The first day of exams is always nerve-racking. After a month of preparation, students enter the university doors wondering if they are ready to face the challenge ahead. The draughty studios are quiet and cold, the drawing tables are perfectly spaced. You’re perched on a metal stool at your assigned seat according to a number posted on the door. Today, you are an official citizen practising official work.
Small, empty booklets are distributed. You write your name and student ID number in the left-hand corner and fold it over. A monitor passes by and glues the corner, staples it and signs across the seal to ensure fair, anonymous grading (and to discourage bribing the professors). The sheet of questions is passed out next.
You work on the exam while shivering in your coat. When you finish, you wait outside for your friends, perhaps at the top of the wide staircase, while checking your answers in the textbook. Perhaps you go down to the first floor cafeteria – the only properly heated space available for students. Perhaps you didn’t do that well, so you push open the glass double doors and walk home in disappointment. These details never change.
Twenty years ago, I was one of those first-year students on the first day of exams on a January afternoon in the faculty of architecture at the University of Aleppo. Except, unlike the students on January 15, 2013, after the exam, we were allstill alive.
For five years, I went back and forth between my home and the university, carrying my T-square ruler in one hand and a thick roll of drawings in the other. The large corner building – built in the shape of a pyramid with its top sliced off – was the first of the new faculties on the western expansion of the campus, facing the last row of dormitories. Since I graduated, other faculties have opened nearby, creating a new university centre.
Recently, the dormitories have been packed with internally displaced families instead of students. The area under regime control was always bustling with people, always busy, especially on the first day of exams.
When I was an architecture student, we rarely communicated with students from other fields and avoided the popular hangouts. We stuck together in our humble cafeteria and talked about ideas, designs and the future. We spent countless days and sometimes nights (universally known as “all-nighters”) in our studios. It was a small, tight-knit community of a mere 100 students in each year, unlike the thousands of students in other faculties who graduated without ever meeting their classmates.
When you study architecture, you learn to place yourself into a design to understand the space you are creating. We use the same technique as we watch the videos of the revolution. How does it feel to have your home destroyed? How does it feel to lose your child? How does it feel to be tortured? Last Tuesday, I didn’t need an abstract visualisation; I knew the space like it was my own home. I knew how it felt to be there, although I didn’t know how it felt tobe bombed there.
Architectural projects are plans suspended in the future. You labour over trace paper trying to create the always-elusive perfect plan. Inspiring professors taught us to believe that we could change the world with a building, a design, an idea. And we believed them. We believed utopia was within our grasp, we just had to make it.
But other ideas were stronger than ours. Ideas of intimidation lurked in the Baathist student union offices, ideas that convinced one student to spy on another, ideas that assured that you would never get a building permit or win a contracting bid without a regime partner or an official bribe. We were taught to keep our heads down and our mouths shut. These ideas were designed to break you.
It was these ideas that became concrete realities that eroded that utopian plan and offered few choices: give in, compromise or leave.
In 2011, people realised another choice: rise up. Many bloody months later, Syria is still a battleground between ideas of oppression and ideas of revolution. Often in this battle, tragedies are blamed on both sides – there is no clear perpetrator, only scores of victims.
So it was last week, when two explosions broke the students’ concentration. Two explosions took hundreds of lives, ending the plans and dreams of future architects, engineers, teachers, citizens.
Mothers search for pieces of their children in the rubble. One finds her daughter’s shoe, another finds her son’s arm. Drafting tables, covered with blood, are used to carry bodies. The glass facade is shattered. The photographs of the dead emerge, young, bright students who were nervous that morning, who thought flipping over the question sheet would be the most terrifying moment of the day. They sat in the studios writing their exams with gloves on, then waited for their friends at the third-floor railing overlooking the skylit mezzanine.
Everyone knew we were different. We were invincible. We were going to change the world with our pencils and imagination. But there was a lesson that no young idealist ever believes: our utopian plan is flawed. Eventually, the world would change us, in ways we could never imagine.
Amal Hanano is a pseudonym for a Syrian American writer
On Twitter: @amalhanano