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Ahava Halpern in the courtyardof the Talisman Hotel


original tile wallmural – Shabbat Candles


FORMER JEWISH SCHOOLIN HISTORIC JEWISH QUARTER OF OLD CITY OF DAMASCUS


father of Bashar Al Assad

 
JOURNEY TO SYRIA: AHAVA HALPERN 'S IMPRESSIONS OF SYRIA JUST BEFORE THE REVOLUTION

by Rhonda Spivak, December 6, 2011

Note: A member of Winnipeg's Jeiwsh community Ahava Halpern travelled to Syria and other countries in the  Arab World. She was in Syria not long before the  Revolution against  Bashar Assad broke out.  The Editor of the Winnipeg Jewish Review interviews her on her impressions and observations.

 

Q:  What made you decide to go to Syria?

A: My two female relatives from the U.S and I, with an age range of 30 years between us, wanted to see modern day Dubai and Abu Dhabi and also to spend time together in Israel. We had previously travelled to Egypt and Turkey and we both knew people who had traveled to Syria and Baalbek in Lebanon. Even though Syria and Baalbek do not receive as much tourism those places were highly recommended for their historical sites and things were relatively quiet at the time. In addition to general history, we were also interested in the Judaic history in places where we traveled.. We also chose to see Jordan as we were able to fly to Israel from Jordan in addition to seeing the city and culture itself.

Q.Did  you have any troubles getting visas or travelling ?

A.I went through a private passport company through Ottawa to obtain all my visas for the embassies of the UAE, Syria, Lebanon and  Jordan. I thought that if there were to be a first point of concern with me going to those countries it perhaps would have been questioned at the embassy level as I do not know what type of intelligence those embassies have or what all their criteria is for not accepting people into their countries. One can go to the embassy websites to see the forms that need to be filled out for a visa acceptance into these countries. My first name is a Hebrew name and I have volunteered for the last 30 years of my life in Canadian-Jewish-Zionist organizations. There was no Israeli stamp in my passport. The visa applications also ask for your parents' names.

I did not have any trouble obtaining visas for the above countries all except for the UAE. The UAE suddenly slapped Canadians in December 2010 with travel visas. Before this time no visa needed to be pre-obtained from Canadians. This was part of the UAE’s retaliation against Canada for not allowing more flights into Canada. I was scheduled to depart for the UAE on January 1 / 2011. The private visa company in Ottawa was not able to help me to obtain a UAE visa at that point. They did advise on the regulations on how to obtain a UAE visa. I then started calling hotels in the UAE (Abu Dhabi and Dubai)that issued visa’s to foreigners and scrambling to get the information together for the visa. The Fairmont Dubai in the end was the hotel that issued the UAE visa to me with a few days to spare before my departure.

I also registered my travel dates and accommodations with the Canadian embassies in all of the countries that I was visiting prior to my trip.

The second point of concern for me was going through the border control at Damascus International Airport which was the first point of entry into Syria. The customs guard separated me from my two other family members. He started to speak with me in French as he saw I was Canadian. He spoke with me for what seemed to be an eternity but in reality it was less than a 10 minute conversation.

I will make mention that as we were packing our luggage into the car at the airport, I realized that I did not have my carry on luggage and that I must have left it back inside the airport by the x-ray machine. Our driver from the hotel came with me back to airport security and security let us retrace my steps back inside the security luggage area. My luggage was sitting on a table on its own with no one else in sight.

The third point of concern I had was travelling across the Syrian-Lebanon and Syrian-Jordan borders by car. We did not experience problems at these long borders crossings that took about an hour and a half to go through. (I talk more on the border experiences in later questions).

Q  Did  anyone in Syria or the other countries where you travelled know you were Jewish?

There were two occasions during which  mention was made of anything Jewish  related on our trip as a whole. The first was when we went to the Baalbek ruins in Lebanon for the day and a tour guide was hired though our Damascus Four Seasons hotel. We asked him that if there was time after the day tour to Baalbek, if he could show us the Talisman Hotel. We said that we had heard of this historic hotel that is situated in the old city of Damascus. ( First photo is of Ahava at Talisman Hotel).

The Talisman Hotel is a boutique hotel that was converted from a 200-300 year old home in the old Jewish quarter. This was one of the former homes of a famous Syrian Jewish family called Farhi. We did have time to go see the hotel and as we parked, the tour guide happened to point out that the building ahead of us was "the old Jewish school". We did not know why he told us that as we had never made mention to him that we were Jewish.

I was looking at the school that was one mentioned in  Harold Troper's book the Rescuer about Judy Feld-Carr's rescuing of Syrian Jewry. It was a fairly modern building which somehow surprised me. It showed me the reality of  how the Syrian Jews  had no real motivations of leaving Damascus, but the living conditions became too repressive and they needed to find ways to escape. (see photo; school in Jewish Quarter).

The second  time  something  Jewish related came up in conversation  was when the guide at the National Museum of Damascus noted that the Euro-Duropos synagogue was under renovation and we would not be able to see it. I can not recall if we had said that we would like to see the synagogue or if the guide offered that information as part of the general tour. I did get a sense though that the synagogue is a distinct feature and draw for the museum.

Q.Did you talk about the political situation in Syria with any of the people you met or was politics completely avoided?

A. We arrived into Damascus in the late afternoon and we had one full day and one morning before we left for Jordan. Politics was never discussed with anyone.

Did you have any sense that shortly after you left Syria,  the uprising against Bashar Assad would start?

Prior to trip, I had a few months to do some research on Syrian Jewish history. I had spoken with Rebetzin Bracha Altein who is a wealth of information on Jewish biblical history. I also spoke with two of  Jewish women who were born in Argentina and whose families have history in Syria. I also researched on line articles and read  Harold  Troper's  book about on the last exodus of Syrian Jews in the 1980’s and 1990’s, who were rescued by Judy Feld Carr.

After reading the book  by Judy Feld-Carr and seeing the news on the current situation in Syria, I  can now see the similarities between the current political treatment of the Syrian citizens by their government  and  the treatment recieved by the Jews especially before the last exodus in the early 1990’s.  There are similarities  in terms of surveillance by secret police , curfews,  limiting travel,and  imprisonment without fair trial,  as opposed to o

 
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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.


Opinions expressed in letters to the editor or articles by contributing writers are not necessarily endorsed by Winnipeg Jewish Review.