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The story of the Arab Bank in Syria: From Jerusalem to Damascus and Aleppo

The story of the Arab Bank in Syria: From Jerusalem to Damascus and Aleppo

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Culture History

Wednesday 10 January 202403:03 pm
إقرأ باللغة العربية:

اتُّهم بالتورط في اغتيال عبد الناصر وموّل الحركات الوطنية… قصة البنك العربي في سوريا

At the start of Syrian unity, in the late 1950s, Abdel Hamid al-Sarraj, the director of the second office before becoming Minister of Interior, announced Saudi efforts to assassinate Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser in Damascus. Al-Sarraj claimed that Saudi Arabia contacted him for this mission, which he pretended to cooperate with to expose it. He presented Abdel Nasser with checks for the amounts allocated for this mission, issued by the Arab Bank, which were then published in Syrian newspapers.

Abdullah al-Khani, the Secretary-General of the Syrian Presidency at that time, who lived until 2020, confirmed to the author that the conspiracy was “a product of al-Sarraj's imagination and held no truth whatsoever.” However, it was used by Egyptians as a pretext to tarnish the reputation of King Saud bin Abdulaziz and to strike the Arab Bank in Syria, which was affected by the nationalization decision issued by the unity state in 1961.

The bank's long history of financing national movements in Syria and the Arab world, as well as its strong stance against Zionism – as evidenced by the books The self-made biography by Abdul Hameed Shoman, the bank's founder, and Abdul Nasser and Nationalization written by myself and published in Beirut in 2019 – did not protect the bank.

The Arab Bank opened in Syria in 1943, its founder hailed from the town of Beit Hanina near Jerusalem. The first branch of the Arab Bank opened in Jerusalem in July 1930, before expanding to Jaffa, Haifa, Nablus, and Ramallah, and later Beirut and Damascus.

The Arab Bank entered Syria in 1943. Its founder hailed from the town of Beit Hanina near Jerusalem. In 1911, along with other Arab youth, he immigrated to the United States, before returning to Palestine nearly twenty years later with the encouragement of the Syrian leader Abd al-Rahman al-Shahbandar, who met him during one of his visits to New York City, and convinced him to return home.

The first branch of the Arab Bank opened in Jerusalem in July 1930, before expanding to Jaffa (Yafa), Haifa, Nablus, and Ramallah, and later Beirut and Damascus. In the early stages, Shoman, its founder, collaborated with Hassan al-Hakim, a Damascene politician who became the Prime Minister of Syria in 1941, who he appointed director of the Jerusalem branch of Arab Bank.

The first Syrian branch of Arab Bank was opened in Hariqah Square in Damascus, and the young and prominent Malik al-Azma was appointed director. Al-Azma was only 34 years old at the time, and had worked at the Bank of Egypt, becoming assistant manager before moving to the Arab Bank. He later became the chairman of the board of directors of the Bank of Syria and Lebanon.

After Damascus, Shoman headed to Aleppo where he worked on opening a branch in the capital of northern Syria. He personally supervised the subscription, toured the Citadel of Aleppo, and wandered the old markets to meet the depositors. In one of the alleys adjacent to the bank, he saw an Aleppo merchant with his red tarboush (fez hat) and curved cane, closing his iron safe inside his shop. Shoman approached him and introduced himself, “Good morning, I am Abdul Hamid Shoman.”

- “Hello, welcome.”

- “Have you heard about me?”

- “You are the owner of the Arab Bank, right?”

- “No, I am the chairman of its board of directors. The Arab Bank is a limited joint stock company, and we have no more than 400 shares. Have you heard about the opening of the Arab Bank in Aleppo?”

- "Yes."

- “Have you opened an account there?”

The merchant then answered cautiously, “We don't deal with banks!”

- “You only deal with this iron safe?”

The merchant replied, “Yes.”

Shoman responded with a smile, “This is most backward. Banks provide you with all services. They safeguard your money from loss or theft, give you profit on it, and invest this money in economic purposes. And when you need money to expand your trade, you can take it from banks.”

- “I know what banks offer, and I prefer to keep my money under my control.”

- “At the Arab Bank, your money is under your control. We are the only institution that paid depositors all their deposits upon request during the crisis at the beginning of the war. We are an Arab national institution whose goal is to serve the Arab economy. The money in this iron safe does not serve the Arab economy. It is frozen money.”

Shoman continued his speech, saying, “By God, this safe is an enemy to you and your children. What if a thief comes and carries it off?”

- “How would that happen?”

- “Didn't one porter bring it here? So, one thief can carry it to a safe place, open it, and take what's inside. Then, will you be happy?”

- “But this country is safe.”

- “You are like the merchants in the days of Turkey, hiding money under the bed, inside the sofa, and among bags of rice. My friend, the world has evolved. Banks were created to make it easier for people to expand and develop. In this safe, there is one hundred thousand, and when you have ten times that, where will you hide the money? Open this safe, open it.”

Shoman spoke with great confidence and belief in his project, and his eyes shone with enthusiasm. He approached the safe and insisted that its owner open it, and so he did. Shoman poked his head inside the safe and yelled out, playfully, “Oh my! If a mouse entered this safe, it would eat all these bills.”

Then he requested a bag of paper, which the merchant reluctantly handed to him. Shoman began packing the bills, jokingly exclaiming, “MashaAllah, MashaAllah!” Then he pulled out a cloth bag, and as it slipped from his hand to the ground, gold pounds fell out and scattered everywhere. “And you hoard gold too? Oh no, ‘La Hawla Wala Quwwata Illa Billah’. Uncle, this all belongs in the Arab Bank!”

After collecting the money, he looked at the merchant and addressed him with a command and plea, “Close the safe and follow me!” The merchant followed him, telling his neighbors to keep an eye on the shop's open door. The two men, along with Shoman's son and his driver, arrived at the new bank and handed the money and bonds to the cash manager. Shoman personally oversaw the opening of the account and securing the merchant with a checkbook, instructing the bank manager who came out to greet him, “Take care of the best client of the Arab Bank in Aleppo!”

“At the Arab Bank, your money is under your control. We are the only institution that paid depositors all their deposits upon request during the crisis at the beginning of the war. We are an Arab national institution whose goal is to serve the Arab economy”

Abdul Hamid Shoman and Jewish shareholders

Shoman personally oversaw the subscription of shares in Aleppo, which was well received and gained popularity among the people, and so the deposits of the new branch reached two million Syrian pounds upon its establishment. When reviewing the names of shareholders, Shoman noticed that a large number of them were Jews from Aleppo, but he refused to deal with them and ordered that their money be returned to them immediately. The Head of the Aleppo Chamber of Industry and Commerce, Mohammed Said Al-Zaim, came to him, surprised by this behavior, and inquired, “I heard that you returned the money of some subscribers?”

- “From whom did you hear that?”

- “From an employee at a Homs bank.”

- “Did he tell you they were Jewish?”

- “He mentioned that to me, but…”

- “Yes, I returned their money to them. I want it to be an Arab bank, and I don't want them to contribute to it.”

- “Jews are important in this country. They are owners of substantial wealth and have a lot of experience in business.”

Shoman raised his hand in rejection, and insisted by saying, “No. I don't want them to contribute to the Arab Bank.”

- “But they are contributors and shareholders in almost every company in Aleppo.”

- “Let there be one company in Aleppo that they are not part of.”

The next day, a delegation of Aleppo merchants came to mediate with Shoman, pointing out that the Jewish investors are Arabs who speak Arabic and live among Arabs, and that they are “all nationalists who resisted colonization with the national movement.”

- “And the Palestinian cause, what is their role in it?”

Everyone was surprised by this question, and one of those present answered, “Most Jews in Aleppo do not interfere or involve themselves in politics.”

- “I want to understand, are they nationalists who resisted colonization, supported the national movement, and worked in politics, or do they not involve themselves in politics? Please, agree on one opinion.”

Then he looked at everyone angrily and added, “Oh brothers, do you know about Palestine and what global Zionism intends to do with it?”

- “Do you think we are ignorant of that?”

- “The issue that you came for is a clear indication that you are indeed ignorant of the Zionist ambitions in Palestine. For God's sake, stop this talk. I would never agree, even if they pay a hundred thousand pounds per share.”

When Arab Bank founder Shoman received the Syrian passport, he said he had “caught a precious pearl.” He told his wife while contemplating the document, “They're all formalities. I have been an Arab since birth, and I will remain an Arab till the day I die”

Abdul Hamid Shoman not only rejected Jewish money from Europe and America, but also from within Syria itself, fearing it would have connections to the Zionist movement, which was not in line with any laws or customs.

A Syrian passport

Shoman fell into severe depression after the occupation of Palestine and the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. At that time, the passports of Arab Palestinians were canceled, and they were distributed among neighboring countries. They were waiting to return to their homes, which was supposed to be imminent, according to most Arab radio stations. Shoman met with Syrian President Shukri al-Quwatli at the headquarters of the Arab League in Cairo, and they talked about Palestinian refugees and their poor psychological and living conditions in refugee camps. When asked about his personal situation, Shoman replied, “Maybe I will acquire the Egyptian travel document for Palestinians.”

President Quwatli met him with sympathy and affection, then commented, “Why? I suggest you accept a Syrian passport.” Shoman was touched by this generous gesture from the Syrian president and replied, “I was an Ottoman at first in America, then after World War I, we found our true identity, so I used to say about myself that I am Syrian. Damn Sykes-Picot; they divided the Arabs in two. The day Lebanon was separated from Syria, I went mad, and I used to avoid meeting any Arab there for fear that he would say to me, 'I am Lebanese,' and that I'd hit him! Then we started hearing 'This is a Syrian, that one is Lebanese, that one is Jordanian, and that one is Palestinian'. Curse them all. Thank you very much, Mr. President, I was Syrian, and here I am now back as a Syrian.”

When he received the Syrian passport, he described himself as having “caught a precious pearl” and said to his wife while contemplating the document, “They are all formalities and appearances. I have been an Arab since birth, and I will remain an Arab till the day I die.”

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