February 4th 2013
Magnetic Islander tells of her life in Aleppo
Few readers would not be aware of the terrible conflict which many are now describing as a civil war in the ancient, cradle-of-civilization, country of Syria. But while this ongoing tragedy may seem distant from peaceful Magnetic Island, one well-known, local, yoga teacher and marine scientist, Daniela (Dani) Ceccarelli once lived in Aleppo, perhaps the centre of the worst fighting in recent times. Dani grew up with people who are now in danger which is why she and friend Anne Cole are inviting interested people to a BYO, middle eastern plate and donated item, social gathering and auction to help Syrian refugees in their time of need.
Dani is presently in India but returning to Magnetic Island later this week in time for the auction this coming Saturday. But to get a sense of the threatened exotic city she once lived in and returned to many times since we conducted an email interview.
MT: When were you in Aleppo, how old were you and what were you doing?
DC: My family moved from Italy to Aleppo in 1981 and we were there until 1987 when my parents split up and my mother (who was Swiss) took us to live in Switzerland. Then, until 1995, we spent most of our holidays in Aleppo visiting my father and our friends who lived there.
I lived there from 8 to 14 years old, then went back and forth until I was 21. I didn’t visit again from 1995 until 2010, just before the unrest began.
I went to school there; there was a small international school set up by the organisation my father worked for.
MT: Why were your parents there?
DC: My father is an agricultural scientist, working on the genetics of common food crops. He was working at the university in Perugia, Italy, when he was offered a job at the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas which has (I should say had, sadly) its headquarters just outside Aleppo. He went to check it out in 1980, and the year after we all moved there. My mother, who was also a biologist, did some research on ants, but mostly looked after us and the household. ICARDA provided a flat that we rented and a car with a special ICARDA sticker on the side that got us through the frequent roadblocks quite easily. We also had a green ICARDA card that made it easier to travel in and out of the country.
The Citadel at Aleppo in happier times
MT: How would you describe the Aleppo you know/knew?
DC: Aleppo was a vibrant, colourful, chaotic Middle Eastern city, spiky with minarets of many different styles, ringing with traffic noise and the call to prayer, smelling of spice and sewerage and flowers, and rich with its people’s hospitality.
The Aleppo I think about is one where ancient history was etched in every stone – this is a city that has been continuously inhabited for over 4,000 years – one of the contenders for the title of ‘oldest living city in the world’. And you really got a sense of that when you walked the streets of the old city – built for pedestrians only and maybe for horse and cart.
The city has been run by a long progression of rulers and cultures, and each left its mark, from the stunning citadel that dominates the city centre, to the mosques with minaret styles typical of different eras, to the layout of the souk (the covered market) that was typical of the Romans, to the wooden enclosed balconies typical of the Ottoman Empire... As the city spread, ugly, Soviet-style apartment blocks took over the skyline, but the city centre retained its character. In fact, it was listed as a World Heritage Site (http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/21) – not sure what’s happened to that listing now, as unfortunately the old city is one of the areas where fighting has been concentrated.
When I lived there, all this was a backdrop for our lives... we went shopping in the ancient souk and nearby vegetable market, went on picnics among Roman ruins, and learned to speak, read and write Arabic. As young teenagers we spent a lot of time riding horses – this was a very central part of our lives there – on the outskirts of Aleppo there was a breeding stable where they offered riding lessons to some of us expat kids. The horses were fiery Arabians, mostly not broken in properly, and we had the time of our lives racing each other across the steppes and fields that surround Aleppo. We also loved to explore the old city, jumping on the packed buses and going downtown whenever we could.
Dani with her mother Verena and sisters Alessandra and
Sara (foreground) at the "Tel Hadya fun run"
Our friends were kids from all over the world who went to school with us, and as we got older, we increasingly hung out with local kids. There was a basketball club near our house where a group of local boys played and hung out – our first boyfriends were from this group. My sister Alessandra ended up marrying her childhood sweetheart, converting to Islam, and now she lives in Saudi Arabia and is raising six children!
We were lucky to have a teacher (an Australian from Sydney) who was on a campaign to give us an appreciation for where we were, and our history lessons often consisted of multiple-day bus tours throughout Syria to look at the ancient sites of whatever period we were studying. And because this area is the ‘cradle’ of our western civilisation, they were all there! Sumerians, Phoenicians, Assyrians, Romans, Ottomans, to name just a few. I remember really enjoying these trips.
Another very inspirational teacher for me was Nida Koudsi, the Arabic teacher, a strong, intelligent local lady who always had a twinkle of humour in her eye – she not only taught us the language, she also lay Islam and the Arabic culture out for us in a way we could appreciate and understand.
When we left Syria and moved to Switzerland, my trips back to Aleppo were the highlights of my year. I used to spend my days walking the old city, learning it by heart and trying to imprint it into my memory, and painting pictures of its nooks and crannies... its market stalls, its little hidden minarets, ancient carved doorways that would suddenly appear around the corner like hidden jewels... I’m going to auction off the prints of some of these paintings.
MT: Did you have much idea then about the way the country was run - were you at all frightened of the security people etc?
DC: From when we first moved there, we were aware that there were restrictions on our freedom – I think what we weren’t aware of until much later was the freedom we did enjoy as expats, compared to the local people. There were soldiers on many street corners with machineguns, barricaded behind sandbags, and we came to recognise the cars and headquarters of the secret police.
As young kids we were told “just don’t even mention the word ‘Israel’ here”. To some degree we were pretty oblivious, but there was an underlying sense of having to behave a certain way. Not for religious reasons – Syria was run by a secular government and there was a sense of religious tolerance, especially towards the Christian community.
Also the Hama massacre happened while we were there, and Aleppo stayed pretty calm... we never felt threatened. It was only later, when we were a bit older, that we realised the extent to which the local people were affected by the lack of freedom of speech and the influence of the secret police, or Mukhabarat.
MT: Do you think your early experiences of living in Aleppo have influenced the sort of adult you have become and if so how?
DC: I think living in Aleppo influenced me more than most things in my childhood.
Perhaps the most important thing is that it made me feel very much like I’m a citizen of the world, and the value of trying to be a contributor, rather than just a recipient.
It made me see that there are many ways of doing things, whether it’s getting from A to B, growing or procuring food, relating to others, and respecting customs and traditions even if they’re not relevant or comprehensible to us.
It’s given me a sense of trying to act respectfully wherever I go, whether it’s in my dress or behaviour or language – I guess it taught me the value of ‘blending in’, because you learn so much more about people and places, and you get access to experiences that might otherwise stay closed (I’m writing this during my last few days of a month in India, where this is all very applicable!). Other things that come to mind.... easily understanding all sorts of accents ... a love for weird and wonderful food... getting a bit annoyed when people who have no understanding or experience of Islam or the Arab world launch into the usual critical diatribes... and a sense of gratitude for what I’ve got and where I live.
MT: Do you have many friends or family still in Aleppo and or Syria today?
DC: My father and his wife left Syria just before the unrest began in earnest. I believe most foreigners have gone. I know that a few of my Syrian friends have left the country too. There are still a few friends there – I’m mainly in touch with an old schoolmate, (name withheld Ed.), who works for the charity we’re aiming to raise funds for with this auction.
MT: Do you know if they are ok?
DC: It’s hard to know from day to day, as things can happen very quickly. I’ll hear nothing for a while, and then suddenly there’s been a bombing somewhere (e.g. the university bombings not too long ago).
MT: Are there family/friends you know of directly who have been impacted by the fighting?
DC: Everyone in Aleppo is impacted by the fighting. From what I hear, there’s an effort to go about normal life, or as normal as it can be under the circumstances. Power cuts, inconsistent communication, maybe water cuts as well, no real job or career prospects, I imagine that food may be tricky to get sometimes, access to doctors and hospitals is more difficult, and then of course the constant threat of bombs and gunfire.
MT: Do you know if the house/s where you lived have been under fire?
DC: I don’t know, but it’s heartwrenching to see images of the streets where I played, or scenes that I painted, turned into burned-out, shot up and rubble-ised disaster areas. I have trouble believing that 4000 years of history is getting smashed – let alone the people who have lived there in peace for untold generations.
MT: Tell us about the auction and what you hope to achieve with it?
DC: Well, I had been thinking for a while that I’d like to raise money to send to Syria, but it took a while to find somewhere to send it to... the conflict has been so cut off from information and aid, it seems. It was Anne Cole who suggested we do something, and that made me look a bit harder – I contacted (name withheld) and found out that he’s working with internally displaced people – thousands of them – mainly providing food and finding shelter for them.
Dani (right) and Alessandra amongst the ruins of
Ancient Syria (thought to be at Apamea)
So the idea is that people will bring items that are in good nick but they no longer want or need, and we’ll auction them off, collect the money and send it to Aleppo.
MT: Who or what organisation will the proceeds go to?
DC: The parent organisation is called the Jesuit Refugee Service - (click here)
MT: Do you have an auctioneer lined up for the event?
DC: We’ve nominated Peter Jackson and there may be a couple of other guest appearances too.
MT: Any other entertainment - music etc?
DC: So far the Aquapella Choir have been approached and there may be more musos depending on availability.
Details of the Magnetic Island Syrian refugee fundraising auction are:
Where: Anne Cole’s residence, 93 mandalay Ave, Nelly Bay
When: saturday February 9 from 6.30pm
What to bring: An auctionable item and a plate of middle eastern style food.
For further information call Anne Cole on 047822795
Interviewer: George Hirst
Photos: Dani Ceccarelli