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LEBANON: New book attempts to resurrect Beirut's lost Jewish past

February 9, 2010 |  9:19 am

2010-02-06-WadiAbuJamilThe neighborhood Wadi Abu Jamil in downtown Beirut is empty and quiet these days. But back in the old days it used to be a bustling place known as Beirut's Jewish neighborhood. 

It is where the Jewish physician Dr. Shams was said to treat patients who suffered economically for free and where, at night, people from the neighborhood gathered at the house of one of the Jewish families to watch television because they were the only ones in the area who had one at the time.

But after multiple Arab-Israeli wars, Israeli invasions and Lebanese Hezbollah's 2006 war with the Jewish state, Dr. Shams and most of the other Jewish families from "The Valley of the Jews," as the neighborhood also was called, are long gone.

In her newly released book of literary journalism, "Wadi Abu Jamil: Stories about the Jews of Beirut," BBC journalist Nada Abdelsamad has resurrected Dr. Shams and some of the other Jewish personalities who used to live in the neighborhood through the memories of their old neighbors and friends.

The idea for the book came from a series of reports Abdelsamad was commissioned to do by the BBC about some of Lebanon's religious communities, including the Druze and the Shiites, in the aftermath of the 2006 war with Israel.

At one point she decided to do a report about the Jewish community in Lebanon, which turned out to be a challenge. In the end, she wasn't able to interview people from the small Jewish community in Lebanon but she was nevertheless able to talk to Lebanese Jews who had left the country as well as some of their old neighbors.

The author was taken aback by their positive feedback and nostalgia for the old days in Wadi Abu Jamil.

Abdelsamad herself, she says, is part of the generation that only heard about the Lebanon's Jewish community but never encountered it.

“They had such nice memories of Lebanon," Abdelsamad told the Times. "They talked about in a nearly nostalgic way. It was surprising." 

When Abdelsamad spoke to her friends about her work, they encouraged her to expand the project and pen a novel on the topic.

Abdelsamad embarked on trying to find Lebanese Jews living in countries such as Canada who were willing to share their memories of life in Lebanon. One interview led to another.

"It was a chain of interviews," she said, adding that she was met with a bit of skepticism at first by some of the people she interviewed. "People asked me, 'Will it be harmful for us to talk?’ They were skeptical because this is a topic that has been sleeping for all these years."

Soon, however, the memories of Wadi Abu Jamil started to come alive and Abdelsamad was able to reconstruct some of the neighborhood's long-lost Jewish characters, as remembered by their friends and old neighbors.

Aside from Dr. Shams and the Jewish family who entertained the neighborhood with their TV, there is the story about Gamalo Mezrahi, a young Jewish girl whose good friend won't forget her to this day.

"She had a friend whom she told she was going to Israel," Abdelsamad said. "She gave the friend a picture of her. Until now, 60 years later, the friend still has the picture. She took the photo of Gamalo with her every time they moved.” 

All in all, Abdelsamad collected 21 stories about Jewish life in Wadi Abu Jamil -- accounts that show how much its residents were part of Lebanon's spectrum of communities, mingling with Christian and Muslim inhabitants while keeping their religious traditions.

Lebanon was once home to thousands of Jews but only a small number remain today. Most of them have changed their names and even their official religious status.

A common thread among the characters in the books, Abdelsamad says, is that they all left Lebanon in silence.

“One day the neighbors woke up to see their windows closed," she said. "That’s how they found out they had left."

Her book proposal was met with both excitement and hesitation by publishing houses, Abdelsamad says. Some skeptics even went as far as suggesting the sensitivity of the topic would end up getting the book banned. 

But the responses and feedback turned out to be quite the opposite of what skeptics had expected.

Published by Lebanon's Dar Annahar in Arabic, "Wadi Abu Jamil" quickly became a hit after its launching at a Beirut book fair in December. In some book stores it completely sold out.

"The way the book has sold shows the interest of the Lebanese in the topic," Abdelsamad says. She added that there are plans to translate the book into both French and English.

The press coverage of the book appears to have triggered the memories of some Lebanese Jews who left the country long ago but still have fond memories of Lebanon and Wadi Abu Jamil.

"Thank you for publishing this book," read a comment posted on a Lebanese news website. "I left Lebanon 40 years ago but my soul, my dreams, my childhood are still in Wadi Abu Jamil. I consider myself very lucky to have lived in Beirut, to have had friends from all religions."

Another commentator who said they left Lebanon in the late 1960s expressed excitement for the book.

"As for a Lebanese Jew who lives in New York since 1967, I am thrilled to know that somebody somewhere had decided to revive our story," read the message.

As for criticism, the author says she's received few negative comments about her book. The only criticism she can think of is those people who ask her what message is she trying to convey.

For Abdelsamad, however, there is neither a message nor a goal with the book. More than anything, it's a narrative about a vanished community and the memories of it.

"This is about stories...about relations that were there,” Abdelsamad said.

-- Alexandra Sandels in Beirut

Photo: The cover of Abdelsamad's book "Wadi Abu Jamil: Stories about Lebanon's Jews," currently available in book stores in Beirut.

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