THE ALEPPO CODEX
A True Story of Obsession, Faith, and the Pursuit of an Ancient Bible
By Matti Friedman
ALGONQUIN BOOKS OF CHAPEL HILL
Copyright © 2012 Matti Friedman
All right reserved.
Chapter One Flushing Meadow
The first limousines pulled up beside bare trees and a grove of flagpoles at Flushing Meadow, on the outskirts of New York City, discharging their passengers into a gray building that had once housed a skating rink. Crowds gathered in the chill outside. An auditorium inside was full of spectators and delegates. It was November 29, 1947, a Saturday afternoon.
Grainy footage filmed that day shows men in suits seated in rows before a raised podium where three officials had their backs to a giant painting of the globe. Aides arrived and departed from the podium with sheaves of paper and expressions befitting the gravity of the occasion: the delegates to this new world organization, the United Nations, were about to alter the course of history simply by holding a vote.
"We will start now," said the man in the middle—this was the assembly's presiding diplomat, a Brazilian—and a silver microphone on the podium picked up those words in accented English and relayed them to Jewish garment workers clustered around radio sets on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, then across the Atlantic to camps for the refugees of the Second World War, which had ended barely two years before, and farther east to Arab students in Damascus, merchants in Jaffa and Cairo, store owners in sandy Tel Aviv, a city not yet thirty years old. Some had pencils ready to tally the votes. A two-thirds majority meant Palestine, ruled by the British since 1917, would be partitioned into two states, one for Jews and one for Arabs. The vote followed months of desperate diplomacy and strong-arm politics influenced by the horror of recent events in Europe. For supporters of the Jewish national movement, Zionism, passage of the resolution would mean justice for a persecuted people and the realization of a two-thousand-year-old dream of national rebirth. For the Arabs of Palestine and of surrounding countries, it would mean the imposition of a foreign entity in the heart of the Middle East, an unbearable humiliation, and certain war.
In the north of Syria, six thousand miles away from New York, it was evening. An aviator arriving from the west across the flat screen of the Mediterranean might first have seen that night's full moon reflected on the water and then a dark expanse of tribal grazing lands and farming plots stretching inland toward the Euphrates and the deserts of the interior. Aleppo would have appeared below as a cluster of lights at the meeting point of the rail lines and roads that converged from all directions, the city spreading around a nucleus of bazaar streets by the crumbling mass of the Citadel. Down in those streets, the stores now shuttered, the women of the manzul were receiving clients, and men were submerged in café smoke like deep-sea divers, tubes between their lips, inhaling the rose-scented oxygen of water pipes. From the outskirts of the Old City, labyrinthine passages led into the quarter where the Jews had always lived, and in the heart of this quarter, behind high walls, was their great synagogue. Inside the synagogue, at the end of a corridor and down a few steps, was a dark grotto. In the grotto sat an iron safe with two locks, and in this safe was the book.
In Aleppo, the sexton of the great synagogue—Asher Baghdadi was his name—a thin man in a robe that fell to his ankles, would have been making his rounds at this time, after the Sabbath had ended and the last of the worshippers had left, walking through the rooms as he always did, through the courtyard where prayers were held in summertime, past the grotto known as the Cave of the Prophet Elijah, with the safe inside. The double lock served as an additional precaution, this one against the treasure's own guardians, requiring the two elders entrusted with keys to be present and to watch over each other when the safe was opened. It rarely was. The sexton was not important enough to have one of those keys, though he did have an iron key to the synagogue's gate that was as long as the forearm of a small child. The sexton crossed a narrow alleyway and climbed the three flights of stairs to his home, where the windows looked down into the deserted courtyard of the building he had just left. Kerosene streetlamps flickered in the alleys.
Most of Aleppo's Jews appear to have been only vaguely aware of the events at Flushing Meadow, if at all; many believed Palestine had little to do with them, and only a lucky few owned a radio. Among those who did understand the gravity of the events afoot was fifteen-year-old Rafi Sutton, the retired spy I would encounter six decades later. Rafi was in his living room, in a modern neighborhood that was home to middle-class Jews, Muslims, and Christians who had fled the crowding and poverty of the Old City. He sat with his parents and sisters next to a Zenith radio housed in a wooden cabinet.
In the broadcast from Flushing Meadow, a flat American voice replaced that of the Brazilian. The new voice began reading from a list.
"Afghanistan?" he asked, and then repeated the inaudible answer from the assembly floor: "No.
"Argentina," he said. "Argentina? Abstention.
"Australia?" he said. "Yes."
In the days and weeks leading up to the vote, Arab leaders and diplomats had moved beyond threatening to eradicate the Jewish enclave in Palestine by force to threatening the Jews of the vulnerable Diaspora archipelago strung throughout the lands of Islam—Baghdad, Aleppo, Alexandria, Tunis, Casablanca. There were eight hundred thousand Jews in Arab countries, and another two hundred thousand in non-Arab Islamic states like Iran and Turkey. These people were not Zionists, for the most part, but that didn't matter: they were hostages now. "The lives of a million Jews in Muslim countries would be jeopardized by the establishment of a Jewish state," an Egyptian representative warned. If the resolution passed, Iraq's prime minister said, "severe measures should be taken against all Jews in Arab countries." The fate of the Jews in Arab lands could become "very precarious," a Palestinian Arab delegate had reminded everyone. Though Arab governments might do their best to protect them, he said, "governments, in general, have always been unable to prevent mob excitement and violence."
"El Salvador?" the American voice continued. "Abstention.
In the hall at Flushing Meadow, many held their breath; the French had been wavering and were expected to abstain.
"Yes," said the American voice, and raucous cheers swept the auditorium.
"Excitement," remembered one Zionist delegate who was in the hall, "became a physical pain."
Rafi's radio emitted a knocking sound—this was the Brazilian rapping for order with his gavel on the other side of the Atlantic. Rafi and his parents were worried about his three older brothers, who had left home to join the Zionist project in Palestine years before and whom Rafi knew mostly from their letters. His mother, who was illiterate, had him read the letters aloud before she wedged the enclosed photographs of suntanned young men into the wooden frame around her wardrobe mirror. The Suttons were not yet worried about themselves.
"Ukraine?" the American voice was saying. "Yes.
"South Africa? Yes.
"Soviet Union? Yes.
"United Kingdom? Abstains.
"United States? Yes," said the American voice.
When the voting ended, the Brazilian banged again with his gavel. Those present in the hall saw him put on his spectacles. "As he spoke," one of the Jewish delegates later recalled, "a feeling that grips a man but once in his lifetime came over us. High above us we seemed to hear the beating of the wings of history."
The Brazilian diplomat read from a paper. "The resolution of the Ad Hoc Committee for Palestine was adopted," he said, "by thirty-three votes, thirteen against, and ten abstentions." Shouting erupted in the hall.
In British-ruled Jerusalem, crowds poured into the streets. Trucks with loudspeakers drove through the Jewish section of the city, waking people up to celebrate, and the staff of a winery rolled a barrel into the middle of downtown and began handing out free drinks. Golda Meir, a future Israeli prime minister, addressed revelers from the balcony of the low headquarters building of the Jewish Agency, the Zionist leadership in Palestine. "For two thousand years we have waited for our deliverance. Now that it is here it is so great and wonderful that it surpasses human words. Jews," she said, "mazel tov!"
Arab leaders and diplomats responded with stunned fury. "My country will never recognize such a decision," the Syrian delegate to the United Nations warned before he and the other Arab representatives walked out of the assembly in protest. "It will never agree to be responsible for it. Let the consequences be on the heads of others, not on ours." Soon the clerics at the Islamic seminary of Al-Azhar in Cairo would release a call for a "worldwide jihad in defense of Arab Palestine." The Syrian chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood would echo the call for holy war, saying the battle was one of "life or death" for Arabs, "whom the vilest, the most corrupt, tricky and destructive people wish to conquer and displace."
In Aleppo, Rafi Sutton's parents switched off the radio. There was no sound from the streets outside. Nothing had changed. Not yet.
In the ancient synagogue where the Crown had been kept for two hundred thousand nights, this night, which would be the last, seemed no different.
The Crown had arrived in the synagogue from a world in which wars were fought with swords and arrows and which extended no farther west than the Atlantic coastline. Whatever had changed outside the Crown's grotto since then, its keepers still came from generation after generation of Jews from the same Diaspora outpost, one that had been in place before the birth of Islam or Christianity. The Jews of Aleppo swore oaths on the Crown, lit candles in its grotto, and prayed there for the welfare of the sick. Each generation added to the protective web of stories that surrounded the treasure, though almost none of those who venerated it had ever set eyes on it. The moral of these stories was always the same. Once, long ago, one tale went, the elders took the Crown out of the synagogue, and plague swiftly struck the Jews, abating only when the Crown was returned. In another, the Crown was similarly moved, only to reappear, miraculously, in its place. If ill befell the treasure, according to traditions of great age and import, or even if it ever left the synagogue, the community was doomed. This might have been fanciful, many admit now, long after the events in question, but then they invariably point out that in the end it did turn out to be true.
An inscription in the book read as follows:
Blessed be he who preserves it
and cursed be he who steals it
and cursed be he who sells it
and cursed be he who pawns it.
It may not be sold and it may not be defiled forever.
The delegates at Flushing Meadow had set in motion the events that would lead to a war in Palestine, a Jewish victory, and the birth of the state of Israel. That is well known. But they also began a very different chain of events known to few: the story of the Crown of Aleppo, one that must be rescued from decades of neglect, myth, and deliberate deception.
Aleppo came warily to life the day after the vote.
On an ordinary morning, the sexton, Asher Baghdadi, might leave his small apartment next to the synagogue and walk to the market for pita bread with sesame seeds, or a pot of sahlab, a sweet concoction of milk, orchid powder, cinnamon, and chopped walnuts. His daughter Bahiyeh, who recounted this to me years later, appears in a family photograph from the 1940s as a child with round cheeks and untrusting eyes. By the time I sat in her living room, she was a chain-smoking grandmother in slacks and rubber clogs. She lived in another country, spoke another language, and was known by another name. As she looked up at the ordinary light fixture bolted to her ceiling in a town south of Tel Aviv, she described the crystal chandeliers she saw as a child when she followed her father on his rounds through the great synagogue. She remembered strange noises, and secret rooms, and one spot where she would stand to feel a mysterious gust of cold air. Though Bahiyeh's role in this story is small, I came to see her—her child's memories, her half-forgotten Arabic, and her freezer stocked with Syrian spices—as an untarnished vestige of Jewish Aleppo, a world that ended, for her, when she was eleven.
Bahiyeh and a shifting assortment of her dozen brothers and sisters woke up each morning on mattresses laid out on the floor and ate bread with date honey or the jam their mother made by leaving apricots under a plate of glass on the roof. Then they would all tear down the stairs and out into the streets of their city. But not this morning.
In one of the streets of the Old City not far away, Murad Faham was making his way from his home to the bazaar when he met an acquaintance bearing a warning. Faham was a cheese merchant approaching forty. Like most of the city's Jews, he had yet to hear the news from Flushing Meadow or from Palestine, where fighting had already erupted that morning. Faham's account of these events is found in oral recollections that were taped and transcribed thirty years later.
Where are you going? asked the man.
To the market, Faham replied.
Tell the Jewish store owners to close their stores at once, the man said. Then he put his head close to Faham's and whispered in his ear: Today the Jews took the land, he said, and these people want to do something to us that the Creator of the World does not wish upon us. Tell them it would be better to close their stores.
Faham did so and was hurrying back home when this time he met a Muslim businessman he knew.
Murad, why are you walking around outside? Go home, the businessman said. He was escorting him when they encountered a crowd of schoolchildren shouting slogans against the partition vote. They were just children, but for the first time that morning Faham was afraid.
For my sake, go home and don't come out, the businessman pleaded. We know that something not at all good is about to happen.
Outside the Old City, in the modern neighborhood of Jamiliyeh, Rafi Sutton was awake and alert, even though he had stayed up late listening to the radio the night before.
At the time of these events at the end of 1947, Rafi was the teenage king of a little world that required an hour to cross on foot: from his home across from the Mazreb delicatessen, whose French-style baguette sandwiches were popular with older Jewish boys trying to impress their girlfriends, down shady boulevards where more and more automobiles mixed with fewer and fewer horse-drawn carriages, past the Cinéma Roxy, past the brothel, and into the medieval tangle of the Old City and the souks, seething and heaving with life, the air heavy with centuries of spice, to the great synagogue that housed the hidden book. If he took le tramway—a remnant of the French colonial rule that had ended only the previous year—the trip was even faster, and for Rafi the tram was free: He would jump on one of the yellow cars with their smart blue stripe, boarding through the front door and then moving to the back ahead of the conductor collecting fares. By the time the conductor reached him he was gripping the two handles on either side of the rear door, bending his knees, and then he was airborne, a boy in shorts, the streetcar still in motion, landing on his feet and vanishing among trucks and snorting horses.
During the years of the Second World War, before things began to change for the worse, Rafi's life was a blur of torch-lit Boy Scout ceremonies—l'éclaireur toujours prêt!—capture the flag, lessons in Torah and French. Food was rationed, and Rafi was sent to stand in line for raw brown sugar that left an unpleasant froth on the surface of tea. He and his friends entertained themselves with rumors of the Nazi spies who were said to be erecting antennas on Aleppo rooftops and relaying secret messages back to Hitler in Morse code. Recounting this to me, Rafi seemed to think these preoccupations foreshadowed the career he eventually chose, after this world expelled him and he looked back on it with the eyes of an enemy, as an agent for the Mossad.
In these years his world orbited the majestic Zenith, which had a place of honor in his family's apartment, up a curved staircase in the neighborhood of Jamiliyeh, where most families had more money than his did. A half oval of burnished wood and circuitry, the radio had returned with his mother after one of her visits to her wealthy brothers, who were jewelers in Beirut. They had purchased a newer model and let her take the old one back to Aleppo on the train. That was how Rafi's family, despite his elderly father's years of sickness and financial hardship, came to have a radio, a luxury that drew relatives and friends to their living room in the evenings to keep up with the war. The Zenith informed the adults of the German victories as it told them of the astonishing collapse of France, the land of the soldiers and policemen Sutton had always seen on the streets, of the deli's baguette sandwiches, and of the language that many of the Jews here claimed, as a point of pride, to speak better than their native Arabic.
Excerpted from THE ALEPPO CODEX by Matti Friedman Copyright © 2012 by Matti Friedman. Excerpted by permission of ALGONQUIN BOOKS OF CHAPEL HILL. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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