In the 'Axis of Evil'

A Jewish-American couple's adventures in Syria and Lebanon.

Syria synagogue 311 (photo credit: Barney R. Whitesman )
Syria synagogue 311
(photo credit: Barney R. Whitesman )
Trying to nap in my Istanbul hotel. Cannot sleep. Tonight my wife and I are flying to Syria, the “Axis of Evil.”
It has been my dream to visit the “other side of the fence” ever since working in the banana fields on a border kibbutz. We have American passports without an Israeli stamp. Our Arab-American friends are bewildered by our plans. They warn that Syrian immigration will ask if we have been to Israel. “Lie,” we are told. My Israeli friend exaggerates, “They will kill you.”
Will we be detained? Held in custody? Deported? My stomach is churning. I get out of bed and put anything relating to Judaism, Hebrew or Israel in a box to be sent home, including my tefillin, laminated travel prayer and the old torn Israeli currency which I keep for good luck.
That night while waiting for our flight in the Istanbul airport, I cannot resist talking to a hassid wearing a large black fedora. The next thing I know I am requested to be part of a minyan. I cannot decline and join in prayer with South American yeshiva students and the black-hatter in the public corridor of this Muslim airport. I am sure that a responsible Syrian returning home on my flight will report me to Syrian immigration upon landing. My stomach is in knots and I cannot even look at the sumptuous meal served on our 90-minute flight.
We land in Aleppo at 1:30 a.m. As luck would have it I am the first passenger to stand in the “foreigner” line in front of the Syrian immigration officer. He asks, “What is your occupation?” and “Where are you staying in Syria?” I respond with my occupation and the name of our hotel in Aleppo. I am not sure where we are staying after that. He stamps our passports and utters “Next.” No Israel or Jewish questions, and no inquiry about where we are traveling after Syria.
I remove our baggage from the vintage carousel, on top of which a young airport employee stands to assist. He sweetly gives a toy airplane to each child arriving on our flight. Moving past the relaxed Syrian customs officials, we are only requested to place our bags through an X-ray scanner. No questions asked.
We enter the public area of the airport where an anxious but quiet crowd is waiting for the new arrivals. Our driver is standing in the rear holding a sign bearing our neatly typed ethnically Jewish name. Everyone is nice and mellow. We step outside into the warm drizzle and darkness and load into a small German sedan.
It is a five-minute ride to the hotel. We arrive at 2:30 a.m. The beautiful marble lobby is empty, except for a couple having coffee. The staff is very warm and welcoming. We sit at a desk, instead of standing at a counter. We are served delicious apple juice and assigned a beautiful room at an amazingly reasonable rate. We are in love. Sleeping by 3 a.m.
WE ARE AWAKENED at 8 the muezzin’s call to prayer and the very strong rays of sun coming through the crack in our curtains. It is a beautiful warm December day in 7,000-year-old Aleppo, one of the oldest cities in the world. I go jogging to explore. I first noticethe tastefully exposed archeological ruins immediately in front of and below the hotel. A friendly, happy Kurd tells me matter-of-factly that these are the ruins of the ancient Jewish quarter, and that our beautiful hotel is in fact built on the Jewish quarter. I am slowlycoming down from my high.
Buildings at street level are old, but not ancient. Streets are not clean, but not dirty. People are bustling to their livelihoods, just as they are at this time of morning in Israel. In fact, Aleppo, ostensibly, and with a few exceptions, could pass for “anywhereville” in Israel.
I notice men standing in a long line to receive free home heating oil across the street from a statue bearing the profile of the late Syrian president. There are signs to the old city, commercial buildings opening for the morning and students holding hands, boys with boys andgirls with girls, on their way to school. I notice a bakery, outside of which men are laying large steaming pitot on blankets on the sidewalk. Busy happy-looking folks going about their lives.
A strange thing happens to my wife, Marla, while I am off on my jaunt: A hotel housekeeper, standing without a supply cart, makes a call from a hallway wall phone as Marla approaches our room. Marla’s electronic key card then fails to open the door. The housekeeper tells Marla that he does not have a key and suggests that she go downstairs to reception. When Marla approaches the reception desk, a clerk hands her a new key card before Marla can ask for a new one. When Marla returns to the room, she finds the housekeeper inside, still without a cart, holding my belt. Marla thinks our room has been searched. I tell hershe is paranoid.
By noon we are on a walking tour with the finest tour guide we have ever had anywhere. We learn that Aleppo has hosted many visiting conquerors: Amorites, Amorites, Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Mongols, Mamelukes and Ottomans, among others. It was a commercial hub for goods coming by caravan from the Far East to Mediterranean ports.High ornate entrances to the city were constructed for the caravans, one with a Magen David etched on the ceiling. Stalls originally used by merchants to sell their wares continue to be used today. They are owned by the mosque and are rented to the vendors who sell jewelry,clothing, copper products, foodstuffs, locally made soaps and other household goods.
The mosques are beautiful and designed with stone niches in which the imam stands to chant. The sound reverberates from the stone walls inside the niche into the large carpeted hall where the faithful pray, undistracted by visitors. We also tour a 14th-century mental hospital,progressive for its time. It treated patients with flowing water therapy.
Like the airport and hotel, the warmth of all we encounter is wonderful. Merchants are uniformly polite and not aggressive. People in the street are always helpful with directions. There is added interest because we are Americans, but never hostility. We feel safeeverywhere. Though not perfect, on a one-on-one basis, Syrians are among the finest people we have encountered in our travels.
AT THE END of our tour, as darkness is falling, we come to the ancient Aleppo synagogue dating back to 700 CE. From the outside it appears to be a one-floor stone building, with windows covered by large protective metal screens. The door is locked. A plaque outside thelocked door does not identify the building as a synagogue, but posts a phone number. No one answers when we call, and we cannot see much in the dark. We are told that there might be two or three Jews somewhere in Aleppo and that the synagogue is cared for by a lawyer who is on vacation.
The next morning I jog back to the synagogue to take photos in the daylight. It is severely neglected with garbage against the outside walls, which have been charred by fire. Looking through the large mesh screen which cover the windows I can see a stone sanctuary belowstreet level. There are ornate but filthy chandeliers. Beyond that chamber appears to be a courtyard and another chamber with broken glass windows.
As I stand back from the window, I observe a man urinating on the charred wall, under a sign which reads in Arabic: “Bless the foundation of this holy place.” I am in shock. Without thinking, I yell at him in Arabic, “No,” waving him away with my hand. He calmly walks away. What would happen to a Jew who urinated on a mosque?
I jog back to our hotel and, with the help of a kind employee who asks no questions, I make a sign which in Arabic says, “This is a holy place. Please respect this holy place.” I then return with our driver to the synagogue and tape the sign on the synagogue window. When we return to the car our driver is on his cellphone. Thirty minutes later, out of the blue, he asks if I speak Hebrew. I deny it.
We then travel south towards Damascus, stopping in Serjila, Hama and Malula along the way. Serjila is a “dead city.” It was abandoned by its inhabitants in the seventh century because of war, natural disasters and changing trade routes. Many of the ruins look like theowners had only recently moved. Next stop is Hama to view the Roman waterwheel, and then to Malula, an Aramaic-speaking village built into a mountain. In Malula we visit a church which was originally used by pagans for sacrifices. We are told that the altar is the actual altarused by the pagans prior to the Christians.
On to Damascus. Lots of traffic. More so this day because President Bashar Assad and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister of Turkey, are having a trade conference. Trade is booming between Syria and Turkey, whose citizens now cross their shared border without the need for a visa.
OUR FIRST evening in Damascus is mysterious: We are walking down a road in the old city when a young man, “Jimmy,” approaches my wife and asks her in English how she likes Damascus. Jimmy tells us he is a Syrian Jew from New York, who is visiting for the first time since he was allowed to emigrate from Syria 20 years ago. Jimmy offers to take us to the home of the elder of the remaining Syrian Jewish community, which numbers no more than 150.
We go with Jimmy to a third-floor, walk-up apartment above a small grocery store in the old city. The halls are dark. We knock on a door which has a mezuza on the doorpost. An elderly woman answers and invites us in. We are introduced to her elderly sister and brother.The three reside together. They speak Arabic and French, and are very hospitable, serving coffee and delicious pistachio cookies.
Jimmy translates, but warns us not to speak Hebrew. “You can get into a lot of trouble, man,” he says. Jimmy lovingly recounts how our hostess quickly got him out of a Syrian jail when he was 15 after being caught trying to run away to Israel. We arrange to meet the elder and Jimmy the next morning to tour the ancient synagogues in Damascus and nearby Jabor.
After leaving the apartment and saying good-bye to the elders, Jimmy takes us on a tour of old Damascus’s Jewish quarter. He explains that the Jews of Syria were prominent, and that when they emigrated due to anti-Semitism in the late 20th century, the Syrian economy wasadversely affected. Jimmy says that times have changed and that the Jews who emigrated are now encouraged by Syria to return and reclaim their properties.
The Jewish quarter is deserted. Jimmy points to the homes of his parents, aunts and uncles, sitting eerily vacant and dark in the narrow streets. He tells us of the rich Jewish life they had before their exodus to New York.
We then visit a remodeled boutique hotel which was once a mansion. While we are speaking to the manager, in walks a striking young Syrian woman who begins speaking with Jimmy in both Arabic and English. There is obvious chemistry btween the two. Jimmy swears he never met her before. Jimmy tells her that he is Jewish and that he has just returned for his first visit since emigrating from Syria 20 years ago. Jimmy invites the woman to join us for dinner. “Why not,” she says.
How unusual that this beautiful Muslim woman whom we have just met has no hesitation joining three American strangers for dinner. She takes us to a nearby well-known restaurant and orders delicious Syrian dishes for us to try. However, after sitting with us at the table forno more than three minutes, she asks if we have been to Israel or if we speak Hebrew. Jimmy’s leg jerks under the table, bumping into mine. “Say no, man,” Jimmy instructs under his breath. Marla and I say no.
The woman explains that she was born in Russia to parents who were Syrian diplomats. She claims to be very familiar with North American Jewish culture, but has never been to North America. She thinks blonde Marla has converted to Judaism and asks how she copes with Christmas and Hanukka, referring to it as “Christmaska.” Jimmy only drinks beer and eats salad. He keeps kosher, he says.
At midnight Jimmy hails us a taxi which already has a passenger. Marla and I hop in to return to our hotel, leaving Jimmy and the Syrian beauty in the middle of the still active street. “See you tomorrow morning,” we say.
Is this all just a coincidence or divine providence? How rare that these two strangers join us for cocktails and dinner in this ancient Syrian metropolis? Fate? Something else? Paranoia? Jimmy is offended when I ask if he works for the secret police. “Don’t say that, man,”he protests.
THE NEXT morning when we arrive at the synagogue in old Damascus, the Jewish elder and two plainclothes Syrian “security” officers are waiting for us in the street, sans Jimmy. The officers are there for our protection, they tell us. We do not observe weapons.
The synagogue courtyard is naturally decorated with lush lemons hanging down from branches. The interior contains beautiful artifacts and books which are 1,500 years old.
While I am praying inside the synagogue with borrowed tefillin, Marla is being politely interrogated near the entrance by the security officers. She is asked to write down our parents’ names, where we are staying and where will be traveling from Syria. Marla tells them our well-rehearsed story that we will be traveling from Syria to Petra in Jordan to tour the Nabatean ruins, and from there we will catch the ferry boat from Aqaba to Nuweiba, then climb Mount Sinai and fly home from Cairo. After this “interview” one Syrian security officer departs in a cab; the other accompanies us to the village of Jabor.
Jabor feels like it is part of Damascus, inasmuch as it is no more than a five-minute cab drive away and looks similar. The security officer explains in competent English that Jabor is occupied by Palestinians.
We walk a block on the narrow street to the ancient synagogue where it is said that Elijah prophesied and anointed the prophet Elisha. It is the go-to place for Syrian Jews to pray for something important. Like the synagogue in Damascus, it is a beautiful building with ancientartifacts. It sits adjacent to a UN school for Palestinian children on property owned by the synagogue. The Syrian security officer tells us that the school pays rent to the synagogue. On the entrance door to the school is a cartoon of a smiling girl saying “war,” in English.
Across the street from the entrance to the synagogue is a vacant lot which the officer says is also owned by the synagogue. It is separated from the street by a metal barrier upon which is a poster bearing the photo of the leader of Hamas with Jerusalem in the background. Theofficer tells us that his orders prohibit him from translating the poster for me. When I then walk up to the metal barrier to inspect the poster closely, the officer politely sings out, “I am watching you!” We later learn the translation to be “Jerusalem Day. We shall rise up and return.”
We return to Damascus, saying good-bye to our security officer and the synagogue elder. We promise to return on Saturday for Shabbat prayers.
AT THE LAST minute, we decide to visit Lebanon on Christmas Day, whichfalls on a Friday. We leave Damascus in the morning after having fun passing out candy canes in our Santa Claus hats to all the hotel staff. Everyone loves it.
We have two destinations in Lebanon: The ancient ruins of Baalbek in the northern Bekaa Valley, and Beirut. We are accompanied by our tour guide from Aleppo and a driver from Damascus, whose name is Jihad, which we learned is a common first name. We first stop at Syrian immigration at the border to pay the exit tax, fill out a form and have our passports stamped. We then drive approximately three kilometers through a “no man’s land” to the busy Lebanese border.
There are long lines of commercial trucks waiting to enter Lebanon, and sheep grazing around a Ferrari near the Lebanese immigration building. The contrast in terms of commercial activity between the two countries sharing this border is striking. We enter the Lebanese immigration office and have a conversation with a friendly official dressed in military fatigues. He tells us that he attended university in North America, the same university that I graduated from. He is a Christian who accepts having to work on Christmas Day with dedication. We pay the visa fee, which he apologizes for charging; he stamps our passports and wishes us a pleasant trip.
Back into the van and north to Baalbek. I first heard of Baalbek, not because of its antiquities, but because IDF commandos seized the hospital there in 2006 in search of three kidnapped Israeli solders. I did not then realize that Baalbek was a Hizbullah stronghold and that it was a distant 100 km. from the Israeli border. Except for the disturbing banners praising Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Baalbek looks like a nice town with a small, modern commercial center adjacent to the archeological site. One such banner posted over the highway to the town proclaims,“We make revolution for you.”
The antiquities of Baalbek are magnificent. They include smaller Phoenician building stones below larger Roman ones. Our guide repeatedly emphasizes that the Romans were like the Americans: Everything done on a large scale, but no new ideas.
Marla cannot resist buying T-shirts. The vendor tells her she is brave. When she asks why, he points to the Hizbullah logo of weapons on the shirts. Marla quickly exchanges those for T-shirts saying “I love Lebanon.”
From Baalbek we drive south back through the Bekaa Valley and over a mountain to Beirut. Driving down the other side of the mountain into Beirut is breathtaking. Beirut is a beautiful clean combination of Miami Beach and Los Angeles, with a large blue-domed mosque in thecenter of its downtown. It is amazing that such a vibrant modern city exists after years of bloody civil war and more recent assassinations.
We walk the promenade along the Mediterranean, and drive by the harbor and the beautiful modern campus of American University of Beirut. Finally we find the tiny Magen Abraham synagogue, which is being rebuilt. As in Syria, there are fewer than 200 Jews remaining in allof Lebanon. One who was recently interviewed for an ABC documentary only allowed his feet to be photographed out of fear that he would not be able to do business if his customers knew he was a Jew.
The sun sets on our way back to Damascus. It is now Friday night, December 25, 2009, and time for us to make Kiddush and Hamotzi. We stop at a modern delicatessen on the outskirts of Beirut and purchase wine, bread and snacks.
Outside in the parking lot our guide and our driver, Jihad, join us in this ritual. Jihad covers his head with a napkin. Kiddush with Jihad in Lebanon on Christmas Day. Priceless.
Leaving Lebanon is effortless. Reentering Syria is a tad more complicated. We still need to fill out a form and have our passports restamped, even with our multi-entry Syrian visas. In the process, Marla is asked whether she speaks any other languages, which we assume is a reference to Hebrew. She truthfully says no. I am not asked. Syrian immigration at the Lebanese border is more circumspect than at the airport in Aleppo, although our vehicle is not searched.
Back in Damascus for dinner.
On Saturday, we are late for Shabbat services. The two different plainclothes security men sitting in the street on kitchen chairs outside the entrance to the synagogue know our names and are expecting us. We do not see weapons. We thought that since services began at 10a.m., that they would at least continue until noon. Wrong. There are only five other people in the synagogue, including a woman. Not even a minyan. The service is nearly over when we arrived at 10:30.
Saturday afternoon I travel alone to Palmyra, the ruins of a large Roman city in eastern Syria, 180 km. from the Iraqi border. Marla stays in Damascus and shops.
On the way, Fred, my driver, asks me if I speak Hebrew. He claims that he heard me speak Hebrew when he picked me up outside the synagogue. I truthfully deny it. “I don’t believe you. I heard it,” he responds. He asks me if I have been to Israel. I tell him no. He ask, “Why not?” He is skeptical of my excuses, but ultimately changes the subject and later invites me to his home to meet his wife and children, which I politely decline because of the hour.
At Palmyra I do my best to avoid souvenir sellers, solicitations for camel rides and a barking Beduin dog which follows and barks at me from a distance. These Roman temples and other ruins, like in Baalbek, are fantastic. One could easily spend days, not hours, hiking aroundthe remains of this former Roman city.
On the way home Fred points to a herd of camels galloping through the desert, like a scene from a movie.
I cannot get over the vastness of Syria and how insignificant the Golan Heights should logically be to this new generation of Syrians, too young to remember their loss in 1967. How could the absence of the Golan Heights have any effect on the day-to-day lives of these hard-working, friendly (but suspicious) Syrians? I cannot imagine that the loss of the Golan has any more relevance to the average Syrian than the loss of California to the average Russian or Mexican. However, since I am afraid to talk politics, especially my own, thisquestion remains unanswered.
The next day, breakfast in Damascus... dinner in Jerusalem. Our Syrian driver, a friend of Fred’s, picks us up in the morning at our hotel and drives us through the border checkpoints of Syria and Jordan. We again have our passports stamped and pay the exit tax on the Syrianside, then cross into Jordan where we exit our cab, and again have our passports stamped, this time with a Jordanian visa. No sweat. However, on the Jordanian side the contents of our luggage are carefully inspected and our Syrian taxi is thoroughly searched by a man standingin a trench below street level who inspects the vehicle undercarriage. No problem.
The landscape and villages we pass in Jordan look similar to those in Syria, and many I have seen in Israel.
Our Syrian taxi driver drops us off at a hotel in Amman. We tell him we are checking in. We wait till he leaves, then we hire a taxi to drive us to the Allenby Bridge, over that trickle of water known as the Jordan River, which is the border between Jordan and Israel.
Crossing the Allenby Bridge to the Israeli side, we stop at acheckpoint. The lone Israeli soldier asks our Jordanian driver, withwhom he is obviously familiar, if he will bring him snacks from theIsraeli terminal on his way back to the Jordanian side. Our driver ishappy to oblige. The soldier gives the Jordanian money to purchase thejuice and candy and the two exchange a brief good-bye.
The author is a lawyer in Flint, Michigan. His wife leads Jewish missions to Cuba.