How war-shattered Aleppo is preserving its culture

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Thousands of Aleppians are using a Facebook group to share their way of life before the Syrian war

Going to the hammam was once a beloved ritual for Aleppo resident Atef Shikhouni and his friends. Recalling the boisterous, joyful experience, the 55-year-old wrote: Here is a man shouting, Where is the soap? while another one is asking for the shampoo and a third wants someone to rub his back. It becomes very noisy. After spending some time in the sauna, it is time for the rubbing man. He uses a rough loofah to rub my body mercilessly and I pray it will end without any damage.

But that was before the outbreak of war in Syria. Today, the bath is cold and has no soul, the sports teacher wrote in February 2017, shortly after the worst of the fighting in Aleppo had ended. Cruel are our days, exactly like our bath today.

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During the fierce four-year battle for the city, which ended in late 2016, the eastern, formerly rebel-held side was devastated by bombing.

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A damaged dome of a mosque in the Old City of Aleppo. Photograph: Ali Hashisho/Reuters

As the war in Syria appears to be nearing some kind of end there is much talk of reconstruction. But its not just buildings and infrastructure that need to be rehabilitated, its also the historical and cultural ties that once held together now fractured communities. Citizens from the northern city of Aleppo, including Shikhouni, have taken it upon themselves to salvage their heritage: theyve created a closed Facebook group where more than 52,000 Aleppians of different faiths and ethnicities share memories of their traditions and way of life before the war.

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I am afraid that we will lose a lot of tradition and vocabulary because of the immigration, says the groups head administrator, Souha Chaban, referring to the thousands of people who have left Aleppo since the Syrian war broke out in 2011. For example, lots of craftspeople have now left the country, Chaban explains.The 55-year-old mother-of-three no longer lives in Aleppo herself, having moved to Abu Dhabi with her family in 2006, and many of the groups members are living outside of the country.

But the Facebook group is a very good place because it has members all around the world who are here for two reasons: one, to give their knowledge, and two, to keep in touch with their heritage and their memories of the country.

The Encyclopedia of Popular Aleppian Proverbs group began life, unsurprisingly, as a place where people from Aleppo could post local proverbs of which there are many. But in the five-and-a-half years since the group was created it has evolved against the backdrop of the war to become a fount of knowledge on all aspects of the citys verbal heritage and beyond.

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The group is documenting the citys verbal heritage. Photograph: Handout

One member recently posted about a 75-year-old laundry that has survived the war while another shared the steps he went through to obtain a student visa for Italy in the 1960s. Topics suggested for discussion have included a special head cloth worn by some of Aleppos older men to different terms for a dustpan.

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Chaban, a former French teacher and the virtual neighbourhoods unofficial (and unpaid) archivist-in-chief, spends about 10 hours a day diligently documenting and categorising the information shared on the group. There are now more than 100 files on everything from local recipes and crafts to fashion and the citys hammam culture.

Fawzi Shamsi, 35, a long-time member of the group who lives in Aleppos western Halab Al Jadeedah (New Aleppo) neighbourhood, says: The Facebook group [has] made us more connected to the city. People [who left] are really dreaming of getting back to Aleppo. So at least theres a kind of attachment to that place, a feeling that their soul is still there.

Once a key stop on the ancient Silk Road trading network, Aleppo has a rich history something that is reflected in both its famed cuisine and the distinctive local dialect.

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A combination picture shows Hamam El Nahasin in the Old City of Aleppo, Syria, before and after it was damaged in the war. Photograph: Reuters

Before the war it was not only Syrias biggest city but also the countrys centre of commerce and industry. Today, however, after years of fierce fighting which saw Aleppo divided between a government-held west and an opposition-held east, the city is a shadow of its former self. The government may have gained full control of Aleppo in December 2016 but destruction remains widespread, including in the Old City, a Unesco world heritage site.

Shamsis neighbourhood fell under control of the government when Aleppo was still divided but his familys textile shop and factory were located in the opposition-held east which bore the brunt of bombing in the city. Both buildings suffered damage during the fighting and remain closed for the foreseeable future amid electricity, internet, food and water shortages.

The climax of the conflict might be over but still you are living the war, says Shamsi, an English teacher who used to enjoy practising his English with tourists in the citys more peaceful days. Amid the chaos of war and the uncertainty that continues, the Facebook group is a place where members can take back some control. Shamsi has shared information on a number of topics, including the textile industry with which both his family and the city share a long history. We cannot preserve the place But at least we can preserve our non-material things, our memories or proverbs.

Among the files in the group is one dedicated to the traditions of Aleppos minority Christian community, which before the war numbered up to 250,000 but has since shrunk dramatically.

Much of the information in the file was provided by Joseph Hatem, a Christian from Aleppos Azeezieh neighbourhood who left the city in 2014 and now lives in Paris. An electrical engineer by profession, Hatem, 69, is worried about the impact that the displacement and migration of Christians from Aleppo and Syria will have on the preservation of the communitys cultural heritage.

Parents may know a lot of Aleppo heritage [but] it is very difficult to transfer it to their children in the countries of immigration, he says. Preserving the heritage of Aleppos Christians is important to emphasise their presence in Syria.

But what to do with all of the information amassed by the group? In April, Souha attended the annual culture summit in Abu Dhabi, a four-day gathering of leading figures from the arts and museums worlds. A focus of this years summit was the preservation of heritage in conflict and crisis. And when one of the speakers heard about the efforts of the Encyclopedia group, she got excited.

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