Not Everyone Wants To Leave Kabul... Plus The Jew(s) Of Afghanistan

Poster by Chip Proser

This morning, the White House released this statement: "On August 19, the U.S. evacuated approximately 3,000 people from Hamid Karzai International Airport on 16 C-17 flights. Nearly 350 U.S. citizens were evacuated. Additional evacuees include family members of U.S. citizens, SIV applicants and their families, and vulnerable Afghans. We have evacuated approximately 9,000 people since August 14. Since the end of July, we have evacuated approximately 14,000 people. Additionally, in the last 24 hours, the U.S. military facilitated the departure of 11 charter flights. The passengers on those charter flights are not included in the totals above." According to Punchbowl News, the administration has been telling reporters that they believe most Americans are out of Afghanistan already. "There were 11,000 Americans registered with the U.S. embassy in Kabul before the Ghani government collapsed. But the administration believes that some may have left the country before the Taliban takeover without telling the embassy. Furthermore, other American passport holders may stay; indeed, some Americans were there the last time the Taliban controlled the country from 1996 to 2001."

When I was driving around Asia (late '60s and early '70s) Afghanistan was the one country where Americans actually did stay in touch with the U.S. embassy-- the only one. I recall they handed out printouts about how you had to double-boil all water before drinking it. They had movies for the tiny handful of American ex-pats and travellers. I voted there one year. Afghanistan even then-- in a relatively peaceful period before the overthrow of the monarchy and before the Soviet invasion-- it was still a more wild country than anyplace else I had ever been and it seemed prudent to let the embassy know you were there.

Once I was thrown into prison (50 kilos of the best Mazar-in-Sharif hash somehow was built into the back of my van and somehow the border guards knew exactly where to look for it)-- but it wasn't the embassy that hot me out-- ingot my van and hash back-- but my business partner, who was the postmaster of Kabul and a relative of the king whose father was a provincial governor.

Another time I might have needed the help of the embassy was when some friends and I drove up into the mountains above Kabul to get high and groove on the lights. Two Australians were tripping their brains out on acid but the rest of us were just smoking hash. Suddenly we were captured by a gang of heavily armed mujahideen types screaming and pointing their lethal-looking uzis at us. They didn't respond to my attempts to communicate in Farsi and I hadn't learned Pashtun yet and all they did was scream at us about keeping our arms over our heads. But they didn't ransack the van or try to rob us or take us anyplace. They just acted fierce and vaguely threatening. One of the Australians on acid was the first to get what was going on. He started laughing and took his arms down. The Afs went berserk, screaming and jabbing their guns into the air. But the Australian kept laughing and pretty soon the Afs were all laughing too and slapping us all on the back and insisting their hash was better than ours and we all sat around smoking for a couple of hours and then went on our way. (And they spoke perfect Dari, a form of Fars, and understood every word I said.)

Anyway, no embassy needed to ransom us that time. I'm pretty sure it was at the Kabul embassy that a consul staffer helped me get a carnet de passage for my van so that I could drive it into India. It was a guarantee that if I sold the van in India, the Indian government would get 100% of the value of the van as a tax. This month, Americans-- 11,000, Lord!-- need the embassy a lot more than I do. I doubt when I was there that there had ever been 11,000 who had ever set foot in Afghanistan in total. And there were certainly no more than a few dozen in the country, some on the hippie trail and some working in remote places as part of the Peace Corps. (I visited two college friends who were working in Ghazni, just off the main-- as in "only"-- road between Kandahar and Kabul.) Most of the hippies in Afghanistan were non-Americans-- French, Brits, Germans, Canadian, Dutch, Japanese, Australians... Everyone spoke English to each other but Americans were the fewest of the foreigners in Kabul.

It's different now. When I read that some Americans would be staying in Afghanistan voluntarily, it didn't really surprise me, although it did impress me. And it reminded me of something even more weird than Americans staying in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. How about Jews staying? A few days ago The Forward headlined a story about Jews-- a Jew now, not Jews-- in Afghanistan. I'll come back to that in a moment. There had been Jews in Afghanistan-- mostly in Herat near the Persian border, but some in Kabul too-- for a couple thousand years. Now virtually every Afghan Jew has long emigrated to Israel or the U.S.-- except one: Zablon Simantov, a carpet merchant, whose wife and daughters moved to Israel.

Afghan Jews were targeted by the authorities since the 1930s and Jews were kicked out of every city or town in the country except Herat and Kabul, where they were ghetto-ized, mistreated and killed. During the '40s Afghanistan was close to the Nazi regime in Germany and life for Jews got even worse. Some escaped to India, where the British were unwelcoming, and others escaped to Palestine and a few made it to... Queens.

In 1951, the remaining Jews in the country were allowed to emigrate to Israel and the U.S. and by the 1960s there were just a few Jews left in the country and after the Soviet invasion (1979), just 10 Jews remained and by 2004, there were just two: Simintov and his nemesis, Ishaq Levin (Isaac Levy). They lived on separate ends of the Kabul synagogue and kept denouncing each other to the Taliban, which would have them beaten and jailed from time to time. Sounds like a good idea for a play? It was already written and staged: The Last Two Jews of Kabul. Levin died in 2005 and Simintov said he was happy to have him gone. He finally announced he would leave Afghanistan last week-- but he's still there.

As I mentioned above, a couple of days ago The Forward ran a story about the future of Jewish heritage sites in Afghanistan now that the Taliban has taken over. In recent years Herat's historic Yu Aw Synagogue has been restored, presumably as a tourist attraction since there hasn't been a Jew living in Herat for decades. "[T]he preservation of Jewish sites in the country," wrote Arno Rosenfeld, "especially the former heart of the community in Herat, had made significant progress over the last decade through a combination of government and private funding. That work now faces an uncertain future."

As recently as last year, there was a sense of hope that the work of restoring sites of Jewish heritage could draw Afghan Jews back from the diaspora. “We are preserving this, their history for them to return to,” Ghulam Sakhi, who was hired by the Ministry of Culture to look after Jewish buildings in Herat, told Al Jazeera. “This property belongs to them, and we are only safe keeping it for till they return.”
Under the Taliban, that kind of hope is all but dead. The group is notorious for the severity of their theocratic approach to governance, including their practice of effectively banning women from public life. And while they tolerated some minority religions during their last stay in power, between 1996 and 2001-- they permitted the Kabul synagogue operated by Simintov to remain open, and allowed the country’s tiny Sikh minority to publicly worship under strict restrictions-- they’re known for cracking down on religious observance outside their chosen approach to Islam.
As part of that crackdown, the Taliban has in the past destroyed sites of religious heritage: In 2001, they dynamited a pair of giant Buddhist statues outside Kabul that were listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
“We all know that they were not fond of, mildly speaking, keeping heritage sites of other religions,” said Rabbi Mendy Chitrik, chair of the Alliance of Rabbis in Islamic States, who had helped oversee some of the Jewish preservation efforts in Afghanistan. Chitrik said that barring a more radical turn by the Taliban, he was not particularly concerned about the possibility that Jewish sites in the country might be intentionally destroyed.
...Afghanistan was once home to an estimated 40,000 Jews centered in Herat, an oasis city along the ancient Silk Road trading route. That number dwindled to fewer than 5,000 by the middle of the 20th century, as the community faced persecution from successive regimes that, influenced partly by Nazi propaganda and beliefs that Jews were “Bolshevik agents,” restricted where they could live and work.
By the time the Taliban came to power in 1996, following years of war between the country’s socialist government, Soviet troops and the American-backed Mujahadeen fighters who would go on to create the Taliban, the country’s Jewish population had dwindled to single digits.
...The American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 brought an end to theocratic Taliban rule, and with it, an influx of American Jewish soldiers, journalists, consultants and NGO staff. Rabbi Avrohom Horovitz, a retired Army major, served as a military chaplain in Afghanistan during the early aughts. At the time, he said, it was easy to assemble a minyan for High Holiday services at both Bagram Airfield near Kabul and in the southern city of Kandahar.
Jewish sites received attention as part of a larger nation-building push to restore cultural landmarks of all kinds and make tangible the country’s claims to being a pluralistic democracy. The Yu Aw Synagogue’s restoration was funded in part by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, a Swiss foundation active in the Muslim world, which described it in a brochure as part of an effort to “celebrate, restore, and maintain Afghanistan’s cultural presence and identity in the modern world.”
“Afghanistan is an ancient country and we are proud of our cultural heritage,” Wahid Soltani, the head of Herat’s tourism bureau, told Al Jazeera last year. He added that Afghans living around the Jewish sites were proud to see them restored.