Early the staccatos swelled, the jalopies trundled through the eigengrau, martins and peckers perched on wires portending the resurrecting sun. Windows jittered in the cold, and outside the red, blinking mast laddered up the azure-turning sky. Watchmen tinkered with their rusty panels and disappeared into silent folds. I woke up on the sofa in the parlor facing the green glow of the incandescent crucifix above mother’s bed. It waned like the moon in the morning. Occasionally, whirring airplanes flew low with their wheels down headed for the airport’s runways, shaking the houses in their cold silence. She’d face the ceiling on her bed, muttering a prayer, then descend into her loose sleeping robes. Feet sweeping the carpet, she’d examine the children splayed on the floor, my sisters and I, sometimes our cousins, carried a lantern and trudged through the creaking door, then through the hollow hallway.
“The Ruins” is Josh Calvo’s regular dirge for sundry Aleppos of memory—all real, all lost, all his. “The Ruins” is a term borrowed from pre-Islamic poetry, in which “weeping over the ruins” is a favorite gharad; the word gharad, which literally means “purpose” and roughly corresponds to genre, is used to indicate not so much a poem’s theme as the driving force behind its utterance. “The Ruins” is the title of both the series and the first piece in the series. Josh Calvo, who is first and foremost a true writer though he also translates from Hebrew and Arabic, among other languages dead and alive, can be reached at this email.
Then the rains washed over the ruins, like a book whose text is written and rewritten….
— Labid (d. 661)
For reasons he has kept to himself, Hakham Abraham Yeshaya Dayan–—born around the turn of the nineteenth century in Aleppo, and risen to become a rabbinic leader in its Jewish community, authoring several religious and scholarly books which have now become obscure, the world to which they are addressed having disappeared and the city in which they were to be read and applied having become in the hundred years since he lived unfathomably and irreversibly unrecognizable—decided suddenly, with the dawning of what would be the decade before his death, that the time had come for him to walk along the walls of his ancient city in search of signs from its long history. For want of some sense of his inner motivations, of what he beheld in his mind whenever he tried to see Aleppo in times he cannot have known, of what image of the city as he knew it over his own lifetime had been building itself in his memory, I can discover little more than he himself has admitted—or that has, by chance or by force, admitted itself—into his words. The nineteenth-century Hakham would not have needed to describe the impression left in mind by what he could still see outside: like the feeling of what remained of what once was: or the music of the undead voices of those who lived before: the cold stone of a synagogue surviving in the walls of a mosques: or the distant echoing of King David’s cavalry and Mongol horses heard faintly, aloft the wind from faraway mountains. And now that the Aleppo he knew has smoldered and will never again be seen, what remains are only these silent words by which it will never be described.
You could think of sunlight
Glancing off the minarets,
You could think of guavas and figs
And the whole marketplace filled
With the sumptuous din of haggling,
But you could not think of Alexandria
Without the sea, or the sea,
Turquoise and shimmering, without
The white city rising before it.
On the Bus
Caught up short on the express bus and those drivers don’t stop for shit. I avoid the express because of my affliction but it was filthy out, brown cold rain, and here come the bus, and jostling, and I don’t notice, and it’s an express, and it won’t stop.
I’m good at first, plop down in a seat, bag under my feet, floor wet but seat warm.
Claude said it come from eating out of trashcans and such. They fixed us so we could not ever have kids and road us on a rail out of Utah.
I like to look into the houses, warm glows of lights, the bus passes.
I consider my options.
Bad to give us a bad name. And I do not call myself that. I’m a traveler. A time traveler. I travel all the time. Round and round the city I go.
But I can’t hold it any longer, and this an express bus, so here we go.
Need a boat to paddle out of here. Gives a whole new meaning to disembark.
Tirana, Albania — April 11th 1985
The foremost leader has died.
National mourning. Black flags flutter from the windows along side our national flag. Tears, agony, grief, everywhere one looks.
The television shows nothing but tributes to our fallen comrade.
I sit in the café, sip my coffee, watch the grief stricken faces of my fellow comrades. I look out the window at everyone just standing around, consoling one another, seeking comfort in another’s embrace.
I turn my attention back to the interior, continue to sip my coffee, occasionally watch the old films of our foremost leader when he was young, healthy, strong.
The café is crowded but most people don’t speak, most sit with their own thoughts, grieving, as if a member of their own family has passed. In a lot of ways, one had.
A woman sits by herself at the far end of the café. She isn’t crying or gazing at the television. She simply stirs a spoon in her coffee cup, smokes a cigarette, gazes out the window with no expression. She looks sad but there are no tears. Thin and pale, deep lines crease the corners of her mouth. I can tell that she must have been very beautiful once but either time or hardship had nearly erased all traces of it. It isn’t until she glances my way that I realize who it is.
I can’t look at her.
If it weren’t for those eyes, I would have never believed it.