SYRIA - As I walk along one of the alleys in the poorer district of the city, where the ancient houses tilt and threaten to crumble, I spot, sitting there against the wall, a young mustached man. When he saw me approaching he rose and moved forward to block my path.
He was wearing civilian clothes, but the gun sticking out of the belt of his trousers was noticeable.
Yom Kippur in Damascus
I explained to him in English-laced Arabic what I was seeking. You cannot, he answered. After a brief negotiation and the handing over of several bills, the plainclothes officer – or was he a member of the al-Mukhabarat (Syrian intelligence) – was content and walked over to a narrow alley between two houses.
A bridge over the Euphrates, I'm on the left.
Ten minutes later a short man of about 50 came towards me, wrapped in a Jewish prayer shawl. "What can I do for you," the Jewish man asked in French. I decided to avoid taking a risk and identified myself as a tourist, a geography professor. Albert Kamao mulled this over for a moment and then without asking any further questions, told me to come in two hours time, towards the end of the prayer.
"Yom Kippur is a holy day for us, the Jews," he said in English now. "We do not wish to be disturbed while we pray to the creator of the world and ask him for forgiveness." I did as he instructed.
Bird's eye view of the city
When I returned another man was keeping watch in the alley. What had happened before was repeated and eventually I found myself walking after Mr. Kamao through the narrow alleyway that suddenly widened into a large courtyard, a fountain placed in the middle of it. Five women stood by it and were praying determinedly from their books.
On the courtyard's southern side lay a large structure made of stone. Its door was wide open and through it I could see into the decorated hall of the synagogue; its ceiling high, the walls plated with dark wood adorned with biblical phrases carved into brass plates.
Bazaar in Damascus
"This is the French synagogue for Spanish Jews in Damascus, the last one in Syria where people still pray," says Mr. Kamao proudly. He introduced himself as the head of the Jewish community in the city and invited me to enter. The Holy Ark was wide open, inside where eight ancient Torah books, kept safe in silver cases marked with intricate designs.
Car decorated with faces of regional leaders
The full story was published by Yedioth Ahronoth on Friday. A complete documentation of Ron Ben-Yishai’s visit to Damascus, the Syrian Golan, and other sites, will be published in Ynet and Yedioth Ahronoth at the end of next week.