Danger during the war in Aleppo was marked with sound and smoke. During the pandemic, danger is boundless. It can be everywhere and anywhere. The most fashionable and well-off person can carry the virus and pass it on to me, while on the other hand, an armed person walking next to me on the sidewalk could be harmless. The invisible danger is what makes the virus lethal. In war, if the sound is far away, then I can assume I am safe. That means I could go anywhere without even worrying. Sometimes, the odds of being safe to being in danger would shift rapidly when the bombing came closer—the crushing sound of steel over buildings, cars, and streets, where we shook inside our homes like sunflowers before the wind.
One day I met a friend for coffee and shisha. The sun was tracing the edges of the city; men and women were in small groups enjoying each other’s company. Minutes after we sat down in the coffee shops, the shelling intensified. It was the battle of Alzahra in western Aleppo, the last hold of the rebel groups in our city. Within thirty minutes, the building started to shake and the coffee cups rattled over the glass table. We decided to cut our visit short. I heard a very loud explosion—it sounded like columns of steel were dropped not too far from where we were.
During the epidemic, a simple handshake is more disturbing than the missile launcher near our home. People start to panic about handshakes and practice physical distancing vigilantly, in some cases avoiding unnecessary visits altogether. In wartime, danger was more visible. We were able to sense it, we were able to see it, and we were able to hear it. If the sound of artillery didn’t startle us, that meant there was nothing to worry about. The virus made us panic more because we can’t sense it, and we don’t know when we need to take precautions.
In war, even the artillery needs to take a break. There were hours of quiet and, if we were lucky, sometimes days of quiet. These breaks allowed people to go about their business or lounge in coffee shops and restaurants. Social life was medicine to our worn-out psyche and struggling mental health. Visiting friends or family at home, public parks, and for long walks was soothing to the soul. Now, under the pandemic, we lost a lot of that. During the war, my brother visited us every Friday for dinner with his family. We were always happy to see him, of course, but also excited to see his kids. He has two girls and two boys. I love my nephews and nieces. Okay, sometimes it was noisy, but it was great to see them play and see their smiles. Business was doing all right during the war, at least for some industries, like anything related to food or medicine. We had the opportunity to make money; whether we made it or not, that is an entirely different story.
As the panic about the coronavirus spread, my brother limited his visits for fear of his family getting sick. The lockdown did bring families together at least, those living under one roof. Family members learned to spend more time together instead of going to meet friends or going to the market. We no longer hear the sound of bombs; the news of the pandemic replaced the news about the war. The sky is cleaner, and our minds are calmer. The virus made us aware of nature, climate, and the world around us. Studies started to surface of how the Venice canals are now cleaner and the air quality is better across the globe. It made us see how our lifestyle of consumption is in constant need for oil and how much we were polluting the planet. Ironically, the oil industry suffered the most, and oil carriers were used as storage for unsold oil at major ports. I hope the virus makes us see how costly trade and military wars are to our lives—and to the world. We don’t know how the world will resume its wars and lives. I hope it will be different and take the human and environmental cost into account. ▪
Mohamad Kebbewar was born and raised in Aleppo. Immigrating to Canada at age nineteen, Kebbewar earned a degree in history from Concordia University before becoming a graphic designer. He recently published a chapbook with Phafours press entitled Evacuate. He is putting the final touches on his novel The Bones of Aleppo.
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