I’m delighted to welcome Ammar Habib back to Chat About Books today to tell us all about his new release…..
The Heart of Aleppo: A Story of the Syrian Civil War
Young Adult/Contemporary/Current Events
After standing for over 7,000 years, Aleppo’s ruin came overnight. Separated from his family during the night the rebels attacked the city, thirteen-year-old Zaid Kadir is lost in the middle of a war zone. Alongside his friends, he is forced to survive the dangers of a civil war he does not even fully understand. Zaid witnesses the destruction of the brutal Syrian Civil War as it grows more deadly by the day and rips his city apart. However, as he braves this destruction, as he desperately tries to survive this catastrophe, he discovers something. Zaid realizes that it is in the darkest hours when humanity’s spirit of hope burns brightest.
About the Author
Ammar Habib is a bestselling and award-winning author who was born in Lake Jackson, Texas in 1993. Ammar enjoys crafting stories that are not only entertaining but will also stay with the reader for a long time. Ammar presently resides in his hometown with his family, all of whom are his biggest fans. He draws his inspiration from his family, imagination, and the world around him.
Social Media Links
In conjunction with the release of The Heart of Aleppo, I am running a giveaway from July 26th to August 3rd. The prize of the giveaway is a signed copy of my national award-winning novel, Memories of My Future. Memories of My Future is a historical/inspirational novel that was published in 2016. It received several accolades after its release, including the Independent Press Award in May 2017.
Link to Giveaway:
Why Ammar wrote The Heart of Aleppo:
I personally believe that the Syrian Civil War is one of this generation’s greatest tragedies. With the way it is proceeding, it’ll be remembered by future generations in the same manner that we remember the Rwandan genocide and the Bosnian War of the 1990s.
The motivation for writing The Heart of Aleppo was simple: I wished to bring more global attention to this crisis. Although the characters are fictitious, this novel accurately depicts the events that transpired in Aleppo during the summer of 2012. I hope that reading this will lead readers to have a greater understanding of the plight those in Syria face, as well as those in other war-torn regions. If this work helps garner more attention for those in Syria, then I will have considered this project a success.
In an over-politicized world, my wish is for this work to humanize those we call “refugees”. The Heart of Aleppo is not about the politics of the Syrian Civil War or any other conflict. Its aim is not to convince readers to support any faction or political party. Instead, this story is about the unbreakable spirit of humanity. It is about how humanity often shows its true strength during the darkest times.
I truly hope that these themes of hope and strength will resonate with readers. I know that simply writing this The Heart of Aleppo changed me as a person, and it made me more aware of everything that transpires in the world around me. Although the world will never be perfect, I believe that if we keep our faith in the human spirit and keep striving to always better ourselves and those around us, then we can create a little piece of heaven on earth.
Writing Playlist for The Heart of Aleppo
1. “Sadness and Sorrow”
2. “Sound of Hugh Glass”
4. “Man of the World”
First excerpt from The Heart of Aleppo:
Two days before Nabeel leaves for the last time, I find him standing at the kitchen counter with his friend, Zakariah. I don’t know his rank, but Zakariah serves directly under Nabeel in the army and only lives two miles down the road. The two of them always seem to be on leave at the same time.
Their voices are low, almost secretive, but I catch the look in Nabeel’s eye. Except back then, I didn’t recognize it.
“What are you guys talking about?”
Seeing me enter and hearing my voice, they both look my way before exchanging glances. That gleam in Nabeel’s eyes disappears.
I excitedly run up to the two of them. “Tell me!”
Nabeel looks back down at me as he stops leaning against the counter. Reaching down, he ruffles my hair. “You’re too young to know about that, Zaid.”
“Aww, what’s that about? I’m not part of the group now—”
My brother playfully flicks me on the forehead as he crouches down a little. “I’m sorry, buddy. Maybe next time.”
“You’re always saying that.”
Zakariah laughs as he comes closer to me. He puts his hand on my shoulder. “That’s just not fair, Nabeel. You’re a horrible brother for leaving Zaid out like that.”
I see a concerned expression momentarily wash over Nabeel’s face.
However, Zakariah glances up at Nabeel and shoots him a quick wink as he continues. “Why don’t I just tell you then?”
My eyes light up. “Really! You’re the best, Zakariah.”
Coming to his knees, he puts his arm around my shoulders and leans close, acting as if he is about to tell me the world’s biggest secret. “You see, Zaid, your brother and I were having a discussion about which one of us would win in a wrestling match. We all know that I’m stronger, but he just won’t admit it.” He sighs and shakes his head as he looks back at Nabeel. “But you agree with me, don’t you, Zaid?”
I don’t hesitate to respond. “No way!”
He moves his head back in surprise. “Huh?”
“Sure you’re pretty strong, but my brother would beat you!”
Zakariah is slow to reply, taken aback by the statement. “C’mon, Zaid. You do realize that I’m older than him—”
“Age has nothing to do with it, Zakariah! My brother was the school’s wrestling champion. He wouldn’t lose to you.” I whip my head to look back at Nabeel. “Right, big brother?”
Nabeel is slightly smiling now.
With a chuckle, Zakariah rises back to his feet. “Alright, alright. Well, I best be off, Nabeel. We can finish our little discussion next time.”
Nabeel shakes his hand. “Give my greetings to your folks.”
“I will.” Zakariah grabs my shoulder and gives it a squeeze. “See you, Zaid—no, sorry: Dr. Zaid.”
Did he really just call me that? How did he know?
Hearing Zakariah’s footsteps grow faint, I turn back to Nabeel. He opens the fridge door and rummages through it.
“You told him?” I ask.
Nabeel doesn’t look my way. “I tell everyone.”
I watch him pull out a pound of chicken meat rolled up in brown paper as he turns back to me.
“Aisha is visiting her parents tonight and Abbi and Ummi are having dinner with friends. So looks like it’ll just be you and me.” Nabeel shoots me a wink. “I’m going to make some shwarma for dinner. Just the way you like it: tomatoes, lettuce, onions, lots of chicken, and even more spices.” He starts setting the ingredients on the countertop. “I went by Sohail’s shop today. The mangoes he was selling were ripe, so I picked some up. We can have them for dessert. That is if we have room.”
He looks back at me with a smile, but it fades when he sees my expression.
“What’s wrong, Zaid?”
I glance at the ground before replying, “I don’t think I want to be a doctor anymore.”
“…I don’t think I can.”
He takes a few steps towards me before crouching down to come to my eye level, urging me to continue.
“Ms. Farooq said I’m not smart enough.”
“I got the lowest score in the class on the last math test. She said I’m not cut out for it.”
“I didn’t realize Ms. Farooq could tell the future.”
I don’t respond.
“Did you tell Abbi or Ummi?”
I shake my head.
He takes a deep breath and glances down at my feet. His eyes look like he’s weighing something, wondering if he should say it or not. When he does speak, his voice is different. It’s no longer speaking to me as his younger brother but as his friend. “You know, Zaid, Zakariah was joking about what we were talking about.”
He nods before his gaze focuses back on me. “Not even a few weeks ago, my soldiers and I were in a bit of a… well, situation.”
“We were in Homs. The people we were fighting—the rebels—had heavy control of some neighborhoods. We were trying to take them back. It was…”
A silence ensues as he searches for the word.
“Difficult.” Nabeel pauses. “Some soldiers were pinned. The army tried an airstrike to break the rebel lines. It was a heavy bombardment that leveled entire streets. The cost was high. But we couldn’t break their lines.”
I don’t interrupt him.
“Our intelligence said it was a lost cause. We were ordered to abandon the soldiers. They said we would lose more men than we would save. But even the army’s ‘intelligence’ doesn’t know everything.” He looks away. “Zakariah and I disobeyed our commanding officer. As did our men. Those soldiers that were pinned weren’t just men. They were my friends… my brothers. And I would never abandon them, even if it led to…”
For a moment, his eyes again display that same gleam, but it disappears as quickly as it came.
His gaze again meets mine. It’s firmer this time, stronger. “It doesn’t matter what people say, Zaid. It doesn’t matter what the facts say. All that matters is what you say. And, maybe more importantly, what you do.”
I hang on his words, unable to say anything.
“Why do you want to be a doctor, Zaid?”
“I’ve always wanted to.”
“Because… I don’t want to see people suffer. I… I want to be the one to help others. I want to save lives, make a difference and put others before myself. I want to make this world a better place. Just like the Imam always talks about.”
Nabeel smiles. “Never forget that. And never go back on your word. No matter what happens. Please never forget one thing, Zaid: I love you. No matter the circumstance—no matter if I’m so far from you that you may never see me again, know that I’m with you.” He presses his finger against my heart. “I believe in you, Zaid.”
Second Excerpt from The Heart of Aleppo:
The foul stench is everywhere. It floods the buildings and road. It’s in every crevice. It’s soaked into the very brick and mortar of these streets I used to know.
We walk in a single file: Salman up front and me in the back. The sack quickly grows heavy on my shoulder, soon seeming as if it’s filled with bricks. But I trudge on. The weight of the sack is nothing compared to what my heart is feeling right now as I see the city I call home—a city that has stood for over 7,000 years—suddenly turned into wreckage.
Not long into our journey, the last rays of sunlight disappear over the horizon and leave the forsaken city shrouded in darkness. The few street lamps and lights still standing are not illuminated. With smog encompassing the city, the stars and moon are nowhere to be seen tonight. Neither is a single stray animal. Surrounded by a thick forest of smoke and fog, I can’t even see ten feet in front of me.
But the night is not a peaceful one. The only constant reassurance that the city is not abandoned is the echo of far-off chaos and nearby flames. Thunderous explosions sound off like clockwork in the distance as they rock the city. We can’t even go a block without hearing one or feeling the ground lightly tremor beneath our feet. The first few cause me to flinch, but I slowly grow immune to the tremors. However, even with all the smoke, we almost constantly see the dim light of carnage coming from the direction of the Saif Al-Dawla District.
July nights were always warm in Aleppo, but the smoke and smoldering ruins make it all the more unbearable. The heat goes right through me. I was wise enough to bring a small towel from Jari’s kitchen and am forced to use it every twenty minutes or so to wipe off my face.
Every now and then, there is a burning vehicle, trash can, or building that provides some illumination. I usually hear the crackling flames moments before the bright fire cuts through the smoke. But even in the darkness, even when there are no flames to provide any light, I make out the silhouettes of all the destruction around us. Some buildings are completely obliterated like the one across from Jari’s shop. They’re nothing now but a mountain of brick, mortar, and ash. Others have a damaged portion or have been shot up. Debris and rubble spill onto the road. Some buildings tumbled onto one another, creating even more destruction. It’s everywhere you look. You can’t escape it.
The streets are dead silent, but the silence is not without a sound. It’s the sound of desolation. The sound of destruction. The sound of terror.
Not even a day and a half ago, we walked from school to the bus stop. The roads were crowded with cars, trucks, and buses blaring their horns. The sidewalks were packed with pedestrians and merchants. Now, it’s a ghost town. It’s as if there was never any life here.
The city is… hollow.
A wall of smoke and smog surrounds me on all sides, preventing me from truly seeing anything clearly. Is it a blessing or a curse? I don’t see any of the destruction until I’m right on top of it. If Salman was even five more steps ahead of me, he would be lost behind the wall. We’re out on an open street; yet, it feels as if I am trapped in a prison. The dark walls of this prison follow me, not allowing me to escape their grasp.
We’re not alone. Walking through the darkness and smog, we cross paths with another group within the first fifteen minutes of the sun setting. I hear their footsteps first. It’s faint, almost inaudible. I think that it’s just my mind playing tricks on me. But then they step right out of the thick smoke, walking towards us. My heart instinctively spikes up in fear before I realize what they are: a father and his daughter. The girl is maybe a year younger than me. She’s holding her father’s hand as he keeps her close.
The father’s clothes are covered in dirt and dust. He does not pay us any heed. His downcast eyes are red and his beard appears a bit wet. He acts oblivious to everything around him, except for his daughter. He holds her as if he would die before ever letting go. My gaze locks with the girl’s as they pass right by us. Her eyes are just as tired as her father’s, and her gaze is still wide-eyed as she looks at the abyss around her. I witness countless emotions in them: confusion, fear, sorrow. They’re the same eyes as mine.
At that moment, I feel something. A connection. We’re strangers, yet comrades. I’ve never met her, but I know what she has been through. I know she witnessed her city suddenly torn apart.
I look away from her as she and her father continue on their path and we continue on ours. With every passing second, the echo of their footsteps grows fainter and fainter until they have again disappeared in the black smog. Without uttering a word, I pray that God keeps a hedge of protection over them.
Each street we come on to is the same as the previous one: buildings have been turned to ashes, vehicles are blown to bits, wreckage is everywhere, and the innocent have suffered. I do what Salman ordered: look straight ahead and ignore any corpses. Don’t even glance at them. They’re on every street, nearly littering some roads. I see them in my peripheral vision. Sometimes, a fire is reflecting off of them. Other times, it’s just their silhouettes. I try to make avoiding them into a game. But my mind is too aware of the reality to do that. I think Salman purposely goes around as many as he can so that we don’t walk over them.
The foul stench of carnage is strong on nearly every street. The vile odor follows us no matter where we go. If I had any food in my stomach, I would have thrown it up long ago. Every half hour, we see somebody cut through the fog and appear into view. Sometimes it’s a traveling group. Other times, it’s a person sleeping in an alley or sitting with their head in their hands. Hardly any of them give us a glance.
Every step is harder than the last. My feet become weighted stones. I almost can’t feel the uneven and cracked concrete underneath me. It’s as if I’m moving in a trance. I don’t know where I am or where I’m going. I’m simply walking through the abyss and listening to the only sound: my soft footsteps.
The longer we travel and the heavier my sack becomes, the more a fear grips me. The fear that we don’t know if we’re fleeing danger or walking into a den of hungry wolves. The fear that by the time we do reach home, what happened to Jari may have already happened to everyone.
We keep moving. We stay on the side of the road. Every once in a while, we climb over or go under some debris. Salman and Fatima don’t slow down a bit. I don’t know how long it’s been. However, after a while, I start having a hard time keeping up with them. It must be at least two hours before my feet begin feeling numb. And another half hour before I completely lose sensation in them. They’re so tired now that it hurts just to take another step. But Salman and Fatima don’t stop or complain and neither do I.
Every time I look up above, hoping to catch some sight of the heavens, all I see is smoke. It’s blocking out any light from the stars. There will be no relief tonight.
I notice a silhouette up ahead. It… it appears to be the minaret of a masjid. Hope is suddenly injected into my heart. With every step, the minaret breaks out of the smoke, and I can better perceive the masjid itself. I see its domed roof. It’s standing tall above all the destruction. If it’s still standing, it’ll be safe inside, right? Nobody will come into a masjid and harm us.
But then I see the entrance. The wall has collapsed in on itself. It’s been blown into a pile of rubble, completely blocking the front doors. One of the minarets has broken off and fallen straight down, smashing into the marble tiled courtyard. The minaret lies broken and scattered, no more recognizable than any of the other ruined buildings.
As the flames of another wreckage reflect off of the minaret and masjid, I stare at it in disbelief for a long moment. I almost ask Salman and Fatima if we should try to go around the masjid and look for the women’s entrance, but they hardly even give it a glance before continuing down the broken road. And so, without a word, I follow.
We keep trudging through the darkness, not knowing what lays even twenty feet ahead of us. For a little while, I think I hear some gunfire a few streets down. It spikes up for a moment, breaking the silence. We all stop. But then it dies off… and we keep moving.
There is a slight nighttime breeze long into our journey. The wind blows through the hollow streets, but it’s barely strong enough to be felt. However, as soon as it hits me, I look up and thank Allah. Just this drop is enough to quench my thirst for a while.
A few blocks later, I think I hear some sirens not too far away. They sound like police sirens. Or maybe an ambulance’s. Salman and Fatima don’t seem to react to it. However, the noise disappears as if it was never there, just like everything else tonight. Maybe my mind is playing tricks on me. We march on.
The longer and further we go, the louder the sound of silence becomes. It grips my soul like an unrelenting leech. It speaks into my heart, letting me know just how forsaken these streets have become. Is the entire city as desolate as here?
The silence is faintly broken by the crackling of a fire. It sounds like burning debris. I see it up in the distance as it dimly breaks through the mist. A few steps closer and I notice that it’s coming from an alley up ahead.
There’s a large heap of wreckage between us and the fire. Salman nearly runs into the debris before stopping. It’s about twice as tall as him. The mountain is made up of a bunch of bricks from a toppled building that’s overrun onto the road. He looks to the right and then the left. There’s no way around it.
Salman expertly climbs it. His movements are slow. The higher he goes, the more loose pieces of debris he unintentionally knocks down. With each move, he makes sure to find a stable footing before taking the next step. He arrives at the top with relative ease. Finding a firm area to plant himself, he turns around and offers Fatima his hand. After she takes it, he pulls her up and over to the other side. It’s almost effortless for him.
He firmly takes my hand next. As he pulls me with a heave, I grab a piece of debris that is jutting out and kick off of another to help push myself towards him. He lets out a groan as he yanks me upwards. The heavy sack isn’t making it any easier. I sense it pulling on my shoulder, forcing a pang of pain to run through it. My arm feels like it’s going to break off. As soon as I’m at eye-level with the top of the wreckage, I grab it with my free arm and help pull myself up. I groan in pain, my face turning red. My entire body is shaking as I dig deep to find my strength. Going up a few more inches, I throw my chest onto the mount and quickly worm myself onto it. As I do, a jutting brick’s edge sharply jabs into my side, but I barely give it a wince.
Salman hops down to join Fatima. I follow him. My feet hit the ground hard, shooting a shot of pain up my legs. The sack violently smashes against my sore upper knee, and I almost fall over before Salman catches me. That hurt more than I thought it would. As I rise back up, the foul odor immediately hits me.
The fear-striking silence surrounds me once more. It’s my only companion. The hollow sound of silence is worse than gunfire and explosions. Worse than screams. Worse than terror. Because mixed into this silence is abandonment and suffering.
And more than anything else, this silence is the silence of the unknown.