Tuesday, May 09, 2006

In search of the last Jews of Yemen

The Jews of Sook Al-jadid, a village in North Yemen, are not allowed to carry jamlis, or curved daggers. But sharia law, while forbidding Jews to be armed with daggers, does not apply to guns - so the Jews, who wear sidelocks under their yellow keffiyahs, bristle with Kalashnikovs, pistols and AK-47s, along with the rest of the male Muslim population.

...Just one of the many paradoxes that Shaul Zadka, an Israeli journalist and academic, found on his visit to this remote desert country at the tip of the Arabian peninsula.

On 7 May at a joint event organised in central London by HARIF and Spiro Ark, Dr Zadka held his 100-strong audience spellbound with tales of his experiences in a community where fewer than 300 Jews still live.

There are 13 million guns in the hands of a population of 19 million in North Yemen. In this lawless society, the odds are that 10 percent of tourists will be kidnapped. They are therefore encouraged to hire their own personal soldiers at $7 a day. Yet the gun culture coexists with the languor induced in the general population by the chewing of khat, a local plant whose leaves have narcotic properties.

Before the Magic Carpet airlift to Israel of 1949 - 50, 55,000 Jews lived in Yemen. No Jews live in picturesque Saa'na in southern Yemen anymore, and all the Jews of Aden, the bustling port once administered by the British, have fled. The remaining Jews - fixers and wheeler-dealers - are concentrated in the north, not far from the Saudi border. Save for three shops, the artisans and jewellers for which Yemenite Jewry is famous, have all departed.

The Jewish Agency still maintains an absorption centre in Rehovot for the Yemenites who still trickle into Israel, but the anti-Zionist Satmar sect has lured several families to New York and Stamford Hill, sometimes requesting that the new arrivals' passports be confiscated. Some Jews come and go between Israel and Yemen and, having become adept at playing the system, receive handouts from both the Jewish agency and religious groups.

Dr Zadka spent three days over Passover with the Dahari family. The family slept on the floor in a three-storey house without electricity or running water, sheep and goats inhabiting the ground floor and chickens scurrying around on the roof. Dr Zadka's hosts baked their own matza shemura and would not touch any of the chewing gum and other treats he had brought the children from Israel, rejecting them as not kosher enough. At 4am Dr Zadka was expected to rise with the menfolk to make the trek to the local synagogue in the dark for morning prayers. Why 4 am ? Perhaps it was some Biblical injunction, or perhaps at some time in the past the Jews did not want to attract the attention of hostile neighbours.

Under sharia law the Jews are allowed to practise their religion, but as dhimmis could not ride a horse, had to pay a poll tax and could not bear witness against a Muslim in court. It was still a matter of debate whether a Jewish convert to Islam who had recently murdered a Jew could be charged.

These Jews are self-sufficient in all their religious needs. They have their synagogues and their rabbis. They visit their holy places, such as the cave where the famous poet Rabbi Shalom Shabazi is buried, a spot also revered by Muslims. They speak Hebrew among themselves - a Hebrew of Biblical purity not even spoken in Israel. Learning by rote with the rabbi, by the age of three the boys can recite the Torah, Mishna and Siddur (the girls are not educated). Unlike Israelis, who do their swearing in Arabic, Yemenite Jews swear in Hebrew.

In spite of their outward confidence and tranquility, the khat-chewing Jews are taking a big risk living in a heavily Islamised country, where they can be accused of spying for Israel and the West. And yet ordinary Muslims regularly listen to Israeli singers like Ofra Haza on their radios.

Another Yemeni paradox.


Anonymous said...

I found out about a really great website on the Iranian Jewish community tonight. I think you may enjoy it. One of the articles on this website is about Vidal Sassoon. I thought it to be extremely interesting. Check it out when you can. Here's the link to the website I'm talking about:


Anonymous said...

There's also a terrific article in there about Bahar Soomekh, a rising star from the L.A. Iranian Jewish community. She seems like a very nice person

Anonymous said...

I lived in Yemen for a year. The claim made in this article that "In this lawless society, the odds are that 10 percent of tourists will be kidnapped. They are therefore encouraged to hire their own personal soldiers at $7 a day." is utter nonsense.

bataween said...

I believe Dr Zadka visited Yemen some years ago. The situation might well have improved for tourists since.