Lebanese Jews Series- V

I have translated this article from (horrible, unpunctuated!!) Arabic into English, and decided to post it despite some of the inaccuracies (starting with the title!!) in it. You might be interested in checking out the original Arabic version, since it also features a photo of Liza Srour.

Liza Srour … the last Jewess in Lebanon
Rehab Daher

The district of Wadi Abu Jamil in central Beirut was in the past home to the largest Jewish community, which reached more or less 6,000 people; the name of the area thus became tied to their existence, and was known as the wadi (valley) of the Jews. The Jews imprinted the area with their vocation, and it became known as the market of upholsterers. The Jews escaped from Christian persecution in Andalus and Granada to be shadowed by the tolerant Ottomans, at the same time as Muslim migrants came to Beirut from a long voyage through Northwest Africa; it is widely known that the old Beiruti families were of Maghrebi or Andalusi origins.

Wadi Abu Jamil is considered as occupying a strategic and functional position, for it is in the heart of modern Beirut, and away from it. Its position indicates the main job of its population, for which they were renowned for centuries, that is, money brokering and establishment of banks. The Jews in Lebanon, scarcely numbering a few thousand at the peak before the Palestinian Nakba (Catastrophe) were part of the well-to-do, higher class that owned most of the wealth, which constituted an additional moral barrier between them and their fellow citizens, at a time when class imbalances in Lebanon after the independence were of the most important causes of the successive civil wars.

Upon going to the area of Wadi Abu Jamil, the magnificence of the place stuns you, and the beauty of the buildings with red tiles, where the lofty palace of Sheikh Sa’adeddine al-Hariri stands, despite the presence of a number of crumbling buildings from the days of the war. In the center of the area, on the side of the Grand Serail, is the Jewish Synagogue. Inside, there are arches from the right and left, with the Star of David inscribed on them. But the Synagogue remains destroyed and wild grass and weeds cover it. It was exempted from the reconstruction and development projects that affected the entire area, whereby Wadi Abu Jamil fell within the area called “Solidere”. One of the people told me that the PM Rafiq Hariri wanted to renovate and rebuild the Synagogue but the Jewish community refused, for fear that it would be bombed.

The Wadi of Gold
With the onset of the war in Lebanon and the reign of chaos and force of arms, the situation changed a lot in Wadi Abu Jamil, as the area became empty of the original Jewish inhabitants, and in their place settled refugees – as they were referred to – who are of the Shi’ite sect that migrated to the area during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and lived in the magnificent and large houses of Wadi Abu Jamil, which were abandoned by their owners for fear of murder or kidnapping. After the war, and with the onset of the development and reconstruction, and the takeover of the area by Solidere (the largest real estate company in the Middle East), a new name was given to the area: the Wadi of Gold, and that is due to the huge sums of money that were paid to the refugees to leave the houses that they did not even own.

The Last Remnants
Very few Lebanese know of the presence of Jews in Lebanon, despite the fact that it is a sect officially recognized by the Lebanese government, known as the “Musawiyya sect” and is currently considered an extinct sect, as there is no new generation of Lebanese Jews, and no Jew has gotten married in Lebanon, and if there were one, perhaps he would prefer not to talk about his sect.

When I went to Wadi Abu Jamil to carry out this investigation, I asked one of the inhabitants of the area if there were any Jews there, and he immediately told me: Of course, there is Liza, and he pointed to a semi-destroyed building, which carried the signs of the war that took place in the area, and told me that she lives on the fourth floor: then he called her, and Liza came out, and he told her: the girl is a journalist, she wants to see you.

She didn’t object, and invited me to come up, but she said, ‘there is no elevator, you have to take the stairs.’

While ascending the stairs to reach the fourth floor where Liza lives, in a building that seems to be in danger of collapse at any moment, with the doors of apartments dislocated or broken, or non-existent to begin with, the odors of decomposition and humidity were engulfing me, and I was expecting to come across a decomposing body from the days of the war, still present in the empty apartments, where there was nothing but spectra of a war that ate the green and the ground, and nothing but destruction and poverty were left.

I was wondering how Liza lived alone in this building; no miserable word can describe or attain its level of misery, and no one can believe that life breathes here on the fourth floor where Liza lives.

Liza, a 50-year-old lady, met me with a smile and a face that still carries signs of beauty gone with those who left; she apologized for the poverty and misery of the house, saying, ‘sorry, the house is not appropriate, but I don’t know if I will be staying here or leaving; I await an answer from the lawyer.’ Liza apologizes to me for the poverty, as if poverty needs to be apologized for.

The house of Liza Srour, the Lebanese Jew still living in Lebanon, is only a few steps away from Sheikh Sa’adeddine al-Hariri’s palace, which she crosses on foot to sit in the afternoon in the garden overlooked by the palace. The difference appears more than vast, between the luxury of the Sheikh’s palace with the red-tiled roof, and the wreckage of the house inhabited by a lady who does not always find something to eat, except for boiled eggs which she shares with her cats, which live with her. Despite this, Liza does not complain, and no sign of irritation from her circumstances are evident. Rather, she looks optimistic. When I wanted to take a picture of her, she said, ‘wait a little’, and put on lipstick, combed her hair, and told me, ‘I used to be the prettiest girl in the Wadi’, and brought pictures of her as a teenager.

Mexican Soap Opera
She said, ‘come let us sit in the bedroom, it is cooler there’, and she offered me an old chair to sit on, near the balcony, because the weather was very hot. She told me, ‘I will sit on the bed, as there is only one chair’, which served for long years, and its appearance does not differ from the house and the kitchen drawer in which she puts two coffee cups and a case of sugar and coffee.

Liza sat on the bed; I was struck by a condition of surprise and silence, as there is nothing that can be said in front of a lady who has made peace with her poverty to the extent of confidence, and totally forgot the days of her strength and youth, as if she never was from a well-to-do family as I was told. I did not need to ask Liza any question, for she says everything eagerly and honestly; she says: ‘my sisters traveled during the war, and my parents passed away, and my uncles emigrated to Brazil, this is why during the World Cup I was cheering for the Brazilian team.’ She adds, ‘we had a large store in the center of Beirut, and a magnificent house, you know that the Jews were among the rich, but during the war, there came gunmen and kidnapped my father and forced him to sign waiver papers for the house and the store, and now there are problems between me and Solidere, and it will be resolved, and maybe I would receive a large sum like others did.’

I ask her about her memories before the war in Wadi Abu Jamil; she says, ‘we had neighbours from the Shi’ite sect and from all sects, and we were very happy, we used to prepare tabboulé and drink coffee and read cups, now everything has changed, I live here alone with my cats, and sometimes my neighbours visit me, and I go to visit Shi’ite friends in Dahieh [southern suburbs of Beirut], and we recollect the beautiful memories.’

When I asked Liza how she performs her religious rituals, given that the Jewish Synagogue was destroyed, she said she did not know Hebrew, and she performs her rituals at home, but she knows the Fatiha [Sura Al-Fatiha], she memorized it from her Shi’ite neighbours, and she adds, ‘I believe a lot in the Azan [call to prayer], and every time I am in material distress, when I hear the Azan, I call on God and believe me, he responds.’

Liza is afraid to say that she is Jewish, despite the fact that she has friendships with all Lebanese sects. She asked me which area in Lebanon I was from, and I told her: I am from Sheba’a. She smiled and said: ‘Ahh, Sheba’a, I had friends from Sheba’a and they used to bring me cherries and apples from there’; then adds, ‘when I hear in the news that Sheba’a Farms is Syrian, I tell my acquaintances: not true, I have friends from Sheba’a, and they are Lebanese, because I know many people from Sheba’a and their ID card is Lebanese.’

I asked Liza if she was happy when South Lebanon was liberated; she said, ‘of course I was happy, especially when the detainees were released from Khiam prison.’

And I asked her what she feels when she watches news and what is happening in Palestine, she said, ‘I get very sad and I cry for what is happening in Palestine and Iraq too, but when I told this to one of my Jewish acquaintances, he said, you have to be sad for both sides, meaning for Jews and Arabs together.’

As for whether or not she was thinking of traveling to Israel, which is the Promised Land according to Jewish faith, or to France where her sisters live, she said, ‘we the Jews have been in Lebanon since 2000 years, and here I have lived the most beautiful days of my life, and my memories are here, and I am afraid of traveling to Israel, but I wish to visit the Holy places when there is peace, and not now.

When I asked Liza, who appears to hold on to life and transcend her miserable situation, and never feels lonely, if she felt lonely, she said: ‘No, never; between work and house and listening to the radio and watching Mexican soap operas, time passes.’

Liza, who once was a daughter of dignity and family, and used to give money to her neighbours as one of the locals told me, invited me to lunch at her place, and said, ‘I will boil some eggs for you.’

She insisted a lot that I would stay and watch a Mexican soap opera called “Broken Hearts” with her. She said that the episodes surpassed the hundred. Then she turned on the TV, and it took 10 minutes for the picture to appear on it, unclear, and without colors.

I told her that I had work, she said, ‘please, stay, I will prepare coffee and read your cup, you girls love fortune-telling’. I had to heed her request and know what the cup will tell me; and I am drowning in thoughts, how I would write an investigation which was not accounted for, whereby I went to investigate about the Jews in Lebanon, and ended up in front of a personality fit to write a novel on, or to be the hero of a Mexican soap opera, like the one she is watching, but maybe it would be titled “A broken life”!

3 responses to “Lebanese Jews Series- V

  1. Hello, my name is Lydia Sizer and I am working on a thesis through Brown University in the United States looking at blogs. I am looking at how blogs affect mutual understanding among people of different ethnic backgrounds and I was wondering if you would be willing to take a survey I have prepared for my research. This research would give you a voice in determining whether blogs would be useful in aiding global security. If you are interested, don’t hesitate to email me at Lydia_Sizer@brown.edu. Thank you so much for your time. For convenience, please enter “thesis survey” as the subject of your email as I will not know who is writing to me. Thanks again!

    –Lydia Sizer

  2. Pingback: Global Voices Online » Blog Archive » Lebanon: A Bouquet of Topics

  3. how sad that poor Miss Srour lives a life of poverty when she was once part of a rich family. But just so you know, there are numerous Jews in Lebanon, who arent in fear nor in denial of their faith.

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