Tag Archives: Damascus

This is the saddest story: Syria’s last Jews leave — By Sami Moubayed, Special to Gulf News

12 Nov

Aleppo’s last Jewish family leaves Syria

Family separated for the first time after Israel rejects Muslim members

SOURCE: Govorkov Central Synagogue of Aleppo

By Sami Moubayed, Special to Gulf News

Beirut: The last Jewish family has left Aleppo, according to sources in northern Syria, ending a long and illustrious chapter in the diverse demographic and religious history of the city that is now torn by war due to almost five years of a vicious conflict.

Chances are that Aleppo Jewry will never return as the city remains at the crosshairs of an ongoing war between Syrian troops, Russian airplanes, and a large variety of rebels fighting on Syrian soil.

Armenian photographer Derounian’s 1914 photograph of a Jewish wedding party in Aleppo. The men, women and children are all dressed in European fashion, except for one Fez-wearing family member


The family was that of Mariam, a salt-and-peppered haired feeble 88-year old Jewish grandmother, born in Aleppo during a military uprising against French colonial rule in 1927. Childhood memories of foreigners running around her city with their light arms would have remained vividly imprinted in her mind — Frenchmen, Brits, Turks, Nazi Germans, Indians in the British Army. All of them passed through Aleppo at some point during her life in the city, either right after the First World War or throughout the Second.

More recently so have Chechens, Tajiks, Saudis, Jordanians, Iraqis, Moroccans, and a colourful assortment of European Islamist radicals who have all flocked to join Daesh.

As Daesh closed in on Aleppo earlier last summer, Mariam’s nerves collapsed. Fearing slaughter at the hands of Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi’s men, she nodded helplessly when her two daughters showed up saying that they must leave Halab — as the city is known in Arabic and Hebrew — immediately.

An Israeli-American tycoon named Moti Kahana stepped in with a mission to get the city’s last Jews out. Israel has in the past run secret operations to get Arab Jews it perceives to be in danger out of their countries.

A Central Synagogue of Aleppo. Picture taken pre-1940s


With very little luggage, Mariam sluggishly boarded a minibus provided by Kahana with her two daughters Gilda and Sarah, a single woman in her 40s, and all of her grandchildren. Present with them was Khalid, the Muslim husband of Gilda. All the women wore the Muslim headscarf — the hijab, to avoid arousing unnecessary attention at Islamist checkpoints. They waited for the guns to go silent at noon prayer then whizzed through the streets of Aleppo, driving through debris and dead bodies, crossing checkpoints manned by the Al Qaida-affiliated Al Nusra Front and Daesh. It took them 36-long hours to reach safety at a small apartment in Istanbul, where Moti Kahana was waiting for them.

Kahana was very proud of his feat — himself a loud opponent of the Syrian regime who posts online photos of himself carrying the green tricolour of the Syrian uprising. According to Kahana’s own account of the story, since no member of the Syrian Jewish family agreed to speak to the press, only Mariam and Sarah were allowed safe passage into Asqalan (Ashkelon), where they have now settled.

Gilda and her family were turned down because her husband was a Muslim and she had converted to Islam three years ago, in keeping with Israeli law that only allows naturalisation Jews. The Muslim members of the family were told to stay in Turkey but they refused, preferring to return to their war-torn country than live in refugee camps.

After a painful separation from her aging mother, Gilda returned to Aleppo with her Syrian passport, and now lives there in silence with her Muslim husband and children, refusing to ever comment about the entire ordeal. Moti Kahana was the person to break the story, saying: “I got the last Jewish woman out of Aleppo. I feel very emotional when I think about it.”

Coexistence lost

Just 15 years ago, there were approximately 200 Jews living in Syria, a small number compared to the country’s then-population of 23 million. The number dropped significantly over the past decades, once standing at 15,000 during the short-lived Syrian-Egyptian Union (1958-1961). In 2000-01, 150 Jews lived in Damascus while the rest were divided between Aleppo and Qamishli in north-eastern Syria.

According to the US annual International Religious Freedoms Report, the number of Jews inside Syria had dropped to no more than 80 by the year 2005. Last December, various sources put the number at approximately 50 Jews, mostly living in Hay Al Yahud (the Jewish Quarter) within the walled Old City of Damascus, side-by-side with Shiites.

The Jewish community of Aleppo was once a powerful and wealthy one, well-connected in overseas trade and deeply rooted in the city’s ancient history. As early as 1901 they established the Aleppo Jewish Community Synagogue in occupied Jerusalem and bankrolled Syrian Jewish migrants who fled to the Americas during the First World War.

Aleppo was considered the unofficial capital of Sephardic (eastern) Jews and according to popular lore the city’s Grand Synagogue was erected by one of the Biblical King David’s generals.

The community started to gradually to lose influence and leave Aleppo, either to Israel or to Brooklyn, New York after 1948, when their homes and synagogue were attacked by hoodlums during the first Palestine War.

One of its celebrated figures was Yom Tov Assis, an Aleppo-born reputed historian who now teaches at the Hebrew University in occupied Jerusalem and chairs its centre of Aleppine Jewry, an institute dedicated exclusively to studying the city’s Jewish community.

Sami Moubayed is a Syrian historian and former Carnegie scholar. He is also author of ‘Under the Black Flag: At the frontier of the New Jihad’.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

From the Guardian: Syria’s heritage in ruins

29 Jan

Syria’s heritage in ruins: before-and-after pictures

The war in Syria has claimed more than 130,000 lives and, as these images reveal, it is also laying waste to its historic buildings and Unesco-listed sites:
Martin Chulov
Umayyad mosqueUmayyad mosque, Aleppo – pictured in 2012, before fighting destroyed it in 2013. Photograph: Alamy

They were sleepy tree-lined boulevards where people lived and worked, time-worn markets where they came to trade and exquisitely detailed mosques where, throughout the ages, they prayed.

All now stand in ruins, ravaged by a war that is not only killing generations of Syrians but also eradicating all around them, including sites that have stood since the dawn of civilisation. Across Syria, where a seemingly unstoppable war is about to enter a third year, a heritage built over 5,000 years or more is being steadily buried under rubble.

The Old Souk in Aleppo  The Old Souk, Aleppo. Above in 2007 and below in 2013. Photographs: Corbis, Stanley Greene/Noor/Eyevine

The destruction of towns and villages is regularly revealed by raw, and often revolting, videos uploaded to the web, which many people stopped watching long ago. Only seldomly do the shaky images reveal the damage being done beyond the battle – to ancient churches, stone Crusader fortresses and ruins that have stood firm during several millennia of insurrection and purge but are being withered away by this unforgiving war.Syria’s war has claimed more than 130,000 lives. At least two million of its citizens have fled into neighbouring states and more than two million others have been displaced within its borders. Industry and economy has long ground to a halt. Hope too has been on a relentless slide. Syria has six Unesco sites, representing at least 2,000 years of history. All have been damaged.Al-Kindi hospital in Aleppoal-Kindi hospital, Aleppo. Above in 2012 and below in 2013. Photographs: Getty
These before and after pictures show the old world order of Syria reflected for decades in history books; where people bought wares in marketplaces or mingled in mosque courtyards. They also reveal the shocking scale of devastation in all corners of the country and the damage done to Syria’s soul and identity.In Aleppo, one of the oldest covered marketplaces in the world is now in ruins; its maze of stone streets has been one of the most intense battlefields in the country for the past 18 months, bombed from above by air force jets and chipped away at ground level by close quarter battles that show no sentiment towards heritage. Those who dare raise their heads above the ruins, towards the ancient citadel that stands at the centre of the city, can also see damage to several of its walls.A street in Homs, Syria in 2011 and 2014        A street in Homs, in 2011 (above) and 2014 (below)Several hundred miles south, just west of Syria’s third city, Homs, one of the most important medieval castles in the world, Krak des Chevaliers, has taken an even heavier toll. Directly struck by shells fired from jets and artillery, the hilltop fortress now stands in partial ruin.Krak_des_Chevaliers_01Krak des Chevaliers (click)
Homs itself has fared even worse. A residential street, where cars not long ago parked under gum trees, has been destroyed. Life has ceased to function all around this part of the city, as it has in much of the heartland of the country. In one shot, a destroyed tank stands in the centre of a street. The old minaret next to it has also been blown up. This photograph is thought to have been taken in the countryside near Hama, to the north of Homs. But it could just as easily encapsulate the damage done in parts of the capital, Damascus, or in towns and villages from Idlib in the north to Deraa in the south, where the first stirrings of insurrection in March 2011 sparked the war.Omari Mosque in DeraaOmari mosque in Deraa. Above in 2011 and below in 2013. Photographs: Reuters
In May 2012, Emma Cunliffe, a Durham University PhD student, and member of the Global Heritage Network, prepared a report on the damage done to Syria’s heritage sites, detailing the tapestry of civilisations that helped build contemporary Syria.“Numerous bronze-age civilisations left their successive marks, including the Babylonians, the Assyrians and the Hittites,” she said. “They, in turn, were replaced by the Greeks, the Sasanians, the Persians, the Romans and the Arabs, many of whom chose Syrian cities as their capitals. The European Crusaders came and left some of the most impressive castles known and the Ottoman Empire also made its mark. All these cultures co-existed and conflicted, forming something new and special and found nowhere else in the world.”Souk Bab Antakya in AleppoSouq Bab Antakya, Aleppo. Above in 2009 and below after an attack in 2012. Photographs: Alamy, Reuters
Speaking this week, she said the threat to Syria’s heritage was now greater than ever. “Archaeological sites in Syria are often on the front lines of conflict and are experiencing heavy damage. Economic hardship and decreased security mean even sites away from the fighting are looted. This is denying not only Syrians but the world a rich heritage which can provide a source of income and inspiration in the future.”With little or no access to the country, satellite imagery is being used to track the destruction. The Global Heritage Fund’s director of Global Projects, Dan Thompson said: “All of the country’s world heritage sites have sustained damage, including the Unesco site cities, and a great many of the other monuments in the country have been damaged, destroyed or have been subject to severe looting..Umayyad Mosque in AleppoUmayyad mosque, Aleppo, pictured in 2012 (above) and 2013 (below). Photographs: Alamy, Corbis
“Shelling, shooting, heavy machinery installed in sites, and major looting are the leading causes of damage and destruction to the sites, although I would not discount that vandalism is also playing a part. As far as we know, no concrete action is being taken to combat the damage in the present moment.”

“Syria Is Not A Country” — Andrew Sullivan lets fly another one of his kotsanes and then rushes to cover his tuches

27 Jan

Sykes-Picot

He got enough flak for the post (read through all the ctd.’s too — very interesting) and I feel kind of bad giving him more after so many months, but it’s been in the back of my mind since the fall and the argument is so irritating that I had to put in my own two cents.

It seems that every Sullivan-type pundit rushed out in 2001, or more probably 2003 when they were making their Iraq predictions, and bought some book about the Paris Peace Conference: “Paris 1919” “The Peace to End All Peace” — it’s an entire genre in itself.  And there they found out about some magic secret, like in a Dan Brown novel, called the Sykes Picot line, that supposedly explains everything about the Middle East’s dysfunction, and like a little kid who realizes he’s said something that the adults have found smart or funny, they go around repeating it ad nauseum: “Sykes-Picot Line”…”Sykes Picot Line” … “this guy Sykes and this guy Picot”…”The Sykes Picot Line…”  Listen to Sullivan’s own pedantic tone:

“Syria as we now know it was created by one Brit, Mark Sykes, and one Frenchman, Francois Georges-Picot in 1920. Originally, it included a chunk of Iraq (another non-country), but when oil was discovered there (in Mosul), the Brits wanted and got it. With that detail alone, you can see how valid the idea is of a Syrian “nation” is.”

The whole point is that most of the nations of the present Middle East are artificial, colonial creations — arbitrary lines drawn on a map –and that explains everything.  First, these lines are not arbitrary.  Whatever you might want to say about Sykes or Picot, or Churchill or Lloyd George or Clemenceau — that they were gross imperialists (which is not even redundant really but simply a tautology: “The King is a gross monarchist…”) or anything else, they weren’t ignorant or anistoretoi.*  The units they put together corresponded, as so many of Sullivan’s readers point out to him, with regions with long, historically recognized identities.  Where you look at a map of the Middle East and do see straight artificially drawn lines, they were drawn through places where nobody lives.  Otherwise, within every one of those lines, there has always existed a shifting, changing, re- or de-centralizing identity, but one with clear continuities nonetheless.

(*Anistoretoi – ανιστόρητοι – is a Greek word that I like very much, because it literally means “un-historied” — historically ignorant, obviously, but there’s something about “un-historied” that just seems to me like a sharper condemnation of inexcusable lack of knowledge — no? — so you’ll see it on this blog here and there.)

Thankfully, no one says this about Egypt, because it so obviously has a longer continuous history of unified consciousness than even China.  But what Sullivan, so damn pompous — or just so gay and so Magdalen — dismisses as the “non-country” of Iraq, the flatlands of the Tigris and the Euphrates basin, even when semi-splintered into northern, central, and southern parts, as Iraq seems to be doing now, was always seen as a unit: certainly geographically but even culturally.  The two regions the Greeks called Libya and Cyrene may correspond to a west-east division that is still apparent in modern Libya (Tripoli and Benghazi), but their union is not necessarily artificial or inherently problematic.  The headland to the west of Libya we call Tunisia was the first region called Africa by the Romans, where their ancient enemy Carthage had once stood.  And the region where the northwestern section of the Fertile Crescent bends over and meets the Mediterranean has been called Syria since the Greeks and was probably seen as a recognized cultural entity far before them.  The mountainous Mediterranean littoral of this Syria — what’s now Palestine and Lebanon and maybe a new Alawite state waiting to be born — was always a space slightly apart and more heterogeneous, but Syria nonetheless.  (The arid plateau across the Jordan, inhabited by the Moabites and Edomites and Nabataeans and all those other peoples the Israelites are always defeating in the Old Testament because God loves them more, was also a region of a recognized coherence of sorts not just made up by the Brits when they decided to call it Trans-Jordan.)  Syria was the birthplace of Christianity as an organized religion.  Syria was the Romans-Byzantines’ richest and most sophisticated eastern province.  Syria was the prize catch for the Crusaders; the real studs among them who could, got themselves a piece of booty there, not the “Holy Land.”  When Zainab bears her lament to the people of Shaam (Syria or the Levant) in Agha Shahid Ali’s beautiful poem she cries out: “Hear me Syria…” addressing the people of the seat of Umayyad power in Damascus — the one in Syria — that had massacred her sacred family.  Sykes and Picot didn’t make this stuff up.

What Sullivan wants to say, and what’s truly problematic about his assertion, is that Syria is not a country because it’s not ethnically or confessionally homogeneous, and dismissing it as a state for those reasons is a far more eurocentric, and anistoreto, an idea than he may know.  Because if those are our standards for nation-hood, there are very few countries in the world.  By those standards, if Syria is not a country, then England and France aren’t countries either.  Because a polity called the Kingdom of England, or the Kingdom of France — both of which one could argue were “artificially” created by the powers that be of the time — had existed for far longer than Englishmen and Frenchmen have.  And the process by which a unified national consciousness was created to match these pre-existing political units — England or France — was a long and complex one and one that followed the particular course it did only in Western Europe and trying to force it onto the peoples of states in other parts of the world is impossible and extremely dangerous.  Forget what Sullivan thinks is the Machiavelian divide-and-rule politics of the colonizers that pitted ethnic groups in Syria and Iraq against each other; these colonizers were probably never as devilishly smart as we like to imagine them.  What Sullivan finds inconceivable is that one can be a Latakian Alawite or a Sunni from Homs or an Aleppo Christian or a northeastern Kurd and still function as a citizen of a legitimate country called Syria; that these groups have always had boundaries that fluctuated or were permeable; and, that though relations between them historically were better at some moments than others, they were brought together in this place called Syria by organic historic processes and not corraled together there by outsiders.  And by believing that it’s inconceivable they can all function as citizens of this place, he’s actually participating in the creation of a discourse that pits these groups against each other in a manner far more fatal than the supposed manipulations of the British or French.  He’s creating a poetics of sectarianism, pure and simple.  One only has to look at how reinforcing ethnic differences, often with the naive supposition that satisfying each group’s demands will lead to peace, only exacerbated the tragedy — the tragedies — of Yugoslavia in the 90s to see where thinking like Sullivan’s leads.

To his credit, Sullivan gives the Ottomans credit for maintaining a semblance of peace and stability in the region for several centuries.  But the Ottomans had molded, over the centuries, a complex and flexible system of negotiated corporatism and autonomy that recognized the different groups of their empire and yet that held them together in one unit successfully until modern nationalism started making that impossible.  What Sullivan is doing with blowhard statements like the above is just continuing that process: making it impossible for the peoples of the region that have to live together to do so peacefully and productively.

Finally, as a somewhat tangential but important aside, I’d really be interested in finding out why Sullivan doesn’t think that India is “not a country.”

And, folks, what is going on in Syria?  I’ve been in France for a month and my French isn’t good enough to follow the news and the American stuff on-line seems to have less and less coverage.  Has some sort of stalemate been reached?  Is some kind of compromise being forged?  Are people just tired?  Anyone want to enlighten me?

Ashura 1435: a poem from Agha Shahid Ali

13 Nov

Iraq Transitions As U.S. Forces Withdraw After 8-Year Presence

(click)

Karbala: A History of the “House of Sorrow”

In a distant age and climate, the tragic scene of the death of Husayn will awaken the sympathy of the coldest reader.
—Edward Gibbon

Jesus and his disciples, passing through the plain of Karbala, saw “a herd of gazelles, crowding together and weeping.” Astonished, the disciples looked at their Lord. He spoke: “At this site the grandson of Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him) will one day be killed.” And Jesus wept. Oh, that my head were waters, and mine eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain … And Jesus wept. And as if the news has just reached them—fourteen hundred years after the Battle of Karbala (near ancient Babylon, not far from the Euphrates) in the year A.H. 61/A.D. 680—mourners weep for “the prince among martyrs,” Hussain, grandson of the Prophet and son of Ali (“Father of Clay”) and Fatima (the Prophet’s only surviving child). Memorializing Hussain on the tenth of Muharram (Ashura) is the rite of Shi’a Islam—so central that at funerals those events are woven into elegies, every death framed by that “Calvary.” For just “as Jesus went to Jerusalem to die on the cross,” Hussain “went to Karbala to accept the passion that had been meant for him from the beginning of time.”

 

Zainab’s Lament in Damascus

Over Hussain’s mansion what night has fallen?

Look at me, O people of Shaam, the Prophet’s only daughter’s daughter, his only child’s child.

Over my brother’s bleeding mansion dawn rose—at such forever cost?

So weep now, you who of passion never made a holocaust, for I saw his children slain in the desert, crying for water.

Hear me. Remember Hussain, what he gave in Karbala, he the severed heart, the very heart of Muhammad, left there bleeding, unburied.

Deaf Damascus, here in your Caliph’s dungeons where they mock the blood of your Prophet, I’m an orphan, Hussain’s sister, a tyrant’s prisoner.

Father of Clay, he cried, forgive me. Syria triumphs, orphans all your children. Farewell.

And then he wore his shroud of words and left us alone forever.

Paradise, hear me— On my brother’s body what night has fallen?

Let the rooms of Heaven be deafened, Angels, with my unheard cry in the Caliph’s palace:

    Syria hear me

    Over Hussain’s mansion what night has fallen

    I alone am left to tell my brother’s story

    On my brother’s body what dawn has risen

      Weep for my brother World, weep for Hussain

 

WOMAN MOURNS ON COFFIN OF VICTIM KILLED DURING PROTEST IN CAIRO

(click)

Reprinted from The Veiled Suite: The Collected Poems by Agha Shahid Ali. English translation copyright © 2009 by Daniel Hall. With the permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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