I will hurt, heal, and hurt again.
Every year since I turned 19, I have made an annual winter pilgrimage to New York City. It has become a sort of touchstone for me, a way to reconnect, recharge, and start the New Year off right. As a proud Philly Girl, NYC is not home; rather it is an adventure. That big city up north has always called to my more primal self: the one that loves to speed walk, get lost in museums, and dance through crowds like some ultra-modern form of ballet. In New York, you feel like you are at the nexus of it all, the whole world converging in one glorious, exhausting, and inspiring opus. For me, an integral part of the beating heart of NYC is the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Unfortunately, I don’t make it there every year, sometimes I supplement with other museums, but there is nowhere more New York to me than the Met.
I really cannot understate how important that museum is to me. Particularly a room in the back of the second floor called the Damascus Room. It is a dark, wood-paneled alcove with a small fountain inset into the marble floor that makes a beautiful tinkling noise. The wood on the walls is carved and filigreed, alternating between deep umber and golden amber. Pottery sits on the shelves covered in exquisite glazes; the floor is a kaleidoscope of intricate geometric patterns. This is the room where I first fell in love with Islamic art and aesthetic. The soft, voluptuous shape of the pottery and glasswork, the insane intricacy of the arabesques, marble floors and tapestries, the calligraphy and the architecture, it all calls to me in a way much stronger than the art from any other region. Art in the Middle East varies a lot from Morocco to Egypt, Iran to Pakistan and beyond. But it was in this room named after Damascus, the old capital city of Syria, where I first fell in love with it all.
On this return to my personal Mecca, I approached with a deep sadness. I could not help but think that if this room had remained in Damascus, Syria, rather then being donated to the Met, there is a good chance it would have been destroyed in the current Civil War. In fact, if it had been in eastern Aleppo, rather than Damascus, it is almost guaranteed that it would have been. My visit to the Met this year came on the heels of Assad’s victory. For the first time since 2012 Aleppo is entirely in the hands of the government forces.
The night Aleppo fell, like so many nights in this tail end of 2016, I was unable to sleep. I flicked quietly through my Periscope app, watching as those broadcasting from Syria said goodbye to their audiences, unsure they would live to broadcast again in the morning. I read the next day that arrangements had been made to safely remove citizens, and was still reading two days later when those arrangements broke down after nearly 100 people were shot by pro-government forces as even as they reached their supposedly safe convoys.
While significant regions outside Aleppo remain in the hands of rebel forces and Kurdish militias, many feel that Assad will win this war. Those that have not surrendered face a future where cities are reclaimed by the government much in the same fashion as Aleppo: with bombing, chemical warfare, and utter disregard for the lives of local Syrians. And yet here I stood, thousands of miles away, in this piece of Syria hermetically sealed off in the heart of New York City. The marble fountain tinkled eternally, dim light forever bouncing off the beautiful curves of the pottery. In my eyes, this room was just as stunning as it had always been, despite the utter devastation of the country that gave birth to its’ beauty. I was conflicted. In my reverie, I could not decide if its unchanged state mocked the thousands that have died, perpetuating unchanged and uncaring as Syria crumbles, or if it served as a continuing testament to the beauty that has been destroyed.
Eventually, I decided the latter. Like so much in the wake of 2016, Syria will never be the same. So much has been destroyed. And yet this room still exists. The Syrian people still live, struggle, and fight. The deep well of beauty that gave birth to this room, the Al-Madina Souq, the Great Mosque of Aleppo, even the ancient city of Palmyra, reside in the people of Syria, not only the places they have built. They now face a great diaspora, spread thin as refugees across the world. As a Jew, I can feel their plight. Though they are unable to return home, I truly believe their presence will enrich whatever countries are lucky enough to give them shelter.
In many ways, this year’s touchstone trip to NYC was particularly important. It is almost New Year’s Eve, the death of 2016 and our birth into an uncertain 2017. I like to think that things will improve, yet at the moment I am unable to see the path to better things. As this New Year comes into focus, I see little that I find reassuring. I, unlike the Damascus Room, will grow and change in this next year. I will hurt, heal, and hurt again. Those I love will struggle, overcome, and encounter new obstacles. The world will strive to do better, yet over and over again fall short. And yet we will continue. As I turned my back to that exquisite little room I was greeted by the big, vibrant city of New York. I left the Met with the sunset, excited to see where the night would take me.