Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Fourteen Jewish families stay put in Yemen capital

Yemeni Jewish boy in an apartment in Sa'naa

While scores of Jews head for America and Israel, some 70 Jews have decided to stay put in the Yemeni capital San'aa, AFP reports.

SANAA — Forced to flee fighting between Shiite rebels and the army in the north, Yemen's Jews have found a new home in Sanaa, where they benefit from the special protection of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

"May God keep him alive," repeats Rabbi Yahya Yussef Moussa, the leader of the Jewish community of Al-Salem, every time he refers to the Yemeni president during an interview with AFP.

Al-Salem is close to Saada in northern Yemen, which is the stronghold of the Shiite Zaidi rebels, who are also known as Huthis.

Fighting between the Huthis and the army since 2004 has seen the exodus from the area of an estimated 150,000 people, including the entire Jewish community of Al-Salem.

"He is the president of all Yemenis," Rabbi Moussa says surrounded by his family, housed inside a tourist resort in Sanaa, where the 45 Jews who fled their villages in the north in 2007 have been relocated.

"We are 70 today because there were marriages and births," says Habbub Salem, the rabbi's cousin, garbed in the local dress and chewing on Qat, a euphoric drug used by the majority of Yemenis.

"We were only nine families when we arrived and now we are 14," Rabbi Moussa says.

His father, Rabbi Yussef Moussa, finds it difficult to speak since he had a heart attack. His mother Nemaa, wearing a black veil over a long coloured dress, nods her head approvingly while following the conversation.

The many children of the rabbi and his cousin, who return from school, lighten up the large living room, which is also a place of prayer.

The girls cover their heads with a white veil, which is part of their school uniform.

If it weren't for their curls and their kippas, nothing would distinguish them from their compatriots of other religious persuasions. The males in the community tend to take up the trades of cabinetmakers or blacksmiths.

"We lived quietly among the 4,000 or so Muslims," remembers Rabbi Moussa.

"But things got bad in April 2007 when we received a written threat from the rebels telling us to leave.

"Three days later, armed men came at night and asked us to leave our homes with only what we were wearing. We returned to Saada and they then destroyed our houses and our library which contained valuable Torahs," he explains.

The main slogan of the rebels is: "Death to America, death to Israel and shame on the Jews."

After being received by the provincial authorities, the Jews of Al-Salem were airlifted in helicopters to Sanaa, recalls Habbub Salem, who had never before set foot in the capital.

Since then, they have been living in tightly guarded accommodation provided by the government.

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