by Moussa Beitar
As the days passed and the grandchildren convinced their parents to keep up with modernity and move to the new quarters with their multi-storey houses and wide streets, our house became an orphanage for the Greek Orthodox community and then a rest home.
This was accompanied by the trend in the 1990’s to invest in old houses and convert them into something else.
Therefore, the history of our family’s house was marked by decisive events in the memory of its grandchildren. We learned a part of its history from our grandfather before his death. We read about other events in the city’s annals and were witnesses and contemporaries of them ourselves.
One of the most drastic events was the sudden decision of our “great-grandfather Shoukri” to sell the most valuable possession of our family, the reason for our pride.
In former times, it was the custom of the wealthy to decorate the walls of the reception room with wooden panelling full of ornamentation and carvings. The wealthy owners were first and foremost merchants, but also some middle-class luxuriously decorated their sitting rooms in this style. This custom was not limited to Christian and Armenian families, but also included Muslim families.
Thus, in 1603, Haj Isa ibn Budrus, the first owner of our house, commissioned the best artisans and artists from abroad to decorate the walls of the reception room with carvings and fantastic, colourful paintings. It was notable that even after long decades and stormy events in the city, the magic of this reception room which smells of walnut and pine, has still been preserved. Human, animal and plant motifs were depicted on these wooden panels. Among the floral motifs were lotus blossoms, lilies and carnations. Verses from David’s Psalms and Solomon’s Proverbs were also integrated into the wooden panels. The most important paintings, however, were motifs from the Bible. The best known of them was the sacrificial scene with Abraham and Isaac. Abraham stood in an arrogant posture with the hem of his cloak fastened under his belt. He held the knife in his hand by the neck of his son Isaac who was kneeling under him. Isaac’s eyes were blindfolded. Above him hovered a good-natured angel carrying a sacrificial lamb on his arms. Who knew then that the eyes of the city would be blindfolded today and that the city itself would become a sacrificial lamb?
My grandfather’s voice still echoes in my ears today as he spoke in detail about the beloved room of our family’s house. Unfortunately, his family finally lost the centerpiece of their house in the year of his birth (1912) through a major deal with a German woman, named Martha Koch, acting on behalf of one of Berlin’s museums.
My grandfather tried to justify his father’s action, stating that the history of the city was as hard as its stones.
Mrs. Martha spent a long time in the city, where she ran a sophisticated literary salon with her husband and daughter. This salon was visited by most consuls and foreign visitors from Europe, among them writers, globetrotters, archaeologists and antique dealers. During one of her frequent visits to our family’s house, she was impressed by its architectural style and wanted to buy the whole house and fly it to Berlin. Since this was an impossible undertaking, she limited herself to purchasing the ornate wood panelling from the reception room. She photographed the fountain, the staircase to the upper floor, the decorative wooden grilles, the Iwan with its marble floor and the windows of the dome of the reception room covered with red, yellow and blue Armanaz glass. She also haggled over the Persian carpets, the wooden fireplace and some of the silver objects. According to the available information, the wooden panels were taken in fourteen large boxes to the port of Tripoli and shipped from there to Hamburg. From Hamburg they were transported to Berlin.
In the hall where my ancestors sat and received their guests, there were pictures that are still present in the memory of the city and its warring inhabitants. I draw again from the treasure of memories and think of the stories of my grandfather, who once said with a smile:
“We are a city that lives from tolerance, despite all the conquests that have come upon us. We have always loved our Muslim brothers and sisters and lived with them for better or for worse. There have been trade relations and marriages with Europeans. A spiritual and cultural fertilization has also taken place between us and them.”
I did not have the courage to oppose my grandfather in his justification of the sale. I didn’t understand his cosmopolitan concept of my city either. When I tried to express my point of view, he severely interrupted me and again began to boast that the German engineer, Volner, the director of the Baghdad Railway project, was the one who designed the ground plan of the hall and supervised with excellence the dismantling work of the wood panels. Then my grandfather came back to justify his father’s action and told me how his mother, had served excellent food to Mrs. Martha, and all the engineers and workers, during the long days of dismantling and packing the wooden walls. Finally, my grandfather quotes one of the inscriptions on these walls:
“God is with the generous. He who is generous reaps generosity.”
On the eve of our move from the Al-Sisi Alley, my grandfather stayed constantly in the representation room and never left it. He sat enthroned in this room like a holy priest with a vow of silence. With his silence he even silenced the silence. Whenever my brothers and sisters and I tried to go into the hall to find him, I felt that I was now in a bare room that had lost its function. And when I looked up at the dome, I saw it staring sharply at us, as if it was about to fall down on our heads, even though the generation of grandchildren was not responsible for what had happened.
There are things that are so precious to our hearts that have been lost to our hands. Now, it seems as if we are all sadly remembering how the Germans began so many years ago to exhibit the wooden walls of our family home in a special enclave in the Museum of Islamic Art in Berlin under the name “the Aleppo Room”.
Short story first published on 31.05.2015 in the Lebanese newspaper as-Safir al-Arabi, and here again with permission of the author and in three languages. Part of an yet unpublished novel. Any similarities with actual events or living or deceased persons would be purely coincidental. This novel documents the political events with all their social and economic effects on the city of Aleppo from the 17th century to 2015.