Jews who lived in Arab lands were NOT just fine! Jews in Yemen

YJ tefillin

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.

Rank
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.
V Merchants
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.

Anti-Jewish legislation
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.

Yemenite woman

Woman in rustic dress.  Photo from Daughter of Yemen, edited by Shalom Seri

Economic Situation
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.

YJ 3 generations

Photo from Shalom Seri & Naftali Ben-David (Eds.) A Journey to Yemen and its Jews.  1991.  Tel Aviv.

References:

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.

The British Mafia

We think of political and institutional corruption as being characteristic of other countries particularly outside Europe:  Africa, Latin America, etc.

Yet we in Britain got an awakening with the MPs’ expenses’ scandal.

And the residents in my previous neighourhood (in London Borough of Barnet) had no doubt that “money had changed hands” when the local council suddenly – really suddenly – in 2006, approved plans for 13 flats to be built just diagonally across the garden from my home – where building approval had failed on almost as many counts previously.  The next step would have been to go to court, and most of my neighbours – who had fought the proposals up to that point, seemed unwilling to put money into litigation.  So for the next year, we suffered the ordeal of a characterful period house being pulled down and replaced by a building which encroached on all possible space in all directions with maximisation of profit as the only motive.  The pilings, vibrations, noise on our doorstep – even on bank holidays and weekends and outside legally-permitted hours, until a letter from our MP at least had the effect eventually of confining their activity to legally permitted hours and days.  I could not bear to be in my home when the work was going on – even if I was ill.

Corruption in Britain – which brings me to my tale of the British “mafia”, and how it affected my mother.

When I published my earlier blog about my mother, (“Where the virulent anti-Semites lurk”) about how the Palestinian/Israeli medical system irradiated her brain when she was child, someone remarked on what “Israel did” to my mother.  It wasn’t Israel, I responded, but a sector of the Israeli medical system at the time, and some politicians, who believed they were actually doing something beneficial.

Well, I think it is time to relate what “Britain did” to my mother when she was an adult.  Only it wasn’t Britain, but just that British institution that serves as our “mafia”:  the Inland Revenue.

My mother had recurring brain tumours and spent inordinate periods of time in hospital undergoing surgery and skin grafts.  In the meantime she was unable to adequately manage her affairs, and as an effect of her illness, it seems she didn’t trust anyone to manage her financial affairs for her.  So the Inland Revenue came to take a great interest in tax that was owing, and my mother’s assets.  These consisted of a Company which owned eight flats in Richmond, of which my mother lived in one or two.  Another two or so were kept vacant for when her children stayed, and those remaining tended to be let out.

The Inland Revenue didn’t have to take all eight flats – but they were entitled to legally.  They could have let my mother remain in her home, but they weren’t obliged to legally.  Their bailiffs forced entry into her home, and kicked her out with great pleasure and gusto, according to my siblings, aged between the approximate ages of 13 to 17 who witnessed the whole scene.  She was moved into council accommodation in an area where she didn’t know anyone.

Not long after this, my brothers cycled across London to where she was living.  I can’t remember how they got in – probably they had to call the police to break in.  They didn’t know for how long she had been lying in bed unconscious.  Her starving alsation was roaming her flat with glazed eyes, having jumped through and smashed a window in order to get out to find water to drink.

My mother didn’t survive surgery for her third brain tumour.

So this is what the British mafia “did” to my mother.  Not as bad as irradiating a child’s brain, but they certainly finished off the job of killing my mother!

They were apparently legally entitled to forcibly evict her from her home, since it was part of the eight flats which formed her Company which they were apparently legally entitled to seize.  But once they sold the eight flats and reclaimed whatever was owing to them and a whole lot more, all that was returned, after my mother’s death, was £24,000.  Perhaps the value of one flat at the time (1982) – almost?  One out of eight!  So what about the value of the other seven?  (Today, eight comparable flats in Richmond might fetch well in excess of £2,000,000.  So the IR retained the equivalent of in excess of £1,750,000.)  One thing my family was certain of was that given the value of the flats and the maximum possible amount of my mother’s debts, it seemed the flats had been sold off extremely cheaply (to themselves?)   Certainly – to themselves!

J’accuse!

Every line of investigation was blocked.  But the Inland Revenue are Britain’s very own mafia – untouchable!

Music by Contemporary Women Composers

Music by contemporary catherine

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.

Shadows – projecting our dark sides – or not!

People shadows on sunny city street

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!

Mac said not

                                           20170213_114040View 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!

 

20170213_113911I actually think this is Mac’s brother.  If Mac’s brother sees this, maybe he’ll confirm?

* * *

hill-tribe-boy

hill-tribe-girlHill 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!

Rachel Rozsa *************************** In memory of my grandmother on Holocaust Memorial Day

 

silver-leaf-rose

My grandmother, Rachel* Rozsa, was born in Nagy (pronounced “Noj”) Szolos in Hungary (now Vinogradiv in the Ukraine).  An idyllic spa town nestling in the Carpathian Mountains, whose name means “Large grapes” – indicative of its wine production.  (Also famous because the composer Bartok moved there with his mother.)

nagy-szolos-1

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NS 11.JPG

Her father was Rav (Rabbi) Itzhak Braun, who was renowned for being a miracle-worker.  At the end of WWI, mothers would come to him to find out where their sons were.  It was described to me that he would close his eyes and grab hold of the mother’s arm, then after a while, he said:  “He is crossing the border NOW!” banging his cane on the ground at the precise moment at which the returning soldier was crossing the border, and it would turn out to be accurate.  It was also described to me that he would take children who were sick in their spirit into his home and they would heal in his atmosphere.

I was the first family member to visit Nagy Szolos in 70 years.  The previous visit was by Rachel Rozsa, who went to her father’s funeral taking my father when he was just a baby.

When I visited Nagy Szolos, I tried to find Rav Itzhak Braun’s grave in the Jewish cemetery.  The Mukaceve Rabbi’s driver took me there, and we stopped at a house on the way to pick up the key to the cemetery from the lady who lived there, returning it on our way back.  I spent 2 or 3 hours in the cemetery searching, but couldn’t find the tombstone.  Half of the cemetery was overgrown with weeds, so it was hard to access those stones.  Even where the weeds had been cut or trampled down, I was getting grazed and scraped by weeds, and burnt in the hot sun, trying to find it.  Many of the stones were eroded by the elements, so it was difficult or impossible to read the script.

cemetery

Overgrown with weeds:

Cemetery 3.JPG

Rachel Rozsa’s marriage was arranged by a matchmaker.  So after her marriage, she made the journey – a whole day by ox and cart (now an hour by car) from Nagy Szolos across the border into Mukacevo in Czechoslovakia, to live with a man she had met once or twice.  This is the view along the way:

Journey to NS 2.JPG

My aunt told me she was not happily married.  Her mother-in-law would come into the kitchen, lift the lids off her pots on the stove, and exclaim:  “What?  Is this what you give my son to eat?!!!”  So one can imagine this did not go down very well with Rachel Rozsa!  Being Hungarian, she made goulash.  She also made dumplings and pancakes.  When food became scarcer – probably after they were closed inside the ghetto – she was able to make a chicken last for 3 meals for 6 people.

My father couldn’t remember the colour of her hair.  Probably she kept her head covered most of the time.  I think it must have been brown – her daughter had brown hair, and her sons  had almost jet-black hair.  She loved reading and was well-read, took pride in her appearance, and one of the very few things I know about her is that she used to sing a song with the chorus:

Van London, van Nápoly,
van Konstantinápoly,
Van Róma, Barcselona,
Madrid, Csikágó

There’s London, there’s Naples,
There’s Constantinople,
There’s Rome, Barcelona,
Madrid, Chicago

…. and that she used to dream of going to these places.  If she had known that two of her sons would end up living in London and the other son in the States……said my aunt (who lived in Israel)!  (And of course …. if she had known that she would have 24 great-grandchildren, plus one brand new great-great-grandson…so far….)

When I was in Budapest (the nearest airport to Mukacevo & then a 7-hour train journey) I tried to find this song, and asked in a number of shops and museums.  Eventually someone told me it came from a film called Kek Balvany (“The Blue Idol”), and it was quite a feat to access a DVD copy of this film from the National Film Archive in Budapest, with the indispensable help of a Hungarian friend who also watched the film with me, patiently translating it!  I think my grandmother must have seen this film at the cinema in Mukacevo.  The family was religious, like all the Jews of the region.  But they sent one of their sons to the Zionist school (which the Mukaceve rebbe referred to as “that goyishe (colloquial & derogatory term meaning non-Jewish) school”, which indicates that they were not ultra-ultra religious.  And therefore I imagine she would have gone to the cinema.  Although my grandfather would consult the Mukaceve rabbi if he had any concerns about anything.  The song must also have been broadcast on the radio.

My father felt that his mother knew what was happening to Jews during WWII.

In 1944, Rachel Rozsa was transported to Auschwitz with her family.  They were forced off the train by barking SS with whips, and lunging alsations.  She was forced to separate from her sons and husband.  Someone, or some people, had decided that she should be exterminated, and had plotted, planned and collaborated to achieve this.  Someone made her strip.  Someone made her enter the gas chamber.  Someone had designed the gas chamber to accommodate her and others like and unlike her.  Someone released the gas into the chamber.  Zyklon B.  She would have been in her early 40s.

Before she was taken to the gas chamber, she told her 15-year old daughter, Miriam:  “I have lived.  Just that you should survive.”

A silver leaf in her memory was affixed to the silver tree installed by Tony Curtis outside the Great Synagogue in Budapest, each leaf commemorating a Hungarian Jew who was murdered in the holocaust.

Silver leaf + rose.JPG

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Apparently Rachel Rozsa did go to Budapest once with her father (and sister – I’m not sure how many sisters she had), although it is so far away from Nagy Szolos.

* * *

* Rachel is pronounced with the “a” sounding like the “u” in “up“, the “ch” sounding like the same letters in the Scottish word “loch“, & the “e” sounding like the “e” in “bell“.

You walk down the River Road

river-road

You walk down the River Road…..in Mukacevo (Munkacs) – Czechoslovakia between the wars, Hungary before that,  occupied by Hungary during WWII, now in the Ukraine, nestling in the Carpathian Mountains……

Where my father came from, and where he lived in this house with his family:

house

 

You walk down the River Road, which leads to the River Latorska, where my father and his brothers would jump off the bridge and swim….

River3.JPG

river-2

 

From the town centre ….

town-centre-a

…… from the municipality …..

town-centre-2

municipality

 

….the Town Centre

town-centre3

towncentre4

 

Where there’s a fabulous art deco cinema  (some of the earliest talkies were Hungarian)….

cinema

…and a theatre…

Theatre.JPG

So you walk down the River Road….

river-road

….and there on the left, on a pink wall is a Memorial Plaque. In Ukrainian & Hebrew, the following is written:

“In the year 1944 thousands of Jews were led from here on their last journey to death.”

memorial-plaque

 

 

At One

stunning night view

The Holy Isle – stupas, pier, view of Arran

At One

For string quartet and trumpet.

This work was written by me, with the idea of bestowing healing and calmness – a feeling of being at one with the world.  It is strongly influenced by jazz, in style, and also in method of composition.  I started this composition by setting out chords on the strings, and improvising over them for the trumpet part – this provides the opening of the piece.

In the very last section, the trumpeter has the option of either playing the pre-written part, or of improvising within specified parameters over the strings, which play the same chords as in the opening of the piece. In this performance, the trumpeter has chosen to improvise.  You can hear the abrupt change in melodic style at this point!  Until the final bar which was pre-written.

Performed here by the Impromptu Quartet and Clare Thorne on trumpet, at Lauderdale House, London, 2012. 

 

Swing Abeba

Screen Shot 2016-06-03 at 03.47.29My first love from early childhood was music: classical piano-playing, and singing (especially folk), accompanying myself on my beloved guitar.

However, it was social anthropology that I took to doctoral level, and as a way of not letting go of music, I specialised in the anthropology of music.

During my doctoral fieldwork, I performed with an Ethiopian-Jewish band called “The Band of Blossoming Hope” for 9 months.  (See my book:  Gondar’s Child.)  I also had lessons with the famous Ethiopian Christian singer Aklilu Seyoum, who coached the Band, in the Ethiopian intervallic mood-mode systems known as “keñetoch”.

Prior to this, I conducted research on Jewish society and music in Yemen, and wrote a substantial thesis on this subject.  Very many hours were spent listening to, analysing, and even painstakingly and painfully transcribing their music, and other kinds of Yemenite music.

Perhaps it was Ethiopian music, and also the American blues singers who frequented the folk clubs in Israel, which opened me up to jazz. Upon returning from my fieldwork to the UK, for years to follow, jazz became my passion. I studied with established jazz vocalists, performing at jazz jams, working hard on my vocal improvisation and learning the standard repertoire. Among the early tasks I was set was to sing along with recordings of Louis Armstrong’s trumpet-playing: a great training!  In my quest for jazz, I went to Manhattan where I attended lessons and vocal masterclasses, went to all the jazz jams and performances I could manage, and generally infused myself with jazz.

I am glad to say I finally returned to “my own” music and first love. I resumed my classical piano playing, and took it to another level – the most meaningful thing I feel I could have done with my life!

Years ago, I told a jazz musician about my background in music – all these diverse intensely-studied and deeply-internalised influences – and he said: “It will be dynamite when it all comes together!”.

Swing Abeba, a work for solo bassoon, is an example of some of these influences coming together.  Whether or not it is “dynamite” – even a small quantity of dynamite – even a teaspoonful, is for the listener, or player, to determine!

“Abeba”, means “flower” – part of the name of the Ethiopian capital city where modern Ethiopian music took root. “Abeba” is also a common refrain in their vocal music. True to its title, this work is influenced by Ethiopian popular music, which in turn was strongly influenced by swing rhythm in American big band jazz transmitted from an army radio station in Kagnew, in neighbouring Eritrea in the 1950s.

Ethiopian music – essentially song-based – consists of pentatonic melodies which tend to be deeply embedded in copious melismata, progressing in an improvisatory manner, similarly to jazz.

Accordingly, Swing Abeba begins with an Ethiopian, pentatonically melismatic treatment of an un-Ethiopian theme.  The music then breaks into a jazz-swing scherzo. The call-response nature of this scherzo recalls this feature of Ethiopian music. The second section begins with a slow, heavily melismatic ad lib passage marked “molto espressivo e pensivo”, which leads into a second swing scherzo, the opening themes reappearing in a different guise in the closing section.

In the recording here, it is played beautifully by John McDougall.  An earlier version of Swing Abeba was performed, equally beautifully, by Glyn Williams at the 17th New Winds Festival at Regent Hall in London, 2014.