Nigol Bezjian: My school in Aleppo

Famous Lebanese director and producer Nigol Bezjian looks at the Syrian War. Having learned that his school in Aleppo was bombarded, Bezjian wrote about war, destruction and the migration that happened again after 100 years.

They burned our homes, churches, hospitals and schools… 

These are the words that I have heard for most of my life from my grandparents, their friends, the survivors I had interviewed; I have read about them in history books, in memoirs and seen plenty of B&W photographs. I have heard many firsthand accounts how people were killed and how they were orphaned; my grandparents were among them.  Stories of starvation, hunger, desperation and most of all miraculous tales of survival and revival were the stories in place of our children books, which we did not have to start with. But all that referred to a century ago, it was related to our grandmothers and grandfathers who had lost their parents, homes, schools and everything else in historical Armenia and had started a new life in Aleppo out of Der El-Zor Syrian desert sands. 

A century later, a new war in Syria hurriedly unfolded from small uprisings to a civil war and then to an international conflict with no end in sight. Since 2011, since 5 years and still counting, we have been witnessing the destruction of our homes, hospitals, schools and cities in Syria this time.  Now, our fellow countrymen who hosted my grandparents a century ago have become stateless, orphans, refugees and flotsam corpses washing up on the beaches stretched between Greece and Turkey on their way to sometimes welcoming and at times hostile countries, lives caught between barb-wires and misleading open roads running into swiftly erected borders of a free Europe.     

My recent trip to Toronto was incredibly ironic: I, a grandson of an Armenian refugee who found shelter and home in Syria, was humbled by helping a group of thirty Syrians emigrating to Canada after three years of living in hell of a tent camp in Jordan as refugees.  When we finally landed in Toronto’s Airport, the most elderly man in the group thanked me countless times and said that he wished to invite me to his home but regrettably he did not know where his Canadian home would be. We parted after hugging each and every one of them and when shaking hands for the last time with that man, he said: “You are Armenian, you understand us better than anyone else, we have become 'the you' of our times.” I wanted to say something but could not gather any words in any of the languages I know; my senses were spread on many thoughts imagining my grandparents left alone as orphaned children in the Syrian wasteland while being with survivors of the Syrian war in an airport. 

The mindless conflict in Syria moved from the rural areas to the cities and eventually to Aleppo, I learned this firsthand, when old classmates called me to inform that my home, my neighborhood, my childhood streets were bombed and totally destroyed. There was no “home” to go back to, they said; from now on, it will exist only in my memory. “You are lucky that you visited just before the sheer human madness,” said the voice over the mobile phone. “We will tell our grand children about all that was and all that’s being gone like our grandparents told us about what they lost and how they survived and built a new life somewhere on earth near and far”.  

Men with insurmountable egos, megalomaniacs leveling down their appetite to control, dominate, expand and be the winning gods of wealth, negotiate the turfs and come to an agreement costing millions of humans to become homeless refugees, countless of lives to be annihilated, homes, neighborhoods and cities of hundreds of years to be turned into dust and debris. What is the pride of sending a fire engine, an ambulance, a police squad and reporters to rescue one or two from a misfortune as a show of valuing human life good for, when a single bomb dumped from a machine worth millions of taxpayers money can kill hundreds of people in a second and wipe out a neighborhood, cities and schools? Why do we have schools, if we were to learn and behave otherwise? 

The school I went to was not the learning institution that I loved, but it was the place where I learned what to like and dislike. There, I learned that I was not made to like grammar, a lesson in chemistry, physics, math and logarithm were not my cup of tea although I enjoyed sipping it. There, I learned that the things I love were not found in the curriculum; art, theatre, cinema and literature were not in our textbooks. Furthermore, I did not like the establishment where patriotism, pride and elitism we were fed spoon after spoon as means of preserving our refuged Armenian heritage in that tiny oasis of ours in mighty Syria; that self-entitled champion of Arabism.    

In the recent developments of the escalating conflict, Aleppo is  being crushed by the aerial bombs of the world powers that kill people on the ground who must seem like tiny flies from the sky. This reminds me the tiny fly which had entered my grandmother’s leaving room and gave her a run when she could not bring herself to kill it. She stayed outside until I arrived home from school which she helped me to attend with her saved pennies hoping that one day I would become a learned man.   

I had no attachments to the prison that locked my free spirit and splendid imagination and propelled my mind’s eye beyond the limestone walls. Yet, the few recent images of my bombed school planted seeds of anger in me, and I precipitously discovered that I have a rooted affection to the institute I ran away as many times as possible.  

The road on which we walked to be edified is now desolate and in ruins. The gate through which thousands passed to learn and hundreds to teach over many years now stand as a verification of man’s assault upon himself. Schools were meant to teach us and advance our humanity, but evidently learning can soar us to the outer space and hear the sounds of converging black holes or with the sounds of bombs plummet into our dark inner depths and wipe ourselves out clearly manifested in fully colored photographs that were B&W a century ago.    

They have bombed our school…