Aebesh Khalil was born in 1962 in Afrin, in rural Aleppo. He was brought up in the general atmosphere of coexistence and tolerance that prevailed among the region’s ethnically and religiously diverse inhabitants: Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen and Christians.
Aebesh says that Kurds have been living in Afrin for over 300 years, and that a long time ago, the majority of its inhabitants were Kurds, with the exception of some Arab shepherds who settled on undeveloped lands. The latter represented no more than 5% of the population at the time.
Aebesh’s family was poor, subsisting on agriculture, which did not provide enough income to improve their standard of living. Aebesh therefore dropped out at the beginning of middle school and went to work operating a tractor, plowing the land, transporting goods and people to and from the neighboring villages, a job he did for almost 20 years.
At 30, Aebesh got married, though he continued to live, along with his wife, in his parents’ house. As per Kurdish tradition, children are married off in their families in order according to age: the eldest must be the first to marry, and the youngest last, a practice equally applicable to boys as to girls.
In 2001, Aebesh traveled to Lebanon to find seasonal agricultural work. After that, he began spending three months of each spring season in Lebanon in the citrus orchards, and would return to work in his village the rest of the year. This allowed him to earn an additional income that helped him provide for his family, and he eventually built two houses, one for him and his wife, and later one for his son.
“Afrin is famous for its olive groves,” says Aebesh, “but olive trees produce fruit once every two years. There is also the difficulty of irrigating the soil properly as there is a shortage of water in the area, and inhabitants here cannot afford to dig wells. As a result, the area of arable land began to shrink, and some people were forced to seek work elsewhere between seasons. Some people did manage to dig wells, which helped them cultivate their lands, diversify their crops and increase their harvests.
“In times past,” he continues, “Afrin did not encompass much arable land because it was so difficult to reclaim the land and so difficult to acquire modern agricultural tools. Much of the land turned arid, and its inhabitants lived in extreme poverty, becoming completely cut off from the larger towns. In fact, many in Afrin didn’t even learn of the existence of different kinds of fuel until the French Mandate. For energy they burned only oil and wood, until the main road was finally constructed, linking Afrin to its surrounding towns. The area then became a focal point for many in the region, developing significantly as time went on. Eventually there were commercial stores and industries set up to provide for the needs of the inhabitants, and the area of arable land increased, as did the number of trees, particularly olive. Government initiatives were set up to provide guidance, as well as to distribute seeds, fertilizers and pesticides and to offer financial loans to farmers.”
Just as agriculture experienced significant development, so did commerce and trade. Wholesalers from Aleppo began to frequent Afrin to buy crops and barrels of olive oil, which they would then sell in Aleppo at retail prices. With time, the society, too, progressed as a new class of educated people grew up in Afrin. In the mid-1970s, schools were established, and as people grew more aware, merchants were less able to exploit the people as they once had; counting on the farmers’ ignorance and illiteracy to cheat them out of their full profits.
There was a great lack of healthcare facilities given the shortage of doctors in the area. Those who required treatment were forced to travel to either nearby towns or to the bigger hospitals in Aleppo. Neither were easy choices given people’s poverty and their inability to communicate with outsiders, as so many inhabitants didn’t speak any Arabic.
The demographic diversity, however, meant that some people were multilingual, with many of the older Kurdish populace speaking Arabic because they had learned to read the Koran in the mosque. Arabs, in turn, added Kurdish words to their vocabulary. Some older Kurds spoke nothing but Turkish because of commercial and trade relationships they had with the Turks, making multiple trips to Turkey before the border crossing was established. Schools, however, played the biggest role in teaching Arabic to all the different nationalities inhabiting the area, making communication far easier among the younger generations.
“The Kurds enjoyed warm relationships with their neighbors, both Arabs and otherwise, based on mutual understanding and affection. Different nationalities or different sects posed no barriers for marriage, and all of Afrin’s inhabitants, wherever they hailed from or whatever language they spoke, celebrated together during holidays, special occasions and weddings.”