We have seen the heartrending images of babies crying on missile-shelled streets, heard the furor of debate over desperate people seeking shelter from a war-torn country, but rare is the on-the-scene tale in English that gives us a window to feel it all up close. This coming-of-age story starts with a 13-year-old Syrian boy running for his life through a battle zone to no safety at all.
The narrative then slams backward, to a place any young person will recognize: the classroom and a tedious lesson. The teacher is driving home the message of what Assad’s presidency has meant to the people of Syria. Zaid’s classmate Ahmed is one who, echoing his father, presumes Assad is a great man who helped the economy.
Readers who have not grown up in dictatorships may find it strange that school lessons include whimsical “leader” stories given on a daily basis. Such propaganda is a reality that children in free societies are spared.
Zaid’s life seems normal in the sense that families get up, go to work or school, and come home to eat and sleep, but his 13-year-old neighbor and classmate, Fatima, notices that nine students are absent.
The Heart of Aleppo is a courageous and versatile account of young Zaid, who discovers the “heart” of his home city even as it is destroyed. His life moves from some semblance of normality living over his rug merchant father’s shop to learning how to survive with Fatima and her brother Salman as adults die around them. Zaid comes to question every notion or tradition which structured his life before chaos. Prefabricated ideas of who and what represent safety fall away as government soldiers and rebels fire through civilians to dominate each other. There is no safety.
Ammar Habib is a prolific young American author who manages to make a 7,000-year-old city under onslaught come to life. Readers will feel they are running in the rubble and understand what it must mean when there is no way to stay out of a fight—not when it has engulfed an entire country.