Ahmad Abdel Aal was born in 1954 in the village of Jubata ez-Zeit in Quneitra province. He lived there with his family until the age of six, when they moved to the Al-Qamariya neighborhood in Damascus.
Ahmad still remembers his village well. “Jubata ez-Zeit is small and beautiful, and its people are well-educated and peaceful. Its school, established by Shaker Beik al-Aas, is considered the top school in all of Quneitra province. Our village was a half hour’s walk away from Shebaa farms in Lebanon, where my mother was born. The Syrians and the Lebanese enjoyed excellent relationships with one another, because we were so geographically close to one another and there was a lot of intermarriage between Syrian and Lebanese families. There was actually quite a lot of intermarriage between Muslims and Christians as well. For example, my maternal uncle, who is Muslim, is married to a Christian woman, and my wife’s grandmother, who was Christian, married a Muslim man.”
Ahmad says that the ties between the different villages in the area were also quite strong, with a lot of mutual cooperation between people. “We had a plot of land in the village of Majdal Shams, which was a majority Druze area. And families from Majdal Shams owned land in our village. We all lived together as one.”
Ahmad and his family moved to Al-Qamariya in Old Damascus because his father was an employee in the public sector in Damascus.
“Al-Qamariya was demographically quite diverse, with Muslims, Christians and Jews all living in the neighborhood. I remember our neighbor, Um Sarkiss, who was Jewish. She was a seamstress and was a good friend of my mother’s.”
Though there was a lot of neighborly feeling and mutual respect between the Jews and Muslims in Al-Qamariya, there were also stereotypes and rumors about the Jews. “When we were children,” says Ahmad, “they would warn us not to stray too far from home alone because the Jews might kidnap us. In fact, I was once almost kidnapped myself. Four young men grabbed me and tried to pull me out of my neighborhood, but my mother somehow found out about it and ran screaming toward us. She managed to overpower them and then slip away after they got into a big fight with some of the neighborhood boys, who had seen what was happening and tried to rescue me. When I told our neighbor Um Sarkiss what had happened, she said that these were gangs who kidnapped children and then trafficked them out of the country.”
Still, Ahmad describes the ties they once had with the Jewish community as warm and affectionate. People visited one another, celebrated with one another during holidays and weddings and supported one another during times of mourning. Everything changed, however, after the 1967 war, and it felt like the Jews harbored a secret hatred and resentment toward the Muslims. Security patrols began guarding those neighborhoods where Jewish families lived. Ahmad thinks that they took such precautions in order to avoid any sort of retaliation against the local Jewish community, fearing that the loathing people had against the Israelis after their occupation of the Syrian Golan area and other Arab territories after 1967 would lead to bloodshed and violence.
“One night,” says Ahmad, “one of my friends, who was doing his compulsory military service, was wounded quite severely in his hand. We rushed him to a Jewish doctor, who treated him by repairing the torn tendons, but he did it wrong. He did it on purpose when he found out that my friend was a soldier, and until today, my friend can no longer use his hand.”
At seventeen, Ahmad moved with his family to the Al-Midan neighborhood, where he remained for the next forty years. Ahmad describes the neighborhood as quite conservative, with Sunni Muslims making up the majority of its residents.
Ahmad learned how to lay and repair electrical grids from his older brother, and at the beginning of the 1970s, found a job in a government facility that provided electrical services. He worked there for about nine years, but after witnessing one too many deaths as a result of electrical shocks due to bad safety measures, he decided to switch trades altogether. He bought a small van and worked transporting goods for a while, after meeting withb some merchants in the Bouzouriya market, one of the smaller markets that make up the historical Hamidiya souk.
He worked with them for about twelve years, distributing chemical solvents and materials to companies manufacturing cleaning supplies. As a result of this work, Ahmad, along with two partners, managed to establish his own small factory producing cleaning supplies in the Bab Touma neighborhood of Damascus.
“We started working on a very small and simple scale,” he says. “We would fill the plastic flasks with liquid detergent manually, and then we’d distribute them. Eventually we were able to expand our work by hiring some workers, and then we moved our operations to Arbin, where we stayed for about seventeen years. Finally we established a factory in the industrial area in Adra in Rif Dimashq province, importing modern industrial machines from Switzerland, and we began distributing goods all over Syria.”
The Damascus Chamber of Industry, which was established to serve the Damascus and Rif Dimashq areas, offered many services to local industrial businesses, from allocating lands and electricity services to establishing roads, and people were able to pay for these services in installments. The area’s location outside the city meant it was easy to distribute goods both outside the area and to the inner city.
“The location of the industrial area made it easier for trucks to transport goods to other cities, and to the Latakiya port to be able to export products to other countries,” says Ahmad. “Previously, it was harder for the transport vans to operate out of congested areas, having to navigate both incoming and outgoing traffic as they distributed goods.”