Measuring value: individual and collective narratives (part III)

By Rania Kataf

All the interviews have some central themes in common: the deteriorating situation of Jews in Syria as a result of the Arab-Israeli conflict and anti-Jewish restrictions imposed by the Syrian governments, the subsequent emigration of a large part of the Syrian Jewish population, a look back at “better” times in the late Ottoman period, but also, above all, elements of a natural everyday life and peaceful co-existence in the urban inter-confessional society of Damascus: professions, education, neighbourly friendships, central places and quarters, etc. For all of them, these memories and descriptions lead to a reflection on their strong sense of belonging to this urban, Arabic community – in Damascus as well as in the diaspora – and on the concrete decision to emigrate or to stay. All of them identify themselves naturally as both Arab and Jewish, two attributes that are often understood as contradictory under today’s political circumstances.

Despite these similarities, the interviews cannot be representative of all Syrian-Jewish experiences. They neither reflect the opinions of the project nor those of many Jewish and non-Jewish Syrians. This is especially true for the political statements of the interviewees. Here, we must keep in mind under which circumstances the interviews were made: The three interviewees still residing in Damascus live under conditions in which political statements and evaluations must be made – and therefore also be read – with caution. Uncritical or idealising political statements about the governments under Hafez and Bashar al-Assad are not only the result of their strict suppression of opponents, but also of a “minority” policy that aims to promote the regime as the guardian of religious “minorities”, thus being instrumental in their own legitimisation and retention of power, and making their members especially dependent on them. This strategy is embedded in a policy that relies on and therefore fosters sectarianism: the need for a “guarantor of peaceful co-existence” between sectarian groups is itself guaranteed by a structuring of society, politics and military that intensifies sectarian divisions and tensions (Stolleis 2015: 8–10). Aside from the fact that many restrictions on Jews and anti-Jewish statements in the context of a strict anti-Israeli policy kept persisting after Hafez al-Assad put himself into power in 1970, the relief that the interviewees describe having experienced under his rule is not necessarily proof of an appreciative and democratic approach towards groups of citizens who are marked as minorities. Rather, to lift restrictions was often the consequence of pragmatic considerations and foreign policy pressure (Jasim 2020: 34, Zenner 2000: 61).

The interviews from the New York diaspora perspective – especially those of Ibrahim Abu Hamra and Joseph Jajati – are an example of how narratives are passed on and changed through generations: although both left Damascus at an early age, they remember life in the city as if they had lived it them- selves. More than that, they express a particularly strong sense of identification with the Damascus community and their assessment of the situation in their country of origin sometimes sounds idealising. This nostalgic and idealising view leaves open the question why their families, like most other Jews, nevertheless decided to leave the country.

This finds a parallel in the retrospective view of Jewish life in Syria under Ottoman rule, a period that is remembered in the interviews as a golden age. Here, too, the exemplary figures presented as evidence of the integration and significance of Jews in Syrian-Ottoman society represent only a section of Jewish society: the economic, social, and male elite, to which the majority of the Jewish population did not belong. Moreover, the manifold ways in which Ottoman rule dealt with its Jewish inhabitants over four centuries and in various places cannot be generalised. The legal attitude towards non- Muslim inhabitants especially changed under European influence and radical socio-economic and political shifts in the late Ottoman period from the mid-19th century onwards, the period which the interviewees mostly refer to.

Like all personal narratives, these interviews not only bear witness to what is described in them from a particular perspective, but also to the political, psychological and social circumstances and dynamics that shape the creation of individual and collective narratives. They are part of a puzzle that can be contradictory and irritating. It is precisely through this, however, that we want to approach the goal of the project and stimulate a renewed reflection on its core themes. This is also the aim of the exhibition “Side by Side – Exhibition about Syrian Jewish (Hi)stories”, shown in Berlin in November and December 2020. This exhibition shows the results of a photographic research conducted by Rania Kataf in the Jewish quarter of Damascus.

To make the puzzle of narratives about Jews, Judaism, the Shoah and Israel in Syria and in Syrian immigrant communities more complete, this collection of narratives are and will be replenished by other publications: in one of them, Ansar Jasim examines narratives in Syria, by analyzing both textbooks and cultural productions. A further working paper was published in spring 2021. It presented the results of qualitative interviews conducted in Syrian communities in Germany.

Rania Kataf’s research thus provides an important impetus to rethink pre-existing assumptions about the experiences of Jews in Syria and to better understand them in their complex interrelation with other narratives.

The Interviews

Albert Qamoo | October 30, 2019 |

Albert Qamoo (born 1940 in Damascus) who beside his sister Rachel Qamoo is one of the last members of his family living in Damascus until today and head of the small Jewish community, tells about the radical changes happening to his community in Syria since the fall of the Ottoman empire. He remembers famous Jewish figures in the past and a time of peaceful co-existence. He describes how the majority of the Jews left the country because of growing tensions and restric- tions, and how Jews from Syria despite being scattered in diaspora still feel a strong sense of belonging. As Albert Qamoo took the decision to stay at the only place that he “can call home”, he experienced not only the changes of the neighbor- hoods and co-existence, but also took part in the remaining Jewish community’s commitment for keeping their heritage alive.

I live in Damascus with my sisters Rachel and Bella. The rest of us, my older brothers and sister, left the city a long time ago and have settled in Mexico. When we were kids, we were taught French and Spanish as a second lan- guage at school. Little did we know back then that these languages were pre- paring us for our new fate, and that part of my family will end up in a new home far away from Damascus. For me, living here was a choice I made dec- ades ago. It was a firm decision, yet I really cannot imagine myself elsewhere, neither can I see myself call another place home or my country. I was very young when my brothers and sister escaped to Lebanon, back then, being a Jew in Damascus meant you were leading a very difficult life, but as I grew up, things became less complicated and I really had no reason to leave.

The situation of the Jewish community in Damascus until 1948: population development, businesses, famous figures, and growing tensions.

We, as a Jewish community were centralized in the cities of Aleppo, Damascus and Qamishli. Some people say that before 1948 and the establishment of the State of Israel, the Jewish population at the Jewish Quarter of Damascus was estimated to be 25,000[1]. There were many Jewish families from Damascus, yet it was very difficult to determine the exact number of individuals who settled in the city because people were constantly leaving and some of them never returned.

In reality, the number of Jews in the city started declining since the period of Ottoman rule in Damascus. We, as a community, were convicted of several crimes that took place in the city. The most famous being the incident of the murder of Father Touma[2]. This incident caused a huge controversy between the Jews and the locals in the city; leading to a great loss in the number of Jews that made up the Damascene community. People feared judicial punishment and the confiscation of their businesses or properties by the Ottoman gov- ernment. Consequently, there was a continuous flow of Jews inside and out- side of Damascus, yet people always came back.

On another note, Damascus was a home for many Jewish families who fled their counties for safety, like the Lisbonas. Other Jewish families made a for- tune by working for the Ottoman Empire, one of the most well-known in the city were the Farhis[3]. They worked as bankers and money lenders, but more importantly, the Farhis played a major role in managing the banking and taxation system of the Ottoman Empire. They were known across the country as the treasurers of the Ottoman Government of Damascus. This actually created a sense of bias towards the Jews as a community because many officials from different religions believed that they better deserved this role. Not to mention that during the Ottoman rule also, the government also relied on the Jews to support and strengthen the economy through the trade routes they have established with the merchants and tradesmen of Europe[4].

How the life of Jews got harder after the fall of the Ottoman Empire

As the Ottoman rule came to an end, these misconceptions and beliefs started to fade, but as soon as the State of Israel was established, the government sought to create many restrictions on the Jews. We did not have equal rights as other Syrians until Hafez al-Assad[5] became president, but by that time we have already lost a lot of people from our community.

During the French mandate on Syria, many Jews were still settling in the city, like the Niyados, a high-class Jewish family known for establishing the first international bank in Damascus. The founder of the bank was a Damascene Jew named Sabri Niyado. It was named the bank of Zalkha and replaced what used to be The Imperial Ottoman Bank. It was located right in front of the citadel in modern day Harika, Old Damascus. Niyado owned one of the most beautiful houses at the Jewish Quarter. Actually, it was not a house, it was more of a palace, and it had more than one exit, each giving access to a different alley of the Jewish Quarter. Yet Sabri Niyado chose to settle in his other home in Mazra’a, just outside of the old city, because it was more modern and only the elite could afford to move to that area. This proves the fact that many Jewish families like the Farhis, the Shamayiehs, al-Boushi, and the Totahs were still able to protect their trade, status and power even after the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

Peaceful co­existence, the influence of Arab­Israeli wars since 1948 and changing neighbourhoods

Life in Damascus was definitely much better before 1948. Damascus was a true example of a coexistent community. My father, Salim Qamoo, worked with many Muslims in several businesses. We owned a huge store in Midhat Pasha. He was a textile merchant and traded in silk and wool. Many local merchants at the souk trusted him and had great respect for him. I used to love spending time at our store, I am very fond of the memories I have of that place. But there were harsh memories as well, I remember my father being forced to close his shop for weeks, as did many other Jewish merchants in Damascus, when the war broke in Palestine[6]. People feared the aftermath of this political conflict and chose to stay home where they believed was safer for them for the time being. One morning, a boy from a neighbouring shop came running to our home and told us that our shop has been broken into and burgled. This never happened before in Damascus and we never knew who was behind the theft. It was only then that for the first time ever, the idea of leaving the city became an issue we had to think about. My father ended up selling his store, and almost a decade later, the new owner reopened it but chose to divide it into four shops. Can you imagine how huge it was?

There were many Jewish families in the city, I can go on forever, but we did not live amongst our community for very long because our home was sit- uated near the Christian quarter, Bab Touma. So, you can say that since we have moved out in 1946, most of our surrounding community were Christians. Yet I do still remember many details of our daily life at the Jewish Quarter; I remember the mini shops that sold snacks near our schools, the popcorn, the honey candy, and the delicious corn. They were all so cheap so student could afford to buy them.

Jewish schools

My school at the Jewish Quarter was Ibn Maymoun[7]. In the beginning it was a religious school and only Jewish boys were allowed to attend it. Years later, long after I have graduated, other subjects were introduced to the curriculum and many students from different backgrounds and religions enrolled in our school. This took place in parallel with the demographic change that occurred at the Jewish Quarter during the 1970s. Many Muslim and Christian families moved into our neighborhood replacing the empty homes of the Jews leaving the Old City.

In the 1970s, the Jewish community decided to transform Bayt Lisbona[8], a Jewish home at the Jewish Quarter into a school. The family has left Damas- cus long before that and so we decided to rehabilitate the building to function as a school for Jewish students who did not get the chance to enrol in Ibn Maymoun. It truly was a great project, and in the early 1990s, we got a fund from the United States to renovate and rebuild the house, so we decided to add two new floors to it. But in 1993, as most of the Jewish community left Damascus, the school was forced to shut down, once again leaving us with only one school to serve what remained of the Jewish community.

I remember we were also very short in Jewish staff, so by then all our schools included staff from multiple backgrounds and religions. Being a minority, we had to depend on other members of the Syrian community to fulfill these positions, and that created a unique diversity in both students and staff in the only school we had left, Ibn Maymoun.

Living together with Palestinian refugees in the Jewish Quarter

To tell you the truth, locals never really rejected us, even with the establishment of the State of Israel, we lived, worked and studied with Muslims and Chris- tians from all sects of the Damascene community. We were in constant contact with them, but when it came to the Palestinians who settled in the Jewish Quarter, the situation was a lot more complicated. In my opinion, the Syrian government made a huge mistake back then when they allowed Palestinian refugees into empty Jewish homes and into the Alliance School[9]. More Shi’a also settled in these houses during that same period. This is what explains how the Jewish Quarter became known as al-Amin neighborhood, it was named after a famous Shiite scholar who moved into our quarter decades be- fore the Jews left the city.

Figure 3. An Alley in the Jewish Quarter, where Muslims, Christians and Jews live together in the same neighborhood. Photo by Rania Kataf.

Family reunion – Keeping close despite Diaspora

In 1975, President Hafez al-Assad allowed the return of any Jewish citizen who has left the country prior to 1948, except for those who have settled in Israel. So, after years of living abroad, my brothers and sister returned to Damascus. My brothers, who left as teenagers, returned with their wives and children. We got a call that informed us that they were arriving from Mexico in a couple of hours. My parents were so excited they could not feel their feet.

I ended up going with Rachel to the airport. The moments before the re- union were probably the happiest moments of our lives, we stood there trying to figure out who were our siblings; even my brothers must have changed after 25 years. When they finally found us, I remember holding on to them so tight I could barely breath, I literally choked out of happiness, and that was for me a moment I will never ever forget.

My mother stood by the window for hours waiting for us to arrive and the moment she saw us she ran down the stairs to welcome the grandchildren she has never met. I remember watching her cry and say: “I don’t know how I got here, I can’t believe I am walking again. My feet were so numb moment before I saw you.” We went to visit our old home in Quemariyyeh and just as my brothers entered the door, they ran to the trees they have planted in the courtyard as teenagers. Saluting them, they kept repeating to us: “We planted those trees,” as if they were telling us that no matter where they end up, a part of them will always remain in Syrian soil. Our house seemed like a piece of heaven, we were surrounded by grape trees, apricot trees, lemon and orange trees, even apple trees. Suddenly the house became so full of life, the life we once dreamed and planned for. “Now I can finally taste my fruit,” said my brother with a smile.

Our nephews and nieces loved Damascus, yet they did not feel any sense of attachment to the place. And though they consider themselves 100 % Mexican and could barely speak any Arabic, I could sense Arabic character in all their personalities. My brothers were very selective when it came to choosing their wives, all three of them married Mexicans of Syrian origin. Many Jewish families from Syria immigrated to North and South America during the Ottoman period, and all of them created their own communities every- where they settled. This made it much easier for us to find each other and to protect our Syrian identity and traditions in foreign land.

Emigration in the 1990s – Preserving the Arabic-­Jewish heritage

The largest group of Jewish immigrants left Syria in the ‘90s after President Hafez al-Assad permitted their leave and issued passports to all Syrian Jews. All the Jewish children, teenagers and young adults left Damascus then.

This group is the last young group of Syrian Jews to learn Arabic in Syria and to speak it as a first language. My brothers who live in Mexico still insist on speaking Arabic at home with their wives and children. Changing countries never changed who they were. Most of our generation preserved their mother tongue language and dialect by speaking Arabic at home, as if they were still in Damascus.

A couple of years ago, two women from the Lisbona family flew to Damas- cus from Paris and contacted us to help them find their family home and show them around our quarter. The Lisbonas are one of the most well-known Jewish families in Damascus, originally from Lisbon, Portugal. They have settled in Damascus almost four centuries ago, after fleeing to Istanbul, as a result of the persecutions of the Jews in Spain and Portugal[10]. We weren’t able to get them into their family home. The once famous Lisbona Damascene house was sold years ago by Abu Khalil Jajati[11] to the Haddads, a Christian family from Damascus, and as private property we had no right to enter. The house was known for its exquisite interior, its main hall was removed and sold as well and no one knows where it ended up. For us these interiors make up part of our Jewish heritage, and should all remain in place.

Restrictions, surveillance, but freedom of religious practice

There was a time when our Syrian IDs had the word ‘Mousawi’[12] printed on them in red ink. The fact that we were Jewish restricted our freedom in many ways, especially when it came to leaving the old city. We were not allowed 5 km outside our quarter, and we were watched over 24/7. I remember this one time we went out on the weekend for lunch in Rabweh, a few kilometers out- side the old city; two men from the authorities accompanied us and sat with us on the same table. My sister Rachel was really young back then, and de- cided to drive them crazy by running up and down the stairs so they would follow her, giving some privacy to our family gathering. I laugh so hard every time I remember how they kept chasing a child up and down the stairs because she was Jewish. All she wanted was to play around, and to buy some candy and slices of watermelon. She was just a child, I mean, they could have just let her be.

But the irony of it all was that these opposed restrictions ended up protecting in the early 1980s, during the rage against the Muslim Brotherhood. Back then everyone was suspected except for us. The authorities saw our IDs and immediately set us free, without any form of investigation, just a simple goodbye, “ma’a al-salameh.” They really did us no harm, and the locals stood by our side although there were many attempts by the Muslim Brotherhood to create hatred between us and the local community. Gladly, all these at- tempts failed. We practiced our religion freely. None of these authorities stood against that idea, and ever since the incident of 1949[13], we were granted protection through authorities that guarded the synagogues during our prayers. Muslims and Christians supported us as well. We even had our own Rabbi from Damascus, I remember Rabbi Zaki Minfakh, also known as Rabbi Zaki Afsa. In addition to his work at the synagogue, he was also responsible for teaching butchers how to slaughter the animals so the meat met kosher standards. When all the Rabbis left Damascus in the 1990s, the government helped us bring a Rabbi from Turkey. He used to visit Damascus once a month, along with Aleppo and Qamishli. But after the war broke in Syria in 2011, none of the Rabbis were able to reach us and most of us started buying meat from local Muslim butchers.

Leading the last generation of Damascene Jews

I don’t like to count how many Jews are left in Damascus, but we are less than 20 people, most of us are of old age, the youngest being in his late 50s. The last time we counted, four Jews passed away starting with Mr. Hilwani who was responsible for guarding the Frenj Synagogue[14]. His brother passed away just months later, then Mr. Hamra, followed by a woman from the Farhi family just a couple of weeks ago. We barely see any of the Jews who are still in the city. Our neighbours are Christian, and most of the shops surrounding us belong to Muslim merchants. They all treat us like family.

I have worked as the head of the Jewish community of Aleppo and Damascus for the past 13 years, and I can tell you that it has been the most exhausting job I have ever had. My responsibilities include taking care of and sup- porting the needs of the remaining members of the Jewish community, in addition to paying field visits to Jewish property that still belongs to the Jewish families who have left the country. Every month, I have to pass by the bank in person to withdraw the monthly salaries of those individuals who need financial support. The bank account is managed as Jewish property and only I, as head of the Jewish community, have access to it. It truly is a huge bur- den, so I assigned a lawyer, a Muslim, to help me finalize any responsibilities I could not finish myself. It is my duty to make sure that they are being taken care of, yet I always hear criticisms for how I help some people more than others. There are specific cases who really need this money, mostly for medical support, and I prefer helping those who are truly in need.

When I travel, I am usually surrounded by people of my own community. But there are instances where you meet a stranger who will surely ask you: “Where are you from?” and I always tell them: “I am from Sham[15]” with so much pride. There’s a famous local Arabic saying I always like to repeat: “Can you detach a nose connecting your eyes?” I am Syrian, it is as simple as that, a Syrian from Sham. You cannot detach me from my identity, it is an un- breakable bond. Home is home, whether it is your happy place or a place connected to your suffering. I might have faced many difficult times because of my religion, but every time I travel, I find myself counting the days to re- turn to Damascus. A bad day won’t erase my beautiful memories of this place. My heart has but one desire … called Damascus.

Njour Zaki Shamoutoub (Eid) | October 27, 2019 |

Njour Zaki Shamoutoub (born 1954 in Damascus), also called Eid, was famous for his tailoring in Damascus. When most of his family left the country, he decided to stay for personal reasons. He admits that with children he wouldn’t have stayed because the restrictions on property, movement etc. made life very hard for Jews. He describes how the co-existence with the old Damascene community and the refugees from Palestine developed after 1948.

My name is Bakhour Z. Shamoutoub, the son of Zaki Shamoutoub. People here know me as Eid, this is my Arabic name. Shamoutoub in Hebrew means a box of happiness, it refers to the gift boxes people give out during celebrations, such as engagement parties or weddings. My father used to own an antique and gift shop in Chalaan, outside the old city, and most of his customers were French tourists who always came to his shop in search for gifts. But this was all before 1948.

Ambivalent relationships with Palestinian refugees in the Jewish Quarter after 1948

With the establishment of the State of Israel, many Palestinians were forced to escape to Damascus. Most of these families ended up settling inside the abandoned houses of the Jewish Quarter. And believe it or not, my father helped provide them with all the furniture and the equipment they needed at a much cheaper price than that available at the Syrian market. In reality, conflict did exist between us Jews and the newcomers. And no one really spoke about the period during and post-1948 or the effect the establishment of the State of Israel had had on us as a Damascene community.

Yet, there were many Jews who choose to hide their identity and remain anonymous to those new- comers. Do you remember Fouad Hilwani? Fouad still fears announcing the fact that he is Jewish, until today! The same goes for Mousa Boukaie, the gas seller at al-Amin; although no one has ever confronted him about his religion before. The fact that many Muslim, Christian and Jewish families hold the same last names, regardless of religion, actually helped many Jews hide their identity. Even the name Mousa is used in all three religions. Fouad Hilwani’s name too can mimic you to believe he is either Muslim or Christian. These names were all Damascene and Arabic, only in the Levant can you see this kind of trend in local communities. In truth, no one ever rejected the Jews be- cause our names also sounded so Damascene to everyone. Even our looks helped, we look very Arab and similar to most of the people in the city.

A family in diaspora

My mom died of cancer at a very young age. We were twelve children, three boys and nine girls. Our names were both Arabic and foreign: Mosa, Jida, Evon; who married a Christian, Stella; who married a Muslim, Badiaa, Marcel, Olga, Touneh, Rene, and Latifa. Today, we live in different countries, between Syria, the USA, Mexico, and Israel. Many people ask me why I chose to stay here. Truth is, I used to love a Muslim woman from Midan[16], and I could not leave although I knew there was no chance we could ever end up together. I have known her for 24 years now, and believe it or not, she and I remained single till this day. She made me a promise she would never be with anyone else, but we stopped talking years ago.

“The best tailor in Damascus”

My main profession was tailoring. Back then everyone knew me, and many considered me one of the best tailors in the country. I used to work from my home at the Jewish Quarter. People used to stand in line at the doorway to get an appointment, the same scene you see every morning of the queue line for freshly baked bread. Back then, I used to charge 10 or 15 Syrian pounds per pair of pants, every other tailor charged 20, this was almost 40 years ago but I remember it like it was yesterday. One day, it got so crowded at my door that the police dropped by to check what was going on. They could not figure out a rational reason to why people kept visiting my house in particular. But back then, all Jews had no choice but to work from home, there were so many restrictions and we could not move freely outside the Jewish Quarter. People responded by telling the police that “Eid was the best tailor in Damascus,” and that they did not want any other tailor to saw their pants. Today, although I have moved on and started a new business, some clients still insist that I make their pants, and would never trade them for a ready-to- wear piece from the market.

I learned this profession from a Jew named Rafoul Saedya and with time I became as good of a tailor as he was and maybe even better. I started work at a very young age because I dropped out of school when I was in 9th grade. I got very sick that year and as I skipped so many classes my principal got me expelled before the end of the school year. I was so good in Arabic, I especially loved poetry and no one excelled me at it. Ibn Maymoun[17] had students from every religion, although it was the only school at the time that gave Hebrew classes and was situated inside the Jewish Quarter. There was a time when the government appointed a Muslim principal to direct our school, these things were viewed as norms, and never mattered really. The other day I bumped into one of my classmates. Her name is Huyam Kabboushi, a Christian from Bab Touma, and she came up and saluted me very warmly. I was so glad she still remembered me.

Figure 4. Shamoutoub’s house at the Jewish Quarter of Old Damascus. Photo by Rania Kataf.

Restrictions of property and movement, marked IDs and a diminishing community

During the 1970s and early 1980s, Jews were not allowed to buy or sell property. This was a great deal for me because I am the kind of guy who prefers to invest his money in buying shops or houses. To resolve that issue, my Muslim brother-in-law would register his name instead of mine on the day of signing the contract. This was pretty much the only way a Jew could own property back in the days. I always felt having one property was not enough. When my brothers left Damascus in the 1980s through the mountains of Lebanon, the government wanted to confiscate the house because they believed the whole family had fled illegally outside of Syrian land. Then the matter was handed to the UNRWA, who at the time, used all the empty Jewish homes to house Palestinian refugees. Until today, I have to pay rent to the UNRWA to protect our home from being confiscated.

We were not even allowed outside the Jewish Quarter unless we got a permit. Our IDs were marked in red to resemble the fact that we are of Jewish background, or the word ‘Mousawi’, meaning followers of Moses[18] was added to our cards. We felt very discriminated, although our IDs also stated the fact that we come from Quemarriyyeh[19] in Old Damascus, like many other Damascene families. I admit I thought of leaving Damascus several times, these restrictions really disturbed us as a Jewish community. I always say that if I were to have children I would have never stayed, I would never let them experience this. Plus, with the limited number of Jews in the city, my children would end up growing up around a Muslim and Christian community, and that might detach them from their original identity as Jews.

We did not gain the right to purchase property until the mid-1980s, but sometimes even after that, some shop owners felt hesitant towards selling their property to a Jew, even if he was of Damascene origin. I remember I wanted to buy a shop near Sham Hotel at the city canter and when we met to finally sign the contract the owner changed his mind when he found out I was Jewish. I thought a good business and reputation was all people cared about when judging others. At that time, I was still working as a tailor but I moved to my store in Bab Touma. Believe me, everyone in the city knew me and no one has ever confronted me with my religion before this incident.

I don’t own my tailor shops in Bab Touma anymore. I sold them all years ago although they meant a lot to me because they were some of my first purchases after we regained the right to own property. But that does not matter really. Because today, I own three houses; our family home where I live and two other apartments outside the old city which I put out for rent.

Inter-confessional co­existence

The other day when I was taking photos at the Jewish Quarter, a young Pales- tinian came up to me yelling: “I am Palestinian, what about you?” He knew very well who I was, my religion and even where I live. I replied by saying: “And I am Jew.” I know that I could have just said that I was Syrian but I did not want to. We were both wrong, it was nothing more than childish behaviour. This never happened to me with a Syrian, we were never disturbed in any way by our local community.

As a result of the current conflict in Syria, the idea of anti-Semitism was actually erased completely. People realized that certain events or actions do not define a whole group or community. Since 2011, peaceful co-existence started to resurface in our community, and people started caring for those few Jews left in the city. Our family was always open minded and accepted the idea of marrying someone from a different religion, we had to accept the fact that there weren’t many Jewish men in the country anymore. I have a sister married to a Muslim and another married to a Christian. My sister Stella even changed her name to Leila after getting married to a Muslim man. So basically, I am the Jewish uncle with Muslim and Christian nephews and nieces. Do you know any better example of a coexistent society?

Rachel Qamoo | October 30, 2019 |

Rachel Qamoo (born 1941 in Damascus), sister of Albert Qamoo, returned to Damascus because she made it her mission to take care of the city’s synagogues. Even if she would like to leave the country and live with her family in Mexico, she stays to make sure that the synagogues will be preserved. In this interview, she also tells about the crafts and trades that Damascene Jews were famous for; about the history of the former Jewish houses and schools. As the others, Rachel Qamoo reflects to what extent inter-confessional neighborhood friendships could persist despite growing political conflicts in the region.

Most of the Jews of Damascus left Syria years ago and since then all of the buildings, including the synagogues, in the old city have been neglected. I am here today for these synagogues, I chose to return to Damascus out of pure will, although part of me still hopes that one day I will get the chance to leave as well. I’ve always wanted to reunite with my brothers in Mexico and to live with them for the rest of my life. But before I do, I plan to renovate all the synagogues of Damascus or else we will end up losing them the same way Damascus lost its Jewish community.

Damascene Jews as craftsmen and merchants

The Jews of Damascus were known for their ingeniousness in craft and trade. Our moto is “We sell quality not quantity” and we know how to make good money out of it. Socially, the Jewish community was divided into a lower, middle and upper class, yet we were all resident at the Jewish Quarter. You can never tell the difference in class or status between us, we all dressed up very well. Our community gives much value to looks and appearance. While the rich bought their clothes from Beirut or Paris, the poor sewed their own with high quality fabric from Europe. These fabrics were usually smuggled into the souks of Damascus through Antakya, Turkey.

Damascene Jews were well-known textile merchants. Some families have been the pioneers of textile trade for centuries, especially between Europe and Ottoman Syria. Yet, Jews were better known for their craftsmanship in cop- per and gold metalworking. Back then, our quarter was called the Taiwan of Damascus. We used to work from our homes and shops inside the Jewish Quarter. It wasn’t until the early 1980s that our shops and factories spread everywhere in Damascus; in Salhiyyeh, Chalaan, and even in Bab Touma.

Figure 5. The ark at the Frenj Synagogue, with an Hebrew inscription from Psalms 16:8 and 65:5. Jewish Quarter in Old Damascus. Photo by Rania Kataf.

Young women played a major role in these crafts as well. They mastered the art of silver inlaying on copper ornamental objects. Earlier on, women established factories inside their homes, sewing cloths and fur jackets. Our men were the kings of gold jewellery making, especially in the city of Qamishli, which was also known for oil pressing, ghee, yogurt, and cheese making. In Damascus, we controlled the gold market. The most famous gold merchants were the Muwaddebs, they were responsible for forecasting the price of gold in the Syrian market. In Aleppo, Jews gained the reputation for being the pioneers of international trade, they were the wealthiest in the country. Jews were also money lenders, and not only that, we did not mind selling our products on debt, and that really angered many merchants because it encouraged more people to purchase our products. In no time, our businesses took over the whole Damascene market.

Pragmatic relationships with Palestinian refugees

After 1948, the shape of our quarter changed tremendously. Palestinian refugees moved into our quarter and many Palestinians worked with us. The political situation might have been complicated, but in reality, we were able to cooper- ate with the Palestinians by providing them with jobs in our factories, turning them from refugees to citizens who made money and were able to buy property. The Jews were smart, instead of focusing on our political differences, we were able to create a relationship that gave benefit to both sides, and this was done through business. The Palestinian labour helped us expand our businesses, especially during the 1980s when we started exporting our goods to Russia and Eastern Europe; it was our golden era again. But this all ended when the Jews left Damascus in the 1990s, leaving behind their businesses and skilled Palestinian workers who tried to re-establish the latter but failed.


The Jews studied in several schools in Damascus, mostly Christian schools located in Bab Touma or at the Alliance School[20] in the Jewish Quarter. After 1948, our Alliance School was taken over by Palestinian refugees. Since then, the only school we had left for us inside the Jewish Quarter was Ibn Maymoun[21], which was established in 1935. My sisters and I studied at l’Ecole des Soeurs de Besancon in Bab Touma, my brothers enrolled at Ibn Maymoun because it was the only school that offered Hebrew and religious studies. We were very young in 1948, but I remember very well how all the kids were taken out of our school, the Alliance, and placed in alternative schools across the old city. Many kids got sick because of fear and the feeling of detachment, but no one was harmed or faced any form of violence.

Keeping Damascene friendships despite political tensions and restrictions

Although being a Jew in Damascus may have been difficult, it did not change the way we felt towards our city. We were Damascene, we always have been; but after 1948, the law and the government were against us, but never did that change how the people of the Damascene community treated us; except for a few maybe. One of my teachers at school used to kick us out of class because she refused to teach Jews. But she was one out of many other Syrians who never treated us based on our religious background. She was the only one to treat us this way really. On the other hand, there were many Muslim merchants who remained loyal to my father and were very close friends of the family, like the Haffars and the Dawamnehs, two very well-known Damascene families.

My father’s partner in business, a Muslim as well, helped get my brother out of the Citadel’s prison when authorities started investigating with the Jews[22] during Quwatli’s rule[23]. We were not allowed outside our homes after 5 pm, things got very tough really, and most of our businesses were stopped or confiscated by the government. I even remember how my Chris- tian friend would enter our home through the back door so authorities would not see her visiting a Jewish home. But this all ended in the early 1970s after Hafez al-Assad[24] became president. In no time, we were treated as Syrian citizens again. We gained our right to buy and sell property, to trade locally and internationally, and to move around freely[25]. It was then that many Jews started establishing major businesses outside of Old Damascus, in Bab Touma, Chalaan, and other major parts of the city centre as I have mention to you before.

Family houses and their transitions

We owned a huge house in Quemariyyeh[26] where most of our neighbours were Christian, and for over 30 years we always felt like we were one big family living in the same neighbourhood. We bought it in 1946 but unfortunately my parents decided to sell it back in 1980. Our house used to belong to an Austrian doctor. Today, it has been transformed into a hotel known as Aginor. Everyone knew that doctor, he used to move around the old city on his white donkey. You could never miss him although he was very short, but at that time, riding a white donkey was like riding a Cadillac, and how tall that foreign doctor was suddenly didn’t matter anymore. You see … Money talks.

Our home was a huge Damascene house, with more than ten rooms and a beautiful courtyard full of trees. Some were planted by my brothers who left for Mexico just a couple of years after we have moved into the house. When my father bought the house, he paid for it with English coins, it was just after World War II and the owner was shocked to find that my father owns that amount of English money. There were ten Christian families in our neighbourhood, the Sabbaghs and the Syoufis were the most popular. Our neighbourhood was also known as the Sultaneh[27] because it was considered a high-class neighbourhood. It even had its own water system, through aqueducts that carried the water from nearby rivers directly into our homes. Our original house at the Jewish Quarter became a hotel as well, the Talisman Hotel. Those houses were huge and only rich people could afford to live in them and call them their home. We owned half of it, while the other half belonged to the Shattahs, another Damascene Jewish family. I was born in that house, and so were my brothers and sisters. As our family got bigger my father decided to sell it and buy us a bigger home, and that’s how we ended up moving outside the Jewish Quarter. My father always said, “my family’s happiness comes first,” and for that reason only did he move outside of our neighbourhood.

We didn’t sell the house for the money, we sold it because we thought of leaving. But as soon as we moved into the apartment, my father passed away, followed by my mother. They couldn’t stand the idea of leaving. The idea of being away from home, their beloved city and their neighbourhood cost them their lives; and instead of leaving to Mexico, they left to remain in Damascene soil.

Returning to Damascus to preserve its synagogues

When my parents passed away, Albert and I decided to leave Syria and follow our brothers, so we did. But in a little less than six months, we were back in Damascus because we decided we had to protect and renovate the synagogues in the old city. They are a very important part of our Jewish heritage and cannot be left neglected. I still have a lot of work to do. And for the past year and two months, all I have been doing is helping out and watching over the work of the construction workers. My plan is to save all the synagogues in Damascus, then maybe I can head back to Mexico and reunite with my brothers and sister with a more peaceful heart and mind. We don’t want to be here alone anymore.

Returning to Damascus to preserve its synagogues

When my parents passed away, Albert and I decided to leave Syria and follow our brothers, so we did. But in a little less than six months, we were back in Damascus because we decided we had to protect and renovate the synagogues in the old city. They are a very important part of our Jewish heritage and cannot be left neglected. I still have a lot of work to do. And for the past year and two months, all I have been doing is helping out and watching over the work of the construction workers. My plan is to save all the synagogues in Damascus, then maybe I can head back to Mexico and reunite with my brothers and sister with a more peaceful heart and mind. We don’t want to be here alone anymore.

What breaks my heart the most is the Synagogue of Jobar[28]. It used to be
the second oldest synagogue in Syria, after the Synagogue of Aleppo, before it has been destroyed completely during the Syrian conflict. During the 16th century, many of the Jews who escaped Spain came to settle in Jobar because of its ancient synagogue. Those who moved to Damascus built the Frenj Synagogue[29], ‘frenj’ meaning foreigner, making it the first synagogue built in- side the city walls. After that, seven synagogues were built, in addition to private synagogues inside Jewish homes. The most famous was the private synagogue at the house of Chamahayah, which became a settlement for refugees from Palestine in 1948. The house, which was actually a palace in size, fit up to 50 Palestinian families. And as it was divided, different parts of the interior were removed and sold outside of Syria. The most famous being the reception room which has been reinstalled in a villa in Saida, Lebanon, and belongs to the well-known Lebanese Druze Naseeb Jumblatt. There used to be a synagogue nearby Bab Touma[30] for Karaite Jews, but when they all left Damascus centuries ago, it was sold and transformed into a church[31] during the 19th century. If you visit it, you will see how similar the structure of the church is to that of the Frenj Synagogue. Losing our synagogues really aches my heart, I really do not want this to happen anymore.

Syria is the only country and government that has protected its synagogues even after the Jews have left the country. In Egypt, Iraq and Lebanon most of the synagogues have been destroyed or removed to be substituted by new buildings. Syria, on the other hand, is cooperating very well by helping us renovate these historical religious buildings. When I finish renovating the synagogues, I will sell this apartment and move to live with my family in Mexico. Ever since my parents passed away, I really had no reason to stay here, except for the fact that we finally felt free again. President Hafez al-Assad gave us all the freedom we dreamed of as Syrian citizens. We felt home again. This is why we returned, I had to take care of what was left of the Jewish community’s assets, homes and synagogues. The Syrian government really helped with that, and accepted the fact that we, as a Jewish community, want to protect our Jewish cultural heritage.

Joseph Jajati | November 26, 2019 |

Joseph Jajati (born 1994 in Damascus) left Damascus for Brooklyn (New York City, USA) with his mother and his brother when he was only two years old. Although having left in such a young age, he emphasizes the strong feeling of belonging to the Syrian community, a collective identity that he keeps and presents proudly in Brooklyn where he still lives and works as a businessman. Joseph describes the house and businesses of his family and the central role his grandfather played in the Jewish community nostalgically. In 2018, Joseph traveled back to Syria for the first time after leaving as a child, a trip that he remembers rhapsodically.

Remembering the family’s house, business and influence in the community

Our house was located in the midst of the old city, nearby the Roman Arch on Straight Street, in an Alley called al-Tallaj. It was a tiny neighbourhood, with houses built so close to each other you literally felt like you lived with your neighbours. Our neighbour back then was the famous Syrian actor, Rasheed Assaf. We have known them for a very long time. Neighbours in Damascus become your family, that’s how it is all over the country. Al-Tallaj alley is considered part of the Quemariyyeh[32] neighbourhood and it is the same address mentioned on our IDs. I only lived there for two years, then in 1996 I left Damascus with my mother and sister for Brooklyn. My mother decided to move because her parents were already in the States. My father and grandfather chose to stay and ended up settling in Damascus until 2001; making them one of the last people of the Jewish community to leave the city.

My father and grandfather, Youssef Abou Khalil Jajati, owned the biggest textile store in Damascus, called al-Makhzan al-Kabeer, in other words the large warehouse. Their business was huge and very well known in Damascus and it was located just in front of the Damascus Governorate Building. My grandfather bought the store in 1972. And in 2001, when he finally took the decision to leave, he sold both our house and the store. Today our shop makes up one of the branches of a Syrian telecommunication network company called MTN. Yet people still remember the store as al-Makhzan al-Kabeer[33]. I know very well that our name and reputation in the Damascene market have not been forgotten.

Back then, my grandfather shared a very good relationship with the Syrian government, and was appointed as the representative of the Jewish community of Aleppo and Damascus. For years, he was the man handling all Jewish matters behind closed doors. Even during the 1980s and early 1990s when Rabbi Hamra[34] was Head of the Syrian Jewish Community. My grandfather helped out in most of the work without any credit really. It wasn’t until Rabbi Hamra left for Israel in 1994 that people knew about my grandfather’s sup- port and work; and Abu Khalil Jajati officially became known as the Head of the Jewish Community.

The situation of the Jewish community after the last emigration wave in the early 1990s: to leave or not to leave?

By 1994, 95 % of the Jewish community was estimated to have departed the city of Damascus. There were no Rabbis, no butchers that provided kosher meat, and a very small number of young Jews; the reason why many Jewish women who sought marriage had to leave as well. I heard once that some people have returned to Damascus in 1996, believe me Jews were not happy in the States, it was not their home. By 2001, most of the Jews have already left Syria and my father and grandfather were surrounded by a very small Jewish community. I remember how they kept trying to convince the Jews not to leave, insisting that they were going to regret it and end up returning to Damascus. This was why they chose to stay, but once my grandfather realized that people were not coming back, he too decided to follow his community. Eventually everyone had to leave. Jews needed to be surrounded by their community.

Yousef Abu Khalil Jajati passed away almost six years ago and his brother passed away just two days ago. I know for a fact that if the choice was theirs, what they would have really wanted more than anything was to spend their last days in Syria, especially my grandfather Abu Khalil.

Figure 8. The Roman Arch on Street called Straight, Old Damascus. Photo by Rania Kataf.

Keeping the Syrian (collective) identity in Brooklyn

I don’t remember how Damascus used to be in the ‘90s, I was only two years old when I left so I grew up in the States. Yet, that did not make me any less Shami, I definitely feel Shami. Not remembering Syria does not make me any less Syrian and not physically being in Syria doesn’t either. My house in the States is a typical Syrian home and my family made sure I grew up the Syrian way. We speak Arabic at home, even at work, and I only speak English when I really have to. Everything we do, we do the exact same way it used to be done in Damascus; the food, the traditions, the ceremonies and celebrations. If you compare us as a Damascene Jewish community to other Jewish commu- nities in the States and Europe, you will find that we are truly very different. We might share the same religion but in reality, we are very different. You and me as Syrians are a hundred times more similar than a random Jewish American walking in the street of New York.

To be honest, we are doing very well here as a family, so no one really regrets leaving Syria. But, do we miss home? Yes! Every day! All the time! Syria is all we talk about when we are together, especially when my grandfather from my mom’s side is present. His name is Salim Abou Habib Halabi, also known as Salim Hasbani. You see, even our names are Arabic. Everything about us is purely Syrian.

Brooklyn is basically an updated version of our Jewish Quarter in Damascus. The city became a hub for all the Jews of the Syrian community, including the Jews of Aleppo and Quamishli as well. Some Egyptian and Lebanese Jews integrated into our community in Brooklyn too. In reality, the Damascene Jews have a better relationship between themselves than with Jews from other cities and countries. Even in the States, most of my friends are from Sham, we are much connected by nature.

I never hide my identity, I tell everyone where I come from, with pride of course. People do get a little surprised when I am outside our area, but in Brooklyn there is a huge Syrian Jewish community so I never need to explain myself to anybody. The fact that I am Syrian and Jewish and speak Arabic very well can sometimes shock some people. I don’t speak any Hebrew; I only understand some of it. My Arabic is a hundred times better than my Hebrew actually and even my family does not know how to speak the language. I only know a couple of words because we were taught some Hebrew at my Jewish school in Brooklyn when I was a kid. But not one word from my home.

Traveling back to Damascus

I travelled to Syria in August of 2018. It was my first time in Damascus since I left the city as a child. I was finally going to visit home after 22 years of living abroad. I cannot explain to you how I felt the moment I arrived to the city; it was an indescribable feeling. How can I explain to you what being home means to someone like me? It was a dream, truly surreal… When I shared the photos I took during my trip with my father, he got so jealous he decided he was going to take a break from work and fly over to Syria. And in September 2018, he finally travelled home. Damascus, oh Damascus, it will always be our home.

The trip was one of its kind. When I arrived to the Syrian border, the authorities asked for the legal documents concerning my military service[35]. I laughed and told the border guard I am Jew and that we do not serve the Syrian army. Everyone was shocked when hearing the word ‘Jew’. No one expects a Jew to visit a war-torn Syria at a time when many are still fleeing the country. The border guard asked me, “how long have you been living abroad?” I told him since 1996. This time he laughed, then he said: “Oh, then I guess you missed out on all the action.” He then stamped my passport and said, “welcome back to Syria.” Because of this experience, I decided to go back again. And since then I have been to Syria three other times, in January, April and August of 2018.

Visiting our house for the first time in 22 years was probably the best memory I have of all my visits to Damascus. This was the house I was born in, but after my parents have sold it the new owner turned it into a hotel he called Inanna. I went there with my cousin Ibrahim who arrived from the States a couple of days after I have. And as I introduced myself to the hotel owner, he immediately let us in and told me that we were always welcome to visit stating that “il beit betak!”[36] I truly felt so at home. You can never find anyone in the States who talks to you in this manner, we share true intimacy when we communicate with each other as Damascenes.

il beit betak!

Arabic saying for welcoming a person, meaning: “This home is your home.”

I do a lot of travelling, but I never left my home in Brooklyn for over 10 days, and I always count the days to go back. But in Damascus things are different, I never want to leave and it is so hard to travel back every time. I made so many friends during my four visits to Damascus and I love that being a Jew did not mean I was different. To be honest, many Jewish Syrians in Brooklyn warned me not to go back, they feared I would not be accepted. I can’t blame them, some of them have had bad experiences when they used to live in Damascus. As for me, I had to travel to know the truth, and the most pleasing experience was coming back with so many great memories and proving them all wrong.

I realized that even after my family has left the city no one has really forgot- ten the Jajatis. When people in Damascus know of my last name, they im- mediately recognized us, especially my grandfather Youssef. We were not for- gotten, and that said it all. My family lived a happy life in Damascus, they were successful merchants, they had great neighbours, and I can’t remember a time I heard them speak of a bad memory they had of home.

Ibrahim Abu Hamra | November 26, 2019 |

Ibrahim Abu Hamra (born 1990 in Damascus) was eleven years old when he moved to Brooklyn (New York City, USA) where the Syrian Jewish community was al- ready quite big back then. Until his emigration, he still went to Ibn Maymoun school for a couple of years and starts his interview with memories about that time. As Joseph Jajati, also Ibrahim still feels a strong sense of identification with Damascus. He joined Joseph in his journey back to Syria in 2018 and tells with a similar en- thusiasm about the positive experiences when seeing and meeting again the places and people of his childhood. He still lives in Brooklyn and works as a Businessman.

The last generation of Jewish school kids in Damascus

I was in fifth grade when I left Damascus in 2001. Ibn Maymoun[37], our school in the Jewish Quarter, was still operating at the time. There were not a lot of Jewish kids my age, so my classroom was made up of 15 students ranging from 3rd to 5th grade. And because of the shortage in Jewish staff we all ended up studying the same material. Our school principal at the time was Jewish, but our teachers were mostly Christian, and we studied in the same books as other Syrian schools in Damascus, all printed and provided by the Syrian Ministry of Education.

I used to sing the Syrian national anthem every day before going to class. I remember standing in the school courtyard and watching my uncle do his daily routine of raising the Syrian flag then directing us through the morning assembly, the same way every Syrian student in other schools in Damascus did each day. In reality, we are as Syrian as any other Syrian in the country. We truly shared the same experience as other students of our age, our religion never detached us from our surrounding community. We all shared a common background and for me that reflects on creating a common identity.

Emigration to the diaspora community in Brooklyn

I was 11 years old when I moved to Brooklyn. And to be honest I dd not feel like I was in a foreign country and that was because a large part of my family had already settled in the States way before we did. The presence of my uncles, aunts, cousins, and grandparents really helped me adapt to the place quickly. I was more accepting of the idea of moving and settling in a new home only because I knew I was not alone.

Brooklyn was nothing like Damascus. I know for a fact that I have missed out on a lot of things as a Syrian child growing up in the States. For instance, not being able to play soccer in the narrow alleys of our Jewish quarter any- more really gave me great grief. Kids in the States don’t play soccer in the street, they all prefer football and are more interested in other activities I don’t see myself engaging in. Back in Damascus, I played soccer with the whole neighbourhood, even with our Palestinian neighbour’s children. Living in the same neighbourhood meant we were all the same. I know that I adapted really fast to my new home in Brooklyn, but deep inside I was still Ibrahim from Damascus; the Ibrahim who had what many other Jewish boys of his generation did not have: The ability to speak Arabic as my mother tongue and a childhood in Damascus.

Travelling back to Syria

Sometime certain signs or instances somehow keep reminding you that no matter where you end up, nothing can change the fact that our roots will always be connected to Syria. I was with Joe[38] on his trip to Damascus, and I still can’t get over how he was granted a Syrian ID in only 48 hours after applying for citizenship. This made us feel like we are VIPs, like we still be- longed. We truly felt like we were in our country, retrieving what originally belong to us, our basic right of being Syrian citizens; not tourists visiting a foreign land. I will never be that visitor waiting for a Syrian to welcome me to his country. I was born here; I am from here and my family has lived here way before many other Syrian families have.

In the beginning, I felt a bit hesitant about travelling to Syria with Joe, and I remember him telling me: “I don’t care if you don’t want to come, I am going anyway.” And that is exactly what he did. He arrived to Damascus on Sunday and the minute he got to the hotel he sent me a video. When I watched it, I felt a burn in my chest, I could not believe my eyes. I bought my ticket to Beirut on Wednesday and by Friday I was in Damascus. I could not even pay for my ticket via credit card because my trip was in less than 24 hours. It all happened so fast.

I passed through the Syrian borders on my own, no one wanted to take this trip with me and that did not stop me. I remember very well the moment I arrived to the hotel and saw Joe sitting outside at the terrace drinking orange juice with a friend. We both jerked out of our seats and I ran over the hotel’s fence into the entrance and hugged Joe so hard screaming in his ear: “Oh my God Joe, Oh my God! I can’t believe it! We are both here in Damascus.” Words cannot explain how we felt at that moment. You can only feel such moments.

I went to visit our old house in Kasaa, the Christian neighbourhood nearby Old Damascus. When I knocked the door, our neighbour, who did not recognize me yet, immediately welcomed me and let me in his home. “Don’t you want to ask me who I am?” I asked. All he said was: “Welcome to my home.” If this was to happen in the States, I am sure the house owner would have called the police, especially with two ‘strangers’ knocking at his door. I stood by the entrance telling him: “Just a minute. Do you remember your old neigh- bor? Sometime around 15 years ago?” His eyes lit with hope, he was so happy and hugged me saying: “You are Ibrahim, aren’t you?!” Even his wife remembered me and we even face timed my mom in Brooklyn. To tell you the truth I was not surprised, the Lattashs were Damascene, and their reaction was exactly what I have been looking forward to and expecting.

Maurice Nseiri | November 3, 2019 |

Maurice Nseiri (born 1944 in Damascus) left Syria for Brooklyn (New York City, USA) in 1992 after dedicating his life to the art of metalwork which he had learned from his father Sion Nseiri. In the interview, Maurice focuses on telling about this profession and how he represented and passed on this Damascene tra- dition in the city and abroad.

The Art of Metalworking

In the 1960s, Shafik al-Imam was the director of the Museum of Syrian Crafts at the Azem Palace[39] of Damascus and the man organizing the most important event of the year, the Damascus International Fair. Al-Imam was re- sponsible for selecting and bringing together the best Syrian craftsmen in the city. Every year, I would receive a phone call from Shafik asking me to participate at the event as the master of one of the most famous Damascene crafts, the art of metalworking. Shafik was a close friend, he was an expert in Syrian heritage and I always enjoyed his company and long discussions on culture and craft. He used to visit my father Sion and me constantly at our workshop in the Jewish Quarter or at my office on Street called Straight; we were the only men he trusted to provide him with accurate information on the history of Syrian handcraft and the traditional techniques behind each one. When diplomats visited Damascus, he would bring them to my workshop and store, The Umayyad Bazar, to tell them: “This shop is a true Damascene treasure.” He had great respect for me as a man and as an artist, which is why I never hesitated to participate in any event he told me about, and I always did it for free. My aim was to portray the beauty of Damascene metalwork, all that mattered to me was to show the world the art born out of this city’s craftsmen and merchant.

Our booth attracted many, and I can tell you that people came to the Damascus International Fair just to see what Nseiri has prepared for display in his booth this year. We were a great success for two years in a row, but on the 3rd year, Shafik did not contact me! I called him to ask: “Shafik Beik[40], isn’t it about time you pay me a visit so we discuss this year’s booth? I have a great idea I want to share with you.” He remained silent to I continued: “My plan is to create a piece that illustrates the techniques used in every stage of copper metalwork production, including the inlay techniques and the tools all from A–Z. I am sure this year’s idea will be a great success!” He was still silent, then he told me he was going to pass by my office and I knew then that some- thing was wrong.

Figure 8. Bazar Umayyad on Street called Straight, Old Damascus. Photo by Rania Kataf.

Shafik Beik visited my shop later that afternoon, he hugged me and started crying. “They do not want you to participate in the Damascus International Fair this year Maurice. I am very sorry.” It was the 1960s, so I wasn’t surprised at all. That year, our booth remained empty. I kept telling Shafik that cancel- ling our presence in this year’s international fair does not mean anything. “They might have removed our booth but they can never remove us from this city!” I said.

The 1960s was a very difficult period for most Syrian Jews, especially follow- ing the period of the Israeli-Palestinian War of 1967. As a Damascene artist and craftsman, it largely disturbed me that some people stopped appreciating my work just because I am Jew. My artwork was devalued and so I decided to become extremely selective about who were my future clients going to be. I only sold my pieces to intellectual collectors and never for the purpose of making money. For me, these metal works were unique and a visual representa- tion of true Damascene masterpieces, so they were not for everyone. I always told my clients: “Appreciating my work is not enough, you should also ap- preciate Maurice the artist, or else this piece does not belong to you.” But to be fair, most of my clients were VIP collectors and merchants who appreci- ated my work. Our relationship has always been based on trust, and no one ever bargained with the prices I set for my work.

Some of my clients loved consulting me when it came to decorating their homes. One of them bought a house in Malki[41] in the ‘80s and invited me over to see his new home and to ask me how he should decorate it. And although I kept reminding him that I was not an interior designer, he kept insisting that one of the rooms be of my creation. So, I chose the dining room, and created the whole table set of brass with copper and silver inlay; in addition to the lamps and a large mirror. It really turned out to be a very rare Damascene masterpiece. I never gave this design to another client, and until today, no one has been able to recreate that same customised dining room.

Figure 9. A metal worker at Bazar Umayyad, Old Damascus. Source: Maurice Nseiri.
Figure 10. A copper plate designed by Sion Nseiri, Maurice Nseiri’s father, at the Museum of Syrian Crafts – Azem Palace, Old Damascus. Photo by Rania Kataf

Restrictions on movement and travel bans

It was difficult for us to travel around Syria, we were banned from moving four km outside of the city unless we had a permit. These permits needed time to be issued and we had to indicate the exact travel date and destination. These restrictions mostly applied during the 1960s. I used to travel a lot to Aleppo for business purposes and had to pass by the Syrian authorities every time to inform them of my departure and arrival. Even my family had to get permits for weekend trips out in the suburbs. This did not change until the mid-70s, after the horrifying incident of the kidnapping and murder of the Jewish teenagers who were killed by their smuggler on their way to Lebanon[42]. It wasn’t until sometime between 1974 and 1975 that we were finally allowed to travel freely again, but under the condition that a member or two of our family remains in Syria. We were also forced to place a bank deposit of 25,000 Syrian pounds per person (6000$/person) as a guarantee until our return.

Exporting metalware to Europe

In addition to my work in metalware, I also worked in the exporting business. Every Thursday a shipment of second-hand goods was packaged and shipped off to Germany. The Germans loved my work and were some of my most loyal customers. I used to collect each and every piece of unwanted antique and metalwork in the Syrian market. I would polish them, then place them in containers so they were ready for the next shipment. All these goods were photographed and added to our store’s catalogue, with information including the history, measurements and source of each piece. No one appreciated these pieces in Syria because people were ignorant about their cultural value. I knew that they were unreplaceable, and for this reason I found a way to revive their presence by introducing them to the international market. Syria is a melting pot of cultures, and every city had its own unique identity which is portrayed through its handcrafts. I was the only merchant who was also an expert in the history of Syrian metalworks. I had clients in Germany, France, Italy, Denmark and even England. People in Europe are truly fond of our cul- ture and handcrafts.

After all travel bans were removed, I started traveling more to Europe to attend different exhibitions in France, Germany, and Italy. These exhibitions were only for European participants, but I joined every time to see what was trending and who were the big names attending these events. Sometimes I would take samples of my work for people to see, it was very important for me to show off my work on these trips, not only for personal business purposes but also to represent my country’s craftsmen. After each trip, I would return to Damascus with so much enthusiasm to create more. My idea of design was to recreate outdated oriental pieces with a modern twist that would attract the European market. One of my favorites were the lanterns I made out of tradi- tional copper water jugs. The original French army soldier hats were very popular as well, I added copper plates to each one and the whole batch was sold to Germany. This is how I became one of the most well-known and well-respected merchants of Damascus, but that was mostly on an interna- tional level, at least during the 1960s and early 1970s.

One of my clients was a German tradesman from the Handke family, he had a warehouse in a town nearby the city of Munich, and every time I visited Germany, he would insist I would stay over at his home by the lake. Mr. Handke bought goods from many different Arab countries. He used to tell me: “I buy goods from Egypt, Iraq, and Iran, but nothing compares to the gems you sell me Maurice.” Mr. Handke had a team of experts that managed the in- ventory at his warehouse. Every piece that entered the warehouse underwent a series of inspections. The results were then compared to the data from each order. This was the procedure they followed every single time, except for my shipment. Mr. Handke’s warehouse supervisor never touched my lot, and it went straight into storage. No inspection, no security measurements, no data collection, nothing but trust!

Helping out colleagues to pass on the tradition

There was a lot of competition in the market, especially in a city like Damascus where trade and craft were the heart of the city’s soul and economy. Yet, that never stopped me from helping others. Merchants always came over to my office to seek my advice, some even shared the same business as mine. My workers always criticized me for helping them out, thinking it was naïve of me to support my rival in the Syrian market. One afternoon, one of my workers came up to me and asked: “Why would you give away all your knowledge? The techniques you taught us? Our designs? Aren’t you worried they would copy your work?”

For me this was never an issue because my main concern was for our craft to survive. I always felt it was my responsibility to pass on this ancient Damascene art to future generations the proper way. When people come up to you for advice it means you are held countable for transferring and sharing the right information, these are my ethics. History and man will remember that, and so will my Damascus. This was the lesson my father Sion Nseiri, also known as Abou Brahim, taught me, he always told me, “Maurice, it is our duty to help them do it right, or else this city will lose this art and craft forever.”

Sion Nseiri was a great man. When I was seven years old, I used to visit him at his old workshop, at Khosh al-Hakim, in the Jewish Quarter and watch him work his magic with copper. His warehouse was smaller than that of the Umayyad Bazar but it was filled with Jewish craftsmen and young Jewish women who were the experts in inlaying silver on the copper plates produced by the men. My father always asked for my opinion, and sometimes he ap- plied my ideas on his own work. I was a kid back then but he always encour- aged me to speak out, he was a great listener, and he taught me how to be creative in our craft. On January 1, 1992, at exactly 7:00 am, my father’s ware- house collapsed. It was snowing heavily in Damascus on that day. At that same moment, believe it or not, I was saying my final farewells to Damascus, while waiting in line to board the plane that was taking me to the United States … for good.

Figure 11. Work of Sion Ibrahim Nseiri (1968), father of Maurice Nseiri, in a church in Kassaa, Damascus. Photo by Rania Kataf.

About the author: Rania Kataf is a Damascus-based researcher in Syrian cultural heritage. Since 2016 she has been involved in several projects for the safeguarding and documentation of her country’s architectural and oral history. In 2017 she completed the postgraduate certificate programme on art crime and cultural heritage protection with the Association for Research into Crimes Against Art, Italy. She is now completing her Masters in World Heritage Studies online at the Brandenburg University of Technology.

Source: This text is an authorised reprint of the Working paper Hidden Stories of Damascene Jews. The research was conducted for the project Der Gang der Geschichte(n) von Minor-Projektkontor für Bildung und Forschung and financed by The Federal Agency for Civic Education and the Federal Foreign Office.

Disclaimer: this article is intended for educational purposes, and does not purport to provide legal advice. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author.


[1] For other estimations of the Je- wish population see Introducti- on and Álvarez Suárez/Del Río Sánchez 2013: 112–113, Jasim 2020: 10; Karpat 2002: 146–168, Zenner 2000: 36.

[2] He refers to the so-called Damascus Affair in 1840 when Jews were accused of the murder of a Christian monk and his Muslim servant and confronted with ritual murder libels which follo- wed the patterns of centuries-old anti-Semitic canards in Europe. The smear campaign was mainly pushed by the French consul Ratti- Menton, led to the arrest and torture of leading members of the Jewish communities and caused international attention and involvement (see Introduction and Jasim 2020, 15–17). .Editor’s note.

[3] A wealthy Jewish family known as money lenders. Raphael and Haim Farhi worked as financial advisors and tax collectors for the Ottoman sultanate (see Introduction).

[4] In general, economic privileges were only given to individuals within the Christian and Jewish populations who profited from legal protection by the European powers on which the Ottoman Empire became increasingly de- pendent. This dependence also led to the settlement of so-called Capitulations, which among other things exempted traders of the European powers – inclu- ding their local trading partners and protégés – from specific taxes. For the European powers, in turn, local Jews and Christi- ans were important intermedia- ries in trade because of their familiarity with the local market and their long-established trade networks with Europe. Jews who were given important positions in the Ottoman administration, did not have an independent power base and, therefore, were highly dependent on the Otto- man rulers (see Jasim 2020: 14– 20, Krämer 2006: 253).

[5] Hafezal-Assad(1930–2000), President of Syria 1971–2000.

[6] 1967: Arab-Israeli War.

[7] Established in 1935 in the Jewish Quarter of Old Damascus and closed in the beginning of the 2000s when the last Jewish chil- dren left Damascus. Named after the Jewish Andalusian scho- lar Moses Maimonides (Arabic name: Ibn Maymoun, died 1204).

[8] The house of a wealthy Sephardi Jewish family that fled to Da- mascus from Lisbon after the Jews were forced into exile in the end of 15th century.

[9] School of the international, French-based organization Alliance Israélite Universelle (AIU), established in 1864 and reopened in 1880. The curriculum of the AIU schools combined secular and religious studies, including Hebrew classes. The AIU school was closed when its building became an UNRWA installation for Palestinian refugees after 1948 (see Chapter “Traces”).

[10] This refers to the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, ordered by the so-called Alhambra Decree issued by the Catholic Monarchs of Spain after the Reconquista. Many of the expel- led Jews from Spain, called “Sephardim”, resettled in the Ottoman Empire which welcomed them as new subjects.

[11] As head of the Jewish commu- nity, Jajati represented absent members of the Jewish commu- nity, selling and renting Jewish property on their behalf. Left Da- mascus in 2001.

[12] Arabic for “Mosaic/Followers of Moses”. The addition on Syrian IDs was introduced in 1963 and removed in 1992. For the back- ground of the usage of the term in the Ottoman and Arab Natio- nalist administrative language see Álvarez Suárez/Del Río Sán- chez 2013: 111, Karpat 2002: 153).

[13] An attack during a Saturday prayer at the Menarsha Synagogue which killed 12 persons (see Part II, “Traces”).

[14] The Frenj Synagogue, located in the Jewish Quarter of Old Da- mascus, is the only one in Dama- scus that is still functioning to- day. It is said to be founded by the Sephardic Jews who came to Damascus after their expulsion from Spain in the end of the 15th century (see Chapter “Traces”).

[15] Local name for Damascus.

[16] A neighbourhood south of the old city walls. Was created by the merchants of Damascus and farmers of Horan, south of Syria, as a trade cantre about 400 years ago.

[17] A school that was established in 1935 in the Jewish Quarter of Old Damascus and closed in the beginning of the 2000s when the last Jewish children left Damascus. Named after the Jewish Andalusian scholar Moses Maimonides (Arabic name: Ibn Maymoun, died 1204).

[18] Arabic for “Mosaic/Followers of Moses”. The addition on Syrian IDs was introduced in 1963 and removed in 1992. For the back- ground of the usage of the term in the Ottoman and Arab Natio- nalist administrative language see Álvarez Suárez/Del Río Sán- chez 2013: 111; Karpat 2002: 153.

[19] A melting pot of Muslim and Christian neighborhood in Old Damascus. People who lived nearby where also registered as settlers of Quemarriyyeh.

[20] School of the international, French-based organization Alliance Israélite Universelle (AIU), established in 1864 and reopened in 1880. The curriculum of the AIU schools combined secular and religious studies, including Hebrew classes. The AIU school was closed when its building became an UNRWA installation for Palestinian refugees after 1948 (see Chapter “Traces”).

[21] Established in 1935 in the Jewish Quarter of Old Damascus and closed in the beginning of the 2000s when the last Jewish chil- dren left Damascus. Named after the Jewish Andalusian scho- lar Moses Maimonides (Arabic name: Ibn Maymoun, died 1204).

[22] A series of investigations were run to collect information concerning the Arab-Israeli War.

[23] Shukri al-Quwatli (1891–1967), President of Syria 1943–1949, first president of post-independence Syria.

[24] Hafez al-Assad (1930–2000), President of Syria 1971–2000.

[25] Not all restrictions were lifted in the 1970s. See Preface and Timeline.

[26] A melting pot Muslim and Christian neighbourhood in Old Damascus.

[27] For sultans, reflecting class and authority

[28] Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue, which is known as one of the oldest synagogues in the country and is situated in Jobar, a suburb of Damascus. Was destroyed completely by a bombing in 2014 (see Part II, “Traces”)

[29] The Frenj Synagogue, located in the Jewish Quarter of Old Da- mascus, is the only one in Damascus that is still functioning today. It is said to be founded by the Sephardic Jews who came to Damascus after their expulsion from Spain in the end of the 15th century (see Part II, “Traces”).

[30] Christian neighbourhood in Old Damascus.

[31] The Karaites are a Jewish sect that derives its religious teachings and laws only from the Written Torah/Hebrew holy scriptures, and not from rabbinical authorities and the authoritative writings of rabbinic Jewish traditions (the Oral Torah, such as the Talmud). They made up a recognizable part of the Jewish population of the Middle East from the 9th–11th century. .Editor’s note.. After the last Karaite Jews had left Damascus, their synagogue was sold by a representative of the Karaite Jews from Jerusalem. It was trans- formed into the Zaytoun Church between 1832–1834.

[32] A melting pot of Muslim and Christian neighborhood in Old Damascus.

[33] Arabic for “the large warehouse”.

[34] The last rabbi in Damascus. Left Damascus for the United States, then to Israel in 1994.

[35] Under the Service of the Flag Law of 1953, all Syrian males, with the exception of the Jews, must serve in the military.

[36] Arabic saying for welcoming a person, meaning: “This home is your home.”

[37] Established in 1935 in the Jewish Quarter of Old Damascus and closed in the beginning of the 2000s when the last Jewish children left Damascus. Named after the Jewish Andalusian scholar Moses Maimonides (Arabic name: Ibn Maymoun, died 1204).

[38] Joseph Jajati, see previous inter- view.

[39] The Azem Palace the private residence of Asad Pasha al-Azem (1706–1758), a governor of Damascus during the Ottoman Empire.

[40] Bey; used as a title for a leader during the Ottoman period.

[41] High class neighbourhood in Damascus.

[42] On March 2, 1974, bodies of four teenage Jewish girls from the Zaibak and Saad family were found in Zabadani, a town near Damascus. They were mur- dered by their smuggler in their attempt to leave the country through the border to Lebanon. (See Jasim 2020: 32–33).

Literature for Part I, II and III of Rania Kataf’s series, Measuring Value.

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  • Al-Jabin, Ibrahim, 2016. Ayn al-shark [Eye of the East]. Beirut, Damascus: MK Publishing.
  • Lewis, Bernard, 1999: Semites and Anti-Semites: An Inquiry into Conflict and Prejudice. New York, London: W. W. Norton & Company.
  • Na’eeseh, Youssef, 2009: Yahoud bilad al-sham fi-l-qarn al-tasee ashar wa-l- nisf al-awwal min al-qarn al-ishreen [Jews of the Levant in the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century]. Al-Turath al-Arabi [Arab Heritage] 113: A93–A124.
  • Olabi, Akram, 2011. Yahoud al-sham fi-l-asr al-othmani [Jews of the Levant in the Ottoman Period]. Syria: The Syrian General Organization of Books.