Sunday, January 29, 2006

Being Alone

As with Marjan the lion, although with a palliative Neil Simon undertone, the story of Zablon Simintov and his erstwhile nemesis Ishaq Levin is about survival. Simintov is literally the last Jew left in Afghanistan.

When Zablon Simintov found Ishaq Levin sprawled on the cement synagogue floor last week, he immediately realized two things: His housemate and archnemesis of nearly seven years was dead, and he was now in all likelihood the last Afghan Jew still living in the country.

"I'm not sad about that," Simintov said with a frown Wednesday. He acknowledged dryly that he would not miss Levin, an octogenarian who apparently died of natural causes. Simintov, 44, had feuded bitterly with him for as long as the two men occupied separate rooms in the ruins of the only remaining synagogue in Kabul.


The Taliban government, which was in power when Simintov returned to Kabul in 1998 after working for several years in Turkmenistan, did not look kindly on his faith. On many occasions, he said, Taliban officials carted him and Levin off to jail, where they were beaten with electric cables and rifle butts for days.

"The Taliban would shout at me, 'Why don't you convert to Islam?' And I would say, 'Not if you paid me one million dollars,' " Simintov recalled.

The Taliban was ousted by U.S.-led forces in 2001. The fact that both remaining Jews survived the Taliban's five-year reign is something of a miracle. Taliban authorities, determined to stamp out practices they considered un-Islamic, outlawed music, whipped men who failed to grow long beards and demolished two enormous Buddha statues that were carved into a cliff 13 centuries ago.


Now Simintov is alone in this two-storey complex of empty rooms. His carpet shop long gone, he lives in penury, asking visitors for whisky and phone cards. Down the hall, tattered religious texts are piled in a cupboard and thick dust coats the altar along with globs of excrement from birds which nest in the light fittings.

Levin's apartment is directly underneath. It has been sealed by police but through paint-splattered windows can be seen broken furniture, clothes spilling from a chest, and stacks of useless banknotes from the former regime piled on the carpet.

He would join his wife and daughters, who left for Israel six years ago, he said. But soon the issue of the synagogue ownership will be reopened, when Levin's son arrives from Israel to collect his father's belongings. In Kabul's soaring property market, the building is worth several million dollars.

Simintov has appealed to Israel to fund its rehabilitation, but as he is the last Jew standing in Afghanistan it is unclear for what purpose.

From Normblog.