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Veysi Dag

Journey to Reconnect with Roots from Jerusalem to Diyarbakir

In May 2022, Rimon travelled for the first time to Diyarbakir, the historical city of her grandparents and the unofficial Kurdish capital. She arrived in the city to a welcome reception from the Kurdish inhabitants.

This photo was taken by Rimon during her first visit in Diyarbakir. The abandoned building belonged to her grandfather!

The Kurds invited her to their homes, offering traditional Kurdish cuisine. They lived in Ali-Pasa, Mahallesi, a former Jewish neighborhood in the suburb of Sur in Diyarbakir. Rimon made several attempts to travel to Diyarbakir to reconnect with her roots but failed to undertake her journey due to unsuitable conditions and timing as well as the absence of trustworthy contacts in Diyarbakir. However, she met non-Jewish Kurdistani individuals in Jerusalem and explained to them her dream of visiting Diyarbakir. They offered their help her to travel to Diyarbakir by putting her in touch with their local Kurdish compatriots. Consequently, she decided to set out on her journey from Jerusalem to realize her dreams by revisiting her roots, from which her ancestors had been cut off.

As soon as she arrived in Diyarbakir, she paid a visit to the abandoned home of her grandfather located in the Jewish neighborhood. She felt immediately connected with both the spirit of her ancestors and the Kurdish people, despite the lack of a common language. However, she indicated that they spoke the language of emotion based on shared suffering and experiences of discrimination that the Jewish community have been through and which the Kurds are currently experiencing. In other words, the discrimination against members of the Jewish community in Diyarbakir became a norm experienced at the hands of governors of provincial districts.  Now, the members of the Kurdish community in Diyarbakir and other cities share the experience of their former Jewish neighbors. The Kurds in Diyarbakir reflect on this experience and are sensitive towards Jewish citizens from Israel. Their uninterrupted experience of maltreatment based on oppression, persecution, and dispossession from the past to the present leads the Kurds to identify with the Jewish community. The Kurds constantly invite Rimon to Diyarbakir and offer her their assistance with issues that matter to her. Therefore, Rimon made many friends in Diyarbakir within a short time. She communicates with her friends from Diyarbakir on a daily basis and tries to help them however and wherever she can.

Rimon’s painting imagining herself with her parents in her grandfather’s house in Diyarbakir.

Rimon was born in Jerusalem four years after the arrival of her parents. She has never been to the city of her roots. However, she has heard detailed, first-person narratives about the history and lives of the Jewish community in Diyarbakir. Based on these stories, she has internalized her roots from afar and carries their values as associated through memories into her thoughts and daily life. She has turned her imagination of her ancestorial way of life into art painted on ceramics. In other words, she is still committed to the memories of her parents and grandparents. The distance and the time lapse have not prevented her spiritual connection with her roots but have instead boosted her identification with the place of her ancestors.  Her enthusiasm for visiting her ancestorial roots was always powerful.

According to the construction dates of synagogues in Diyarbakir, a segment of the Jewish community has lived there since the 10th century. However, the course of Rimon’s parents’ life started in Diyarbakir in the 17th century, as she and the members of the Kurdish community claimed. They told me that the Jewish community immigrated or was deported to Diyarbakir from the Kurdish city of Saqqez in Iran. Although Rimon confirmed that her grandparents are originally from the Kurdish region of Iran, she is not familiar with the reason for their immigration or deportation. According to Turkish language sources, a small Jewish community lived in Diyarbakir for 300 years until they immigrated to Israel in the 1930s and 1940s. In Diyarbakir, Rimon’s grandfather built a house resembling a palace where his entire extended family lived. Though abandoned, his house remains undamaged. Rimon’s grandfather was a traditional Kabbalist who was always away visiting the members of the Kurdish community and serving them by offering his Kabbalah readings. However, according to Rimon’s parents’ narratives, the Turkish authorities started to prevent him from reading Kabbalah, confiscated his house, and in the mid-1920s, deported him to Qamishli where a small Jewish community (including his brother) was already established.

Rimon’s painting of the Tomb of Rabi, Yehudah Ben Betera located between Qamishli in the Kurdish region in Northern Syria and Nisibis (Nusabayn) in the Kurdish region in Turkey!

Her grandparents settled in Qamishli, a Kurdish town in Syria under the French mandate which recognized the languages, cultures, and religions of diverse communities such as Kurds, Jews, Assyrians, Armenians, and Yezidis. The Arab population in Northern Syria was a minority until the Ba’ath Regime started to Arabize the region by replacing them with the non-Arab population from the 1960s onwards. The non-Arab populations were subjected to repression, deprivation of their citizenship, displacement, and denial. This nationalistic and repressive pan-Arab policy destroyed the peaceful co-existence and the way of collective life of these peaceful religious, cultural, and linguistic communities. As a reaction to this repression, the pan-Arab regime and the oppressed non-Arab communities constructed common solidarity. For example, the Kurds helped smuggle members of the Jewish community out of Syria for Israel. During my fieldwork, many members of the Kurdish-Jewish community in Jerusalem from Qamishli and its outskirts Avace told me the names of their smugglers and asked me whether I knew them and could reach out to them. They said that they owe them big thanks. Similarly, I heard from the Kurdish refugees in Berlin from Qamishli that their Jewish neighbors promised them that they would come back, but they never have. They have basically longed for them. The Kurds in Qamishli still protect  Jewish property as well as their only synagogue in the center of Qamishli. They have waived renaming the Shuk called Ezra, the name of a well-respected head of the Jewish community in Qamishli who emigrated from the Kurdish region in Turkey. The Ezra Market is similar to the Mahana Yehuda Market in Jerusalem. Despite the peaceful environment in Qamishli in the 1920s and 1930s long before the pan-Arab regime and Ba’ath Party seized power, Rimon’s father decided to take a trip with his family to Jerusalem. Rimon heard from her parents that her grandfather had tried to discourage her father from immigrating to Jerusalem, claiming that he would always remain poor if he left his extended family in Qamishli. Her father, however, insisted on his decision and immigrated to Jerusalem on the back of donkeys, an arduous journey. Her grandfather did not join them and died in Qamishli.

Rimon’s painting of her grandfather in Qamishli!

The city of Qamishli was a transit city for the Kurdish Jews who aimed to move to the holy land. I too had heard stories from the Jewish Kurds in Jerusalem from the Kurdistan region of Iraq that their grandparents had ended up in the city of Qamishli as they could not continue their journey due to bandit raids and precarious conditions. Moreover, Qamishli on the Syrian border and Nisibis (Nusabayn, Nisêbîn or Nüsaybin) on the Turkish border have been important for the Jewish community for over a thousand years. The ancient Jewish Rabi and Scholar Yehudah Ben Betera was from Nisibis and his tomb was turned into a religious pilgrimage for the Jewish community. Thus, Qamishli, much of which is currently under the control of the self-governing Kurds, was a center for the Jewish community. The Kurds defended the city from ISIS but also from the Jihadists operating as a proxy for the Turkish state. However, the fate of Qamishli – including the religious and economic properties of the Jewish community – is uncertain and is at peril of invasion by the Turkish state and their Islamic proxies or those of the Ba’ath regime and its partners.

Rimon’s painting of her father in Qamishli!

Rimon’s story and her dynamic enthusiasm to reconnect with her roots touch upon several elements. These involve the history of the Kurdistani Jews, rife with experience of maltreatment, persecution, displacement, and rupture from their former homeland, as well as their relationships with local Kurdish communities and non-Kurdish ruling authorities. Although they were distanced from the local community in Kurdistan, their spiritual connection based on transnational solidarity is still dynamic and dominant in the imagination of both the Kurdish and Jewish communities.  Moreover, these aspects include the continuous identification of the newer Jewish generation with their former homeland where their ancestors put down roots, which give them a sense of belonging and identity. Roots are a profound issue amongst the Jewish community from Kurdistan as they believe that being rootless is equal to being fruitless. Therefore, they celebrate their Kurdish identity and cultures based on the roots they have put down in Kurdistan. Thus, the Rimon story might be perceived as representative of the collective stories of the Kurdish Jews from Turkey, Iran, Iran, and Syria, as their narratives and experiences (laid out above) are similar. Although direct links between the Jewish Kurds and non-Jewish Kurds were cut and are currently shaped by the ruling regimes in Iraq, Turkey, Syria, and Iran, their spiritual connection and transnational solidarity within the context of people-to-people have remained untouched and robust. Consequently, these relationships can be cultivated and strengthened by Kurdish and Jewish actors (including intellectuals, artists, and civil society organizations) to meet the emotional, social, spiritual needs of Rimon and a million members of the Kurdish and Jewish societies to reconnect with each other and their roots in Israel, Kurdistan and beyond.

About the Author
The author is a research fellow at the Political Science Department of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, working on the governance structures of the Kurdish diaspora community in Berlin and the structures of the Kurdistani Jews in Jerusalem.