Zahed Katurji
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The last doctor out of eastern Aleppo: “You can’t just turn your back and walk away”

In 2011, he was playing a lot of basketball and learning German. Then everything changed. 

In early 2011, Zahed Katurji had just finished his medical studies in his home town. He spent his free time playing basketball, learning German – he was considering further studies abroad – and listening to his favourite heavy metal band, Korn.

Six years later, when he walks into the New Statesman office in London, it would be easy to mistake him for a regular media type, with his green sweater, fashionable hair cut – “Viking style” – and youthful appearance.

But for most of the time in between these two dates, Katurji, 31, has been Dr Hamza Al-Khatib, the manager of the Al Quds hospital, and one of the last doctors in eastern Aleppo, Syria.

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In 2011, Katurji was living with his family in the ancient city of Aleppo. Although his friends had been following events in Tunisia and Egypt, where protestors in the streets were overturning authoritarian regimes, Katurji wasn't that political. In March, after protests began in Syria, he watched coverage on both government and independent TV channels.

Then Syria’s dictatorial President, Bashar al-Assad, gave a speech. “He’s laughing,” Katurji thought, as Assad brushed over the deaths of protestors. At that moment: “I believed I should participate in [the protests] – it’s my country and that stupid man was the president of my country.”

With the army distracted by uprisings in other cities, whole neighbourhoods in the east of Aleppo threw off the authorities, aided by the newly-formed Free Syrian Army. Katurji started making the 30 minute commute every day from his family home in the west of the city to volunteer in Salaheddine, one of the rebel neighbourhoods in the east. “In the first months it was very easy,” he recalls. “There were two main streets with snipers on them, but you could skip those.”

Fearing for his family’s safety, he renamed himself Dr Hamza, choosing the name of a 13-year-old boy who was arrested, tortured and killed for protesting the siege of his city in southern Syria, Daraa. In late 2012, he started working at Al Quds hospital, in the emergency department. Dr Hamza was one of between 30 and 70 doctors, serving a population that fluctuated between a high of more than a million and lows in the hundreds of thousands as bombing intensified.

The work was relentless, and as the manager of the hospital as well as a doctor, Katurji often lost track of the hours. One day, the radiographer refused to take any more x-rays.

“I became angry with him," says Katurji. "He showed me the records. Between 8am and 5pm, he had taken 360 x-rays. He told me: ‘I will become sick and the machine will explode if I take extra pictures.’” Katurji realised he must have treated more than 400 injured patients that day. He felt suddenly exhausted.

Child rescued in rebel-held Aleppo after reported barrel bomb attack, November 2016 

Katurji first realised the revolution would not be swift in September 2012, when one of his friends was killed by a sniper. By 2013, he had lost three friends, and the threat was increasingly from the skies. Everyone in eastern Aleppo seemed to have lost someone. Assad’s regime dropped barrel bombs on the inhabitants of eastern Aleppo – breaking international codes of law – and the survivors turned up at the hospital.

One case that sticks in Katurji’s mind was that of a six-year-old boy, whose foot was crushed after a barrel bomb hit his building. “The only thing we could do was amputate it,” he says. The boy overheard the discussion, and understood what was about to happen.

“He grabbed me and said 'Please uncle, don’t let them amputate my foot, I will be well-behaved',” Katurji recalls. “That stuck in my mind. He thought he’d done something wrong.”

As the years passed, and the conflict intensified, the doctors saw children who knew nothing but the thunder of enemy helicopters. “They don’t know what a playground is, they don’t know what football is, they don’t know what music is,” he says. “They grew up mostly in basements.”

Katurji himself had married by then, to the video journalist Waad al-Kateab. In December 2015, they had a daughter. Still, he did not think about trying to leave. “As a doctor, seeing all the casualties I had to deal with – you can’t just turn your back and walk away. There were hundreds of thousands of civilians. My daughter wasn’t the only child in Aleppo.”

But by then, it was Russia launching air strikes. The intervention would prove crucial. A newly empowered Assad regime began the siege of Aleppo.

***

In April 2016, the regime targeted Al Quds itself. A paediatrician was among the 55 dead.

The attack was recorded on CCTV, and reported by the charity backing the hospital, Médecins Sans Frontières. Yet by now, the truth was under siege was well. In a widely circulated video, a Western pro-regime journalist Eva Bartlett claimed the attack was nothing more than rebel propaganda. As the siege intensified, so did an online narrative which claimed that the people holding out in eastern Aleppo were terrorists and Islamist fighters, not civilians.

“It was very silly,” says Katurji. “A paediatrician ‘treating terrorists’ – it wasn’t making any sense.”

In eastern Aleppo, he claims, the Free Syrian Army fighters were well protected in bunkers on the front line. The patients turning up at Al Quds were civilians. “Most of the shelling by the regime and the Russians would be over the homes, the bakeries – they were trying to kill any life in the areas that were not controlled by Assad.”

While the international community stood by, the regime besieged eastern Aleppo in July 2016. The siege meant that doctors could no longer receive supplies from Turkey, and fruit and vegetables disappeared altogether. “My daughter never tasted bananas or apples,” says Katurji of the time. 

For years, Aleppo had been divided between the regime-held west and the rebel-held east. But in November 2016, pro-Assad forces broke the stalemate. The world watched as they closed in, street by street, bomb by bomb, on a besieged population. Journalists and activists in eastern Aleppo released what they believed might be their final messages.

Then, under a last-minute deal brokered by Turkey and Russia, an evacuation was announced. Katurji was tasked with overseeing the medical part. “It took about seven days,” he says. With attacks on aid workers, reports of hostages and Russian and Iranian fighters manning the road out of the city, he contests the idea that the evacuation offered any safe route out. Nevertheless, he acknowledges, “unfortunately there was no other choice”. He was the last doctor to leave eastern Aleppo, on one of the last coaches.

Katurji aka Dr Hamza, London, 2017

Katurji went first to Idlib, a rebel-held area in northwest Syria, and then to Turkey, where his medical credentials made it easier to cross the border (other refugees from eastern Aleppo were turned back or shot at when crossing the border). He was reunited with his family in the Turkish town of Gaziantep.

When I ask him what he has done since then, he smiles ruefully: “Nothing.” He and his wife are still trying to figure out the next steps. “For five or six years, we never thought further than the next six hours,” he says. “Because we never knew what exactly would happen.” Sometimes he just marvels at his daughter running down the road in Gaziantep: “She could never run in a street in Aleppo.”

If Katurji does have a mission, though, it is to raise awareness of the situation of those doctors in the remaining rebel-held areas of Syria. In 2013, the world recoiled after the Assad regime used chemical weapons on the inhabitants of Ghouta, a rebel-held area on the outskirts of Damascus. Four years later, 400,000 residents are under siege. In September 2017, pro-regime airstrikes hit hospitals in Idlib.  

“Aleppo isn’t the end,” Katurji says, as he prepares to leave the office and join the crowds in the darkening street. “What happened in Aleppo can happen and will happen somewhere else.”

Katurji is speaking at the School of Oriental and Asian Studies, London, on 2 November 2017. Details of the event are here.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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“Senior year burns brightly. There is a vividness in worlds coming to an end”: Lady Bird’s aesthetic of memory

“The way time rushes forward is a theme of the film, one scene tumbling into the next. We can never hold on to it.”

Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson is acutely aware of time. She knows that her trip with her mother to a Californian college and back took 21 hours and five minutes, the same amount of time it takes to listen to The Grapes of Wrath, in full, on cassette. She knows that Alanis Morisette wrote ‘Hand in My Pocket’ in “only ten minutes”. She knows that, tragically, UC Davis, the state college she is accepted into, is just thirty minutes away from her house – “less, if you’re driving fast.”

She is less sure on when the “normal time” to touch a penis or have sex is – and seems, as she reaches for a more cultured, more independent, more meaningful future, quite unaware that she is rapidly passing through a distinct and special period of her own life. “I wish I could live through something,” she sighs, staring out of the car window at her hometown of Sacremento as it literally and metaphorically rushes behind her, into her past.

Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird is a coming-of-age film: like most works that fall under that broad label, it is more nostalgically concerned with the age its protagonist is forced to leave behind than the age she is coming into. It’s a loving portrait of Lady Bird’s senior year, told in a series of stylised, rose-tinted vignettes: brief shots of girls slow dancing with each other at themed dances, of parents cheering at graduation and school plays, of boys’ names inked onto walls like a secret tattoo. “I only ever write from a place of love,” Gerwig (who both wrote and directed the film, which stars Saoirse Ronan as the titular central character) has told Vulture. .

At a glance, the structure of Gerwig’s film is deeply traditional: it covers one school year in full, from Lady Bird’s first day of senior year to her heading off to college. It’s a formula that many high school movies rely on: from coming-of-age films like Juno (which is interspersed with title cards reading “Spring”, “Summer”, and so on), Mean Girls (documenting Cady’s journey from outcast on the first day of the year to crowned queen bee at the Spring Fling to fully-functioning human on the first day of the next school year) and The Perks of Being A Wallflower, to franchises like High School Musical and Harry Potter. TV series, too, often build each season around an academic year: from Freaks and Geeks to Gilmore Girls to Gossip Girl: is it any wonder that K. Austin Collins, in The Ringer, writes that Lady Bird is “packing an entire TV season’s worth of material into under two hours”?

It’s not surprising that cultural representations of youth are constructed around the fundamental timetable of most teenagers’ lives. As Gerwig explains in Lady Bird’s production notes, “When you are a teenager in America, you organize your life around academic years: Freshman, Sophomore, Junior, Senior. It always made sense to me to tell the story of the whole year. The rituals of the year, the circularity.”

So Lady Bird passes through many scholastic events during her story (the first day back and the final graduation ceremony; the fall musical and the spring play; the ice breaking dance and the last prom). Gerwig’s shooting script is segmented by directions in bold: “SECOND SEMESTER” (p. 50), “SUMMER (AGAIN)” (p.100).

But even as Gerwig speaks of her awareness of the organised, ritualistic structure of a school year, she does so with fluidity. Her conception of time is much less rigid, than, say, JK Rowling’s meticulous plans for her plots to be precisely timed to interact with Halloween feasts, Christmas and Easter holidays, Quidditch matches and final exams. “The way time rushes forward is a theme of the film, one scene tumbling into the next. We can never hold onto it,” Gerwig continues. “It is something beautiful that you never appreciated and ends just as you come to understand it.”

“Senior year burns brightly and is also disappearing as quickly as it emerges. The way we end where we began. It is a spiralling upwards. There is a certain vividness in worlds that are coming to an end.”

When Gerwig was first discussing Lady Bird with her cinematographer, Sam Levy, she told him she wanted the film to “look and feel like a memory”. Together, they collated images they were drawn to and reproduced them using a cheap photocopier, repeating the process several times, until the pictures were distressed and distanced from their originals. This was, for them, “the aesthetic of a memory”. They deliberately used older lenses to try and recreate this effect on screen: specifically combining the Alexa Mini digital camera with Panavision lenses from the Sixties and Seventies. “We wanted the colour to look like a memory of a time, not to be literally exactly how the world looks,” Gerwig adds in her production notes, explaining that she and Levy based their colour palette on the paintings of Wayne Thiebaud and Gregory Kondos.

She wanted each shot to be presentational and specifically framed, “like a Medieval triptych”. “We talked about always having a sense of the proscenium,” she adds, “of the film unfolding in a series of placed scenes like Stations of the Cross presents the story of the Passion.”

We see Lady Bird in her school chapel on the first day of term, her chin rested on linked fingers, her eyes raised to a biblical tableau high above her. We see her shot upside down, her head on a paisley carpet, giggling while chomping down on un-consecrated wafers with her best friend, Julie. We see her lying on the grass of a rose garden at night with her first boyfriend, Danny, shouting to the stars. We see her in just a towel, with wet her, talking to her mother about her father’s depression in an unusually small voice. We see her sat in the back of her parent’s car, on her way to the airport as she leaves for college, while the sun sets. Such shots are imbued with the blush and ceremony that we retroactively ascribe to firsts and lasts, and to moments that acquire increased significance only in memory.

It is also the specificity of Lady Bird’s 2002 setting, with references as wide-reaching as Justin Timberlake’s ‘Cry Me A River’, clove cigarettes, Alanis Morisette and post-9/11 paranoia, that enables  it to achieve the status of memory for an adult audience. So, too, does its attention to the details of teenage life – a world of casts and nosebleeds as much as college applications and driving tests.

Lady Bird has been praised in several reviews (including those in the Guardian, the LA Times, The Atlantic and the AV Club) for its specificity, authenticity and sincerity. One of Gerwig’s other films, Frances Ha, opens with a montage that includes a few seconds of Gerwig, as Frances, reading Lionel Trilling’s work of literary criticism, Sincerity and Authenticity. “To praise a work of literature by calling it sincere,” Frances reads aloud, “is now at best a way of saying that, although it may be given no aesthetic or intellectual admiration –’”. We cut to a different moment. “Basically, the question she’s setting up is, what do we mean by sincerity, and does it diminish the thing?” Gerwig reflects to Vulture. “I’ve always felt like it heightens it.”  In Lady Bird, Gerwig attempts to unite deliberately stylised, artful aesthetics with an emotional authenticity and sincerity.

“I kept saying that I wanted to feel as if the film was ‘over there’”, she says in the production notes. “I always wanted to feel the frame and to feel the medium of cinema.”

Lady Bird is almost entirely composed of very short scenes – most are under a minute long. Some are mere flashes: Lady Bird screaming in the street after kissing Danny for the first time, brief glimpses of rehearsals for the school musical, or the three-second, three-shot-long scene of Lady Bird getting her cast removed while her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalfe) watches on. Many of them are non-essential for the plot: fleeting shots see Lady Bird wandering the streets near her home, working lazily in local cafés and supermarkets, cheating on a math final. “I wanted to bring in moments, pieces of B-roll, to create an emotional memory,” Nick Hoey, the film’s editor explains, in language strikingly similar to Gerwig’s. “The idea of things tumbling forward and things you hold on to.” The result is a film almost built out of a sequence of images.

Hoey “understood the tone we were going for,” Gerwig explains in the notes – the idea that the film was like an up-tempo pop song that you only realise is sad when someone does a slowed-down cover version. “Houy understood the lightness I wanted, the way the film would be frothy and exciting like waves breaking on a beach, but that then suddenly the undertow would become apparent and before you know it, you are in much deeper waters than you expected.” Nick Hoey insists that Gerwig’s script already “had editing built into it”.

Only three scenes are over three minutes long; two bookend the film. The first is the opening car ride that sees Marion and Lady Bird laugh, cry and scream with rage at each other, as Lady Bird expresses her desire to live a life outside of Sacramento, “where culture is”, and Marion wonders aloud, “How did I raise such a snob?”

The last is the scene where a desperately hungover, brand new to New York Christine stumbles across a church on a Sunday morning, slips in to hear the choir, and slips out again to call Marion. Interspersed with shots of both Marion and Lady Bird driving, it calls back to the opening, collapsing the time between. “Did you feel emotional the first time that you drove in Sacramento?” she asks her mother over a voicemail. “I did and I wanted to tell you, but we weren’t really talking when it happened.” She speaks of this experience as though it is a long-distant memory (and in one sense it is), but it could only have been a few weeks ago. In terms of viewing minutes, Lady Bird only passed her driving test ten minutes earlier – the distance this memory is held at encourages us to read much of the film as a memory, as though Christine has been looking back at her senior year from a future vantage point all along. Lauren Oyler argues in The Baffler that Lady Bird, with its precocious lead and loving tone, is essentially regressive nostalgia for infantilised grown-ups, popular because it allows audiences to “rewrite their adolescences from adulthood”. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that Christine has been doing this all along.

The longest scene, at nearly four minutes, comes in the middle of the film, when Lady Bird loses her virginity to the alternative, posturing, popular Kyle (Timothee Chalamet). It’s a disappointing experience for Lady Bird, and one that punctures some of her own fantasies – she spends much of the film before this point trying to insert herself amongst the cooler, more sophisticated crowd of Kyle and his friend Jenna, and the time after it turning back to the friends she almost left behind. It also represents a point at which the narrative accelerates. Oyler writes that “from here, the pace becomes curiously quick.” While the remaining scenes are of a broadly similar length to the preceding ones, Lady Bird’s remaining time at school, which contains several key milestones, does seem to fly by. Her prom, graduation, driving test, 18th birthday, and college acceptance letter arrive in five consecutive scenes that, together, span less than eight minutes. Her entire final summer at home is a blur that lasts less than ten minutes in total.

Oyler argues that this speed is to enable the film “to tie up loose ends”. But the exponential passage of time in Lady Bird speaks to a larger experience of adolescence. Being a teenager feels both impossibly permanent and terrifyingly transient – then, suddenly, it’s over before you can process it. Many of my adolescent experiences were characterised by the pre-empting of future nostalgia, experiencing a moment not in a state of blissful ignorance, but with the awareness that it was formative, that I would look back at it in years to come through a hazy yellow filter – even if, at the same time, I held a quiet, unreasonable belief that I would remain a teenager forever. In the production notes, Greta Gerwig calls this “the pre-sentiment of loss, of ‘lasts’”. She explains she wanted to achieve “that sense of time slipping away, the future charging into the present, the bonds of childhood as only living on in memory.” In the words of film critic Simran Hans, Lady Bird’s “joyful, forward-rushing narrative rhythm captures the feeling of adolescence ending before it has barely begun.”

All that said, it’s hard to watch Lady Bird and actually envy its protagonist. As much as her teenage years are sanctified, they are not airbrushed. “It’s not a highlight reel—the movie is full of embarrassment,” Collins writes. Embarrassment, anger, shame, anxiety – the intense pain and awkwardness of being an almost-adult forced to still live like a child, or a child pretending to live like an almost-adult, is plain. “Whenever I feel nostalgic,” Tavi Gevison writes in The Infinity Diaries, “I try to remember that what I really want is not to go back, but what I have now: the image, the memory.” Lady Bird doesn’t encourage us to long for our teenage years back, but it does encourage us to cherish our own memories, to frame them with ceremony, to feel our roots.

“I thought the best way to write a love letter,” Greta Gerwig says in the production notes of Lady Bird – a love letter to a place, and a time, and a way of being, “is to frame it with a character who doesn’t realise she loves it – until it’s in the rear view mirror.”

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.