Thursday, June 25, 2009

Old Brooklyn

The Jewish Quarter in the Old City of Damascus is home to one of the most ancient Jewish communities in the world. Identifying any of the sixty odd Jews that have avoided the lure of exile is nearly impossible. Not simply because their appearance does nothing to suggest their religion but because the government carefully monitors the Jewish community's involvement with foreigners, American Jewish visitors in particular. Identifying the Jewish Quarter itself is much easier. All you do is wander through the southwestern corner of the Old City's narrow alleyways until the silence of boarded up houses shouts out that you have arrived at the former homes of families no doubt comfortably ensconced in Brooklyn and Deal, New Jersey. A Syrian friend explained to me that when the last burst of Jews left during the first Iraq War, they kept the deeds to the houses so no one in the last two decades has moved in.

On Thursday June 4, I found myself passing through the spooky emptiness of the Jewish Quarter en route to an Armenian music performance at a nearby courtyard sculpture garden. The singer was a beautiful Syrian-Armenian lady named Lena Chamamyan. Her voice was even more beautiful and for over two hours the overflowing Christian and Muslim crowd hung on her words. The silence of the Jewish Quarter, however, is the sound that was still ringing in my ears later in the night.

Syria may have more scenic abandoned homes than anywhere else in the world. South of Aleppo are the Dead Cities, a series of ancient ghost towns whose residents mysteriously disappeared some fifteen centuries ago. Along the border with Israel are the empty concrete houses of Kuneitra, which the government uses as a propaganda tool to display to foreign dignitaries how Israel laid waste to the town before pulling out in 1973. And right in the center of Damascus, in the quietest corner of the Old City, are the bordered up homes of the Jewish Quarter. They tell another story of Syria's sixty year stand-off with the Jewish state. It is a narrative that may have as much to do with the mystery of the Dead Cities as the tragic statement of Kuneitra. Unfortunately it is not a narrative that few Syrians are likely to take much interest in anytime soon.

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