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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 outward shooting of people in the streets.

But I didn't sense what was going to happen.

What were your experiences in the Old Walled City in Damascus and the Syrian Market?

 My family and I arrived in Damascus on a late Thursday afternoon. This meant that the only opportunity we would have to see the old walled city and it’s markets were on Thursday evening as the market is closed on Friday. So we went on early Thursday evening to Souk Al Hamidye which is the main market in the old city in the Arab section.

It was a very lively market with children playing in the street, women busy buying their groceries; men having coffee in the cafes and trades people working in their small shops. I only noticed a few male tourists and we smiled at each other as we hurriedly passed each other with a look of slight nervousness and excitement. I can say that my radar was up for a few reasons as we were women travelers for one and we were in a foreign culture for another.

The main thing that struck me about Souk Al Hamidye is that never once were we approached nor accosted in the market. The only time we were approached was when we got close to look at an ice cream shop window. It was only at that moment the people working in the shop beckoned us to come in to look at the ice cream. I have seen a few markets in my travels, including communist China, and it was the first time that I had never been accosted by shop keepers as I walked through a market. It was pleasant not to be overly accosted or beckoned too look at the wares but at the same time afterward it struck me as odd.

After the uprising in Syria, I wondered if the control that the government has on its citizens had anything to do with the decorum in the market?

Do you have any photos of posters of Assad in the town square ?

Yes. I did not see any large posters of the political leaders in Syria like there was in Amman, Jordan. It does not mean that they were not there as I may have missed it. I did see "smaller scale photo "images of Bashar Al Assad and his father at the border crossing, in the National Museum gift shop and on the streets.

Was there any period on your trip that you felt frightened or tense?

Other than the usual tension which comes with being a tourist and a female traveler there was nothing that happened per se that made me feel abnormally frightened or tense. On the whole, we had an amazing and pleasant trip. We did not stop to speak with anyone at length nor did we mention our names or the fact that we were Jewish.

Q. Could you tell Syria is a poor country?

A.I did not get a chance to see a lot of the city of Damascus but what I kept looking for were taller buildings. I did not see any tall business buildings or a business centre which most cities have.

It also seemed like the Souk Al Hamidye in the old walled city Arab quarter was the "hub of life" for the city. I could be wrong but that was my impression. Although the locale people did look; well physically healthy, well groomed and modestly dressed.

There were many 8-10 story apartment buildings that seemed in need of repair with no central air conditioning and people hung the laundry on the balconies or outside of their windows.

I would say that people probably live week to week in Syria. It seems that they have basic food; shelter and money to spend in the souk. I did not experience any begging in the streets nor were we accosted by shopkeepers in the souk.

Did you notice police presence or a military presence anywhere you went? I read in Troper's book and in on line articles that there are secret police in Syria. I read one article about an Israeli undercover reporter for the Jerusalem Post attempting to visit the synagogue in the old Jewish quarter of Damascus who was followed the whole time by an undercover agent.

In recent news since the uprising I have read that the Syrian government also watches the Syrian Arab population as a whole. I know from Feld-Carrs book that the Syrian Jews were watched by secret police before they exited. I did not know if the Syrian government also watched other areas of the population at that time as well? They do now.

I didn’t think that I myself was being followed but who knows? There were no police or military presence in uniform that I could see in the city other than at the border crossings. One thing that I noticed at the border between Syria and Lebanon is that inside the border buildings where I had to show my visa, I was struck by the fact that the borders were still using old computers and monitors. It made me wonder how sophisticated their intelligence is?

Also, when we arrived at Damascus International Airport, I noticed that the airport itself was an older building. Even the airport signage on the building itself did not spell out "International" in full. It said Damascus Intl.

What were your impressions of the Syrian Jewish community?

Unfortunately, even though the travel book that I bought said there was a Jewish quarter within the old city of Damascus, there were no points of interest listed for it. Unlike the points of interest listed for the Arab and Christian quarters in the old city i.e. churches, mosques and the like.

Aside from the book on Judy Feld-Carr, all of my research about the Syrian Jewish community and the old Jewish quarter in Damascus was pieced together from mostly on line sources. The three main Jewish centres of Syria have dwindled down to I think at least fewer than 100 Jews as of today in Damascus only. I googled the name of the one Damascus synagogue which I researched on line but no address or map emerged from the search.

In order to find the Jewish community of Syria now, you either have to know someone is Jewish with connections to the Jews in Syria or you have to stay for more than a day or two. The Jewish establishments these days are not obvious. Although I did not meet any Jewish people in Syria I was still very excited by even walking through the historic old Jewish quarter in Damascus.

It would have been interesting to see Aleppo as this was also a major centre of Jewish life. I did read on line though that the Jewish area has since been razed in areas and in disrepair since the Jews have left the area. There are no Jews left remaining in Aleppo.

I read in Judy Feld Carr’s book that there are about70,000 Syrian Jews living in Brooklyn, New York today who fled there in the1980 and 1990’s.

What it felt like to visit the restored synagogue in Damascus? I think you are referring to the Euro-Duropos synagogue? This synagogue existed outside of Damascus. The Syrian government dismantled it and re-built it inside the National Museum of Damascus. Unfortunately, the tour guide at the National Museum of Damascus told us that the synagogue was under renovation and we could not view it at that time.

Did you meet anyone that you can communicate with over the internet or Facebook? Is this something that Syrian’s have all together? The tour guide at the National Museum of Damascus gave us his business card and it had an email address on it. I am not sure of Facebook.

Any other impressions?

Point 1 - Because there is not much tourism in Damascus, it really felt like I was walking back in time a little bit and seeing Arab culture in their day to day setting.

Point 2 - When we toured the Talisman hotel described in above question, the lemon trees that are depicted in a former painting by Sir Frederick Leighton were still prominent within the hotel courtyard. I read on line that during the time of the Farhi family, having lemon trees on your property was a sign of wealth.

Point 3 – we stayed both at the Four Seasons Hotel in Damascus and in Amman. The fruit basket that we received in our room in Damascus was like no other fruit basket that I had received in any other hotel during my travels. Including the Four Seasons Hotel in Amman, Jordan.

It was large and bountiful. There was a cut out pineapple in the middle with cut up pineapple inside.

Point 4 – I enjoyed the variety and freshness of the food.

Point 5 – I got the sense that Syria has a long history of formalized hierarchical culture. Similar to that of Britain and China where one can tell this from the cuisine and the formality of the interior design and layout of the historical homes. (one photo Talisman Hotel).

Point 6 – I remember having breakfast coffee on my own in the restaurant at the Four Seasons Damascus. I was looking out the window and could see the roof of the National Museum which was across the street. I said to myself that I could not believe that I was actually in Damascus and enjoying a morning coffee. The setting was beautiful and the food was plentiful.

Aside from other choices at the 4 seasons Damascus breakfast buffet, it did not matter that some of the 5 or 6 breakfast dishes were just bean dishes. The waiter explained to me that each bean dish has its own unique texture and spices within Syrian cuisine.

Editor's note: Since this aritcle was first published, we recevied a letter form Judy Feld-Carr  who commented that the article was interesting and added. The reason she [Ahava] could not find Syrian Jews is that there are only 22 elderly individuals left, all in Damascus. They chose to stay because they have no
children.
Aleppo and Qamishli are now Judenrein. I have gotten them all out.

The reason for the Hebrew school being in decent shape is because it was renovated by the JDC but there are no Jewish children remaining.

Judy Feld Carr

 
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