Jewish Quarter Booms — Without Jews

Letter From Damascus

By Marc Perelman

Published June 01, 2007, issue of June 01, 2007.
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Every few steps along the narrow, winding Al-Amin Street in the heart of the Jewish quarter of Damascus’s old city, a young Yasser Arafat smiles at the rare pedestrian walking by.

The posters of the late Palestinian leader, plastered on the grayish street walls, serve as a pointed reminder that Jewish life in Damascus is a distant memory, with all but a few hundred members of the centuries-old Syrian Jewish community living outside the country, primarily in Brooklyn and Tel Aviv. Most left their native country in the early 1990s when the regime of Hafez al-Assad allowed them to immigrate — a goodwill gesture that came at a time when the term “peace process” still had meaning.

Some Syrian Jews were able to sell their homes before leaving. For the most part, though, Jewish-owned buildings were put under government control and then padlocked and abandoned, giving the neighborhood an eerily quiet atmosphere in sharp contrast with the bustling street markets of the Muslim quarter and with the busy restaurants of the Christian area.

These days, however, the crumbling Jewish quarter has suddenly become the hottest neighborhood in old Damascus.

Across the globe, from New York City’s Lower East Side to Paris’s Marais District to Krakow’s Kazimierz neighborhood, once-thriving iconic Jewish enclaves have re-emerged in recent years as trendy magnets for artists and urban hipsters. And now the trend has taken hold in the Arab world.

The Syrian capital is literally and figuratively miles away from New York City, but the same recipe accounts for a real estate boom: Artists looking for cheap space move in, trendy coffee shops follow and then comes gentrification; moneyed locals buy old properties to restore them for themselves or to create high-end boutique hotels.

To Mustafa Ali, the old Jewish quarter was the perfect place. The sculptor decided to settle in a beautiful old Ottoman-style mansion to produce his art. The house belonged to the Bukhais family, Jewish silk traders who left Syria 15 years ago. They sold it to an Iraqi man, from whom Ali purchased it in 2003.

“I wanted a place in the old city; I needed space for my sculptures,” Ali said in an interview on the quiet, rectangular patio, where artists wandered around and a photo exhibit was on display. “People advised me not to take this place, because it was in ruins, but I thought this was precisely the reason to make it an artistic neighborhood. It was cheap and empty.”

His friend and fellow artist Edward Shahda quickly moved in, and the two decided to bring in young artists in order to provide them with an affordable and quiet place to display their talent. Now, more than 20 artists live in the area.

With funding from Western foundations and governments, Ali has been able to set up workshops and exhibitions. He has now purchased a small deserted shop across the street, where he plans to create a literary café.

To some people familiar with the neighborhood, investing in the area is also a shrewd business move. Investors have indeed begun scouting the area and contacting Jewish owners to buy their old properties.

Local businessman Youssef Taqla and associates bought a grand dilapidated mansion several years ago and transformed it into the Talisman Hotel, which opened in mid-2006. The luxurious hotel is already a major draw for Western tourists looking for an authentic Middle Eastern experience while being able to check their e-mails and sip mint tea in a peaceful courtyard. Taqla is now finishing construction work on another hotel in the area — one that will come from a nearby old corner house that a French-Saudi business group has purchased.

The question now is whether the numerous Jewish-owned houses under government control, which cannot be sold without the approval of the owners, will eventually hit the market. While the authorities have made a point of respecting ownership rights, they have made no efforts to preserve the empty and decaying houses. At the suggestion of the European Union, and in order to prevent businesses from dominating the process, the city and national governments are now considering a plan to designate the neighborhood a preserved cultural area and to renovate that area.

Whether Arafat still will be smiling remains to be seen.

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