In Aleppo, necessity is the mother of invention – by Karam Al-Masri
ALEPPO, Syria: Cigarettes stuffed with grape leaves instead of tobacco, gardens on bombed-out rooftops and batteries powered by rusted bicycles: In Syria’s besieged eastern Aleppo, necessity is the mother of invention. More than 250,000 people have been under a government siege in the rebel-held side of the northern city since July, without access to aid, food, fuel, medicine or even cigarettes.
The blockade has sparked severe shortages and exorbitant prices for the few basic goods available, and has forced residents to find innovative ways to cope.
“We’ve been forced back into the Stone Age,” says Khaled Kurdiyah, who lives in Aleppo’s eastern district of Karam al-Jabal.
Kurdiyah is the mastermind behind “the can” – a metal container outfitted with a fan to create a highly controlled wood fire that acts as a substitute for a gas stove.
“I punched a hole in a used ghee can that we were going to throw away and fixed a fan on it,” he explains to AFP.
The pudgy 25-year-old breaks up a few pieces of wood and tosses them into the dented container, lighting a fire and crowning it with a teapot.
“This way, we can direct the flames from the wood in a certain direction to create an even bigger fire while rationing our firewood,” he says.
Like many basic goods, gasoline and diesel are increasingly precious in Aleppo’s east, where state-run electricity is mostly cut.
Some residents have developed a system to melt scraps of plastic into fuel, which is then used to run electricity generators.
But the process can produce unexpected explosions and be deadly.
So Abu Rahmo has developed a cleaner form of energy, using the pedalling power of residents.
In his workshop in the Ansari neighborhood, the 48-year-old mechanic welds an alternator, a small generator used to charge car batteries, onto the back of an old bicycle.
“We have neither electricity nor generators … So I take the dynamos out of cars and fix them onto bicycles to charge car batteries,” he says.
The batteries can then be used to turn on lights, charge phones, and “even power washing machines,” Abu Rahmo says.
The balding Aleppine sells one bicycle every few days at a price of about 10,000 Syrian pounds ($20).
Once the sale has been confirmed, he carries the contraption to the buyer’s house for a demonstration of how it works and any final adjustments.
A lanky teenager slips his sandaled feet into the pedals of a recently sold bicycle, pumping until the attached lightbulb flickers on.
Just a few streets away in the Kalasseh district, 28-year-old Amir Sendeh unlocks a metal door, disappearing into a small outdoor courtyard. He checks on a handful of scrawny chickens – invaluable in a place like Aleppo – before shuffling up a flight of stairs to his roof.
There, white foam boxes are organized in neat rows, some of them lush with bright green sprouts.
“I bought some seeds and planted them on the roof of my house,” says Sendeh, caressing the plants.
Since government forces surrounded Aleppo in July, food items have become hard to find or prohibitively expensive, or both. The price of sugar has gone up nearly tenfold to 3,500 pounds ($7) per kilo, and salad ingredients like parsley or tomatoes are at least five times more costly than before the siege.
So some residents of Aleppo have planted small rooftop gardens to harvest their own food. “Right now, I’ve got parsley, radishes, and soon I’ll have some spinach and chard,” Sendeh says proudly.
In moments of calm, residents of east Aleppo sit along bombed-out streets and deftly roll cigarettes – but instead of tobacco, they stuff them with dried, shredded grape leaves.
“A pack of cigarettes is worth more than gold these days, and the price goes up every day,” says Ahmad Oweija, 43.
Residents now refer to real cigarettes, stuffed with tobacco, as “foreign.” They sell for about 2,000 Syrian pounds ($4) each, he says.
Before the siege, that was the price for a whole pack of 20.
Oweija sells hand-rolled cigarettes filled with vine leaves that he picks, dries out, then grinds up in the Bustan al-Qasr district.
If he has real tobacco to spare, he sprinkles a small amount in each cigarette – just for taste.
With real cigarettes so rare and costly, they even serve as their own form of currency, Oweija claims.
“I know people who have bought houses and cars for a few packs of foreign cigarettes.”
Syrian Amir Sendeh, 28 years old, tends to plants in his small rooftop garden, in the Kalasseh district of besieged eastern Aleppo, on October 31, 2016. AFP / KARAM AL-MASRI