Winner 2015 New Mexico/Arizona Book Awards
Farewell, Aleppo: My Father, My People, and Their Long Journey Home
About the Book
The Jews of Aleppo, Syria, had been part of the city’s fabric for more than two thousand years, in good times and bad, through conquerors and kings. But in the middle years of the twentieth century, all that changed.
To Selim Sutton, a merchant with centuries of roots in the Syrian soil, the dangers of rising anti-Semitism made clear that his family must find a new home. With several young children and no prospect of securing visas to the United States, he devised a savvy plan for getting his family out: “exporting” his sons. In December 1940, he told the two oldest, Meïr and Saleh, that arrangements had been made for their transit to Shanghai, where they would work in an uncle’s export business. China, he hoped, would provide a short-term safe harbor and a steppingstone to America.
But the world intervened for the young men, now renamed Mike and Sal by their Uncle Joe. Sal became ill with tuberculosis soon after arriving and was sent back to Aleppo alone. And the war that soon would engulf every inhabited land loomed closer each day. Joe, Syrian-born but a naturalized American citizen, barely escaped on the last ship to sail for the U.S. before Pearl Harbor was bombed and the Japanese seized Shanghai. Mike was alone, a teen-ager in an occupied city, across the world from his family, with only his mettle to rely on as he strived to survive personally and economically in the face of increasing deprivation.
Farewell, Aleppo is the story—told by Mike's daughter—of the journey that would ultimately take him from the insular Jewish community of Aleppo to the solitary task of building a new life in America. It is both her father’s tale that journalist Claudette Sutton describes and also the harrowing experiences of the family members he left behind in Syria, forced to smuggle themselves out of the country after it closed its borders to Jewish emigration.
The picture Sutton paints is both a poignant narrative of individual lives and the broader canvas of a people’s survival over millennia, in their native land and far away, through the strength of their faith and their communities. Multiple threads come richly together as she observes their world from inside and outside the fold, shares an important and nearly forgotten epoch of Jewish history, and explores universal questions of identity, family, and culture.
From Chapter 1
Shortly after I moved to New York to go to college, I went home for Thanksgiving with my family. I sprawled on my parents’ bed that morning, doing the New York Times crossword puzzle as the Macy’s parade played on TV, grateful to see my overwhelming new city reduced to the dimensions of a television screen. Dad read the newspaper in the armchair beside the bed, while Mom was in her bathroom getting dressed. I almost gave up on that Thursday’s difficult puzzle when Dad, another crossword buff, asked if I needed help.
“Thanks,” I said, adding—rhetorically, of course—“but who would know the Turkish word for ‘morning’?”
“Sabah,” he said. I wrote the letters in the squares.
In some foggy corner of my brain, I remembered hearing that Dad had lived in Turkey as a child, although I could not have said at what age or in what circumstances. For whatever reason—perhaps modesty, perhaps the habit of silence that grows in people who spend many years away from those with whom they shared early experiences—my father had never talked much about growing up in Syria, or living in Turkey, or spending the war years in China before coming to America. What I knew about his life I had gleaned in disconnected bits, and I assumed I knew more or less how they fit together. Then one Thanksgiving morning, he tossed me the Turkish word for morning, and I wondered: How much more don’t I know about this man, my father?
On my next visit to my parents’ house in Maryland, I sat down with my father in his basement office, the former guest bedroom where my siblings and I had had sleepovers and parties as kids. I came with a mini-recorder and a list of questions. Dad, in his early 70s then, sat behind his big desk, surrounded by photos of his children and grandchildren. On the wall behind him hung pictures of his brothers and himself at family weddings and bar mitzvahs—smartly dressed men with high, broad foreheads and wide, confident smiles.
I remember Dad’s first, tentative words as I hit the start button: “This is the life story of me—Mike Sutton!”
From Chapter 6
The Zionist Movement coincided with increasing Arab resentment that European promises of independence had been false, which they abruptly realized when France and England parceled the Middle East into their own “colonial protectorates.” As Arabs began to see that a Jewish homeland in Palestine might be more than a pipe dream, their resistance grew. Anger over the rising plausibility of a Jewish state in an Arab realm led to ongoing riots in Palestine in the 1920s and 1930s, and heightened anti-Semitism in neighboring countries.
Then in 1939, Germany invaded Poland, launching the beginning of World War II. My father was on vacation at the time with several friends in the mountains of Lebanon. Everyone rushed home, as he recalled, “piling into train cars like cattle.” Knowing some of what the Nazis had been doing to Jews in Germany, they could imagine the terrible changes that might come. Though they were a thousand miles from the war zone in Europe, that distance might not mean much in territories under European control. It was a time of tremendous uncertainty and displacement worldwide.
My grandfather had sensed the growing need to get the family out of Syria for some time. Anti-Semitism in their daily lives had not become much more overt, at least “not so obvious or so witnessed,” my father said. “It’s just that you sort of knew it was coming because the Arabs were beginning to ask for independence, to have the French leave Syria. And you knew once they did—well, we did not know as children, but the grown-ups knew that eventually, if they took control of the country, it would be a different country completely.”
Late in 1940, midway through the school year, my grandfather came to his two oldest sons, both teenagers, with a few words that would change the lives of my father and his brother, Saleh: “You are going to China to your Uncle Joe. You will go work with him.”
The decision was announced, not opened for discussion. Their father had arranged for the boys to work for his brother Joe’s Shanghai business exporting handmade Chinese linens to the United States.
From Chapter 6
My father prepared to leave with a sense not of sadness or foreboding, nor of foreshadowing that this would be the last time he would see Aleppo, but of anticipation. “For young men, it was like an adventure. It’s exciting when you’re a teen-ager and you’re going overseas, especially to someone who is related.” After all, they had watched many other young men go abroad, returning a few years later “with piles of money and stories to tell.” Friends and family joined to see them off as they walked the few blocks from their house to the railroad station.
Selim Sutton and his sons set off together from Aleppo to Jerusalem, in what was then British-controlled Palestine. They spent a few days visiting family there before connecting with a train to Egypt.
Then, somewhere between Jerusalem and Egypt, the conductor passed through the train car checking tickets and identification papers.
“You do not have the proper papers to go to Egypt,” he declared.
“What do you mean,” my grandfather replied. “It’s all there.”
“ ‘No,’ ” my father recalled the conductor saying. “ ‘You’re lacking this or that ….’ It was at that point that we felt anti-Semitism asserting itself.” The conductor had noted in their papers that they were Jewish, and without further explanation pulled the brake cord and stopped the train in the middle of the desert, ordering my grandfather and his sons to get off. They picked up their luggage and disembarked between stations in a tiny village near the Egyptian border.
My grandfather inquired and found a driver to help them cross into Egypt and get to Port Said. But before long, a sandstorm kicked up, and the road disappeared under the blowing sand. The driver would go a short way and the car would get stuck in the sand. He would back up, try again, and get stuck again.
“Finally,” Dad said, “we figured we would have to spend the night there. We were the only Jews in the whole village, I’m sure; there were no Jews at that time in that part of the world. But somehow—I don’t know how—my father found somebody who could put us up for the night. They were really nice. We slept on mattresses on the floor, and the next morning, we got another cab. By that time, the road had been cleared, the sun was shining, and we got in the car and went to Egypt with no hassle, nothing—just crossed over.”
Arriving in Port Said, they discovered that their ship to Shanghai would not sail for another two weeks. Since my grandfather could not stay away from his business that long, he left his sons in a room at a small Port Said hotel, and returned to Syria. For Dad and Saleh, it was two weeks in which they never strayed far from their little room.
“You know,” my father said, “you take one step, and you never know that it’s going to be a final step. I didn’t know I wouldn’t see [my father] again. We figured after he saw us get to the United States, he would be able to come with the rest of the family. I don’t know if things would have been different had we known there was going to be a war between Japan and China, and that we would be in the middle of it.”
From Chapter 10
One Sunday night in early December, after an evening out with friends, my father returned to his room at the YMCA and was startled by an uproar from the harbor.
“Late that Sunday night,” he said, “maybe already early Monday morning, I heard a great commotion, the sound of bombing and shooting. I got up, put on my topcoat, and went up to the roof, together with several other people in the YMCA. We saw fire and smoke in the distance by the harbor.”
From the roof, they witnessed the very first moments that the war reached China.
Earlier that day—December 7, 1941—my father had heard on his shortwave radio that the Japanese had bombed the U.S. naval fleet in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, outside Honolulu. “The American and British soldiers had vacated Shanghai,” he said, “leaving only a small force to guard the embassies. In Shanghai harbor, there were two small warships, one British and one American. When the bombing of Pearl Harbor took place, the Japanese forces in Shanghai demanded that the British and Americans surrender these boats. The Americans surrendered right away, realizing there was no sense in fighting the [Japanese] army with just a handful of Marines. They were all taken prisoner. The British did not want to surrender, and the Japanese hit the ship and took it anyway.”
People up on the YMCA roof witnessed this bombing and gunfire in the harbor in the middle of the night. The next morning, they watched from office windows as the Japanese army marched across the bridge to the main commercial areas.
Shanghai was thus occupied by the Japanese from the first day of the war in the Pacific. The routines my father had established, working for the business while keeping in long-distance contact with his uncle in New York and family in Aleppo, came to an abrupt halt.
“As soon as the war broke out,” he said, “everything stopped completely. No more exporting. No ships were allowed to leave, because Japan and the United States were at war. Everyone had to fend for himself and make his own living.”
In less than a year, he had gone from living at home and attending school to living on his own across the world in a country at war. “But if anything matures you,” he said, “it’s being on your own to fend for yourself, with nobody to rely on for anything. That’s when your resources become the surviving factor.
“At the back of your mind, you know that it doesn’t help to feel one way or the other about it, because there’s no ship, there’s no train, there’s nothing that can take you back to your family.”
From Chapter 13
In Aleppo, my father’s family moved back into their home about six months after the riots, but life did not return to normal. Tension between Muslims and Jews was increasing, and my grandfather’s health had taken a turn for the worse. In late 1949 he went to a doctor—something one did only in extreme circumstances—because of increasingly severe headaches and diminishing vision. The doctor diagnosed the early stages of a brain tumor. Medical options were rudimentary in Aleppo, so the doctor suggested my grandfather go to Beirut for treatment not available in Syria.
This would have been easy just two years before. But after the establishment of Israel in May 1948, although trains and buses continued to pass from Syria to Lebanon, the Syrian government forbade Jews to leave the country except in rare circumstances. Jews might be granted temporary travel permits for medical emergencies—but only with payment of a substantial sum to be reimbursed when the travelers returned, and only if some family members stayed behind in Syria.
So the family had to choose who would accompany my grandparents and who would stay behind. Joe, fifteen years old, was chosen to escort his father and mother.
“When I went to Beirut,” Joe said, “I didn’t think ‘I’m not coming back.’ We were facing the events that were happening at the time. I felt that I was leaving to help Dad get better, and I would do what I needed to do for the business. It was not with the intention of not coming back. Life wasn’t life-threatening [in Syria]. Perhaps we would even return to Syria and continue the business, if we could.”
For the rest of the family, though, the prohibition against Jewish emigration from Syria posed no small obstacle. Jews who were caught trying to leave faced the death penalty or prison with hard labor. Thousands left through clandestine channels nonetheless, trafficked out individually or in small groups by hired smugglers to escape the escalating oppression.
“There were people who knew how to do it,” Joe explained, “because the restriction [against emigration] was only on Jews. They camouflaged you [as an Arab] and put you on a train or bus from Aleppo to Beirut, and you got away.”
For my grandfather in Beirut, there was no improvement after several months of treatment at the American University Hospital, and his doctor suggested that he go to Israel for better options.
There was just one problem: Lebanon did not recognize the new country of Israel and would not let anyone across the border. But as Joe explained, “The relationship between Israel and Lebanon was not openly good, but it was undercover good.” Word circulated among Jews that they could board a ship at night in Beirut and be received in the morning by officials at the Israeli coast. (Israeli officials would not have let Muslims enter this way, Joe explained, but Jews were welcomed to build up the new country.)
Ralph was the last to leave Aleppo, in 1952, after Joe, Margo, and their father had already gone to Israel. He recounted his passage across the border from Syria into Lebanon alone, camouflaged in Arab clothing. He had paid a train conductor to take him to Tripoli disguised as his son. If the border authorities asked questions, the conductor was ready to say, “This is my son; he gets good marks and wants to go to a better school in Lebanon, so I am taking him to Beirut.” He had urged Ralph to pretend to be asleep if this happened and let him answer all the questions, since Ralph’s accent would give him away as Jewish. Sure enough, when the ticket inspector came through at 2 a.m., Ralph heard the conductor say, “He’s my son. He’s asleep.” He closed his eyes as tightly as he could until he heard the conductor pass. In Tripoli he de-boarded the train and caught a bus to Beirut.
“God does things for a reason,” my late Aunt Sondra said, hearing her husband Ralph describe the journey. “Me, I’m scared at my own shadow. He traveled out of the country as a child.”
About the Author
It’s no coincidence that family is the central focus of both Farewell, Aleppo and the work that has been the driving force of its author’s professional life.
Grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins in the close-knit community of Syrian Jews all were part of Claudette Sutton’s childhood in suburban Maryland, along with her parents and siblings. Years later, as a young mother in Santa Fe, it seemed only natural to think of creating a similar kind of close support for families in her new hometown by means of her journalism training and experience.
Thus began what is now Tumbleweeds, an award-winning local publication that for almost twenty years has been expanding its role in serving the city’s families. As the quarterly newspaper has grown, so have its scope and community contributions, mixing news, commentary, personal writing, advice, and activity guides—all reflecting Claudette’s vision of a community resource to help her neighbors face the challenges of parenting.
That start as an editor and publisher arose out of a need she saw back in 1991, as her three-year-old son was entering preschool. Sutton’s response to that need was creation of The Tot’s Hot News, filled with events, articles, listings, and services aimed at parents like herself. And as both Ariel and the newsletter grew, it morphed into the broader Tumbleweeds publication, which has been aimed since then at families with children of all ages.
Claudette's eloquent writing, honored recently when the National Federation of Press Women chose her Tumbleweeds column as the country's best, is the other great strength she combines with the paper's wide-ranging utility. It has been a door to the world for her since she was a teen-ager and realized that being a reporter meant, "You can learn about everything"—a much more appealing option after high school than the enforced specialization of college.
After three years writing for the Montgomery County Sentinel in Maryland, the big city beckoned, and Claudette moved to New York, where she earned a bachelor’s degree from the New School for Social Research. Living in proximity to another side of her extensive family, she built a deeper understanding of the Jewish exodus from Syria that has formed the backdrop for the story she tells so movingly in Farewell, Aleppo.
The narrative chronicles her father’s youth, his odyssey across oceans and continents, and the new life he made in America. But as Claudette talked with him and researched more deeply, she saw also the essential elements of the larger tale. What began as one man’s story grew into a portrait of the history that made his journey necessary, and of how a vibrant people have preserved their community and culture through the thousands of years from biblical times to today.