In ‘For Sama’, Waad Al-Khateeb takes the world into her home in a city under siege

A still form For Sama.

In her recent powerful documentary For Sama, Waad Al-Khateeb takes into the human struggle in Aleppo, a city under siege. She does not show us the fights on the frontlines; nor she does film the destruction of historical and monumental architecture sites as Aleppo’s Citadel and ancient souks or the collapse of the minaret of its historical mosque. Rather, she takes us to more intimate places, to show the every day life; filming her own bedroom, her friends’ living room, and the kitchen whilst her friends Afraa is cooking.

As Syria, after nine years of intensified conflict, has gradually disappeared from news, Waad brings us back to the start, to retell the story again. In her seminal, sad and ground-breaking documentary, she calls all of us to witness, to remember, and to open our eyes to the toll of war on civilians, that is still happening to date whilst the world is silent. Her documentary is a remarkable contribution to the history of war in Syria, and to the history of wars more broadly. It humanises and individualises the struggle of ordinary civilians in their everyday ordinary urban life.

Most of the documentary is filmed in a hospital where she and her husband and daughter Sama lived. Sama, the name of their daughter, means ‘Sky’ in Arabic; often a symbol of hope, but in the case of Aleppo, also a symbol of death, as planes dropped bombs on the city from the sky. Sama is also a metaphor for the close relationship between life and death in a city under siege. Al-Khateeb herself gave birth to Sama in a hospital where many people lost their lives.

You don’t know when to collapse whilst watching For Sama. When watching the death of the city? When watching the massacre of civilians, where people were killed and put in rows in the school courtyard to prepare their funeral? When civilians try to find dead bodies in the river? Each scene is a portrayal of loss, grief and bereavement. Each scene you think, “This pain is unbearable to watch”, and one’s own’s systems fail with a shock to the brutality and violence against humanity.

In one scene, two young boys arrive to the hospital with their injured brother covered in dust. Soon, they know that he lost his life. The two young boys cry, and weep alone. They come together as angels hugging their brother, kissing his forehead. It is the last goodbye. You don’t know here as an observer what to do. How could these two young boys bare all this? Waad zooms here on their faces, on their hands as if she is scanning not only the surface, but what is behind.

In the following scene, a mother dressed in black enters the hospital asking if someone has seen her son Mohammed. She finds a covered dead body and realises from the face that it is her son. The mother holds the body and leaves the hospital walking in the streets and weeping saying, “This is my son, don’t take him from me”. The hospital staff asks her to bring the body back – but she refuses. Waad, as mother, knows what this woman is doing, and tells the staff to let the woman do what she wants (this sentence by Al-Khateeb is not translated in English in the documentary). These are the last moments together. The time for a goodbye.

The woman keeps walking but as if her mind is somewhere else. She weeps in the ruined streets holding her son saying, “My son is dead, my darling is dead”. You only feel that you are walking with her, and you struggle to imagine how all this pain could be real. You would think that this scene in itself would move the world, make someone take action to stop the war. But no.

Al-Khatteeb keeps strong and firm position of the camera – never shaking, never hesitant, never broken or fragile. You only think that the camera that she is holding is part of her body – a piece of Waad. But saying this, she, as she narrates the documentary and appears in some of the scenes expresses the pain inside. 

“I am suffocated Sama,” she tells her daughter. “I keep seeing you as that boy; and me like his mother.” She thinks of the questions that all Syrians think of each day, and she sees Sama dead. Will we die today? And who will die first?

When she delivers Sama, she holds her new born baby, but then cries painfully, and deeply, as if questions of guilt, regret, sadness are flooding back, as if all the suffering, loss and images of destruction have been seen. She asks in the film her daughter if she will ever forgive her.

All images of dead and injured bodies mar the minds – specially for Al-Khateeb who witnessed and filmed closely this tragedy. “Even when I close my eyes, I see the colour red. Blood everywhere. On walls, on floors, on our cloths. Sometimes we cry blood,” she adds.

Language collapses when one wants to describe what has Syrians witnessed and endured. Words might fail to put the struggle and suffering, the loss and bereavement that we endured. But when language has failed, Waad Al-khateeb brings all this pain, all this loss, all this struggle together in her camera. It is a foundational war documentary showing the horrors of wars in our times. It is seminal and will be talked about for generations.

You wonder how there could be any beauty within the time of war – but Al-Khatteb shows beauty amidst this catastrophe. The first house she moved to with her husband, the moment she knows she is pregnant, and the beautiful changing seasons in the city, when it snows and when it rains. But most importantly the beautiful people who remain, their dear friends including Afraa and her kids.

Al-Khateeb, deals with the people in the documentary with huge level of sensitivity. And she tells the story from the bottom-up, getting us so close to peoples’ emotions, hopes, fears and aspirations. For instance, she films Afraa’s son whilst staring at the void on the ruined streets from their terrace. She goes to chat with him and asks him what he would do if his parents decided to leave the city – he says he would stay in Aleppo by himself. Suddenly he collapses in tears, as a broken sparrow whilst hiding his face in between his arms. What was going inside his mind? How much this young boy has suffered, how much destruction has he witnessed? What a childhood?

In her documentary, Al-Khateeb, unlike mainstream journalism, does not provide analysis of the political situation, but simply paints a picture of ordinary activities and ordinary scenes, something so much needed to break the image that was built about Syria and turned us to a dataset and numbers. She brings faces to the struggle, laughter, tears, smiles, hearts and souls. 

Al-Khateeb narrates the story in the film, quietly, but with a fragile voice - her calm voice brings it all together whispers in our ears: this is our story. She vanishes in most of the film as she stands behind the camera to bring these stories and testimonies to us. But in some scenes, she wants to be part of the scene, to document herself especially when she was eventually forcibly displaced to leave the city. She re-visits the first house she moved to with her husband, films herself there.

“No words can describe what I am feeling now,” she cries, and says, “We don’t want to [be] forced to flee out of our city.” She gets a plant from her garden that will grow out of Aleppo. As now Sama, and her family grow out of place. The time has come for the family to leave. Collectively, the film is about a war on home.

Memory is at the heart of the documentary – it opens with photos of young beautiful woman when she was 18, a decade before making the documentary, and it closes with flood of senses from the early days of the peaceful protests in Aleppo, and images that Al-Khatteeb has seen since. When she leaves Aleppo and delivers her second daughter to life she brings her so close to her and says: I thought I lost everything after leaving Aleppo, but now I can smell Aleppo in you.

Many writers described the documentary as a dedication to Sama. But it is not. For Sama is a dedication not only to Sama but to all the children of Syria, to all the children of the world. The road of struggle is so long, the price of freedom is so high.

If you have not seen For Sama yet, do so. Never forget our pain.


To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.

Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.