This article in the Financial Times on the renovation of Damascus’s Jewish quarter begins by downplaying the plight of Syria’s Jews, who ‘left’ and ‘departed’ rather than ‘fled’ or were ‘driven out’. By the end, however, writer Andrew England does seem to realise that the plan to refurbish 120 abandoned homes, still technically owned by Jews, does present something of a moral dilemma. (With thanks: Laurence).
The Al-Amin neighbourhood of Damascus has an innocuous, sleepy feel. There are none of the cafés and bazaars found elsewhere in the Old City of Syria’s capital.
Given the area’s chequered history, this is not surprising. Al-Amin is the old Jewish quarter, a warren of alleyways and ancient houses long neglected after thousands of Syrian Jews left in the early 1990s.
Others had departed much earlier: after the 1948 war that accompanied Israel’s birth, the homes of some Syrian Jews were taken by Palestinian refugees.
For those Jews who remained after the creation of Israel, life was tough and they found themselves monitored and restricted by autocratic regimes.
Yet behind wooden doors in the quarter lie hidden gems – reminders of a more prosperous past and a glimpse of what the future may hold.
Al-Amin is home to one of Damascus’s newest boutique hotels, the Talisman, which was developed from two houses once left in a state of decay. It opened in 2006 and displays the grandeur the houses enjoyed in a bygone era, while serving as an example of a spurt of development that is slowly transforming the quarter.
With marble-clad courtyards and ornate rooms, these Ottoman-era homes proved a perfect location for the hotel. The Talisman’s owners are planning to build another one in the area. “This will be one of the most famous streets in the Middle East,” says a staff member.
A few doors down from the Talisman, workers are putting the finishing touches to another hotel which, if anything, will be even grander. Beit Farhi was once the home of Raphael Farhi, a Jewish financial adviser to the Ottoman sultanate during the 19th century.
Hakam Roukbi, an architect who left Syria for Europe in the 1960s, is overseeing the restoration. He returned to Damascus after seeing a painting of Beit Farhi by Sir Frederick Leighton, the British artist, capturing the majesty of its large courtyard.
When Mr Roukbi discovered it, “everything was crumbling down”, but he located a surviving member of the Farhi family, bought the property with partners and began restoring it.
Residents trace the interest in the old Jewish quarter to a decision by Mustafa Ali, one of Syria’s best-known artists, to open a gallery in the area in 2003. Back then, Mr Ali would walk through a neighbourhood that was “90 per cent” empty, he says.
Now, his vision is for the quarter to develop into a cultural area, with a theatre, cafés and art studios – an idea that has won the attention of Bashar al-Assad, the president. Mr Ali met Mr Assad last year and was told to compile a study on the state of the Jewish quarter.
He discovered that 210 houses were lying abandoned, many of them still owned by Jews living abroad. In their absence, the homes fall under the responsibility of the government’s Jewish property department, and Mr Ali is hoping to work with them to renovate the homes.
“You don’t want to see 210 houses just left abandoned,” Mr Ali says. “You can restore them and they could still be owned by the Jews.”
How that might work in practice remains unclear.
Twenty years ago, Al-Amin was home to some 4,000 Syrian Jews, all living under tight restrictions. They were barred from joining the security forces and only individuals, not entire families, could travel outside the country. In 1992, however, Hafez al-Assad, then president, allowed Jewish families to leave together, triggering the most recent exodus. Today, only a few dozen elderly Jews remain in Damascus.
“Most of them who stayed here are single and did not have children . . . Most who left had children and were thinking of the future of their children,” says Albert Cameo, president of the Jewish communities in Damascus and Aleppo. “It was very sad, but the families had good opportunities to improve their futures.”
As he speaks in an office coated in Jewish symbols and artefacts, a member of Syria’s intelligence service listens and a government official translates. When Mr Cameo offers to show his visitors the synagogue tucked away off a side street, there are glances between them, as if to ensure that this would not be a problem.
Mr Cameo does not resent the idea of developing Al-Amin. Once, he remembers, the area was known as “Taiwan” because it was “so active and there were merchants in every house, especially for making clothes”.
Those Jews who made new lives in the west could return*. But many – including the chief rabbi – left for Israel, with whom Syria remains officially at war over the Golan Heights, territory that has been occupied by the Jewish state since the 1967 war. They are officially barred from coming back.
* but none did