Tuesday, October 21, 2008

North Yemen President 'was a trainee rabbi'

Revealed in Haaretz: the amazing story of the Jewish orphan who was forcibly abducted away from his family in 1918, converted to Islam, but rose to be the president of North Yemen. (According to the historian SD Goitein, the forcible conversion of Jewish orphans to Islam was the single biggest factor behind the Jewish exodus from Yemen):

"In advance of the period of the Jewish holidays, Dorit Mizrahi, a journalist at the ultra-Orthodox weekly Mishpaha, was asked to come up with a creative idea for an article. She decided that the time had come to write about her relative, Zekharia Hadad, the brother of Grandma Levana ("Kamar," in Yemenite), who was kidnapped as a young boy, forced to convert to Islam, and given the name Abdul Rahman Yahya al-Iryani before being appointed the president of the Yemen Arab Republic (North Yemen), in 1967.

"As a child, I remember the moment when I found out that my grandmother's brother had become the president of Yemen," says Mizrahi, a resident of Jerusalem. "The first trickle of information actually came from the United States when a letter, with photos enclosed, sent by a relative, posed the question: Doesn't he look like Grandma Levana? When my uncle brought the photos to his mother, my grandmother, she looked at them and said: 'That's him.' She said nothing further." (..)

One family member, Oved Taasa, told ( Dorit) Mizrahi that, "as soon as the news of the parents' death was known, before the Jewish community managed to hide them or marry them off, Zekharia and his sister were taken away by official representatives, who appeared on horseback. The family tried to object, offered them jewelry and money, pleaded and wept, but nothing helped. Their [older] sister, Kamar, who remained alone, fell ill from sorrow. From that time it was rare to see her laughing."

Young Zekharia was sent to the Iryani home, a well-connected family whose sons held public office and originated in the city of Irian, a two-day ride on horseback from Ibb. Zekharia's adoptive father was a qadi, a sharia judge, who had great power in the tribal society of Yemen of those days and armed soldiers serving under him. The judge gave his adopted son his name and raised him together with his biological children. During the first years, says Mizrahi, based on testimony of family members, Zekharia-Yahya still managed to keep in touch with his family, although he was threatened that if he ran away, his natural sister and her children would be murdered. "They said that he came on visits to Ibb wearing Arab garb, at risk to his life," she explains.

The last contact with him, about which there was even written documentation, was during World War II. Nissim Gamliel (Levana's son) enlisted in the British army in Palestine in 1942 and was taken captive by the Germans. From his captivity, and out of despair, he wrote several letters to his uncle Zekharia-Yahya in Yemen, whose address he remembered. His uncle, already a Muslim and an important public figure, replied in two letters and even sent food packages to his nephew. Gamliel saved the letters in his personal diary, which he wrote in secret in Rashi script, in Hebrew, in the prison camp. In 1945, at the end of the war, he was released from captivity and returned to Palestine, but over the years some of the pages of his yellowing diary were damaged and together with it the letters disappeared as well.

In 1948 Qadi al-Iryani participated in an unsuccessful coup against the imam. In its wake the rebel leaders were executed, including the qadi and his sons. Although he was not among the conspirators, Zekharia-Abdul Rahman Yahya decided to flee, out of fear that he would share the fate of the other members of the Iryani family. He found refuge in the Jewish neighborhood of Ibb, the city of his birth, but after a while he was caught and imprisoned for seven years. It was in the notorious Haja Prison that his political awareness became stronger and he became a sworn opponent of the imam and the royal family.

In September 1962 Imam Ahmed died, and was replaced by his son Mohammed al-Badr. The commander of the Yemenite army, Abdullah Sallal, and officers in the army, who drew inspiration from the ideas of the Egyptian Free Officers, exploited the situation. They deposed the new imam and declared the establishment of the Yemen Arab Republic in north Yemen. This led to a civil war, between the royalists, who supported the imam, and the new government - a war that had roots in history as well as in the country's tribal rivalries.

Additional countries were swept up in the maelstrom of the war: Egypt under president Gamal Abdel Nasser supported the republicans and sent a military force that at one stage numbered about 30,000 soldiers. Neighboring Saudi Arabia, backed by Great Britain, supported the royalists. The battles, during which the Egyptians used chemical weapons (mustard gas), continued until 1967.

The republican camp was divided between supporters of president Sallal, who adopted liberal views, and that of Abdul Rahman Yahya al-Iryani, who was opposed to the connection with Egypt and to the presence of the Egyptian army, and believed in reconciliation with the royalists. The new rebels deposed Sallal and in November 1967, Iryani was elected the second present of the Yemen Arab Republic.

During his term, the civil war came to an end. The Egyptian army left Yemen and the new president tried to mend the rifts and heal the scars of war. His term lasted for six and a half years, during which he participated in Arab summit conferences (in photographs, he is seen beside his colleagues among the Arab leaders). In June 1974, another military coup took place in Yemen. Iryani was deposed and found refuge in Syria, where he died in 1998 at the age of 88. His body was flown to Yemen, where he was buried.

Dorit Mizrahi, whose impressions were published in Mishpaha about a week ago, remembers the moment when one of her relatives brought home an issue of the weekly tabloid Haolam Hazeh in 1967. In an article by Nurit Gertz, entitled "Zekharia the Jew, President of Yemen," several of her relatives were interviewed, she recalls: "The publication naturally aroused excitement, but the family wanted to maintain a low profile. The fear was that the discovery of his Jewish origins was liable to endanger his life."

Read article in full

Update 1: No 49 in the comments thread claims to be a member of the Iryani family. While he disavows the story of his relative being a convert from Judaism as a myth, this commenter says that his family did have Jewish origins in Spain.

Update 2: Yemen Online has now published its own version of this story which it turns into proof of Muslim-Jewish coexistence and harmony (by contrast with the oppression and humiliation awaiting the Yemenite Jews in Israel after 1950). It does not deny Abdul Raheem al-Iryani 's Jewish origins, but says we are talking of two different people here. Abdul Raheem was never president, but a guard, aide and companion to his childhood friend Abdul Rahman Yahya al-Iryani, who himself became president. (The latter is not to be confused with Abdul Karim al-Iryani, Yemen prime minister, who some say was also a Jew).

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