakham had been looking over his notes for some time before he realized that they did not add up to a city. It had been his intention––modest enough, he felt—to find intact something of ancient history among ruins, records, and other measurable things. But the words of the book that he had been writing under a spell of right feelings seemed to have turned to stones; like a desert animal, he nudged them over in search of food or water or shade, but found only depths of hot sand. The city he was expecting to see again would not yield itself. Despite the rains of oblivion that have time and again drowned away some earlier face of Aleppo—as the traces of desert camps are often drowned and washed away forever, disappearing without mention in verse, thus unmourned and forgotten—and despite the seeming impossibility of any willful effort to regain all of that has been lost—his, ours, or mine—when the lost objects for which we are searching have been buried under the endless rubble of this one circle in latitude and longitude that ranks among the oldest continually inhabited, conquered and reconquered on this earth––he believed that he would find all he was after. He trusted that his city had kept chaste, withholding memory where only the worthy would find it.
To tell these tales, Dayan would interrupt his usual script. The book in which they would eventually appear— “Who Walks Uprightly, and Does Justice” (Psalms 15:2)—is comprised almost entirely of religious homilies and ethical approbation (musar)––except for the one terribly short section entitled “A Remembrance of Chronicles from Aleppo, God Preserve Her.” Here there are few if any anecdotes that betray obvious homiletical lessons. These are not, then, the expected sort of righteously inspirational stories one might imagine him wanting to tell about his city: that is, about its most famous inhabitants’ imitable exploits and astounding deeds, works of wonder, chivalry, and faith; certainly Dayan could have used the space allotted to his birth city to talk of those Torah scholars and strong conquerors who exemplified the religious and moral values to which he had dedicated most of his literary efforts––but he did not. Just a few choice stories “from what [he] has heard” will find their way into this book-within-a-book, most of them told by one reliable old-timer to our narrator, and from him to us, after a transubstantiating process by which one imagines a much larger and unmanageable thing became considerably smaller, and somehow less tangible.
He would begin with measurable things. Special care would have to be taken with those objects which over the course of his own century will be steadily stolen, on the assumption of having been forgotten where they stood, and so brought in exodus from their native region to the museums in Europe and North America, where they can often still be found today. But he would also tell his reader of those objects that can never be stolen, as with the jug of sand from the mystic river Sambatyon, hidden underneath the ancient Aleppo citadel; and, as he relates, just as the river’s waters rush six days of the week but rest with God and Israel on the Sabbath, so can this sand be heard shifting in its spherical cage at any hour of the day or night, in a light hissing against the old stone. Except on Saturdays, when all is blessedly silent––and when an ear rested against the warm stone will find no sound in its depths. More interesting to him are the city’s many inscriptions—that is, strings of words, like his own, which seem literally and definitively to speak between what was and still is. Rumors of one such especially curious inscription left illegible in a shadowy corner of what has become the al-Hayat Mosque has Dayan seeking out the evidence for himself. He reports of the strange fact that the stone inscription, although written using ktav ashurith (that is, the Hebrew script used for sacred writ) is nonetheless “in Arabic” (bil ‘arabī” he writes, switching into Arabic himself). “I went there and read the writing on the stone, and here is what it says…” But what it says is mostly illegible, telling only of a man with the Hebrew name Hillel building a synagogue in Arabic long before the Arabs themselves would expand the first caliphate to Syria. Our author makes no comment.
Nor is this the first time an item of interest will have to speak for itself, and cannot. There is also the historical footnote of the Indian maharaja who brought the Ottomans a tribute of elephants––all of which soon dropped dead in the desert. As well, there are stories of obvious importance, even when their consequence is left unsurprisingly unobserved, as when Dayan remarks upon the ongoing construction in the neighborhood of al-Jdayde outside the old city walls—“where the Christians live,” so he says, unknowing (or knowing only after writing thus) that these Christians will in the very same year that his book appears be repeatedly massacred, in a series of tragedies that have come to be called “the events” (al-ḥawādith) of October and November 1850. Since the site of that massacre is additionally that of an unmarked and ancient Jewish cemetery, the story of its recent expansion so closely to sudden bloodshed seems to also be a horror tale of the revenge taken by the dead against their usurpers in life—by memory’s indiscriminate violence against the rememberers and non-rememberers alike—and in this case against the proto-bourgeoisie who would claim European consular protections and deign to call their settlement, in Arabic, “the new.” Dayan tells us that Jews of the priestly class refused to enter the neighborhood for fear of impurifying themselves, and that, when members of the Jews community (or was it the Christians themselves, morbidly curious?) dug deeply enough, they found those remnants of human history which seem to be both the most alive and the most dead, likewise the most knowable and most unrecognizable, and whose current state (after we have caringly rid ourselves of our remains, hiding them from our eyes to feel them writhing under our feet) is entirely the business of chemical decay—beginning once the soil has quenched its thirst, and the troglofauna their stomachs—though even this final extinction of all traces of a dead human may take millennia, assuming the bones of the once-alive have not already found the right environment in which to fossilize themselves.
It would seem necessary, then, for the collector of these histories to have invested himself at least as much in the drama of memory and forgetting as in the fossils of things remembered and forgotten; and that it is this electric force of our memory, uncontrollable once reckoned with, unable to be known except in cyclic flux, that is to blame for the seeming miscellany into which his book of solemn remembrance has transformed itself. If Dayan set out to remember Aleppo, though, the city he wrote about is as much the Aleppo he knew as something else. Certainly he wishes to keep his word, and limit himself to telling what he takes to be truths from Aleppo––to manage an uneven balance between history as an object of scientific study, from which we can learn provable things, and as an enduring human experience which can likewise teach us things of quite a different order. But the truth of a city, the truth by which human lives are lived and died, is not often subject to archaeological discovery or empirical verification. Indeed, Dayan seems to know (and fear) that some of his city’s truest stories—as well its most seemingly useless to memory—may well die unspoken in the mind of a mute old man living like they used to in an out-of-way corner of Bahsita––a Jewish Quarter that would, without its Jews, become a sort of red-light district. It is both surprising and not, then, to notice how often Dayan sources his history to traditions whose transmission ends with one of these few elderly men from whom he managed to hear them––if he did not actively seek them out these stories, then, in a manner I follow here, embellishing them to suit his own needs, however unsure we may be of those.
Still, one could not easily say why, in the final analysis, this otherwise undistinguished hakham felt so obligated to tell stories both shockingly odd and apparently inconsequential––and in the middle of a book concerned entirely with other subjects no less. Since we do not seek to remember what we have not already forgotten, must it be understood that even then, in his distant and barely rememberable era, it would fall to those few burdened with literacy and spare pages to sense that something of their world was being lost forever, and that therefore they must cease whatever other labors occupy them and endeavor to conserve some of that world in the uncertain form of words? If this were the case, then, how did he understand the value of that knowledge which is only at best half-knowledge, or these broken vessels from which all contents escape, and even more so when so much of the information he reports is inscrutable or irrelevant even to him? I could almost forget that Dayan is writing from the early to mid-nineteenth century—half a century before the first rumblings of the earthquake of European colonialism still to come, one which will destroy the decaying house of Osman, send among its casualties nearly all of Aleppo’s Jews Americawards, and reshape the Middle East entirely from what it would have been even in his day—so aware does he seem to be, even while not admitting it outright, of the instability of his subject-matter, of history as something always lost and only partially reconstructible. Why, then, does he waste ink on such irrelevant minutia as converting the dates of some of his most unmemorable events from the uncommon Seleucid calendar to the Babylonian still used by Jews? Worse, is his not an act of enormous hubris—the hands of Man separating between the sacred and profane—to have distinguished thus between a memory which can be measured (carbon-dated, artifact-extant) and a memory which is merely remembered in the mind, and answerable only to the vanity of its rememberer?
Dayan begins his account of Aleppo with a report of the inscription to which all these questions seem to return, in which it is relayed that Yoav ben Seruya, King David’s conquer-general, had carved a message into the stones of Aleppo’s citadel, which he conquered in 1000 BC: “I, Yoav ben Seruya, conquered this fortress along with the city.” He does not linger any longer on this incredible statement, which would set the beginning of Jewish settlement in Aleppo to nearly three thousand years before its end––the inevitability of which we now know terribly well––other than to say that the carved shapes of its words have been hidden under several layers of citadel, which layers were built, one can only assume, by the various hosts of Aleppo’s conquerors over time who renamed and rebuilt the city in the name of the Haddad, God of thunder, if not in the name of Abraham, believer in One, or in the name of milk, from which we have learned to churn the wonders of butter and yoghurt. Dayan claims to have unchiseled this sentence himself, but I suspect it irrelevant to us whether this inscription remained extent, or ever had been. Merely imagining their existence is enough to us to ask: can one find one’s way to living in Aleppo, toward whence the roots of one’s bones strain, in all of its richness in time, cultures, languages, experiences, by the simple but mystifying means of reading and writing?
A nineteenth-century Hakham with little reason for doing so went in search of the history of Aleppo, where he lived, because his father had and his children would; were I to seek the city in my surroundings I would find only colonial cemeteries tucked behind strip malls, and street signs with names in dead languages. At the turn of the century, Lucy Parks Blalock (1906-2000)—Woman of Early Dawn—of Lenape country in Oklahoma, a descendant of those exiled natives from where I happened to have been raised, could draw a map of the state of New Jersey without ever having been there, to the astonishment of her white anthropologist visitors; but the map I would make of Aleppo would not resemble much that empty space on maps marked as Syria, nor still the suburbs of my upbringing; mine must be an Aleppo of the mind, a chaos of images held together by furious and unforgiving emotion, else not heard together at all. In search of the “real” Aleppo, which I may never visit, I could almost forget what it meant to have the city for a heritage. As with Dayan, that I have been writing my way into own Aleppo is not only the result of my having sensed at an early age that I had inherited something special simply for being born, and that this would be something which I would have to excavate on my own, with the shovel of an otherwise ordinary day, from under the rubble of Time; but is also because I seemed as well to have been aware that the meaning of what I had inherited was more elusive and eternal than the facts themselves––that the importance of one’s heritage went beyond simply knowing the facts of it––that whereas the artifacts of a heritage could to some degree be found, in and among ruins, its meaning would nonetheless be altered, withheld, effaced, or lost. And would have to be made again.
This is what Franz Kafka scribbled in his diary in a moment of misery––when it seemed to him, as it too often did, that he would never be able to write into our world what he held within:
Writing refuses me. Hence a plan of autobiographical investigations. Not biography, but exploration and discovery of the smallest possible components. Then I wish to build myself out of these, like someone whose house is unstable and attempts to build himself a stable one next door, if possible out of the material of the old. Sad it is indeed when in the middle of the building process his willpower leaves him, so that he has now instead of an unstable but completely built house a half-destroyed and half-finished one––that is, he has nothing. What follows next is a sort of insanity, a Cossack dance between the two houses, whereby the dancer with his boot heels scrapes and scatters up the earth for long enough to dig a grave beneath his feet.
The Hakham sitting at his desk in a dark room reminds me of Kafka a century later, only that the latter’s voluminous nachlaß divulges all that the elder was inclined to leave unsaid. (Kafka did ask to see all of his drafts indiscriminately burned… though the demand was made to his friend Max Brod, who had in the event already refused to do so; we can never know for certain how much of his work he would’ve wanted us to remember.) When I am given to imagine what other writers would’ve looked like in the act of writing, I see a faceless human figure, backbone erect, arched over his desk with the desperate hope or total despair of a wounded soldier contorting all his weight over a bloody leg to save it from severing from his body. Inside this image is another, or a series of others, invisible to all but him who feels their threat heavier than Mount Sinai raised above his head. The writer stares into his papers as into the face of an idol and asks what cannot speak to reveal the right words by which to be recomposed; but the image revolts at its worship and shatters itself into millions of shards of images in which still other images are reflected, and the writer bleeds himself through each, forcing his uncertain way through a forest so dense the soil is still untouched by the sun, the echoes of terrible animals shriek in all directions so that he feels he is running forward into a mirror in which he sees himself running but never moving forward, chasing a treasure unknown that must at desperate cost be owned, taken, claimed before too late, before all will once again be consumed by the inviolable blackness of before-the-beginning. Are writers no different from the builders of Babel? Do we not build Aleppos of words only to see them destroyed again at our own command, savoring what we take to be the taste of eternity, a bliss without memory?
Al ánimo arrogante / que, el vivir despreciando / determina su nombre eternizar en su rüina––that arrogant soul, which, disdaining life, seeks to immortalize itself in ruin. Or do we inadvertently dig ourselves into the tomb of our own oblivion, having drunk the delusion that we were only nobly re-building the memory of what others have forgotten?
It is likely that the bones of the Hakham Dayan, or what remains of them, now waste beneath several layers of ruin––more than would be reasonable to expect excavating here. Much of his manuscripts––the writing of which had, reportedly, drained him of every coin to his name––wait under several layers of shelves and cases in an endless library or archive that resembles in sterility and enormousness less a center of learners than a black site. In such circumstances, no amount of culture-funding nor book-writing will retrieve something meaningful of his world––and by “meaningful,” I do not mean that which one can easily find in the studies of archeologists, historians, and the like. Because the recent destruction of Aleppo was not only the loss of ruins and relics––of those sources of knowledge, documented or not, discovered and awaiting discovery, now become the black hole of an ignorance impossible to undo. The ruins of its synagogues, churches, and mosques should teach a far more fearsome lesson. These we can count among the victims of the tyrannical death drive which marks our recent and characteristically human epoch, from the myth of a moment in the Garden when men and women walked unknown by knowledge and nakedness. Humans have always waged an exponentially worsening war on memory––but only in this current century of warming and war does it seem as if we may finally be winning our way to our own doom.
We cannot look to the empty ruins of Palmyra and see the ghostly robes of Zenobia catching the wind as it blows between pillars that have stood useless for millennia, supporting nothing. It is not just that we can no longer study and learn from these dead Pasts; it is that they have passed from being the Past, which is present in memory, to being beyond the hands of Time altogether. Not only have they been obliterated where they stood firm on earth, but they are likewise ruined in ourselves, which were the source of their strength for all these centuries since the civilization that built them, too, passed. Theirs is the passing of seemingly unpassing things; things which do not quite inhere in physical objects but which are indicated by them, like a door to another world which is not to be mistaken with the other world itself, but which must remain closely guarded. If the door to our memories is shut for the last, to them there can be no return. We are left instead with an emptiness far less bearable than the emptiness of ruins: for where ruins remind poets of what they have lost, the sands in which they disappear make disappear, too, the possibility of ever remembering again. Then we shall be faced not with a speaking nothing, but with Nothing at all: we faint before the silent face of God––which none can see and survive.
Hence the outburst of Pharaoh, the eternal tyrant, in the Qur’anic version of his first encounter with Moses and Aaron (20:51-2)––
Moses said: Our God is He who shaped each thing by its form, and set it aright.
Pharaoh said: What, then, of earlier generations?
Moses said: They are recorded in a book with God, our Lord who neither errs nor forgets.
Pharaoh betrays the weakness beneath his own designs with this interrogative––or he has found a moment’s back door by which his unconscious can admit to what the rest of him would refuse. He cannot unknow his own mortality, but his mad lust for immortality requires nonetheless that he crown himself supreme, building around himself an absolute and timeless submission not unlike in structure the total submission with which monotheists are commanded to approach God. (The authors of the Midrash add that Pharaoh would even sneak out behind the Palace early in the morning to dispose of that bodily waste which could never dirty a God.) To become Pharaoh, he must forget himself (hence neither the Bible nor the Qur’an recognizes him by name) and command forgetfulness of all else but himself: “I alone can fix it,” even when this means forgetting the efforts of Joseph, who had saved him. (One reading of the “new king who knew not Joseph” –– identified in Exodus 1:7 –– sees not a newly established ruler in the land of Egypt but a renewed madness in the elder monarch to forget all but himself). To believe in God and to accept the message of Moses and Aaron would be essentially to remember—as our memories, unremembered, sway like the waves of an ocean below the clouds of eternity—and be humbled by memory, by what cannot or will not be remembered. Pharaoh is only being snobbishly rhetorical with the messengers––using what he takes to be the logic of the monotheists against them—but his words accidentally confess to the hollowness of his rule, of all that he has built and conquered. He will die drowned by his own obstinacy, only to become finally immortal as an enduring symbol of a shriveled human being, whose mania and loneliness would seem invisible to some dutiful servants hidden beyond the opulence of the sun, but not to us, no matter the text in which we read of him. And yet we are no better. In sacrificing Aleppo, or remaining indifferent to the loss of its like, welcoming warmer winters while ignoring the stranger, the slave, the downtrodden––this is how we submit to the tyranny of forgetting, so devotedly that anything but the terrible usual seems impossible, if not even remembered.
It was a common cliché in my American Jewish childhood, almost by way of excuse for exposing us to such horrors as obtained in that dark corner of Europe whence six million Jews were cruelly and senselessly murdered, that “those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” And yet the past repeats without concern for what amount of it we remember or how well; the force of Time is like an unmelting snow age overtaking us, under whose mountains remain outdated curiosities, buried and shriveled unrecognizably; were they to be heard, faintly heart-beating, by the feet of freely migrating mammoths, the sounds they would make would be human speech, but there would be no creature left who could understand them, and nothing but the wind to wash them forever away.
Lost in a desert of memory as that which threatens to cover over our world, there is little else we can do but ask, from whatever God we choose to believe in, to be answered and restored, and to hope that a dove will return from us to us. This is what King David knew even at the height of his triumph—when the memory of his empire seemed unconquerable, if not the lands themselves. Having conquered Aleppo––a victory that neither I nor Hakham Dayan will ever see—he sung thus:
The words of King David, set to music, for instruction, said when he conquered northern Syria (Aram Naharayyim) and Aleppo (Aram Zobah), and Yoav his warrior returned from Jordan (Edom) with twelve thousand bodies lying dead in valley of salt behind him. O God––you have shed us and broken us and been angry with us; restore us to ourselves. You have quaked the earth and cracked it open; raise tall again its trees, or they will collapse. You have made your People see hardship; you have made us drink a wine of venom. But you have also raised a flag for those of us who fear You, that they may be saved; under its banner, they are safe always from the enemy’s arrow. Save us, Lord; deliver your beloved with your Right Hand; answer us, and answer me.
وَجَلا السُّيُولُ عَنْ الطُّلُولِ كَأَنَّهَا … زُبُرٌ تُجِدُّ مُتُونَهَا أَقْلامُـه
 Das Schreiben versagt sich mir. Daher Plan der selbstbiographischen Untersuchungen. Nicht Biographie, sondern Untersuchung und Auffindung möglicht kleiner Bestandteile. Daraus will ich mich dann aufbauen, so wie einer, dessen Haus unsicher ist, daneben ein sicheres aufbauen will, womöglich aus dem Material des alten. Schlimm ist es allerdings, wenn mitten im Bau seine Kraft aufhört und er jetzt statt eines zwar unsichern aber doch vollständigen Hauses, ein halbzerstörtes und ein halbfertiges hat, also nichts. Was folgt ist Irrsinn, also etwa ein Kosakentanz zwischen den zwei Häusern, wobei der Kosak mit den Stiefelabsätzen die Erde so lange scharrt und auswirft, bis sich unter ihm sein Grab bildet.
 Juana Inés de la Cruz, “Primero Sueño”