The last Jew in Afghanistan
JAN 2 — (Last week, I received news from my friend and fixer, Ahmad Bilal Raghbat, that his father, Abdul Baqi Raghbat, an adviser to the Afghan Ministry of Tribal and Border Affairs, was assassinated by the Taliban in his hometown of Kandahar. May God bless his soul.)
I had heard rumours that there was a Jew, apparently the last Jew in Afghanistan, living in Kabul when I was planning my trip there. I knew that I had to make sure I meet this person. Pursuing the story about the last Jew wasn’t meant to be a scoop since it’s been reported before.
But what I was really interested in was to just meet him and listen to his story first hand and to shake his hand myself. So, when I finally arrived in Kabul, and all the 9/11 anniversary hype had died down, I told my fixer, Ahmad Bilal Raghbat, that I wanted to look for Zebolon Simantov.
We walked around Flower Street where Simantov was reportedly living and started asking the people there if they knew of such a person. After a few false alarms, we finally found a restaurant owner who just pointed to a flight of stairs at the back.
We walked up one floor and marched through a narrow and dusty corridor. We arrived at a pastel-coloured wooden door. I knocked. A slightly overweight, middle-aged Caucasian-looking man opened the door. I asked him if he knew Zebolon Simantov.
“Yes, that’s me,” he said in Pashto, which was translated to me by Bilal.
I was finally meeting face to face with Zebolon Simantov, the last and only Jew living in the entire Afghanistan. I introduced myself as a journalist from Malaysia and said that I would like to interview him on camera. He nodded and invited us in.
He lived in a single room which had a small television, a dining table, a single cupboard and a mattress tucked in a corner. We sat at the dining table as he served us some biscuits and tea. Then, right as I was about to start recording with my camera, he stopped me.
“To interview me, you need to pay me US$500 (RM1,584),” he said.
This caught me by surprise. As a journalist, I have always held on to the belief that paying for interviews is unethical. I told him that I’m a freelance journalist from Malaysia and that I didn’t have a lot of money.
Then, he would have to decline the interview, he replied. Apparently, journalists the world over, and especially those from Europe, pay him up to US$1,000 for an interview. Bloody rich Western journalists! They were spoiling the market, I thought to myself. But I had come this far. So I thought it wouldn’t hurt to negotiate a little bit.
I really didn’t have a lot of money so I told him that I could only offer him a token fee of US$50 and that was it. He laughed at my pathetic offer and said that he would only settle for a minimum of US$300 and nothing less.
To cut a long story short, I spent half an hour haggling with the last Jew in Afghanistan over an interview price when he finally agreed to take US$100 from me. Simantov insisted that he be paid upfront before the interview and so I handed the money over. As soon as it was in his pocket, the show began.
He started taking out all his old Jewish artifacts, which included pictures of Jewish rabbis I didn’t know, an old copy of the Torah and several loose pages of scriptures. He placed it all on the table in front of him and told me to ask him anything I wanted.
And so the story begins.
Sitting in his very simple one-room flat, Simantov explained that his family originated from Herat, a town in west Afghanistan, near the Iranian border. And, according to the man himself, there were around 500 Jewish families in Afghanistan when he was a young boy, which was roughly 60 years ago.
“Jews have a long history in Afghanistan, around 1,500 years to be exact. But since the formation of Israel in 1948, they have gradually moved away. And now I am the only one left,” he explained.
The Jews always had a good relationship with the Afghan Muslims in the country and there were never really any problems arising between the two religious groups. In fact, the Jews played a very important role in the country’s economy.
“My family and I had a business trading in carpets. So when the rest of the Jews started migrating, I stayed back because my business was doing well,” he added.
But, eventually as the Jewish population in Afghanistan started to dwindle, his family (he has a wife and two daughters) wanted to move to Israel. Simantov decided not to follow them and he continued to stay back to run his business in his home country.
“I am an Afghan Jew. So I stay in Afghanistan,” he said, stressing really hard on the word “Afghan”.
He even stayed during the hard and extreme Muslim rule of the Taliban, which got me really interested in finding out more about his life during these years. I questioned him but he was adamant not to talk about the Taliban.
“Ask me anything but I will not talk about the Taliban years,” he said with an angry glare.
So even though I had paid him for the interview (which, as a journalist, I still feel very guilty about), I could not persuade to him to talk about that period in his life. I had to just let go of the subject and move on to other things. I can only speculate that it must have been extremely difficult for him to not want to talk about it.
However, Simantov is very quick to express that he has a lot of Muslim friends. In fact, during my visit, one of his best friends, Abdul Shukor, was also there just hanging out and having tea.
“All my best friends are Muslims. But it really makes no difference, Hindus, Christians, Muslims, they’re all the same,” he said.
“Many foreigners come to this country and stay. They are German, American, British, but they can never be Afghan. It’s not important that Zebolon is a Jew. He is Afghan first,” added Shukor.
Then, Simantov pushed his chair back roughly and stood up. I was startled and thought that I had somehow offended him. He grabbed a scarf and the copy of the Torah he had on the table. He kissed it a few times and put the scarf around his neck. Then he motioned me to follow him.
We walked out of his one-room flat and along the short corridor and we reached a locked door. Simantov took out a bunch of keys and unlocked the door. He motioned me to step inside. It looked like a very dusty and bare synagogue. So this was what he wanted to show me.
“This used to be a busy synagogue. But now, I’m the only who uses it,” he said.
The walls were adorned with what looked like very old Jewish scriptures and in the centre of the synagogue was a big worn-out framed picture of a menorah. Simantov opened a cabinet by a wall, and inside were stacks of old Torahs. He carefully took one in his hand and flipped through the yellow pages for me to see.
“I may be alone in Afghanistan but I practise my Judaism as best as I can. I even slaughter my own chickens so I have kosher meat to eat,” he said.
After looking around the synagogue for a short while, we walked back to his flat. Simantov seemed to have a very gruff personality. He was loud and did not speak as politely as most people. Maybe living far from his family had affected him and so I asked if he would ever consider moving to Israel.
He took out his Torah and flipped to a marked page. He pulled out a sepia-toned photograph and kissed it gently. Then he showed it to me. It was a photograph of his wife and two daughters, obviously taken quite some time ago.
“They ask me to move and stay with them all the time. But as I said before, I am an Afghan and this is my country,” he said softly.
Then he let out a loud laugh and changed the topic immediately.
“So, what about these Americans huh? They come and occupy Afghanistan and just create more problems for us here!” he said, back to his usual gruff self.
I smiled, turned off my camera, took a sip of the tea which Simantov had poured for me, winked at Bilal (who was starting to look tired because he had been interpreting all this while), and listened for the rest of the afternoon.
* Stay tuned next week for Part 5 of Zan Azlee’s “Guide to Afghanistan: The Adventures of a KL-ite.” View videos of his adventures at http://fatbidin.com/afghanistan/