Blood Libel: The Damascus Affair of 1840

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9781590512395: Blood Libel: The Damascus Affair of 1840

"This is great material, and Florence...handles it with dramatic flair....An excellent work of popular history."—Publishers Weekly

Damascus, February 1840. A Capuchin monk and his servant disappear without a trace. By the end of the day, rumors point to the Jewish community, a tiny minority in the city's rich but delicate balance of religions and ethnicities. Within weeks, the rumors turn to accusations of ritual murder, the infamous "blood libel." Fiendish tortures in the pasha's dungeons, coerced confessions, manufactured evidence, and the fury of the crowds are enough to convict the accused Jews. By the time the rest of the world learns of the events in Damascus, the entire leadership of the Jewish community is awaiting execution.

Narrating with a novelist's skill, Ronald Florence recounts the unexpected twists of the story and the strange alliances forged by mutual fears and misperceptions as the Damascus affair became a worldwide cause—the Moslem majority were not the accusers of the Jews; the French consul, representative of the nation that had first recognized Jews as citizens, was the chief prosecutor; the Sultan defended the accused Jews; the liberal London Times considered whether the accusations might be true. The legacies of the growing rift among the minorities, the dominant Arab society, and the outside world are the divisions in the Middle East today and the myths that continue to feed and sustain anti-Semitism.

Blood Libel is a gripping historical narrative that explores the fragile social fabric of a society as it stretches and ultimately rips into shreds of hatred and fear.

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About the Author:

Ronald Florence is a historian and novelist, the author of The Gypsy Man and The Perfect Machine. This is his eighth book. He lives in Providence, Rhode Island.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Everyone in Damascus knew Father Thomas. The monk had lived at the Capuchin monastery for thirty-two years, long enough for his distinctive black habit with the white cordon, trim white beard, tonsure, and bag of medical instruments to be familiar in every quarter of the city. He had been trained as a pharmacist, and generations of Christians, Muslims, and Jews—some said as many as twelve to fifteen thousand children and adults—had felt the needle of his smallpox vaccinations. The father did not charge his patients, supporting himself on donations, and he had always been quick to post notices and run auctions to support those in need. Many thought him a saint.

The father was originally from Sardinia. Merchants in the suqs and friends in the Christian quarter called him Padre Tomasso, or sometimes il cappuccino. He was a small man, healthy but advancing in age; some found him quick-tempered and overly authoritative. But that was understandable in a man who lived alone in the monastery with only his servant, Ibrahim Amara, for company. When the two of them set off on one of the father’s missions to the outlying villages, they looked like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.

At noon on Thursday, February 6, the father had been expected for dinner with a group of European prelates at the Christian quarter home of Dr. Massari, the personal physician to the pasha. Father Thomas was a punctual man, no doubt an inheritance of his offices, and when he did not appear at Dr. Massari's even after the dinner hour passed, the other guests were concerned enough to send out a search party.

One could never be too cautious in Damascus. The city was fraught with dangers, especially for the non-Muslim minorities. Relentless epidemics of bubonic plague, cholera, smallpox, and impetigo tookperiodic tolls, and visitors found the streets and suqs a parade of the maimed, the blind, and the crippled—their missing limbs, ulcerated skin lesions, and suppurating sores the scars of what had not been or could not be treated. The fear of contagion was so great that visitors were quarantined for weeks in tiny lazarettes, and every letter was dipped in vinegar and water or punched and smoked. Visitors intrepid enough to undergo the arduous quarantine faced the perils of bandits on the roads, the indignities of the infamous Ottoman bureaucracy, and the seemingly whimsical regulations of the courts and pashas. Even long-term residents lived in constant fear: the Christian and Jewish minorities were restricted to residence in their own quarters, where ancient walls, night watchmen, and locked gates were supposed to provide islands of security amidst the overwhelming sea of the Muslim majority.

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