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Rethink Aleppo | The city always wins #2

Syrian and Dutch experts were invited to shares their thoughts, ideas and memories in order to begin a dialogue focussed on rebuilding a new, old Aleppo. 

Since the Syrian war began in 2011, Aleppo’s heritage and citizens have been in great danger. Six years after, it is becoming clearer that we have reached the point where a new vision for the city is needed. Therefore, the Rethink project in Amsterdam organised an event at Pakhuis de Zwijger that gave the starting point to imagine the future of Aleppo through various professional lenses.

From the opening speech of Umayya Abu-Hanna, project leader Rethink, about the history of Aleppo and the complex processes of rethink a post-conflict city.

Umayya Abu Hanna © Pakhuis de Zwijger

I am the project leader of Rethink, here at Pakhuis de Zwijger. I was born in the Shaam area, the historical geographical area of Syria, Lebanon and Palestine. So I have a personal relationship and thorough knowledge of the area.

For the next 3 hours we will ‘Rethink Aleppo’. What does that mean? For clarity’s sake, we will not be practically building Aleppo, we do not have the power or agency. ‘Rethink Aleppo’ offers the space, and framework, for a process of thinking about the future from diverse, and multiple points of view.

In 2011, a revolution started in Syria, and for a year and a half it was clear that a crucial part of the citizens demanded freedom, equality and true citizenship. Very soon, the situation turned into a regional war, and thereafter into a global conflict field. In this process, all Syrians lost. 

To us who did not know much about Aleppo, we are introduced to the city via Death and Destruction. As of 2011, Aleppo had a bit over 3 million citizens (3.164 million) while Damascus, the capital, had over 2 and a half million (2.65 million). Amsterdam will celebrate its 750 years in 2025, while Aleppo is already a 7000 year old city. Cities live on. Aleppo has been the door to Europe during the Silk Road, Aleppines were citizens used to luxury. While Roman emperors washed their togas in urine, the Aleppines rubbed laurel and olive oil soaps, used silks, and had a cuisine combining Chinese and Indian spices. 

Today, according to the UN, an estimated 60% of the Old City, and 40% of the entire Eastern half of the city are destroyed. Many Aleppines are refugees today, inside Syria and here among us in Amsterdam. In this room, we have Aleppines who have been tortured by the government, and people who have been tortured in Aleppo by the rebels. The simple fact that we are all here today, not talking about the war per se, but about a common future, is a process of rebuilding. Aleppo is part of Europe, and Aleppines together with other refugees are part of building Europe. Europe has the power and moral duty to connect the processes of rebuilding futures. 

Unfortunately, nowadays in a city like Aleppo there is no room for things such as “personal agency” in the middle of conflict, stress and fear. Survival and some kind of healing is what post-traumatized populations deal with. Linear planning for the city is a waste of time. The brutal war has not ended, and citizens are not necessarily included in the process of planning and building futures. Aleppo has turned into an icon of either glamorous history, or total destruction. To plan a future, in addition to the glory, we need to know what were the causes of unrest.  

In 2010, the city of Aleppo asked TSPA (Thomas Stellmach Planning and Architecture) to assess the city plan of ‘Aleppo 2025’. This beautiful document was like a magical read into the future. Among others, it pointed out 3 aspects: 

• Never in the 7000 years of Aleppo history, has the city been as globally isolated as it was in 2010. 

• The main other observation regards the clear cut between East and West Aleppo: 

• 40% of the buildings in Aleppo were illegal. That meant, mainly, that East Aleppo was an ‘illegal’ city. Being without plans meant there were no proper streets, transportation, schools, public buildings, space etc. 

The assessment pointed out more than once that the situation was dangerous, and in less than a year, the rest of the world got to hear how dangerous it was.

There are other statistics that help explain what happened in Aleppo, and other Syrian cities. 56% of the total Syrian population lived in urban areas by 2010. The World Bank also pointed out that the Arab world – with almost half of the population being under 18 years old – will have to face a changing world by 2019. In Syria, more than 35% of the population was under 14 years old in 2010, so the youth needs space – physical, social and political. And they need a voice, and space for change. After the war, and with the adults being fighters, imprisoned or tiered, the youth becomes even more crucial than before. 

We do not know enough about Aleppo, yet we know that no one can tell what the future holds for the city. Aleppo will be rebuilt by the Syrian government, by Russia, China, Iran and even Chechnya – as it seems. Deals have been made, money, investors and contractors will work on their multinational agreements. Ownership of the future of Aleppo is not simply for, or about, the Aleppines. With the Eastern part heavily depopulated, and new population being brought in, there is no wholesome logic pointing to peace, regarding the current situation. 

Yet we can be part of a shift in the narrative of despair. ‘Rethink Aleppo’ is an exercise in the concept of rethinking futures regarding post-conflict cites. It is about coming together, and starting or continuing a process of life and hope.

Europe is important because it can offer space for future narratives and peaceful frames for connecting. Europe has the ‘know-how’ on many levels. Connecting with Syrian professionals across various professional fields, we can contribute to a process of rebuilding the city.  

What we can do is come together with hope and nudge existing variables into new forms. Hope is an action, hopeful work is a bridge. The city always wins!

Feeling inspired? Watch the livestream of the event below.

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