The Last Two Jews of Mogadishu Living under Al Qaeda's Fire (Review)

by NORMAN SIMMS January 12, 2018

Kobrin echoes those people to whom she described this book as it was taking shape when they exclaimed: "What? There were Jews in Somalia??!!" It's not just that most ordinary people don't know about the Jewish presence in Somalia, but that those who claim to be experts try to deny or minimize the fact to the point of irrelevance what she has discovered.  "Where is the evidence?" they cry out; and they point to the standard histories and the specialist journals where there is nothing. She realizes after conducting an extensive email correspondence over several years with the last two Jews of Mogadishu that this new technical means of communication itself has become one of the few tracings (a new form of documentation that sits alongside oral history, private journals, personal letters, and random jottings that usually are taken to supplement "standard" or "real" history in official papers, government records, diplomatic dispatches and so on) of a former small Jewish community in Somalia.  The email messages that fly back and forth between Nancy and a young man living precariously with his mother in Mogadishu offer a whole body of experiential data and this otherwise overlooked population of Jews.

It was a community that reached back to the early 1900s when Jews (mostly from Aden and Yemen) came to settle along the coast of the Horn of Africa. As her book relates reproduces the emailed history, that in itself becomes rich and deep the more the two interlocutors probe each other for immediate and contextual information, we learn that though there are actually documents supporting Jewish life in Djibouti, Addis Ababa and Asmera, nothing seems to exist from Somalia until this 19-year-old Jewish boy came out blogging on the internet that he was Jewish: born and raised in Somalia like his mother, his deceased father, uncle, grandparents and other relatives, that is, the last vestige of a former Jewish community. More than that, once names, places, events and public reactions are noted down, both of them are able to search for corroborating evidence in books, pamphlets, newspaper reports and anthropological surveys to fill out the story.  This generates a second parallel historical narrative in the book, often filling more than half of each page.  These footnotes do far more than cite sources or identify unfamiliar names; they elaborate and expand on what is hinted at in the email conversations.

This is a very sad, probably a very tragic story, about a teenage Jewish boy, Avraham  Mordechay (known as Av and also later on as Rami) and his mother Ashira Heybi who find themselves trapped in the city of Mogadishu and whose attempt to flee somewhere else fades into silence and invisibility.  They wish  to go to Aden, from where the father's family originally before Av, the son, was born,  or to Israel, where, as Jews, they dream of making Aliya, or even migrating to America, where Kobrin lived (before she herself migrated to Israel), but just as the mother and her son seem to have made the decision and found the means to get out of the war-ravaged Somalia and a renewed civil war breaks out, all their plans go to mush.  The two last Jews in Mogadishu are gone, whoosh! and they have never been heard of again.  Down to this very day.

The bulk of the book is a long series of email letters back and forth between Av and his new American friend, Nancy Hartevelt Kobrin, who initiates the correspondence when she reads about and then starts to receive herself a blog he sends from the beleaguered city.  At the time she had been living in St. Paul Minnesota and had become interested in the Somali community and its cultures which is the largest diaspora outside of Somalia. She is fascinated by his historical circumstances, admires his youthful enthusiasm to be a Jew against the odds in a land that proclaims itself wholly and purely Muslim, and encourages him to follow his heart and prepare himself and his mother for the difficult decisions that have to be made in preparation for departure.

Along with these hundreds of emails, the boy's left in their original form, with an awkward but increasingly competent English and rambling style, as he records everyday events and responds to events in his city and neighbourhood as they happen, Kobrin adds a wealth of explanatory information in the footnotes that can take up half or more of each page: important historical background on the situation of Jews in Aden, Mogadishu and the region in general; but also discussions on linguistic problems, as the correspondents teach each other to write in the other's language, and thus delve into the culture and textures of each society.  Kobrin also inserts newspaper and magazine articles pertinent to the matters discussed in the emails. The political and strategic issues at play in Mogadishu have to be understood to catch the allusions, to fill out the details of what sides are fighting one another, and to give context to the names of people and places, as well as hints at events and belief systems. 

On the one hand, as expected, the book is the story of Av and his mother, mostly the boy's desire to learn more about Judaism and Jewish history, about the self that is hidden from him by the both the lack of information available in this non-Jewish environment; and by something more painful, the way Av has to learn to cut through the misinformation, the deliberate lies, the propaganda against Israel and the Jews that fills the airwaves and the street talk he encounters every day. Av, not yet twenty, his formal education interrupted, emerges as a highly intellectual, well-read (if not always well-directed) future scholar, mature beyond his years in his taking over headship of the household, and also talented and sensitive to music and the arts.  Nevertheless, his growing up has been traumatic, and his situation always anxiety-ridden. 

Using all her experience as a psychoanalyst and student of human nature, Kobrin slowly but surely draws the boy out.  Comforts him at the same time as provokes him into facing up to the real difficulties that have to be surmounted if he is to escape and live.  She corrects his errors, to be sure, but at the same time praises his efforts, and congratulates him on his diligence and enthusiasm. 

 She points out to the mother-son pair, that they have, in other words, learned to live like Crypto-Jews, pretending to be ordinary citizens on the outside and in public affairs, but Jews at home and in their hearts. This is stressful, to say the least. But it is also exciting because, as Kobrin, a scholar of Sephard/medieval Spain and/AlAndalus, starts to teach Av the history of the Jews from Iberia who had to escape the Inquisition, either by adapting to the secret life of Marranos in Spain and Portugal, or escaping into the world beyond "The Land of Persecutions", they had to reform their inner selves to live in non-Sephardi Jewish communities, maintain their sense of Hispanic pride and identity, and (having experienced the exhilaration of life without religious constraints, ecclesiastical or rabbinical) encountering a "disenchanted" world almost before anyone else in pre-modern Europe and the Mediterranean basin.  This was a new form of inner validation to Judaism and the honing of its moral, ethical and philosophical structures.

At the same time as Kobrin enters into this extended dialogue with Av and his mother, she recounts her own academic and political interests and her religious beliefs, beliefs that she too must wrestle with. The questions she is asked makes her become more conscious of how and why she is a Jew, when so much of her own American background works against that sense.  There is thus a running autobiography woven into the fabric of the book we are reviewing.  To instruct her Somali Jewish friends, she has to confront her own points of confusion, ignorance and resistance to Talmudic lore and to find ways to negotiate the problems and find solutions that are not fatuous or sentimental. In a sense, this is the core of the book, its most valuable part.


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Norman Simms has just published the first volume of a new book, Jews in an Illusion of Paradise: Dust and Ashes (Cambridge Scholars Publisher.  Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, UK).  It is available from the publisher as well as and other online bookseller sites.  The second volume may be out before the end of this year    

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