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Yemen's Jews also chew

Yemen is trippy. Most of the population spends each afternoon chewing qat, strung out on the contradictory effects of the bitter green leaf that’s at once soporific and babble-inducing. The rest of the time they’re either thinking about qat, on their way to the market to buy qat, actually buying it or on their way back from the market to start chewing it.

The country’s much reduced and now tiny Jewish community is no exception. Even as refugees in the capital Sanaa the Jews from around the northern city of Saada make sure to have a supply of qat from their home region. They may have had to flee because of specific threats made by Islamic fundamentalist rebels but they shall have their qat!
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The Jews of Sadaa now live in a few apartment blocks inside the capital’s Tourism City complex, originally designed to house Soviet advisers, later home to American and other Western experts. It’s the only place in Sanaa that boasts a nightclub, Jewish refugees and Jordanian military trainers. The Jordanians live a floor below the Jewish rabbi and his family and regularly hop over to chew the qat.

The government was planning to relocate the remaining 400 or so Jews outside Sanaa, in the village of Raida, to the capital as well in the wake of violent incidents and threats. But ten families from Raida have now been flown to Israel in a miniscule replay of the 1949 airlift, operation magic carpet. Again, out of the frying pan, into the fire for the Jews of Yemen.

Yemen’s ancient Jewish community claims its lineage to the mythical times of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. At one point, about a century before the Islamisation of Yemen, a Jewish kingdom existed there. But as almost everywhere under Islam, Jews lived for centuries thereafter as second class citizens, enduring limitations, humiliations, expulsions from their homes, loss of their properties and occasional killings.

Most Jews left for the newly founded state of Israel in 1948, often leaving behind their homes and belongings or selling them for a trifle. But that has not stopped anti-Jewish agitation and actions, presumably partly fuelled by anti-Zionism since 1948. Late last year one man was killed in Raida, where most remaining Jews now live, a grenade was thrown at the house of another Jew and the rabbi has received death threats. Yemeni authorities call it ‘children’s mischief’ and say that hatred has increased because of Israel’s attack on Gaza.

But the problems for the Jews of Saada, who now live in Sanaa’s Tourism City, started several years ago with small incidents when local fanatics agitating against the government exploited the centuries-old prejudices and targeted the small Jewish community in the remote rural area. They roughed up some people and shot at the rabbi’s car. Things grew progressively worse until one day one of the leaders of the extremist group handed the rabbi a letter giving him and his community of some 60 people an ultimatum: Get out of the region, get out of the country, or else…

The rabbi’s uncle informed the provincial authorities but no help was forthcoming and a few nights later there was a knock on the rabbi’s door. Masked armed men told him that the time had come: either he would take all his people out of the area, or they would be killed. That same night the rabbi gathered the community, people left their homes and their possessions behind and they departed, never to come back again.

Despite the echoes of Nazi Germany in the 1930’s this is what happened to the Jews of Saada in northern Yemen in 2007. Pushed out by fundamentalist Shia Muslim rebels, the government resettled the Jews temporarily in the capital. The fighting in Saada is suppose to be over. The local Al Huthi rebels have accepted a ten-point government-proposed truce. But the Jews say they can never return, they are too small and weak and they would not be safe. “Everybody else can go back but we cannot,” says Yahia Yosuf Mosa, the community’s rabbi and spokesman.

The young and diminutive Mosa is a rabbi of all trades for his tiny community. He takes care of the religious needs of his people from circumcision to the grave and in between he is also their kosher butcher, he leads them in prayer, he acts as their spokesman and he arranges the supply of fresh qat. On a Friday afternoon, just before the beginning of the Sabbath, he’ll sit chewing qat, smoking a cigarette and sipping sweet tea with his guests. Like any other Yemeni.