The Tireless Journey of Aleppo's Jews: Setto Chammah

Friday 20 January 201709:15 am

When I was asked as a child: "What are you?" I automatically answered: "I was born in Mexico to Syrian Jewish parents."

We are what we are and I wholeheartedly embrace my heritage. In college I studied Spanish and delighted in the many words with Arabic roots. And surprised, after four centuries, at the Spanish words that were still sprinkled in contemporary Arabic. Our grandmother only spoke Arabic, which forced us to learn just enough to communicate with her. She was already sixty when she came to Mexico with her son, our father, and his young bride, our mother, in 1937. It was too late for her to learn another language and, having very few people she could talk to, hard for her to adjust. When our Mexican cook would ruin one of her many recipes, she cursed her in Arabic. But the cook soon picked up on the curses and hurled them back at her! Our Teta's only happy diversion was playing cards. She died in 1957, still yearning for Aleppo.

Ten years ago, I went to Andalusia, Spain to see where our forefathers lived until the 16th century. And in 2006 I finally visited Syria with a small British group. We started in Damascus and slowly worked our way through ancient sites and ruins to arrive in Aleppo, the birthplace of our parents and the many generations of ancestors that preceded them. It was emotional and amazing to be in a physical environment that strangely enveloped me--as if the mist of our past swept over me. We stayed for four nights at the spotless and famous (in our community, for newlyweds' first night together) Hotel Baron, which I had heard about--also a favorite of our tour leader, the personable, scholarly head of Middle Eastern Antiquities at the British Museum. Every room had a big picture of Lawrence of Arabia hanging above the bed. Apparently the only structural change in more than three quarters of a century was the updated bathrooms.  I wrote letters on the Baron's stationery to my mother and her friend who had been voted a beauty queen in her time (Melkit il Jemal, as reported in the Aleppo newspapers of the time), and mailed them just before we left Syria from a post office in Damascus. Somehow, that rundown post office, the waiting in line, the man behind the counter were all as I would have imagined!

Also in Aleppo, I went with a private (Armenian) guide to walk through the Jemiliyeh residential area where our people had lived. To my disappointment, the locked synagogue could not be opened. The old surviving buildings were mostly empty and dilapidated. Pretty filigreed ironwork encircled sagging balconies where our women would have spent many hours chatting while they knitted, crocheted or embroidered and observed the street life below. Our mother told us  that on hot summer nights, she and her siblings would pull their mattresses onto these balconies to sleep in the cooler open air.

In the souk, I stopped to buy jasmine perfume to take back as gifts. There were hardly any tourists and the vendor was delighted to have a customer. When I paid him exactly what he asked for, he was surprised. "You will pay the full price?" he questioned me, crestfallen that he hadn't had a chance to enter into a negotiation. I said it was very reasonable (the equivalent of about one dollar for each of the twelve bottles I purchased).  He thanked me and gave me two extra bottles.  He wanted to know where I came from. "America."  He enthusiastically responded: "We love the Americans. Please tell your friends to come to Syria." People concerned for my safety had advised me to say I was Canadian. I couldn't do that. It would be an insult to my country and to my hosts to lie.

I invited Muhamad, a very nice young man from whom I bought carpets for my mother and daughter--and yes, I did bargain with him to reduce the price--to join our group for dinner. Muhamad and his brothers owned the Sebastian, an attractive store near the citadel. He had studied in Liverpool, England and proved a very pleasant addition to our party of nine. We all enjoyed his company.  We learned from him that new apartments in the area near the University of Aleppo were going for millions of dollars! I haven't been able to reach Muhamad since the crisis and I worry about him and his family.   

There wasn't a day in my life at home in Mexico that Aleppo was not mentioned: the food gave off wonderful aromas; fruits were juicier and tasted sweeter; the flowers smelled better; the air was drier; the people were friendly and sociable; the cafes bustled and provided congenial settings for talk and games and business transactions. Even though we no longer had anyone we knew left in Syria, and I had always thought the charms and advantages were exaggerated, I found myself thrilled to be there. It exceeded my expectations! I can't explain the factual reasons, I can only list my sense of well being: feeling warm, comfortable, secure and simply elated. The climate suited me--I did not suffer from my allergy to humidity as I did in Mexico and in the United States.

Once a husband and wife duo--he played the oud, she sang and danced--came to Mexico from an Arab country, I don't remember which. Our father persuaded them to stay for over two weeks. He organized parties and outdoor picnics where they performed for us and our friends. He didn't want them to leave!

As you can see, Aleppo remained and continues to be ingrained in our heads and in our hearts.  The current plight of the Syrians is incredibly painful to witness, I am at a loss for words to express my grief. Countries that welcome Syrians will be richly rewarded. The vast majority of them are very able, hard working, kind, and good. They would be a real asset to any nation that realizes this and brings in such a strong jolt of positive energy.   

Our father taught us to judge others as individuals. It was the best lesson I ever learned.

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