The Last Photographs of Yemenite Jewry

July 3, 2019 | Myriam Tangi
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While most of Yemen’s Jews had left in 1949 and 1950 during a renowned Israeli airlift, a few hundred remained up until the early 1990s. The painter and photographer Myriam Tangi describes her visits to these Jewish communities in 1983, 1984, and 1986, along with Frédéric Brenner, whom she later married. (Photographs can be found at the link below.)

We applied for tourist visas, and, when we arrived, we made our way to different villages across the country, including Beit Sinan in the Arhab district, about an hour north of Sana’a, the capital. We could not tell our guides or hosts that we were interested in meeting Jews, both for their safety and our own. Instead, we would visit the local sheikh and ask him, through our interpreter, about his village.

Since Jews were restricted to certain trades, most famously jewelry making, we would say that we wanted to buy jewelry. It was not at all surprising or suspicious that tourists would want to buy some of the exquisite silver filigree bracelets or necklaces for which these great craftsmen were famous. (Other crafts that were considered beneath Muslims and hence practiced by Jews included metalworking, leatherworking, and, among the women, basket-weaving.)

Jews had the traditional status of dhimmi, protected but decidedly second-class citizens, as non-Muslims living under Islamic law. As such, they were not allowed to own land, and, more visibly, Jewish men were not allowed to wear the janbiya, a short, curved dagger that all Yemenite Muslim men wear. Muslim men could also enter a Jewish home at any time, unannounced, except on Shabbat. Nonetheless, the day-to-day relations among local Jews, the sheikh, and their Muslim neighbors often seemed warm, even friendly, and the pace of life was slow. . . .

As a woman, I could spend time with the Jewish women and sometimes photograph them while they were working (cooking, sewing, making baskets) or in the home. As we traveled, we observed that the villages closer to Sana’a had stricter dress codes. The Jewish women in outlying villages did not wear a niqab, which covered the whole face, as all the Muslim women did. Instead, they wore veils that covered only their hair, but as one neared the capital, the veils grew larger.

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