Scenes from Yemen

An exhibition at the L.A. Mayer Museum for Islamic Art draws the viewer to the landscape, architecture and people of the Muslim country, including the few remaining Jews.

Yemen, Shibam_521 (photo credit: Naftali Hilger)
Yemen, Shibam_521
(photo credit: Naftali Hilger)
According to photo-journalist Naftali Hilger, an Israeli singer of Yemenite origin named Tzion Golan is among the popular singers in the hothouse of Islamic terror and political instability that is Yemen.
Hilger recently gave a fascinating presentation about his seven trips to Yemen at the L.A. Mayer Museum for Islamic Art. On display at the museum is an exhibition of his photographs, “Travels to Yemen 1987–2008,” which draws the viewer to the landscape, architecture and people, including the few remaining Jews.
Hilger’s initial contact with Jews in the alleyways of Sa’ada forged his connection with Yemen, as he became a link for families torn apart when some members immigrated to Israel in 1949 and others remained behind.
Isolated from the world and with a history of warfare among its approximately 1,500 tribes, the architecture of the buildings in Yemen often resembles fortresses made of the clay and stone of the region.
Photographs depict the tall cluster of sun-dried mud brick tower houses of the 16th-century walled city of Shibam, which rises out of the cliff edge of Wadi Hadramaut (akin to the biblical hatzar mavet). Rising 30 meters out of the sands with some buildings as many as nine stories high, Shibam is described as the “Manhattan of the desert.” Located on the spice and incense route across the Southern Arabian plateau, this urban masterpiece developed on a rectangular grid plan of streets and squares.
An estimated 24 million people live in Yemen, although the figure isn’t accurate due to the challenge of census-taking in a territory with inaccessible villages. Among the least developed countries in the Arab world, Yemen holds the world record for weapons – about 60 million, not including military or police arms. “They are smuggled in from all over, except from Israel, out of principle,” notes Hilger.
Despite the ban on Israeli products, Tzion Golan’s discs do manage to reach Yemen, where they are quite in demand.
Sanaa, Yemen’s capital city, is one of the world’s highest capitals, located on a plateau at an altitude of over 2,000 meters. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Old City of Sanaa is densely built with geometricwindowed minarets and other tall buildings.
In Sanaa’s colorful marketplace, Yemenites meet for local gossip and news. Trade is most active until the afternoon hours when commerce comes to a halt as many indulge in a favorite pastime, chewing the leaves of qat, a plant grown on the terraces of Yemen.
About one third of the average family’s income is spent on qat. The raw leaves have both stimulant and relaxing qualities. Hilger documented men with typically swollen cheeks as they chew the leaves. The incidence of oral cancer in Yemen is among the highest in the world.
Hilger’s photographs of women show their oppression and the hope of a brighter future in a country where childhood ends when girls are married off, usually by the age of 12.
Hilger followed the saga of a Muslim girl who persistently fought for a divorce – at the age of eight. The girl was sold by her parents so they could afford to buy a satellite dish. Escaping numerous times from her husband, she was rejected by her parents. A lawyer and a judge helped her obtain a divorce. She goes to school, hoping to become a lawyer, inspired by the female lawyer who represented her.
Among the leaders of the small group of women fighting for their rights is Tawakkol Karman, a journalist and co-recipient of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize.
“She is aggressive, uncompromising and enlists men and women for the cause,” states Hilger. He was surprised to see that a photograph he had taken of Karman in 2008 was used on a poster by the protest movement in Yemen during this year’s Arab Spring.
The exhibition’s photographs of Jews are colorful, showing a traditional people eager to learn in austere conditions. Yemenite Jews learn to read upside down and sideways, since traditional books are very scarce.
As children, they sit on the floor around their mori and focus on the single book, thus viewing the text upside-down or from either side.
According to tradition, Jews arrived in Yemen toward the end of the First Temple period. In successive generations, they suffered from restrictive edicts and persecution. Forced to work as artisans, their expertise in crafts was matched by their command of Torah and loyalty to their Jewish identity.
Yemenite Jews started coming to the Land of Israel in small waves in the late 19th century. The first wave was known as a’aleh batamar, based on the biblical verse “Let me climb the palm.” Sages believed this alluded to the year of redemption with the Hebrew letters of batamar becoming “tarmab,” the Jewish year 5642 (1881–82). The Yemenites came to Kfar Siloah (Silwan) near the City of David in Jerusalem.
During Operation Magic Carpet in 1949–1950, almost 50,000 Yemenites were airlifted to the young state of Israel. The Jews who remained were separated from their children, often not knowing their whereabouts.
In the late 1980s, Jews were once again permitted to leave Yemen, many immigrating to Israel to be reunited with their families.
In 1987, in the alleyways of Sa’ada in northern Yemen, Hilger met a young Jew who took him to his home. Hilger realized he was Jewish by his sidelocks, which Yemenite Jews refer to as simanim (“signs,” setting them apart in Yemenite society).
Upon returning to Israel, he was contacted by Israelis of Yemenite origin who hoped to see photos of the relatives they hadn’t seen in decades. On his next trip to Yemen, the Yemenite Jews were eager to see his photographs of their Israeli relatives.
He has since closed circles in Israel by participating in weddings of those he documented as children growing up in Yemen.
The exhibition also includes a film about the Yemenites.

“Travels to Yemen 1987–2008” is at the L.A. Mayer Museum for Islamic Art, 2 Hapalmah Street, Jerusalem, until March. For details: 566-1291