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  Book review

Ein Jude im Dienst des Imams 

Ein Jude im Dienst des Imams: Der erfolgreiche Geschäftsmann Israel Subayri by Yosef Tobi, Vol. VII of Mare Erythraeum, Staatliches Museum fur Völkerkunde, München, J. H. Röll Verlag, Dettelbach, 2008. Pp. 168. 14 b/w illus. Hb. €89. 90. ISBN 978-3-89754-265-5. 

There have been many studies on Yemeni Jews, but this is the first book devoted to the most colourful and extraordinary Yemeni Jewish personality of the twentieth century, Israel Subayri. A self-made man in the modern sense of the word, his life fluctuated between Imam Yahya’s Yemen, the Germany of the 1930s, and what is now the State of Israel. He was the Imam’s chief weapons provider and importer of luxury goods, and anchorman to foreign visitors and scholars in Sana’a; it was through him that the collections of Yemeni antiquities in the museums of Hamburg, Harvard and Jerusalem originated. 

In this book, Yosef Tobi of the University of Haifa, who is the foremost authority on the history, ethnography and intellectual heritage of the Jews from Yemen, has reconstructed Subayri’s life and times through the documents preserved by the Subayri family in Israel. 

In the first chapter Tobi explores the economic situation of the Yemeni Jews under ImamYahya. We will return to this later. 

The second chapter describes Israel Subayri’s background. The family originated from Subayra, near Qa’taba (on the former border between North and South Yemen, east ofTa’izz), moving to Sana’a in the 19th century. They were connected with the Rabbinic elite in Yemen. Their business (shopkeepers) expanded through the more sophisticated needs of the OttomanTurkish administration. After 1918, they moved into the respected and rewarding art of weaving gold-thread belts for the janbiyas worn by sayyids and qadhis. After his father’s death in 1924, Israel Subayri acquired half the family business (valued at the very considerable sum of 900 riyals) from his brother. He then bought his brother’s share in their parents’ house, and acquired a large building in the Qa’ al-Yahud for 300 riyals. These and other documents were issued (inArabic) by the Rabbinical Court, and then authenticated by Qadhi Husayn bin Ali al-Amri, ra’is al-diwan. 

The enterprising Subayri soon became aware of the need for accommodation in Sana’a of a growing number of European travellers and official guests (and some American visitors such as Dr Coon from Harvard Museum). Behind his home, he built a European style hotel to which foreigners were also assigned by the Yemeni government. Subayri thus became the chief middleman for many foreign visitors to Sana’a. Tobi quotes at length from Hans Helfritz and Hugh Scott (who described Subayri’s red wine as ‘pleasant to the taste, but somewhat heavy and potent’), and also speaks of a certain Mr Bailey who borrowed 1500 riyals from Subayri before disappearing into thin air! 

The third chapter deals with the decades-long friendship between Subayri and the celebrated scholar Carl Rathjens who visited Yemen several times between 1927 and 1938, and whose excavation of the temple at Huqqa (north of Sana’a) was the first professional archaeological dig in Yemen. Rathjens’ three volume Sabaica and his Jewish Domestic Architecture in Sana’ a remain basic studies. 

Rathjens was authorised by Imam Yahya to take his collections, largely gathered with Subayri’s assistance, to Germany (72 camel loads!), and these are now in Hamburg and Jerusalem. 

The fourth and fifth chapters cover Subayri’s foreign trade activities. In 1934 Subayri became Yahya’s main weapons provider, importing guns, pistols, mortars, machine-guns, ammunition (and equipment to establish an ammunition factory) mainly from Germany and Belgium. 

The broad range of so many other imports managed by Subayri is even more surprising: a soap factory, paper for Yemen’s only newspaper (al-Iman), 200 dozens of black fezes and 208 kg of toys; but also perfumes, shoes, deck-chairs, marquees, a textile factory with its raw materials, and two 8 cylinder Horch (known today as Audi) motor vehicles. In 1938 Subayri arranged through Schroder Bank the minting in London of 10, 000 riyals for the Imam’s treasury. 

The sixth chapter covering the period 1939/40 mirrors the intensification of Nazi persecution of Jews. While this did not affect Subayri personally, it is sad to read of the desperate efforts made by his main commercial partner, previously in Hamburg but now in Liège, to maintain his business links with Subayri. The book ends with Subayri’s later years in the State of Israel. 

Photographs of the Subayri family in the courtyard of their house in Sana’a, and, later, of Subayri himself in Jerusalem during the 1930s, in his elegant coat and hat, illustrate the stark contrast between the two worlds which he successfully bridged. Two other photographs, by Toni Hagen, show Sana’a as it was in the early 1960s, intra muros. 

Returning to the first chapter, here Tobi presents us with an overview of the economic situation of Yemeni Jews under Turkish rule, and under Imam Yahya. Their tax burden under the Imam was lower than that of Muslims, Jews having to pay only the jizya. But Tobi concludes that the Jews fared much better under the Turks, whose administration opened the country up to the wider world, than they did under the restrictions applied by the Imam. However, the chapter on the Jews in Serjeant and Lewcock’s City of San’a comes to the opposite conclusion. Incidentally, it is incorrect of Tobi to state that the menial task of collecting human excrement for heating the hammams would have been assigned to the Jews, since this was, in fact, the major occupation of members of the lowest Muslim class, the Bani al-Khums, until liberated by the Revolution of 1962 (they still bear the name of al-Hammami). 

This book provides a fascinating insight into the Yemen of ImamYahya, its economic relations with the world at large and into Jewish-Arab relations. The innumerable business documents make the book an important source for an economic history of Yemen in the first half of the 20th century. Although the Rathjens’ collections in the Hamburg Völkerkundemuseum and in the Jerusalem Museum are well documented, this is not so for the Yemeni antiquities (also originating from Subayri) in the Harvard Peabody and the Harvard Semitic Museum. It is good to know thatTobi plans their publication. 

Ruth Achlama who translated the book from the original Hebrew into German must be applauded for her fine and meticulous work. There is only one desideratum to be expressed here, namely that the property documents from the 1920s should be published in their original Arabic. 

Werner Daum