The synagogue of Kabul

IMG-1266There are places that seem to be made of the stuff of legend: you know that they exist, that they are there somewhere, but their physical dimension remains abstract and mysterious.

The synagogue of Kabul is one of those places: over these past years it has been a place that almost only existed in an imaginary space– until recently.

I had read a number of articles about “the last remaining Jew of Kabul”; about his bad temper, his passion for whiskey and about the dispute with another Jew – who died in the meanwhile – to claim the right to be called the last Jew. Many colourful stories, but nothing specific about the synagogue itself.

A few days ago, without too much planning and almost by chance, we manage to visit the synagogue with three of my colleagues. As if following a script, Mr Simantov – the last Jew – answers to our desire to go for a visit with the request of a bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label. We don’t obviously have any bottle with us on a random Saturday afternoon so we try to negotiate only to hear in return that he does not do things on credit for anyone. We go away a bit disappointed for the missed opportunity. Loneliness, however, must have won Mr Simantov over as he calls us back within a few minutes and says that instead of a bottle, for this one time, he could make do with some cash.

While a lot, or maybe too much, has been written about him, too little has been written about the synagogue.

From the outside the signs of a place of worship are almost non existent; only the eye that already knows where to look will find the stars of David carved out in the windows or decorating the battered turquoise metal gate. At first sight, the door seems to be ajar; it is instead curved up and a bit stuck for being so rarely used. As we look around a bit perplexed, the local cigarette sellers directs us to the back door: you need to go through a bright orange restaurant selling chips and kebabs to reach it. Once you go through the kitchen and cross the building’s threshold the brightness of the neon tubes is replaced by dim light and the stale smell of old fried oil. The turquoise stair railing is an intricate embroidery of iron stars. Hardly anyone climbs up the stairs, the layer of dust is thick and homogeneous.

We spend some time talking to Mr Simantov, who now lives in what used to be the women’s prayer room. It is painted bright green and has a maroon moquette; the gas stove leaks slightly, it makes me cough. Simantov tells us that the synagogue was built in 1966 with the donations from the Jewish community in Herat; he says that in the good old times there used to be hundred and fifty Jewish families living in Kabul. He says it is not because of the Taliban that they left, but because they migrated to Israel and the state of Israel doesn’t give a piss (verbatim) to restore the synagogue that has been damaged by years of conflict. The community itself has never been a target, war has no preference.

We finally get to see the synagogue. Just outside the door there is an old toilet covered in dust and the glass of many windows is broken. We enter and, as we cross the room, our steps leave footprints in the dust. The synagogue doesn’t have a copy of the Torah, but in a cupboard there are old papers and documents eaten up by time and moths. The lamps on the walls are fixed on small plaques that carry the names of the dead.

It is a silent, desolate place. It is abandoned. It is memory’s cemetery, a memento mori, a monument to time.

For those who, like me, work for the preservation of heritage, places like these speak directly to the heart: they are both an accusation and an invite, a request to stop and think. You can’t fight against time, you can’t save every place, every stone, every monument. You need to learn to chose, to let go, to accept that abandon itself has a message to communicate. But then we can, and possibly should, keep telling stories so that these wonderful memory’s cemeteries can continue to survive.

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