The Flower Seller of Aleppo

Krikor in Yerevan, Armenia. (Hannah Lucinda Smith)

Krikor in Yerevan, Armenia. (Hannah Lucinda Smith)

“Flowers, I love flowers!” exclaims Krikor. “I used to skip school so I could go and pick flowers. Everyone in Aleppo knew me by my nickname—I was Krikor, the flower seller!”

His eyes shone bright as he talked about the job and the city he loved. Krikor was as intertwined with Aleppo’s Armenian quarter as the honey-colored bricks of the old Orthodox churches. Everyone knew him, he says—he didn’t have friends, he had customers. They would go to see him for important and happy occasions—their weddings, new babies and birthdays—and he would lovingly put together a bouquet for them, made up of Aleppo’s finest blooms. “I swear, I was loved,” he says. “Any events that occurred, I enjoyed them. And at the end of the day, I would say ‘Thank God!’”

Two generations earlier, Krikor’s grandparents were famous too. “They were the za'atar makers!” he says. Za'atar is a fragrant blend of dried herbs, sumac and sesame seeds.“They were the best za'atar makers in all of Aleppo. All the survivors [of the massacre of Armenians in Turkey in 1915] came to them to buy their za'atar.”

Krikor’s grandparents were also survivors of the atrocities committed in 1915 at the hands of the Ottomans. They fled their hometown of Konya, in central Turkey, and like thousands of others they settled in Aleppo and built the foundations of the city’s thriving Armenian quarter. A century later, 70,000 Armenians lived in the city, working as artisans and running businesses, speaking in Arabic with other Syrians but in Armenian among themselves, and worshipping in the Armenian churches.

Like many others, Krikor started small. In the third grade he started selling flowers on the street. His father was ashamed. “He said that Arabs were known as flower sellers,” says Krikor. “He told me that no one would want me to marry their daughter.”

But Krikor loved flowers and so he continued, selling them day after day on the streets of his city. His business grew and he became well known. By the time he left Aleppo he had his own shop and he had just put down the deposit on a house. “Everything I had I paid for with the sweat off my brow,” he says. “That was the first house I ever owned.”

But throughout the searing summer of 2012, as the conflict began to encroach on Aleppo, everything started to change. The bombs and the curfews were the impersonal signs, but it was the sudden change in Krikor’s business that told the human story of what was happening. No one was getting married anymore; no one wanted to celebrate their birthdays. His customers started asking him to arrange funeral wreaths.

Krikor was one of the first Aleppines to flee: when the Armenian government sent a plane to Aleppo to collect its citizens, he boarded it with his wife. She held an Armenian passport and he knew that his ancestry would afford him safe passage. They settled in Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, and hoped they would only be there for a few months.

But that was two years ago, and they are still here. Krikor can't sell flowers in Armenia, so instead he paints doors and dreams of the day when he will be able to go back to Aleppo. His house is still there and so are his parents. Until seven months ago he used to travel back to see them regularly, taking the coach south through Turkey, crossing over a rebel-held border crossing and boarding the rickety bus to Aleppo city.

On his last trip there, in October 2013, he fell foul of the conflict’s ruthless sectarian edge, which he had feared since the earliest days of the uprising. In between the border and Aleppo, the bus he was traveling on was stopped at a checkpoint controlled by Al-Nusra Front, one of the most extreme Islamist rebel groups. The fighters checked all the passengers’ passports, and those with Muslim names were allowed to go. Krikor, with his Armenian surname, was arrested, detained and tortured. His only crime was being a Christian.

Out on the streets of Yerevan, Krikor unrolled the Syrian flag with two stars that he carried with him in his coat pocket and held it between outstretched arms, proud and unafraid. He did not want to talk about politics, or Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, or who is right and wrong. All he wanted to speak about was his love for his city and for flowers.

“I believe things will get better,” he says. “And if things get better, I will go back.”