Syrians fondly recall time when Jews lived next door

By Heidi Kingstone, April 11, 2008
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The houses stand empty in the abandoned Jewish quarter, Haret al-Yehud, just outside the walls of Damascus’s old city. Years of neglect have taken their toll and decay has seeped through. Plaster has fallen off in chunks and chicken wire has replaced glass where windows once opened on to vibrant streets. An antique shop owner delivers an impromptu history lesson when I ask about a brass object with silver inlay. The detailed craftsmanship, he explains, was a speciality of the Jews who lived for generations with their Arab neighbours, sharing kitchens and bathrooms, courtyards and family occasions. They celebrated at each other’s weddings, merging together as Syrians. The man missed his old friends and colleagues who left in 1992 when the late President Hafez al Assad finally allowed them to. “We were brothers after all,” he says. Dapperly dressed in a well-tailored grey suit, he walks around the sprawling shop full of Syria’s rich artistic heritage, much of it far too gaudy for western tastes. “If they came back they could just open their front doors.” But those front doors have almost fallen off their hinges, and dust blows through eerily empty Taj al Hijaar Street. Perhaps memory blurs the reality. According to Mitchell Bard, an American foreign policy analyst, “the Jewish Quarter was under constant surveillance by the secret police, who were present at synagogue services, weddings, barmitzvahs and other Jewish gatherings”. The absence of politics as a topic of conversation in Syria is noticeable. Pictures of Bashar al Assad stare down from posters in shop windows and billboards on rooftops. His beady blue eyes and patchy moustache are constant reminders of who is in charge. I am invited to the three-day wedding celebration of a friend’s cousin, where women with 1970s high hair, skinny stilettos and short skirts dance with men in square-toed shoes. At the church, the women ululate as the priest presides over the Christian ceremony where the bride is encased in layers of flowing white polyester. She walks down an aisle lined with white tulle, wilting flowers and fake white doves. Guests collect the plastic blue roses when they leave. In the room that doubles as dining room and bedroom, the bridegroom’s father shows off photographs from their days in “Occupied Palestine” and is soon calling me “my daughter”. When I leave, he asks if I am a good Christian. I just say no.

    Last updated: 11:52am, May 29 2008