Alex Thomson meets Zebolon Simontov, Afghanistan’s last remaining Jew – tolerated by the Taliban and sustained by a faith that has survived Communism and the mujaheddin.
“Look Mister – I tell you what is happening in this country,” says Zebolon, and now he’s almost shouting.
“Hang on – I want to ask a question!”
“No, no!” He’s definitely shouting now and my question isn’t going to happen. “It is you people. You – Nato – you are running away. You are inviting the Taliban back into this country. Yes, you are.”
“Well, hang on, Zebolon – not everyone,” I try.
“No, no, no, you listen. Excuse me. Mister – you listen to me now.” Zebolon Simontov is off on another five minutes of political polemic, and any questions I might have can disappear over the nearest mountain range.
Sixty years old. With the fire in the belly of a twentysomething man. Born in Herat. Divorced in Kabul. Two daughters. Shushani, who is now 20, and Rohel, who is 17. Both live in Israel. He last saw them in 1995. And…
Zebolon Simontov is the only Jew left in Afghanistan. The other one, also in Kabul, died a few years back now. Anyhow – they didn’t get on.
I punch out the bare stats of this man’s unusual life pretty much as he will give them to you. No embellishment. That is, until you get started on politics.
And you might think that if you live in the heart of the country more torn apart by religion and ethnicity than perhaps any other, well, you’d keep your own counsel on political matters. You could not be more wrong when you come to see Afghanistan‘s entire Jewish minority.
As we talk, I begin to see how this one man could have left even the Taliban mullahs so confuzzled, they simply left him to get on with his unspeakably un-Islamic practices. In fact, they came to, well, if not exactly like him, certainly let him be.
“It must have been pretty bad during the Taliban time here, no?” I suggest.
“Oh, no, no, no. Not really. You see, they were simple people. “
“Yes, I used to tease them a lot.”
“Let me get this straight Zebolon. You were even then one of perhaps two Jews in the entire country and you teased the Taliban about religion. Is that what you’re saying?”
“Yes, yes. Why not?”
“Well I can think of -” but I get no further.
“I used to say to them: ‘Come on – you should convert. You should become Jewish.’ “
“Yes, and they would just laugh and say I must become Muslim. But I never did.”
And so it goes on. Along the verandah from his tiny flat above a restaurant in central Kabul, there is a forlorn, dusty synagogue. Great black cobwebs hang from the ceiling corners. There are pigeon droppings from some unseen roost above.
Zebolon Simontov recites and chants aloud in this forgotton, echoing place. At one point the call to prayer from mosques near and far theatens to drown him out.
There is something moving, almost heroic in this lone recitation of faith. He kisses the scriptures. The smack of devotional lips reverberates from what may very well be the last of this synagogue’s faithful.
His wife gone, his children all but strangers to him. Faith remains the one constant. A faith quietly accepted by his friends and neghbours around him. A faith that has come through the godless Communist days of the Russians and then Najib. A faith that remained standing as the city around him was pulverised by the Mujaheddin rocket salvoes which followed. A faith that cracked the beards of the Talibs with smiling incredulity.