As we wound our way through the rebel-controlled neighborhoods of the decimated streets of Aleppo, I could hardly recognize what was once one of Syria’s most prosperous cities.
This part of Syria’s second-largest metropolis, a town once storied for its ethnic diversity, was now a pockmarked jumble of cratered ruins, even as life in government-controlled areas of the city continued in relative normalcy.
Mahmoud, my guide through the rebel-held part of the city, was giving me a cook’s tour of the recently bombed areas, when suddenly he halted. “We’re here,” he announced with a quick glance. “The Jewish cemetery.”
What lay before me was an abandoned cemetery sprinkled with concrete, shrapnel, and ammunition — all a product of recent government bombing. Upon closer inspection, the tombstones revealed a familiar surprise: Hebrew inscriptions.
Mahmoud paused, no doubt anticipating my surprise.
“This city has many, many layers of ghosts,” he responded with a knowing gaze.
Like others in this article working with the Free Syrian Army, Mahmoud, a 26-year-old English teacher who joined the rebels after the government’s brutal crackdown on Aleppo, asked that his full name not be used to protect his family. He is a pluralist-oriented, progressive young man. So I had shared with him that I had spent a significant amount of time working and studying recently in Israel, where I had worked toward my Master of Arts in political science from Ben-Gurion University. I also asked him about the Jewish community of Aleppo, explaining that family members of my Israeli landlord were among the 30,000 Syrian Jews that had fled Aleppo and other Syrian cities since Israel’s establishment in 1948.
Now, however, we were not focused on history. Mahmoud was showing me the war’s most recent battleground — the Old City of Aleppo, which also happened to be the site of the city’s historic Jewish neighborhood.
Most Syrians I encountered in Turkish refugee camps and in rebel-held Syria during October and November remembered the Syrian Jewish community and were quite willing to discuss this part of their past. They also spoke of their own views and experiences related to Israel as Syrians living under a government that demonized it.