Standing Outside the Damascus Jewish Ghetto Changed My Life

One morning, near the end of my junior year abroad at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, my friend and fellow American, Steve, suggested that rather than continuing to study for our final exams we fly to Egypt, wave an Israeli flag in front of the pyramids, and try to sell photos of our stunt to Life Magazine. It was May of 1971, six years before Anwar Sadat rode through Jerusalem with Menachem Begin. Relations between the two countries were, for lack of a better term, unfriendly.

Since there was no travel then between Israel and Egypt, we flew to Cyprus. At the American Embassy in Nicosia we traded our Israeli-stamped passports for blank new ones. Then, at the nearby Egyptian Embassy we handed our fresh passports to the consular officer who smiled and asked, “When did you boys get here from Israel?” as she returned them to us.  She said she would be happy to issue visas on our old passports. We were hitting a wall, but back at our hostel in Nicosia another traveler suggested we try entering Egypt through Lebanon. He told us to look for “Carey,” an American exchange student at the University of Beirut.

So we flew to Beirut  Four years before Lebanon would be ravaged by civil war, a Canadian Sergeant Major on the plane offered to procure us girls and gold, both “clean.” We politely turned down both. Beirut was a jewel, known then as the Paris of the Middle East. With nowhere to stay, we somehow showed up at Carey’s dorm and knocked. His Syrian roommate opened the door, explaining Carey was away for the weekend. He asked if we were friends. I said not exactly, but that we attended the same university in California. This was sort of true– Carey was at UC Santa Barbara and I attended UC Berkeley, only a few hundred miles away. The Syrian opened the door wider and invited us to stay.

Carey’s roommate suggested we visit Damascus, a two hour ride in a shared taxi; the Syrians granted visas easily at the border. It had never occurred to us to do so, and was exciting. Soon Carey returned and was equally welcoming.  He showed us around Beirut but with frequent diversions about the Fascist Israelis and their practice of torturing of Palestinians.  As a Jew in Beirut, my safety paramount, I simply nodded.

The Syrian entry visas were a magnificent sight, two full pages of postage type stamps to mark the cost of entry. We went first to the great Umayyad Mosque in Old Damascus, built in the 8th Century, the earliest surviving mosque built of stone. Steve noticed a man following us, lurking around the mosque. We quickly left and headed through the huge covered marketplace, and from there to the Jewish Quarter in the hotter, eastern side of the city.  At its peak, the Jewish community in Syria had numbered around 70,000.  By 1971, only five thousand remained, prevented by President Hafez al-Assad (Bashar’s father) from leaving.  He kept them as bargaining chips, an entire neighborhood of political prisoners.

Soon we were standing outside the ghetto. What happened next has followed me my entire life. As we prepared to enter the Jewish quarter, Steve stopped.  He noticed the same man he had spotted near us in the Umayyad Mosque standing across the street. Most people today are aware of the ruthlessness of Bashar al-Assad–we weren’t interested in taking chances with the equally brutal elder al-Assad and went immediately to the shared taxi stand in the central city near Marjeh Square. This was the same square where the Syrians had hanged a compromised Israeli spy, Eli Cohen, in 1965.

We returned to Lebanon, our passports full of Arab stamps, and the Egyptian Embassy in Beirut granted us visas without a problem.  At the Beirut airport, before we boarded the Cairo flight, I mailed a letter to Carey.  I explained to him my background and invited him to visit me in Jerusalem, to see of what he spoke.  We visited the pyramids but waved no flag.  When I returned to Jerusalem, to my surprise, I found Carey already in my dorm room.  My Israeli roommate had invited him to stay and had taken him through the Old City and to Jericho among other places.

I’m not sure how long we were actually in Damascus, maybe half a day, but the city left a powerful impression on me, and my curiosity was forever sparked by this desert oasis, the oldest continuously inhabited city on earth. I wrote to the Syrian Tourist Agency in Damascus and they sent me a huge map of the city which I tacked up to my bedroom wall. Back in Los Angeles, I wanted to publicize the plight of this imprisoned Jewish community in Damascus and thought I might do it best by writing a thriller about an Israeli agent sent to smuggle out children.  I read everything I could get my hands on about the city. Five years later, my first novel The Damascus Cover, was published. A cold war thriller featuring Israeli agents and American students plotting in the shadows of the Damascus Jewish quarter, it was a substantial success and then disappeared. Revived by an LA director with a similar interest in Syria, it was made into a film which premiered this year, almost exactly forty years after its initial publication, and the book was reissued.

I got to watch the finished film in a theater for the first time only a few weeks ago.  In the movie adaptation of my novel two actors, Jurgen Prochnow and Jonathan Rhys Meyers, stand at that same spot where Steve and I had turned back, just outside the Jewish quarter. Seeing my story on the screen was an uncanny experience; forty years later, I find myself right back where I started, after one day in Damascus.

About the Author
Howard Kaplan's new novel, THE SYRIAN SUNSET: a novel of the Syrian Civil War, the failure of the West to save the Syrian people, and how that inaction against the Russian incursion in Syria emboldened Vladimir Putin to invade Ukraine. The film adaptation of his THE DAMASCUS COVER, starring Sir John Hurt in his final film, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, and seven Israeli actors is available on Tubi in the U.S.
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