In 1994, I went on an amazing journey that took me from the settlement/city (take your pick) of Ariel to Damascus, Syria. I had just gotten out of the IDF Spokesman’s Unit and was ready for my next adventure. A few previous trips to Jordan on my US passport were exciting, and I was ready for even more adrenaline.
I took Dan bus 186 from Ariel to Tel Aviv and from there to Ben Gurion Airport. I flew to Istanbul, Turkey, entering on my US passport. I then flew to Amman, Jordan – giving me a “clean entry” to Jordan without my Israeli passport involved. I put my American passport in my left pocket and my Israeli passport in my right pocket. I made sure not to pull out the wrong one!
Amman’s Abdali Bus Station, next to the King Abdullah Mosque, has transportation to every major and minor destination in the Middle East. I splurged on a shared taxi to Damascus. As soon as I crossed into Syria, Big Brother’s (Assad Sr.) oversized image was everywhere. When I arrived in Damascus, it was evening and I checked into a budget hotel next to the old Hejaz Railway Station. I went for a late night walk to let my surroundings sink in.
I visited WAFA, the Palestinian News Agency, and told the representative that I was an American college student looking to tell the story of the Palestinian people. He took me to PFLP Headquarters, then headed by George Habash. A Syrian soldier guarded outside. Mr. Habash wasn’t in, so I interviewed his deputy, Abu Ali Mustafa. He spewed the usual hatred and anger. I didn’t tell him I lived in Ariel. During the interview, I put my hand in my pocket and found my Ariel to Tel Aviv bus ticket. Whoops. I threw it in the garbage on my way out.
A quick diversion from our 1994 story… In 2001, the PFLP tried to blow up a car next to the Jerusalem Mike’s Place. Luckily no one was hurt (unlike the 2003 attack on the Tel Aviv branch). Because of this attempt, Israel assassinated the number two man at the PFLP – Abu Ali Mustafa, the man I interviewed in 1994! I ran into him at the Amman Airport, on the way to Istanbul. He asked me, “where are you traveling to?” “Ariel,” I replied. I doubt he understood.
The most impressive part of Damascus is the Old City. The Jewish Quarter is there. I brought my bar mitzvah talit and kippah. On Friday night, I walked from my hotel to the synagogue, with my talit bag with me. As I entered, everyone looked my way. I bet they were thinking, “Who’s that white boy?” I joined in and prayed with them. I live a very secular lifestyle, but this was a paramount Jewish moment. After services, Rabbi Hamra and the congregants approached me. Rabbi Hamra asked in Hebrew, “Where are you from?” I answered, “Adif sh’ani lo agid lecha.” (“It’s better that I not tell you.”) I told him that in Israel we didn’t forget about his community and that one day they would be free. He thanked me and told me that he would gladly invite me for dinner and to get to know the Jewish community, but it was dangerous for me to be there. I shook his hand and was on my way. On the way back, I passed the long alleyways that align Damascus’ Old City. But this time I noticed the shopkeepers and their stares — I was told by the Rabbi that the shopkeepers keep an eye out for foreigners for the Syrian authorities. It was a nervous walk back to my hotel.
In the center of Damascus is Martyr Square. Criminals and spies are executed here. This is where Israeli spy Eli Cohen drew his last breath. The rest of the time, Martyr Square is a good place to get a greasy shawarma. Across the street from Martyr Square, I noticed a sign – “Schmuck Jewelry” — an interesting name for a Damascus store!
After a week in Damascus, I took a bus to Allepo. Today, Allepo has been decimated thanks to Syria’s civil war. I’ll never forget the long and winding market in Allepo. I did some shopping – and still have 2 rugs that I bought in Syria – and made my way back to Damascus. I took a shared taxi back to Amman. A few days later, I was back on the 186 bus to Ariel.
That summer, I wrote a book – the first Hebrew language travel guide to Jordan and Syria. In 2001, I had the amazing experience of meeting Rabbi Hamra and taking him out to lunch. Meeting him in Jaffa (Yafo) was incredible. He told me stories of meeting Assad and of seeing to it that members of the Syrian Jewish community who wanted to leave got out before he headed to Israel. I was proud to be breaking bread with him in Israel.
I gave him a copy of my book. I had him sign one for me; he signed it in Aramaic! I put it in my talit bag, where it remains today.