The Jews of Tourist City
In January of 2007, war between the Yemeni government and the Houthi rebels reached the Jewish community of al-Salem, in the province of Saadah. The rebels, who adhere to the Zaidi sect of Shia Islam, posted notices on the Jews’ homes threatening them with death if they did not leave the country, or convert to Islam. The government stepped in, and relocated the entire community, now numbering 67 individuals, to Sana’a. They were given homes in a protected compound across from the American embassy, known as Tourist City. The government provides them with monthly stipends and food supplies. Those stipends are designed to provide them with just enough to survive, but not enough to save anything, which could allow them to leave. Their situation is one of stagnation.
The leader and rabbi of the community is Yahya bin Yusuf Marhabi, and he was our first main contact, and became our close friend over the three months we spent in the community. He is the lynchpin of Jewish life here: he is the only one who knows the halacha of Kosher slaughter, circumcision, and many other basic services needed for a Jewish community to survive.
The majority of the community is from the Marhabi clan, but there are families from the Zindani and Habib clans as well. All have family in Israel, many have family in New York. I have a family tree, drawn for me by the rabbi’s brother Dawud, but I’m not posting it online, as it could be used for the wrong purposes. For those curious about the genealogy of the community, contact me and we can discuss it.
Despite being provided homes and food, the Jews here don’t work, as they cannot afford start up costs for the trades they know. Many of them are silversmiths, some are carpenters and mechanics. All of those trades require workshops and expensive equipment. This lack of employment breeds boredom, and thus contemplation of better options in Israel or America. They do very little day to day, except chew qat.
There are roughly 250 Jews left in Yemen, however only 67 of them live in the capital. The remainder of the community lives in a village called Raida, 50 km north of Sana’a. Due to the ongoing rebel insurgency in the north of the country, Raida and its surroundings are currently closed to foreign visitors. This community is the last remnants of a diaspora of more than 2000 years, the longest in Jewish history. They are also the last native speakers of Judeo-Arabic in an indigenous context, ie outside of Israel.
Getting access to the Jews was more difficult than you would think. The government controls access very carefully. We did not go through official channels to meet with them, and one day we were sitting in Yahya’s living room and the door busted in and two military police officers demanded to know who we were and what we were doing there. We were hauled out to their office and interrogated for three hours. We were told that in order to see the Jews we must have a tasrih (permission) from the Ministry of the Interior. They took down our names and passport numbers, then came to our house (!) and took down our roommates names and passport numbers. They took down the name and number of our landlord, and my roommates’ bosses numbers as well. No fooling around. The following day I went to the Ministry of the Interior.
Now, you must understand something about Yemeni bureaucracy. It is the explicit goal of every person you talk to to either a) get money from you if they don’t have a desk or office, or b) pass you off to someone else if they do have a desk and office. Their pass-the-buck skills are legendary. Our interrogators told us specifically, and multiple times, go to the Ministry of the Interior. At the Ministry of the Interior, when I explained to the official there exactly I wanted from him (“Josh and Rachael can visit the Jews” signed and on official letterhead. Not hard.) he started to give me a long explanation about why he can’t give that particular tasrih, because Tourist City falls under the jurisdiction of the Military Police, not the MoI. Nevertheless, I had him write his name, title, phone number, and his boss’ name and phone number on official stationary, which I took back to the interrogators at Tourist City. They called him, and his boss, and permission was granted, alhamdulilah. After that, they were very nice to us.
All photographs by Rachael Strecher