`Last two Jews in Afghanistan'

 

Yitzhak Levy and Zebolan Simanto say they are the last two Jews in Afghanistan and they hate each other with a vengeance.

"Yitzhak and the Taliban, they're the same," said Mr Simanto (41), pressing the tips of two fingers together to make the point. Across the courtyard of a crumbling apartment building on Kabul's Flower Street that used to be home to some 30 Jewish families, Mr Levy is just as bitter about his neighbour.

The building has no glass in its windows, no running water but two synagogues, one that Mr Simanto climbs into through a window frame and another that Mr Levy keeps locked.

"All my problems are because of Zebolan," said Mr Levy, a squat man with a flowing white beard and battered sheepskin Astrakhan hat, who gave his age as 60. He recites a litany of woes capped by accusations that the only other Jew in Kabul had denounced him to the Taliban as a spy for Israel and landed him in jail five times.

"They threw me on the floor and one sat on my neck and two on my feet. The other two beat me with electrical cables. Now I can't walk properly."

Mr Levy and Mr Simanto, it seems, are all that is left of Afghanistan's Jewish presence that stretches back 800 years.

All the other Jews left when communist-backed rule collapsed in 1992, many of them for Israel where Mr Levy and Mr Simanto say their wives and children now live.

Mr Levy, a traditional healer born in the western city of Herat, remained in Kabul when the Taliban took over in 1996 and imposed their radical Islamic creed and intolerance of other religions on the city.

Mr Simanto, a dealer in carpets and handicrafts who is also from Herat, spent six years travelling in Israel, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. He returned to Kabul in 1998.

"I came here for three months and it's been 3 1/2 years. I was in prison four times and all because of this man," said Mr Simanto.

The two pray separately in their fading, threadbare prayer shawls in their simple rooms at opposite ends of the courtyard. The synagogues are unused, their floors coated in dust and their walls cracked and peeling.

The arks in both which had held the community's Torah scrolls are empty but for a few yellowing prayer books. That, it appears, is the root of the hatred that grips the two men. The last Torah scroll was taken away by the Taliban and deposited at the interior ministry two years ago.

Both men lay claim to the scroll, which they described as written by hand on deer skin and wrapped in silk, 500 years old and worth $2 million.

Muslim neighbours regard the pair with a mixture of affection and amusement.

At night, they say they can hear them shout, hurling abuse and charges of treachery and immorality at each other like some unhappy couple imprisoned in a marriage gone sour.

Now that the Taliban have left Kabul, forced to retreat by US air strikes, Mr Levy and Mr Simanto have resumed their battle to retrieve the scroll, and say they then want to leave.