Syr­i­ans fondly re­call time when Jews lived next door

The Jewish Chronicle - - WORLD NEWS -

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.

BY HEIDI KING­STONE

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