Middle East,  Your View

An American Jew in Damascus

Cross-posted from Point of No Return

Awash with conspiracy theories about Zionist power, Syria is not a comfortable place to be a Jew. Any mention of the suffering of Syrian Jews is met with blank stares. But in this fascinating account of his eight months in Damascus, specially written for Point of No Return, this young student of Arabic from Denver, Colorado found empathy from oppressed Kurds and other minorities:

Most young American Jews that I know have chosen to visit or live in Israel at some point in their lives, not only as a way of familiarizing themselves with Eretz Yisrael or Judaism, but as an introduction to the broader Middle East. I too just finished living in the region for eight months, although my country of choice was not Israel, it was Syria.

This was a shocking choice for family and friends. Even my Arabic professor, who is an Armenian Christian from Syria, gravely warned me to never mention my religion or any prior travel to Israel, let alone his name in case the secret police are watching me. His admonitions were not at all surprising given his recollections of growing up in Aleppo and on class trips with his school to watch the authorities hang Jews.

My experiences in Syria, as well as my travel throughout Lebanon, Jordan, and Kurdish Iraq, ranged from the absurdly predictable to the wonderfully unexpected and surprising. My first observation upon arriving in Damascus was how Palestinian flags almost outnumber Syrian flags across the country. At the government subsidized Arabic language center, uncritically profiled by the New York Times, there is a map in every classroom of Palestine (without Israel, although Tel-Abeeb is on the map), some making dubious land claims to Lebanon and Turkey as well, while many teachers teach propaganda to students from all over the world. This can range from learning Palestinian resistance songs to learning about IDF ‘massacres’ and teaching the students about their perspectives on Zionism. This is done while extolling the Arab armies for their superior ethics in battle, which Judaism does not have, according to my teacher, and their “meticulous” distinctions between Jew, Israeli and Zionist.

This last point was like a bad joke: the three terms are indistinguishable in everyday conversation, usually preceded or followed by an expletive. As an American I was confronted by eager Syrians wanting to educate me against the Jews/AIPAC/Israel/Zionists who are controlling America. My German friends were often greeted by shop-owners with a Heil Hitler while expressing their love for the Third Reich.

What was most shocking to me was that even the most westernized and independent thinkers I met were obsessed with conspiracy theories. Many are convinced that 9/11 was carried out by the US or Jews; that the US caused the earthquake in Haiti in order to occupy it for its resources (which ones I do not know); that Israel caused the earthquake in order to send in medical teams to steal organs or to distract the world from Gaza; that the Mossad downed Ethiopian Airlines 737 leaving from Beirut; that the Department of Defense or Mossad created H1N1 while investing in pharmaceuticals to profit off of the sick; the list goes on.

The front pages of Syria’s largest newspapers, state-controlled of course, always had a story inciting hate against Israel, whether there was actual news to report on or not. I remember the day that the Hurva Synagogue was re-dedicated in the Jewish Quarter of the old city of Jerusalem, a day dubbed by the Syrian press as a “day of rage,” portraying the re-dedication as one more step to destroying the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Nowhere was it ever mentioned that the synagogue was twice destroyed in over 200 years by Arabs and that it was in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City. My Arabic tutor, brilliant and politically savvy, yet a very traditional Sunni, was the most outraged out of anyone I had met. He spent an entire lesson, two-and-a-half hours, lecturing me on the Torah and the Talmud, which he claimed to have read, and outlined the Elders’ of Zion plot to control the world and dominate the Arabs. In one sentence he both denied the Holocaust and affirmed it in order to use it to compare Palestinian suffering.

It is ironic that while most Syrians think that the US is controlled by Jews and that we are more than 2.5% of the population, they never imagine that the Americans they meet might be Jewish. The Arab world is full of Jews like myself learning Arabic– by chance my American room-mate was Jewish. I am sure our two Syrian room-mates, one Shia and one Sunni, had no idea who they were living with. Occasionally I would venture to challenge someone’s anti-semitic beliefs. I tried pointing out how the Jews had suffered in Syria, or would direct the conversation to why there are no more Jews, and where they might be. I was always met with blank stares, a confused look that did not understand why I was not agreeing with them. After all, any good person’s moral compass in the Arab world has Palestine as the epitome of Good, and Israel/Jews as the epitome of Evil. No one I spoke to cared what the fate was of Syrian Jewry.

Against this backdrop of hatred and indoctrination were the good people, those whom I could tell I was Jewish and had been to Israel. They were, more often than not, minorities who felt threatened by the government or the majority Sunni population. They were Armenians, Christians, Muslim Kurds, seculars and homosexuals–this last minority group officially does not exist in Syria.

I had some very close Kurdish friends who strongly identified with Israel, even the settler movement which I do not identify with, and despised the Syrian state. During Eid Al-Nourouz, a large holiday celebrated by Kurds, Syrian police officers gunned down a Kurdish crowd in Raqa, killing two and sending 40 to the hospital where they were detained and kept away from the public. This did not make news in Syria or the West, but on the same day Israel had killed two infiltrators from Gaza, making international headlines. What surprised me the most was how appallingly the Syrian government treated the Kurds– with what I would consider murder, torture and ethnic cleansing. One example of their oppression is the prohibition against instructing and writing the Kurdish language and promoting Kurdish culture. In many parts of Kurdish Syria, Arabs are forcibly moved into Kurdish towns and the towns are then given an Arabic name. One girl who was 1/4 Turkish, 1/4 Kurdish and 1/2 Arab loved listening to Israeli heavy metal music because it was the only music she could find that blended eastern and western tonalities successfully.

I remember very well two Kurdish girls who told me shortly after meeting me their love for Jews and People of the Book. I looked at them oddly, asking, “how do you know this if you have not met any Jews? ” Apparently, they knew Muslim families descended from Jews in Saudi Arabia and they were good people. One of them told me how she dreamed of traveling just to meet Jews. They were of course ecstatic to find out my religion, and I was more than happy to make genuine friends.

In America I was always impressed by the Syrian ambassador to the United States, Dr. Imad Mustapha, an eloquent speaker, a sharp debater and one who has always pressed for peace. But I quickly learned that land for peace is not what Syria wants. What Syria says in English to the West is not what it says in Arabic to its own people. Syria’s interest in peace is belied by its actions.

I have no regrets whatsoever about choosing Syria as my country of residence for continuing my Arabic studies. Syria has a remarkable history predating the regime, the people are among the most hospitable in the entire world (unfortunately this does not translate into policy), Damascus has, in my opinion, the best Arabic dialect, and the country is incredibly inexpensive. There are good people to be found, and I am sure that if I told more of my friends that I am Jewish there would not have been too much of a problem. But fear of the government is what rules the country and I had to avoid too many risks. Let’s just say that now I am happy to be among good friends in Jerusalem.

(Hat tip: DaveM, who himself spent a year in Syria learning Arabic and who writes, “This is exactly what Syria is like.”)