Photo: Marilyn Herman 2018. Chomutov, near the death march route, looking towards the Sudeten mountain range on the border with Germany.
Following on from my previous blog, I very recently decided to visit Chomutov, in the Czech Republic. I was interested to see what kind of place produced a heroine like the young woman who gave her life to give my father bread. I wanted to get an idea of the context at the time.
I am indebted to Jan Krupicka who grew up in Chomutov, who arranged for me to interview two couples and two widows who lived through World War II, taking me to the retirement home, and to Amalie’s village, and who interpreted between Czech and English during the interviews.
All but two of my interviewees had lived in other parts of Czechoslovakia during World War II. From my interviews, I learned about the general situation for civilians during the German occupation of Czechoslovakia. Food rationing was imposed, and ethnic Czechs were restricted to the extent that one could not live on rations alone. Czech men were sent to Germany for forced, unpaid labour, to fill in for German men who were in the army. Czech women similarly had to engage in forced, unpaid labour for ethnic Germans in Czechoslovakia, or if they were younger and without children to care for, they would be sent as forced unpaid labour to Germany. “The only people who didn’t come back were the Jews.”
From Karel and Kvetuse, a couple living in a retirement home in Chomutov, who had lived in other parts of Czechoslovakia during WWII, I learned that the generation of Czechs at the end of the 19th century all spoke German.
They told me that there were Czech and German schools. Once the German occupation started, it was stipulated that there should be a German class every day in the Czech schools, and history classes were only about the German Reich, and nothing else. Pages of history books referring to previous history were glued together, and after that the books were thrown away altogether, and history lessons were just given through talking by the teacher, without books.
There were ethnic Czechs who said they were German during the occupation, seeking benefits. They also told me of hearsay about one ethnic Czech man who was really pro-Nazi and a snitch.
I interviewed Viera on 30thNovember 2018, and relay what she said below:
The Germans were well-off, while food was very scarce for the Czechs following the German occupation. She knew a Czech woman who worked just for food. Ethnic Germans in the area were on higher rations than the Czechs.
I asked if this caused resentment. She responded that there wasn’t much resentment. Most of the Czechs left, [since Chomutov was being bombed by the allies – there were factories there serving German war effort]. Not many Czechs were left in Chomutov. Those who remained had to cope with how things were.
Viera would take the animals and geese to the woods when there was an inspection [by the German occupiers). They would be warned a couple of days in advance by Czechs working in the government office. If these Czechs had been caught, they might have been executed along with their families.
You couldn’t survive on the food stamps. Life was better in the rural areas. You were in a better position to survive – to have what you needed.
Viera was studying fashion design. Her father was recruited at the age of 17 in World War I. He fought in an Italian batallion.
In World War II, Czech men didn’t have to go into the German army. They were supposed to be relocated to Germany to substitute for Germans who went to war, as forced unpaid labour. German cities were under attack [by the allies] – the situation wasn’t good there. Viera’s husband – a student – was digging ditches for the Germans.
In Czechoslovakia, the men were gone, and food was scarce.
Viera’s brother was supposed to be relocated. A German man saved him – he said that he needed him to work in his inn, where people would leave their carts and horses. He was an old man, and said he was ill and needed Viera’s brother to work for him.
There were lots of Czech/German married couples.
Some [ethnic] Germans collaborated with the Nazis, but others were perfectly fine. There were people who sought benefit from siding [with the Nazis]. Maybe some Czechs were the the worst “snitches”.
Mrs Amalie Libuse Vinduskova had lived in the same village near Chomutov her whole life. I interviewed her on 2ndNovember 2018. Amalie felt the need to talk about her experiences during WWII. It caused her great anxiety to remember and talk about her experiences, but she felt it was important for them to be known. This is what she said:
She told me about the remains of a Jewish cemetery in a forest near the village. Her daughter-in-law sent me photos and put stones on the graves in the Jewish tradition, since it was too late for me to go there after the interview.
Amalie also talked about where the victims were shot by Germans on the “Day of Executions”. I am not clear about what she was referring to, but will try to clarify it and revise this blog post shortly. I think she was referring to the death march after it passed through her village as she specified that it was in April 1945. (My father related that on the death marches, as soon as they arrived at some distance from a town or village, the German guards would shoot prisoners who they thought could not continue, or would shoot a group of prisoners to reduce their numbers.)
Amalie said that more than 30 people were shot. She said they may not have [all?] been Jews. Germans who lived in Czechoslovakia were also among those who were executed – those who went against the regime. Some of the graves in the woods are of German communists. None of the graves have names.
I am arranging to have the notice board (above) translated, and will add the translation here.
Amalie’s mother asked a [German] soldier where they were taking the prisoners. He responded: “Up the hill, and when we’re done, you’re next.”
Amalie heard the shooting and was shocked. When they heard the shooting, she went out and saw a prisoner in a white-collared shirt lying by a small apple tree. He couldn’t talk, but pointed to his mouth to indicate that he was hungry. The German guards wouldn’t allow him to be given food. On the way up the mountain, he grabbed some grass. He was about to put it in his mouth, when the German guard stabbed him with his bayonet. Amalia was crying and shaking (as a girl) thinking of this man.
She was 13 when she witnessed the death march passing through her village. She turned 13 in February 45. When Amalie saw the death march, she was shocked and couldn’t move. Her mother went to sit in the creek for the whole day
Czech adults didn’t approach the death march. Her mother and aunt went to hide. The children approached the march because they were children and spoke German. The prisoners were so weak and helpless!
I asked Amalie if she thought the woman who gave my father bread on the death march would have been Czech? Amalie was sure that a German girl wouldn’t have handed him bread. The Czech girl must have known what she was getting into. The guards were so threatening! It was huge, huge bravery!
Until the War, nobody cared who was Czech, German, Jewish, Polish. Only after the War started, such distinctions started to be made. As soon as these distinctions started to be made, marriages started breaking up.
Heller was a Jewish woman with a German husband. He divorced her (after the German occupation) and she was deported together with their two daughters to Theresienstadt.
Amalie’s mother had had a hard time in 1937 when there was a rubella epidemic. Three of her children died. She collapsed and received treatment for half a year. After that, her peaceful place was in the creek where she would retreat to.
Amalie’s father was Polish. He was the only Polish person there, having come to that region when he was only 16. He had paid a farmer to keep (hide) the family, but her mother refused to leave. As soon as he heard that the Germans were crossing the border, her father shot himself. He had heard what the Germans had been doing to the Jews in Germany. He committed suicide to save the family. He could have killed the whole family together. He shot himself to avoid deportation, and to save his family so that they wouldn’t be endangered by association with him.
Previously her father would join the Germans going to work. Once he shot himself, he became “the Polish bastard”. The Germans didn’t mind that the Jews were in the death march. Before the War, the Germans wanted to leave for their “home country”. Then [after the War] when they were being chased out, they didn’t want to go. Her own uncle was one of the worst Germans who was beaten and chased out [after the War].
28 German soldiers were put up in their house. The officer would stay there all day. He was very civil to her mother. When a neighbour came round and said: “Do you know who you are drinking coffee with?” (in order to betray her because the family was Polish), the officer asked where the neighbour lived, and threatened her.
You couldn’t tell who was German, or who was Czech [or Jewish?] [from looking at or speaking to someone]. But once the War started, the [ethnic] Germans started feeling superior.
The Jewish people were gassed in trucks, with the exhaust pipes discharging inside the trucks. The local German people approved of this. Her mother spent that day sitting in the creek.
Her older siblings protected Amalie from it. She was the second youngest. They didn’t talk about such things in front of her. She was called a “Polish bitch” [by Germans?] once the War started. They mostly spoke German at home. Her parents were scared to speak in Czech. After the War, her mother said she was not going to speak German anymore.
There were Germans who were neither communist nor pro-Hitler. They wore white bands, and got food from the Russians. There were good and bad Germans.
It was a German-speaking region, and Amalie went to a German school. There was only a German school in her area. Everyone went to it: Jews, Czechs. After the German occupation, at school, when she put up her hand to answer a question, her teacher told her there was no point in her learning. Her teacher didn’t expect her to survive the War because of her Polish identity. It was local Germans from Chomutov who were teaching in the school.
The German pupils would get food first, and the Polish and Jewish pupils would get whatever was left, if anything. They would be sitting on the steps [while the German pupils were eating]. In the winter, only the German pupils got meals at school, and the other children didn’t get anything.
The German flag was raised at school and the children had to raise their arms and say “Heil Hitler”.
Amalie’s mother had lived through World War I, when she had had to be very self-reliant and creative (resourceful). When there was a wheat harvest, her mother would collect whatever remnants were left on the field after the harvest, (although they were gardeners before the occupation) and would make little breads, and sprinkle sugar on top. She told her children to eat these in the bathroom so that the other children wouldn’t laugh at them.
Amalie’s cousin was mother to a six-week old baby. As a punishment for giving frozen bread to a Polish worker, she was imprisoned for two months – despite having a six-week old baby at home. The German mayor was nice, and arranged for her to be released early.
Amalie’s three sisters had to work as maids on local German farms. They had to be German [i.e. the farmers they worked for]. They were nice people. Ordinary people. Some of the farmers could be mean to the girls [who worked for them]. It was forced, unpaid labour. They were just given board and lodging.
Her two older sisters were dating Germans, one of whom was very much in love with her sister and wanted to marry her. He was sent to the Russian front, because he wanted to marry a Polish woman.
Her brother was stationed with a Czech army unit guarding the border. They were forced to surrender. He went to Benechov and hid, so that he was not deported. Her younger brother worked in salt mines in Thuring.
Ritter was a nice farmer. He would take a loaf of bread, carve it out and put lard in it, and give it to her mother.
The German farmers were producing food for themselves and also had to give produce to the Nazis.
The Czech people were not allowed to breed animals or grow plants. Amalie’s family used to have commercial gardens: they were gardeners who grew food [before the occupation], and now her mother had to collect remnants from fields after the harvest.
I commented that the Czechs were being starved, like the Jews. Amalie said that the German approach was that if you eliminate someone, you get what’s left.
Amalie’s first husband was from the Ukraine, from a village called Lapaus in the Damidovka district. There, they brought the Jews to a forest and made them dig a grave.
In Chomutov, there were lots of Jewish shop owners who were very nice. One Jewish shop owner would let his first customer have her shopping for free. The second customer, he would let her have her shopping on credit. If someone owed him money, he would come round and collect a little at a time. He wouldn’t collect the whole debt at once.
There was a Ukrainian general: Vlasov who joined the German side. When the tables turned, the “march” of Vlasov’s men took two days – to send them to Siberia.
There was a huge community of Czechs living in the Ukraine. They came to the vacated farms (i.e. vacated by the expelled Germans.)
People need to know what was going on in the War. Now they are making a lot of noise about how the Germans were expelled. But they are not talking about how the Germans behaved. They would take a baby from its mother, and smash it against a wall.
Photo: Marilyn Herman 2018. Angel – from a monument in Chomutov for protection against the bubonic plague.
In April 1945, my father, Abraham Herman, and his brother, David Herman, were prisoners on a forced death march from Rehmsdorf to Theresienstadt. When they crossed over from Germany into the Czech Sudetenland, in the town of Chomutov, Czech bystanders were throwing food to the prisoners, but there would be such a scramble, the bread would break up, and nobody would get any. (I have very recently visited Chomutov, and interviewed some people who lived through WWII. They informed me that during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, ethnic Czechs and ethnic Poles were effectively subjected to a policy of slow starvation – with food rationing enforced to a degree that it was not possible to live on the rations alone.) The German guards threatened to shoot anyone who gave the prisoners food. One heroic, defiant young woman ran inside the line of prisoners, placed bread firmly into Abraham’s hands, and as she ran back out, a German guard smashed the butt of his rifle down on her head. In all likelihood, she never got up again.
I am composing a work to commemorate this unknown Czech heroine. I was scouring poetry and psalms for words, and even ordered an anthology of Czech poetry with translation. Finally, I decided to use my own words:
The Angel of Chomutov
To risk your life
to give bread
to a suffering child
Not knowing if he would live
To give your life
if all he would live to know
was that you risked your life
to give him bread
Most precious of gifts
More than all the garnet of Bohemia
all the gems of Moravia
Your bread – bestower of life
To risk your life
that the last thing you would do
would be to give bread
to another woman’s starving child
To give your life
to show a tortured child
Life almost extinguished
by forces of darkest destruction
To show this captive child
the precious value of his life
Photo: Marilyn Herman 2018. Chomutov
Yesterday, while cycling down a steep downhill stretch with a car constantly hooting behind me, I was moved to write this post.
London has become death city for cyclists. When I go out on my bike, I make sure that I have something on me that can identify me.
There are a number of things that drivers need to understand about cyclists, to make drivers less lethal, and less detrimental to cyclists’ nervous systems. I believe these points should be incorporated in the Highway Code for drivers. (Some of them may already be.)
1. Cyclists are as entitled as drivers to be on the roads. The vast majority of us are drivers as well as cyclists, and have at least as much road sense as you (whether we drive or not), and when/if we own vehicles, pay road tax.
2. We are affected by gradients. If we are cycling down a steep hill, we need both hands to be braking the whole time, and do not have a third arm to indicate. We may manage a very rapid arm indication. So you will know, if we move towards the centre of the road while slowing down, that we need to turn right. And you will know if we slow down on the LHS of the road, that we need to turn left or stop. (You would need to watch another vehicle in the same way to see what they are doing. Just because a vehicle is indicating or not indicating, you cannot be sure of what the driver is going to do.)
3. If we are cycling up a hill, we cannot cycle fast – especially if it is a steep hill. Super-fit athletes can cycle faster than the rest of us – but that still won’t be as fast as on flat or downhill terrain. So there is no point in continually honking at us because you’d like us to go faster uphill. (Or yelling at us – especially if you are the female, blonde-haired, Eastern European driver of the 263 bus in East Finchley going towards Holloway.) Some of us are cycling to get from A to B, rather than as training – so we are not aiming to arrive at point B in a massive sweat. If we have a long way to cycle, we will need to pace ourselves, and not exert all our energy on an uphill stretch.
4. If we are on a mountain or hybrid bike, we have to work harder, and may not be able to cycle as fast on the road as someone on a road bike, because of our chunky tyres, and the weight and structure of our bikes. And as with uphill cycling, we may wish to pace ourselves to conserve energy for a long ride, or in order not to arrive at our destination in a state of exhaustion and drenched with sweat.
5. We understand that you need to go faster than us, and will move over so that you can overtake at suitable points. But you need to be patient until those suitable points are available.
6. We take up space, and we are entitled to that space. If we pass parked cars, we need to allow a car-door’s width’s space to pass so that we are not knocked off our bikes by a suddenly-opening car door. Similarly, we cannot, and do not have to, cycle in the gutter.
7. Please do not do an emergency stop in front of us for no good reason. We cannot stop as suddenly as you can – especially going downhill.
8. This is a point for pedestrians too, who see cyclists coming, but decide to cross right in front of us anyway, thinking we can stop in a split second. We can’t, and will instinctively swerve, placing us in danger of passing or oncoming traffic. So pedestrians, if a cyclist is approaching, wait for her/him to pass before crossing.
9. The number of times I have been “shaved” by overtaking buses – especially in Oxford! Here I will quote from:
“Rule 163 requires that drivers “give motorcyclists, cyclists and horse riders at least as much room as you would when overtaking a car”. So far, so good – and how much room should be given when overtaking a car? – just enough to “not get too close”. I expect you see the problem.”
“As part of Cycling UK’s response to the Department for Transport’s cycling and walking safety review, we will propose a move from the vague notion of not getting “too close”, to a more clearly defined rule which gives objective guidance to drivers – and to courts. For example, the Code could cite a guideline of 1.5m as a safe overtaking distance at speeds up to 30mph, and 2.0m for higher speeds, while also urging drivers to leave wider gaps in bad weather, and advise those in charge of larger vehicles to take extra care.”
10. I learned while driving my first car, a mini, that drivers of large cars tend to be bullies on the road. And now cars can be larger than ever – like tanks, or minibuses! So just because you drive a large car, you are not superior or more important or entitled than the rest of us!!!
This blog will probably be added to in future.
In Buddhist meditation, we have the intention of working on our minds. (Although that may be contentious: the idea of having any goal in meditation, rather than just being in the meditation – even if that is to aim at being in the meditation).
Since clinging was identified by Buddha as the cause of all suffering, we are aiming to let go of clinging, which we practise, by letting go of thoughts and of the breath. We work to improve our mind states, to be present, and therefore to be aware of what comes up in the mind, and to let go of whatever comes up, whether we judge it to be positive or negative.
Akong Tulku Rinpoche (Restoring the Balance, p53) states: “Most of us have fifty percent good and fifty percent bad. So there is fifty percent to work on.” That seems to me to be a high percentage of bad!
Jinananda – an angel to my mind – wrote in his blog two months before his death:
“There are still one or two people who I may have felt treated me badly at one time or another, that I’ve lost contact with, but you know, we’re all in the same boat. Human beings do damage to each other. And now it’s the damage I’ve done to those I love that I feel in the guts, not the damage done to me.” (31.10.17)
So this is not a good assessment of the human condition from a couple of Buddhists. Most of us have 50% bad (and good), and “human beings do damage to each other”. Bearing in mind that the ratio of bad to good is so high in most of us, we should not be surprised when we ourselves, or other people, do not live up to our expectations of consistent goodness. Yet it is surely not productive to expect ourselves or other people to have approximately 50% of bad in them. People often deliver according to their own and others’ expectations, so it would surely be more productive to set high expectations of goodness. At any rate, I think there must be more variation in ratio of good to bad in people. And these ratios will also vary at different stages of our lives.
So whenever I find myself particularly unable to let go of something in my mind; whenever I make what feel like catastrophic, yet avoidable, mistakes through carelessness or anger, I wonder whether Buddhist meditation is in fact doing me any real good. I wonder if there has really been any point to spending hours of my life on the cushion. (When I come across negativity in other meditators, I find it similarly paradoxical.)
Perhaps the difference is that after the fact of this cumulative meditation, I may be able to own up to my mistakes more quickly, or at all. While my reaction might initially be defensive, and I may search for ways to mitigate or justify or even disown unskilful actions of mind, body or speech, I might now perhaps become aware of these things sooner. It’s hard to know if I get fewer things wrong the longer I keep up a meditation practice – how can we know what we would have got wrong otherwise?
In aiming for or wanting something (non-clinging), we may be averse to and resistant to what we do not want (clinging), and Buddhism teaches us that we actually strengthen thoughts and feelings that we resist, by giving them energy. This is why we practise letting go of thoughts. So could our meditation, with such an intention, actually be strengthening our clinging through our resistance to it, instead of eroding it? This may be the logic behind the ideal of sitting in meditation with no purpose. Just to be with the sitting, with the body, and the breath. (However, someone once pointed out that when we meditate, it is a good idea to set up conscious intentions, because otherwise unconscious intentions may take over.)
In speaking of intentions, these are apparently the driving force of karma: the consequences of our actions. To put it simplistically, actions deriving from positive intentions reap positive karma, and the opposite applies to actions deriving from negative intentions. But in my experience, great harm may come about from actions where intentions have not been negative, and it is possible for positive consequences to result from actions deriving from negative intentions. I have not found a way of reconciling this with ideas of karma, but welcome input/discussion on this. Actions and intentions can be very mixed. One can be doing something beautiful, such as caring for a child, and at the same time, mindlessly engage in idle gossip without negative intentions, which may result in someone being hurt. Or in trying to protect oneself (a positive intention), one may unintentionally endanger someone else.
According to Chogyam Trungpa, “The Sanity We Are Born With” apparently evades us thereafter unless we can avoid psychosis (manifested by our habitual reaction to our own projections) by developing an effective meditation practice.
And according to Tibetan Lama Rinpoche Yeshe, meditation strengthens the mind. These are certainly good reasons to meditate!
Many people come to meditation to find peace. Chogyam Trungpa seems to scoff at the idea of using meditation as a tranquillizer. The bigger aim of Buddhism is the cultivation of world peace; the sum total of the cultivation of all our individual peace.
One kind of Buddhist meditation is known as “insight” meditation, and I have found, from time to time, that I seem to receive insight during meditation – particularly on meditation retreats.
To return to the quote from Jinananda’s blog: “And now it’s the damage I’ve done to those I love that I feel in the guts, not the damage done to me.” What can be done with that feeling in the guts? The Buddhist way is to acknowledge the feeling, rather than to push it away. To contact the feeling rather than find a way of evading it through self-medicating with drugs, or alcohol, or other distractions. To be aware, and to resolve not to repeat negative actions. I have come to the conclusion that there is no way of truly compensating or being compensated for harm caused to anyone, even if the harm was unintentional. Feelings of guilt, which is in fact “self-hatred” are definitely not the answer. But perhaps what some of us can expect, like Jinananda, as time starts to run out, is that feeling in the guts.
Photo from Shalom Seri & Naftali Ben-David (Eds.) A Journey to Yemen and its Jews. 1991. Tel Aviv.
It tends to be asserted – and has been for decades – generally by those who oppose Israel, that Jews who lived in Arab lands were just fine – that there were no problems between Arabs and Jews before the State of Israel was established. This assertion is made with absolutely no knowledge of the facts! The message intended to be conveyed is that it is the fact of Israel’s establishment and existence that is the source of all problems between Arabs or Muslims and Jews in the Middle East.
Having researched on the situation of Jews in Yemen during the period preceding their main exodus to Israel in the 1950s “on the wings of eagles”, I am in a position to respond to such assertions with particular reference to Yemen. So I’ll provide a brief account of the situation of Jews in Yemen, mainly from the time of the second Ottoman occupation of that country in 1872 which lasted until 1918, after which time it came under the rule of Zaydi imams.
The Arab population of Yemen was divided between a number of Muslim sects. The ruling sect was the Zaydi (Shi’ite) sect. Judaism was the only other religion to have survived in Yemen apart from Islam.
Jews came at the bottom of the hierarchical system in Yemen. This system was caste-like in respect of there being a traditional connection between rank and occupation, and prohibitions of various degrees existing against intermarriage and the sharing of meals between members of different ranks. In order of descent, the ranking system was as follows:
I Royal lineage and some other Zaydi lineages.
II Sayyids – holy men, who claimed descent from Husayn and Fatima, the daughter of Mohammed.
III Mashayikh – large landowners and religious scholars. (Bujra 1971)
The above three ranks were accorded prestige and authority. Further down along the scale were:
IV Gabili – small landowners and free farmers.
VI Pedlars, vagrants, slaves and other pariah groups
VII Ahl-Al-Dhimmi – protected peoples who, in Yemen, were the Jews.
It seems that in rural areas, category VI (above) was actually considered, and treated as ranking, lower than the Jews – at least among the tribespeople.
Although the Jews had no choice but to tolerate the place allocated to them in Yemenite society, I find no evidence that they accepted that they were inferior to anyone because of their rank. It is interesting to note that they referred to the class of Muslim holy men as “impures” (teme’im), (or “Jew baiters”,) expressing contempt.
During the first century of the spread of Islam, Muslims were a minority in the countries they conquered, and had to depend on the conquered peoples for their military security, administration, food, and finance. However, during the second and third centuries of the Islamic era, Muslims became the majority in all the conquered countries. At this time, they developed an elaborate religious law, and began to pass anti-Jewish and anti-Christian legislation, some of which was taken directly from Byzantine anti-Jewish legislation, and which continued to apply in Yemen up to the time when the majority of the Yemenite Jews were flown to Israel in “Operation Magic Carpet” in 1949 and 1950.
The status of the Jews in Yemen was governed by two sets of laws: those deriving from the Covenant of Omar, and those specific to Zaydi legislation in Yemen. The Covenant of Omar, originally attributed to the second caliph, Umar ibn Khattab (d. 644), is a collection of discriminatory regulations and restrictions applied to the Ahl al Dhimma (people of the covenant) – protected peoples – this status being open to Ahl Ketab (people of the Scriptures) – Christians and Jews. These regulations were issued by various Caliphs and sultans from the early years of the eighth century to the mid 14th century when the Covenant received its finishing touches, whenever religious fanaticism or envy directed towards the protected peoples spilt over. They were intended as interpretations of the following prescription of Mohammed:
Fight those who do not practice the religion of truth from among those to whom the Book has been brought, until they pay the tribute by their hands, and they be reduced low.
Because Jews and Christians are believers in the essential truth: that there is one God, they have a right to be protected together with their property. However, they only have this right so long as they pay jizzyah (poll tax) and comply with a number of other laws. The (unrealisable) idea behind the payment of jizzyah was that while Muslims should be responsible for defence and administration, the infidels should bear the entire fiscal burden of the country and the task of keeping up its economy.
According to the Covenant of Omar:
I Jews could not bear witness against a Muslim, or give testimony in a Muslim court. This in theory deprived Jews of any legal rights, but in Yemen, this severe disadvantage was counterbalanced by the institution of “protected comradeship”, as described below.
II Ahl al Dhimma could not carry arms or ride on horseback, as this would give them an advantage over some Muslims in terms of power or height.
III They had to display a respectful attitude towards Muslims. On passing a Muslim, a Jew had to walk on his left side. They were not permitted to engage in any conduct considered offensive to Muslims, such as blowing the shofar loudly, praying loudly, or displaying the cross in public. (A shofar is a ram’s horn blown on the Jewish New Year and other solemn religious occasions.)
VI They could not build their houses higher than those of Muslims.
V They had to dress differently from Muslims.
VI They could not attain to government posts, since prestige and authority attached to such posts could accrue only to Muslims.
VII Non-Muslim doctors or pharmacists were forbidden to treat Muslims on the grounds that they might poison them, or that through control of a patient’s body, they might also gain control over his soul. (In practice, Jews were appointed doctors, and even viziers, to sultans and imams in many Islamic countries, including Yemen.)
VIII Some law books of Islam state that a non-Muslim may not engage in the same commerce as Muslims. This was reiterated in a public proclamation by the Imam of Yemen in 1905, but its application was limited. The most ancient law books of Islam discriminate against non-Muslims in the economic field by imposing customs duties at 5% on the value of their merchandise, whereas Muslim merchants paid two and a half per cent, and the minimum value of consignment on which duties were paid was 40 dinars for a Muslim, and 20 dinars for a non-Muslim.
IX Non-Muslims were not permitted to use saddles.
X They could not look upon the genitals of a Muslim in the bath house, while separate bath houses were to be built for Jewish women so that they did not bathe together with Muslim women.
XI Non-Muslims, as well as Muslims, were forbidden to lend money for interest.
XII Finally, Jews were not permitted to study the Torah outside the synagogue.
In Yemen, Jews were subjected to the above legislation in varying degrees of intensity, up to the time when they left.
In addition to the Covenant of Omar, regulations specific to Yemen were imposed upon Jews, who were often called upon to carry out tasks thought to contaminate Muslims. Tobi (1999) relates that the introduction of discriminatory laws began in Yemen in the 15th century with a significant change in attitude of the Zaydi government towards Jews. When the Ottomans governed a large part of Central Yemen 1872 to 1919, they tried to raise the status of Jews to a level equivalent to that held by Jews elsewhere in their empire. But their efforts ceased in the face of opposition on the part of sectors of the Yemenite population and religious scholars. However, tribal sheikhs did not strictly enforce these laws. For example, while in San’a (Yemen’s capital) Jewish houses were lower in structure than Muslim houses, there was mostly no difference between their heights in rural districts. In the North and North East of Yemen, Jews, similarly to the local tribesmen, carried arms, and in Northern Yemen, Jews were even taught to use guns by tribesmen.
According to Tobi, the Yemenite governments were among the most extreme of the Islamic countries with regard to their treatment of Jews as anjâs (unclean). In San’a, the decree of the “scrapers” or “dung gatherers” was revived from 1846 until 1950, having previously been imposed on them from 1806 to 1808. This decree stipulated that Jews be forced to clean the sewers in the city. Jews were also obliged to remove camel and horse carcasses as part of the decree, and clear accumulated filth from Muslim streets, and the dead body of a Christian had to be buried by Jews. In practice, a small proportion of Jews were willing to carry out these tasks for a higher than normal remuneration on behalf of the Jewish community, and Nini (1991) relates how this resulted in a type of “caste” of “untouchables” among the Yemenite Jews, this status being passed down within the families, and with other families refraining from marrying from among them. These Jews were not called up in the synagogue to read the Torah, nor invited to festive occasions. Their children were excluded from studying with other children. Under Arab rule, the “dung gatherers” were unpaid for this work, but under the Ottomans, they were paid gold pounds and silver coins, and their economic situation improved. This decree was a strong motivating factor in the migration of San’ian Jews to Palestine from 1881, and the dispersal of Jews throughout Yemen and into Egypt. In 1949, Muslims in San’a prevented the migration of “dung gatherers” to Israel.
Upon the capture of San’a by the Ottoman Ahmad Mukhtar who was well disposed towards the Jews, the “decree of the dung gatherers” and the “orphans’ decree (see below) imposed on Jews were temporarily abrogated. However, this met with strong pressure applied by the Muslim religious dignitaries of San’a to reinstate these decrees. Similarly under pressure exerted by these Muslim religious dignitaries, the jizzyah (poll tax) previously imposed on the Jews of San’a was revived and raised from 27 to 77 riyals per month. Despite the positive intentions of Ahmad Mukhtar and the initial Ottoman administration towards their Jews, according to Nini, illegal taxes and bribes and their arbitrary and forceful extortion, became more prevalent under the Ottomans.
According to Nini, between 1882 and 1900, payment of jizzyah was one of the greatest burdens endured by the San’a community. During the Festival of Succoth 1990, Ottoman troops broke into the Jewish quarter of San’a and arrested ten of the most prominent community leaders, who were the overseers of the jizzyah payment. They were incarcerated and tortured for three months, while the Ottoman administration appealed to the Jewish religious court to make payment. This situation motivated a number of Jews to migrate to Palestine.
Jews under the protection of the Zaydi tribes in North and North East Yemen, where the Ottomans were not in control, were obliged to pay jizzyah to the central authority in San’a and also to pay the tribes under whose protection they were living. A compromise was reached where a symbolic payment was made to the tribal Sheikh.
Another calamitous regulation imposed on the Yemenite Jews by the Ottoman authorities was the “decree of the stretcher-bearers” in 1875. This decree imposed on the San’ian Jewish community the task of carrying wounded soldiers from San’a through Manakha to Hudayda. This was a treacherous journey along narrow winding paths at the edge of precipices, which was dangerous even for an unladen traveller. On the eve of the festival of Succoth, they were ordered to send 80 Jews to carry wounded Ottoman solders. This entailed desecrating the holy festival. Therefore the Jewish community leaders refused to comply with this command unless those commandeered were specifically requested by name.
“On the following day a manhunt was held in the Jewish quarter, and those apprehended were cruelly beaten. Some of them succeeded in bribing the local Muslim soldiers and evading arrest. Those caught were thrown into jail when four were allocated a wounded soldier and the terrible journey to Manākha commenced. The accompanying troops urged the Jews on with whip lashes.” (Nini, 1991, 74)
A number of stretcher-bearers died by the wayside on the treacherous route. They had been forced to desecrate both the Sabbath and a holy festival, which was something unheard of under the Zaydi regime before the Ottoman occupation. Zaydi Imams and local rulers were most careful not to incur such desecration. Any Jews summoned to the Zaydi authorities on the eve of the Sabbath could evoke the Prophet’s protection of the Jewish Sabbath, and delay presenting himself until after the Sabbath.
Another hardship specifically suffered in the 19th century by those Jews who were in charge of minting coins, were accusations of counterfeiting coins. According to Nini, these accusations were almost all groundless.
From the time of their conquest in 1892, the Ottoman Turks forced the Jewish community of San’a to mill grain for their soldiers, failing which Jews and Yemenite Muslims would be beaten by Ottoman soldiers. Jewish women were therefore forced to mill flour for the Ottoman troops, and when this was too strenuous for them, they would be helped by their menfolk. At the turn of the 20th century, after years of drought and famine, many Jews had moved to the villages of Yemen, or to Palestine or Egypt. Thus the Jewish population of San’a diminished considerably, and yet the milling quota imposed on them remained the same. The imposition of this “flour-milling decree” entailed the violation of their holy festival of Passover, as the Jews were unable to keep their milling stones kosher in accordance with the rules of Passover, and led to the migration of many Sa’nian Jews to Palestine.
Another great hardship and violation suffered by the Jews of San’a in the 20th century was perpetrated by Imam Yahya al-Muta Walkil after ascending to power, when he had all the synagogues built in San’a during Turkish rule destroyed.
In accordance with Orthodox Islam, conversion to Islam should not be achieved by force, and according to Nini, there is no mention in Muslim law of a religious injunction to convert to Islam the “People of the Book”. However, in Yemen, in their eagerness to gain proselytes, an edict issued in 1921 and enacted upon with vigour from 1925 dictated the forced conversion of orphans. This decree was in force in the 19th century up until the Ottoman conquests in 1840 – 1872, and 1872-1905, and was then revived in the 1920s under pressure from “fanatical religious dignitaries”. Tobi describes Zaydi-ruled Yemen as unique among the Muslim states in its promulgation of the Orphans’ Law and Dung Collectors Law. (Besides religious zeal, another factor which gave rise to this edict may have been the Imam’s need, from time to time, to fill vacancies in his “orphanages”, which were in fact military academies.) An orphan was defined as one whose father had died before he or she had attained puberty, and was to be converted even if in the meantime he or she had grown up and married. According to Goitein, the legal basis for this is found in a statement attributed to Mohammed, that everyone is born into a natural state of religion – that is, Islam – and that other religions are merely customs taught to a child by his parents. As the mortality rate was very high in Yemen, mothers were often separated in this way from their children, and brothers and sisters separated from each other. Attempts were made to save orphans from such a fate. They would be sent to other villages where they could be passed off as the children of relatives, or anyone who would look after them. Such attempts were not always successful, and it was not uncommon that they were betrayed by their own people. This is the law which Yemenite Jews found most intolerable, and felt most bitter about. In Zaydi tribal areas, however, Nini informs us that conversion was not enforced, and orphans would therefore be sent there for refuge.
There were also other circumstances in which proselytes were made. Jews converted to Islam to escape the consequences of false accusations, and other desperate situations. In times of famine, many Jews (apparently, mostly women) accepted Islam as the only means of obtaining food from the Imam for themselves and their children. An example of this was in 1905 when Imām Yahyā Ibn Muhammad Hamīd al-Din planned a rebellion against the Ottoman rulers. He ordered his followers to lay siege to Ottoman-ruled cities, including San’a, where an estimated 6000 Jews starved to death: 80% of the Jewish population of San’a. Mass conversions to Islam occurred at this time among the Jewish population, as the Muslim clergy cared for converts.
The right to leave Yemen was denied to Jews, for once they left the territory, they forfeited their right to security of their persons and property. The reason for this restriction was perhaps the desire to keep their craft skills in Yemen, or else to inhibit their trading. In particular, the territories of the enemy: Turkey, and those under the British protectorate, were considered out of bounds. In practice, however, there were many Jews who managed to leave Yemen. This was facilitated by the British conquest of Aden in 1839. Many of Aden’s 800 original inhabitants were Jewish, and as a British protectorate, the city became a flourishing port, attracting Jews from other parts of Yemen. From here, they were able to migrate to other countries. Nini states that Jews migrated to Aden, Egypt, Ethiopia, India and Palestine, while Muslims also migrated to neighbouring countries.
The Jews of Yemen lived separately from Muslims, in separate villages, or different quarters in the towns. In San’a, this prohibition originated in the time when its Jews were expelled to the uninhabitable region of Mawza (1679-1680) where their population was decimated. When it was subsequently realised that there were no craftsmen left in San’a, those Jews surviving were allowed to return, but were forced to take up residence outside the city walls, rather than return to their homes. However, in the case of smaller villages where there were only a few Jewish families, Jewish communities did not live separately from the Muslim population.
The interpretation and enforcement of the restrictions and prohibitions imposed on the Jews in Yemen varied from district to district, and from one period to another. For the two centuries preceding the Jews’ departure from Yemen, their majority were mostly located in Zaydi regions. The Northern tribes were independent of the government in San’a, and in their regions, the status of the Jews was in effect determined by the tribal code of honour rather than any restrictive regulations derived indigenously, or from the Covenant of Omar. Eraqi-Klorman (2009) states that tribal law would override Shariah in these regions. Y. Saphir (1886) reported in the second half of the 19th century that in almost all the Jewish communities in central Yemenite plateau, Jews were found who had fled from San’a because of oppression encountered there.
The extent to which the laws were imposed upon Jews depended a great deal on the good-will of their Muslim neighbours. Habshush, the San’ian Jew who narrates Travels in Yemen (Goitein,1941), informs us, for example, that the Jews in al-Madid were relatively well-off since the Nihm tribesmen were “good-natured”, and it did not matter to them if a Jew raised his voice or built his house too high. In this part of Arabia, he continues, the tribal code of honour alone counted, even to the exclusion of the law of Mohammed. According to the former, “the overlord is judged according to his protégés”. Therefore, the welfare of the Jews of Nihm was an indication of the quality of the tribe of Nihm itself.
This point on Jews’ welfare depending on the goodwill of their neighbours is also borne out by Tobi. For example, despite the restrictions stipulated in the Covenant of Omar against Jews’ bearing arms, and this not being “customary” in Yemen – (although it was Jews who manufactured weapons) – he states that Jews in northern Yemen were not bound by this restriction and went about armed and unfearful. In fact, they identified with the tribes among whom they lived, and supported and co-operated with the Imams in their revolts against the Ottoman occupiers, sometimes joining the forces against them. (In this way, they contrasted with the Jews of central and Southern Yemen, where it appears they favoured the Ottoman and the British rulers, according to Tobi, in the case of the Ottomans, presumably before their rule became oppressive. When the Ottomans conquered Yemen in 1872, “The Jews greeted the event as a miracle”. [Nini, 1991] This joy was particularly held by the Jews of San’a who lacked tribal protection, and were vulnerable to tribal attacks. They thought that the Ottoman presence would protect them from the sieges and starvation these onslaughts incurred.)
According to Tobi, there is a great deal of evidence that in central and Southern Yemen, the prohibition against riding on horseback was enforced. Only a sick Jew was allowed to ride a donkey, and then was required to yell: “’ala ra’yah” (“By your leave!”) in order to placate any passing Muslim. In San’a, in 1936, Muslims were allowed to haul Jews off their donkeys. In N.E Yemen, by contrast, riding was permitted to Jews even on horseback.
In Central Yemen, Jews wore black only in obedience to a government decree against fine clothing, and for fear of arousing envy among Muslims. In 1667, the Decree of the Headgear was implemented, forbidding Jews to wear elaborate turbans . However, in North Yemen, Jews are depicted in colourful and resplendent clothes and turbans.
Following “messianic activity” in 1667, Jews were ordered to grow sidelocks – which was not in force in Northern Yemen.
In accordance with the Covenant of Omar, Jews were forbidden to build houses higher than those of Muslims. While this was the case in San’a, and perhaps in other cities and large towns, again, in Northern Yemen, this stipulation was not enforced, and Eraqi-Klorman states that there was mostly no difference in height between Muslim and Jewish dwellings in rural areas. Tobi relates that in Sa’dah and Haydan, there were some grand Jewish houses 5 or 6 storeys high, with some 15-20 rooms. In the district of Barat, Jews and Muslims did not live in separate quarters.
Other stipulations specific to Yemen or deriving from the Covenant of Omar – relating to the “uncleanness” of Jews in the eyes of Zaydis, a Jew’s obligation to pass a Muslim on his left side, and the disqualification of a Jew’s testimony, were not in force in Northern Yemen.
The majority of Jews depended for their wellbeing on an institution called “protected comradeship”, whereby a Jew, or a whole village of Jews, submitted themselves by a solemn ritual of sacrifice to the protection of a powerful tribe (or even several) – in particular its Sheikh – for whom it was a matter of the highest honour to administer justice. (Subordinate Muslim groups such as the Qarawi, also acquired tribal protection in the same way.) A tribal chief was obliged to accept a request for tribal protection, otherwise his reputation would be at stake. Eraqi-Klorman states that the obligation of a tribe to protect a jar (protected subject), and the shame of any failure to do so, was related to viewing the Jews as a weak group within the tribe, and to “perceiving their men as having a blurred gender identity, as not being real men”.
The following account (Goiten, 1947) indicates the efficacy of the institution of “protected comradeship”. Joseph Shukr, a Jewish protected comrade of Bait Luhum – the most powerful tribe in the district – was repairing a leather bucket at a farmer’s house, when a “half-witted” Muslim approached him and, before Joseph realised his intention, struck him on the head with a piece of wood so violently that he died immediately. Afterwards, the murderer asserted that the Jew had bewitched him into murdering him. The news of the murder spread quickly throughout the whole village and to nearby hamlets, until, that evening, 2,000 farmers of the Bait Luhum tribe had armed themselves while a similar number had made their way to Ibn Mesar, the advocate for the murderer, also prepared for battle. Eventually, the noblest sheikhs of the four greatest tribes of Yemen were called upon to judge the matter, and decided that since the murderer was not in full possession of his faculties, he was not really responsible for his crime, which could not therefore be avenged with blood. Instead, his advocate was ordered to pay quadruple blood money: twice for the family of the murdered Jewish man, and twice for the protector, and in addition, he had to meet the very high legal costs. This judgement was accepted and fulfilled by Ibn Mesar, and the murder was thus considered avenged. This was essential to the Muslims, for if the crime had remained unavenged, the murdered Jew would “ride on the murderer” at the last judgement.
Muslims can forgive one another, but Allah himself takes care of the unprotected Jew’s revenge. (Goitein, 1947)
Therefore, while Jews may have been considered as “weak”, we can see that fear was a factor in their protection: that they were feared – particularly in the hereafter.
The Jews’ observance of their religion was a matter of concern to tribesmen in Yemen. Muslims were dependent for their well-being on Jews’ observance of their religious laws, and therefore felt threatened by Jews who flouted any of these laws that they were aware of – the main one being the commandment which is the most important for Jews: observance of the Sabbath. For example, Klorman recounts an incident in which a Jewish man, Shar’abi, returned late after business dealings, and arrived home only barely in time for the Sabbath. The village sheikh, ‘Ali Qa’id, shouted at him angrily for being late, and for having insufficient time to prepare for the Sabbath, which he was therefore in danger of desecrating. It seems that the concern of the tribesmen was that any irreligiosity would adversely affect the whole community, including Muslims. Therefore they saw the Jews’ compliance with their own laws as a responsibility they bore on behalf of everyone.
Jews would be called upon to hold prayers for rain at times of drought, being believed to have control over the climate. But its corollary also applied: Jews were believed to have the power to disrupt the climate and halt rainfall.
Some Jews were renowned for specialized magic skills, such as the power to control demons and exorcise them from people who had become possessed by them. However, with this dependency and belief in Jews’ power came fear that Jews could use such power for harmful purposes. Klorman mentions sources relating to Jews intentionally performing sorcery, and to Jews whose actions were incorrectly interpreted as sorcery, and who were therefore “punished”. Klorman describes the case of Ba’al Hefetz (literally: “Owner of the book” – a title attributed to a mori with kabbalistic knowledge of the Book of Zohar) Busi Shalom from the village of Hamd Sulayman in the Shar’ Ab district, at the beginning of the 20th century. The area’s tribesmen:
“…sensed that something was wrong about this Jew. They suspected that he was causing trouble with their women, and that he instigated wives to dislike their husbands and created hatred between them. Therefore they ambushed him on the road, caught him, and tied him in a sack and threw him into a reservoir.” (Klorman 2009:129)
Therefore beliefs were held by Muslim tribesmen in a Ba’al Hefetz’s ability to control other people’s minds.
The respect and dependency of Muslims on the religious observance of Jews, and on mystical powers attributed to them, which placed upon Muslim tribesmen the imperative to protect Jews and their religious observance, could and sometimes did, it seems, turn to fear of their relationship with mystical sources, which could become dangerous and fatal for Jews who found themselves as the target of such fear.
Woman in rustic dress. Photo from Daughter of Yemen, edited by Shalom Seri
The Jews of Yemen were scattered throughout the whole of Yemen in more than 1,000 localities: villages, towns, and some cities. 85% of Yemenite Jews lived in rural or tribal areas in order to be near their clients who were generally farmers.
By law, Jews could not engage in the same occupations as Muslims who, in Yemen, were predominantly agricultural. Nevertheless, Barer (1952) was told by Yemenite Jews that about half of their numbers were farmers: that Jewish villagers frequently had their own fields, wells, fruit trees and olive groves. However, they were not permitted to be freeholders, but had to lease their land from Muslims. In San’a and the seaports, some Jews were merchants, dealing especially in coffee. Primarily, the Jews filled an occupational niche in Yemen as craftsmen, whose skills were passed down from father to son. As the country’s craftspeople, the Muslim population was dependent on their skills.
Nevertheless, the Jews were far more dependent economically on the Muslims than vice versa, for in the considerable times of famine and drought, the Muslims could temporarily dispense with the products of the Jews, whereas the Jews could not do without the agricultural produce of the Muslims. The Jews, therefore, felt such calamities most severely. In particular, Nini refers to the drought and famine of the 1890s, and subsequently of 1903 which “decimated the population” of San’a.
For most of the period dealt with here, it seems Jews were safer and better off with the tribespeople particularly in the North and North Eastern regions of Yemen, than they were in San’a and the major cities. Yet they were nevertheless subject peoples: clients, and there was therefore a significant power imbalance. Moreover, while fear was a factor motivating their protection, it was also something which could place their lives in great danger even in these very regions where they were otherwise relatively safe, dignified, and well-protected.
Therefore, it cannot be said that relations between Jews and Arabs in Yemen were fine until the establishment of Israel as a modern state. Throughout their long history in Yemen, they went through periods of enormous hardship and suffering. Even in the tribal areas where Jews may have been relatively well-off, their position was precarious and in times of drought and famine, they were at a great disadvantage. Since their position was tied to the need for protection and the goodwill of their neighbours rather than any fundamental human and civil rights, this placed them in a very dependent position, which could change with the ecological or political situation.
Photo from Shalom Seri & Naftali Ben-David (Eds.) A Journey to Yemen and its Jews. 1991. Tel Aviv.
Barer, S. 1952. The Magic Carpet. London, Secker and Warburg. 101.
Bujra, A.S. 1971. Politics of Stratification: A Study of Political Change in a South Arabian Town. Oxford University Press.
“Economic History” in Encyclopaedia Judaica, VI. Keter Publishing House, Jerusalem Ltd. 1972.
Esposito, J.L. 2004. The Oxford Dictionary of Islam. Oxford University Press. New York.
Eraqi Klorman, Bat-Zion. 2009. “Yemen: Religion, magic, and Jews”, in Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies 39. 2009. 125-134.
Goitein, S.D. 1964. Jews and Arabs: their contacts through the ages. Schocken Books, New York.
Goitein, S.D. 1947. Tales from the land of Sheba. Schocken Books, New York.
Goitein, S.D. (Ed.) 1941. Travels in Yemen. (English synopsis.) Jerusalem, Hebrew University Press.
Nini, Yehuda. 1991. The Jews of Yemen 1800 – 1914. Harwood Academic Publishers, Oxford, Zurich.
Rodinson, M. 1977. Mohammed. (Translated: A. Carter.) Penguin Books, Harmondsworth.
Saphir, Y. 1866. Even Sapir. Jerusalem.
Tobi, Yosef. 1999. The Jews of Yemen. Studies in Their History and Culture. Brill. Leiden, Boston, Köln.
Views from Goha Hotel, Gondar 2009:
Views of Wolleqa village, Gondar 2009:
Cow by a stream
Cows by the same stream
Girl guarding cows
Haimanut & her brother
Girl wearing an amulet
Fasil’s castle, City of Gondar:
Magical tree near Fasil’s castle:
Lake Tana, Bahar Dar
Including my “Vocalise” for Flute, Oboe and Clarinet in Bb. (My surname only has one of each letter!) Called “Vocalise” because I set out to write a “Vocalise” for voice and clarinet – but it took on a life of its own (as these things do), and became a work more suited to instrumental forces – winds. But I retained the title. I can’t wait to hear it performed by these superb musicians! And I love the atmosphere of the venue!
If there is a soprano out there who feels she would like to give the flute part a go, that would be great too! I would love to hear that!
Also, great that this concert is contributing towards putting women composers on the map. Women have been grossly ignored in the world of classical composition throughout its history. Today, when there is no shortage of women composers, there is no excuse. Just a couple or so years ago, not a single work by a woman composer was played throughout the entire summer prom series! And in the days when massive CD stores were still gracing the West End’s main streets (London), I went into the largest classical CD section to be found in a CD store in London (Tottenham Court Road) and could not find a single CD featuring works by women composers.
Sometimes we may perceive things in people that we react to. Our reaction may be positive or negative. Is is about us? Is it about them? As my dear late friend said: “If you don’t like cucumbers, it’s about you, and it’s also about cucumbers.”
We all have different constitutions, and different sensitivities. Some people take in more information than others – they may be psychically more open, because they have inherited a genetic state of being so, because they have been on the receiving end of some tremendous shock, or because they are tired, ill, hungry or in a state of fear, or their energy field has been severely depleted by being poisoned by chemotherapy or other toxic “treatment”.
I can’t remember in which book it was that D M Thomas or one of his characters comments that everyone becomes psychic in a wartime – no doubt because of being in a greater state of fear, and in a state of fine attunement to danger.
Then there is the theory of our shadows, promulgated by Jung, but embraced by many including Deepak Chopra. According to this theory, our shadows – rather than being insubstantial as real shadows are – contain all our self-rejected inclinations and emotions, all our denied negative characteristics: our dark sides! These we project on everything we don’t like.
There are people who take this rather far: everything we dislike, fear, or are repelled by, represents something we have rejected in ourselves that we are projecting on others. We are in a state of flight from our own shadows, and will try anything to suppress, tackle, subdue manifestations from the dark corners of our minds – including or especially self-medication! In order to dissociate ourselves from such shadow components, we may attribute them to others. Such subdued emotions may then, according to such a theory, leap out of their bonds in all manner of forms, including mental illness.
A lot of judgement and assumption is involved in applying such a theory – which is just one more way of trying to make sense of phenomena by labeling them and fitting them neatly into compartments.
It is an interesting exercise to apply this theory to ourselves. If I feel aversion towards a stranger, is it something in myself that I am projecting on that poor unsuspecting person? Observing myself, I have noticed that when I have felt aversion towards a complete stranger, it may be because this person physically resembles someone who may have harmed me in some way. (This of course is another kind of projection.). I will then have to tell myself that this is not the same person! That my reaction is unfair.
Generally, in cases of aversion, there are very many sources, and in each case, more than one source may be at work. Very often it is jealousy. Sometimes a person is emanating an energy redolent of a negative emotion which may repel us: one does not have to be extraordinarily psychic to sense anger or aggression emanating from a person, which will cause us to wish to keep a distance. The person may have a valid reason for feeling such a way – it does not have to mean she/he is a bad person – and that energy which may repel us may be very temporary.
These are all cases where projection of our own dark side is not an explanatory factor in why we may feel aversion towards a stranger.
People often reveal elements of their personalities, mind states and intentions in so many ways: through the way they hold themselves, and they way they move, more obviously facial expressions, their aura…..if we react with aversion – this again does not represent projection of our own dark side.
Thich Nhat Hanh describes the Tibetan Buddhist idea of all the emotions being present in each one of us but as seeds; any one can arise, but through meditation we can learn to recognize when a thought generating an emotion (or vice versa) arises, and allow both the thought and the emotion to subside again. There is no shadow – no dark side; there are simply seeds which we may feed, and allow to grow, or which we may allow to dissolve back to seed-state.
Much as there is a great deal of projection going around, this simplistic idea of projection of our dark side onto anyone we don’t like simply doesn’t hold water as an explanatory factor for all, or even most, cases of aversion. We human beings are far more complex than that! And in some cases, far more straightforward!
View from unglazed window of beach hut when I threw open the shutter each morning – Mac Bay Resort 1989
(Doo dun doo dun doo dee) I left Bangkok
(Doo dun doo dun doo dee doo) I thought I could rot
(Doo dun doo dun doo dee) & no-one would know
(Doo dun doo dun doo dee doo) But Mac said not
I was once invited to tell a story about someone’s kindness, and this is the story I told:
My father died of cancer a long time ago now.
Not long afterwards, at a dinner where my siblings and I were of silent and flat mood, so it was difficult to know what to say to us, my cousin’s wife suddenly had an idea: “I know! You could go to Thailand!”
So I went to Thailand. Though I thought: “I could rot there, and no-one would know.” This is how my father’s death left me feeling.
On the plane to Bangkok, again, I thought: “I could rot, and no-one would know.” But I was distracted from thinking that for long. The woman next to me on the plane was travelling there for her nephew’s ordainment as a monk in Bangkok, and invited me.
I spent a week in Bangkok. Then I took the sleeper train down south – through the day, through the night, and in the morning I took the boat to Koh (Island) Samui, and from there, another boat to Koh Phanang. (This was in the days before the Full Moon Parties, when travellers wore local clothes and ate local food! When there was just one tiny shop where you could buy toilet paper, water and mosquito coils.)
On the boat, resort owners from Koh Phanang were wooing travellers – showing pictures of their resorts. Mac wooed me and won my custom. I got behind him on his motorbike holding my guitar in one hand, holding onto Mac with my other arm, my excruciatingly uncomfortable rucksack on my back. Over rough & bumpy terrain – no road that I can remember – we arrived at Mac Bay Resort. Just a handful of huts on the beach which he’d built himself. He was never going to have more than 10 huts, he told me. (This was in the days before there was hot water there, and when we had to flush the toilets by pouring down bowlsful of water scooped from a bucket. We did however have showers, while the locals would walk to the local pump in the privacy of dusk, and soap and sluice themselves with bowlsful of water in their sarongs.)
And I thought: “I could rot, and no-one would know.”
Since the journey to Koh Phanang with the overnight train-ride had been exhausting, I went straight to bed and slept for a long time. When I finally got up and went to the restaurant of Mac’s resort to get something to eat, Mac commented: “You slept for a long time! I was worried! I thought that you were sick.”
I went for a swim. The sea was very shallow on that beach, so I had to go out far to reach water deep enough to swim in. There were sharks, I was told, but they were “friendly sharks”! I wasn’t very reassured, but I needed my swim! When I got out of the sea, Mac observed: “You were swimming for a long time, and you went very far out!”
It seemed that Mac was looking out for me, and I stopped thinking that I could rot and no-one would know!
Mac brought out some photos of his brother’s funeral. Mac had been studying Tourism at a university in Australia (where his wife was at the moment, introducing their baby – “a very beautiful baby” – to her family), when his brother was killed in a car accident in Bangkok. His parents didn’t let Mac know while he was in Australia, because they didn’t want him to abandon his studies. If he’d come to Thailand for the funeral, he wouldn’t have been able to afford to return to Australia. So for a year, Mac wondered why his brother never answered his letters. “He was a very good person…a very good person”, Mac told me, as we looked through the photos.
At this point, I started to cry. I then told Mac that my father had died just 4 months previously. Mac took me on his motorbike to a monastery on the island, and said it might help me to stay there for a while. But I said I couldn’t meditate in front of a statue of Buddha! (Little did I know that I would spend many years meditating in front of statues of Buddha in the future!)
* * *
When I told this story about Mac’s kindness, some people came up to me and said they’d done that journey from Bangkok to Koh Phanang! The overnight train…the boats…
14 years later, I returned to Koh Phanang. By this time, there was an airport on Koh Samui so I could just fly straight there, and then take a boat the next day to Koh Phanang. Mac Bay Resort was still there, but the original 10 wooden huts had been pulled down, and there was instead a multitude of stone huts with hot water and flushing toilets!
His brother remembered me even though I had only stayed there for a week 14 years previously. He showed me his guitar, which he said he had bought because of the guitar I had brought with me 14 years before, and because of my singing and playing on the verandah of my hut! This time, I didn’t have a guitar with me, but there was a music shop where I was able to hire one for my stay.
There was now a parade of shops in the neighbourhood – competing CD/DVD shops, supermarkets, gift shops… Travellers were wearing special travellers’ clothes and eating burgers and chips, and would go to Full Moon Parties on a beach which fortunately was on the other side of the island! But which was surreal – like a city for 21-year-olds – like something out of a science fiction movie!
14 years previously everyone on the island smiled at you as normal etiquette. The locals smiled at you, so then the travellers smiled back and at each other, and then you struck up a conversation, and spent the day or a few days together, until it was time to move on to the next place. Now the locals didn’t smile at us, and I was told that in fact they weren’t local. The original resort owners had moved out and on, and unsmiling outsiders had moved in to take over their prospering businesses. But Mac stayed!
I actually think this is Mac’s brother. If Mac’s brother sees this, maybe he’ll confirm?
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Hill tribe children (above) probably in Chang Mai
Well, I felt like writing a blog article. The next one I was planning still requires research. It’s a serious blog! So I wondered what else to write about just now, and this is it! As for the little verse at the top – that was part of another song I wrote but never got round to singing in public!