Building over the past in Beirut - a restored shul but a lost Jewish community

By Derek A Isaacs, March 28, 2013
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The “Valley of the Jews” is being rebuilt but, apart from the restored shul (below), little remains of its Jewish history.

The “Valley of the Jews” is being rebuilt but, apart from the restored shul (below), little remains of its Jewish history.

Beirut’s Wadi Abu Jamil quarter, locally referred to as “Wadi al-Yahoud” (“Valley of the Jews”), has risen from the bombsites. But will the Jews return? Probably not.

Lebanese artist and former Wadi Abu Jamil resident Ayman Baalbaki’s excitement is palpable. “I remember Maghen Ibrahim Synagogue. It was beautiful. Its huge gates were open; we were allowed to play football in the grounds,” says Mr Baalbaki, who has created works of art as testament to the area.

He describes a heady religious mix — “Jewish, Armenian, Syriac, Sunni and Shia Muslims” — sharing the same buildings, streets, jokes. In 1982, his happy world came crashing down when, in response to an infiltration by the PLO, the Israeli Air Force bombarded the area, hitting the synagogue in the process. Families, including Mr Baalbeki’s, fled.

The Jewish population had dwindled by this time, but not solely due to the creation of the Israel — even during the Six-Day War in 1967, many Jews could still be seen there. Sectarian tensions, random kidnappings and, ultimately, the civil war, led to a mass exodus.

The restored synagogue

The restored synagogue

In Wadi Abu Jamil, a flurry of construction sites and new builds are interspersed with relics that salute the past or, at least, part of the past.

There is a statue of Omar Daouk, the first mayor of the area, and Institution Sainte Anne, a Catholic school restored to its former glory. But besides the beautifully restored Maghen Ibrahim Synagogue, which is hidden from view, there is nothing to indicate that this was once Beirut’s Jewish neighbourhood, home to 17 synagogues, with additional schools and a nearby cemetery in Sodeco.

It is easy to find locals who, like Mr Baalbaki, are willing to share details of their past life in “Wadi al-Yahoud”. Mustapha Zein, 67, married in 1970 and bought an apartment in Boutros Tawil building, which still stands. “I had Jewish neighbours and even worked for Jews, Nouri and Olga Arazi. They were generous and would even pay me for the two months they went on holiday. I would love to meet them again. No one cared about your religion. We never asked; we just got on with our lives.”

Walking around Wadi Abu Jamil attracts little attention. But walking with a camera gets you instant friends — of the security-guard sort. It just may be because former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri lives nearby. But taking photographs of the synagogue increases one’s “friends” twofold.

While Mr Baalbak and Mr Zein are only too pleased to share their memories and thoughts, private building firms are not, with one stating that the area’s Jewish history is “too controversial” to discuss. Even Nada Abdel Samad, BBC Arabic journalist and author of the book Wadi Abu Jamil, had little to offer, saying the book is about the stories of people who once lived there, not necessarily the Jews.

Today Wadi Abu Jamil has all the hallmarks of an upmarket new town — pretty but a tad bland. Besides the shul, there is no nod to its Jewish past. History does not look like repeating itself here — at least for the Jews.

Derek A Isaacs is a writer based in Beirut

Last updated: 12:04pm, March 29 2013