A Vision of Yemen
The Travels of a European Orientalist and His Native Guide, A Translation of Hayyim Habshush's Travelogue
Alan Verskin




Dear reader, I present you with a taste of how we lived when the sage and [1] traveler Rabbi Joseph Halévy, the Frenchman, may God preserve him, came to our holy encampment to discover the hidden secrets of the sand and the ancient Sheban language. Yet again, the kingdom of Yemen had precipitously deteriorated. Tyrannical rulers arose in every village, city, and region. Musin al-Shahārī was a descendant of ʿAlī and a “Commander of the Faithful,” that is imām and king—but in name only.1 Usually based in the small village of Bayt Zabaān near anʿāʾ, he did whatever he wished, either on the authority of his own teaching or on the authority of the commentators’ interpretations of his religion. Thus, if it happened that he lacked cattle or property, he would soon come to possess it, his hands defiled by the blood of those who opposed him. Indeed, to line his pockets, he beheaded Sar Shalom ha-Levi al-Shaykh and imprisoned his brothers in a pit until they paid blood money.2

To exploit the Jews, al-Shahārī appointed his comrade and kinsman Sayyid Muammad ibn Yaamīd al-Dīn3 as his deputy in anʿāʾ. This deputy, having a deep knowledge of their books, had discovered a hidden [2] quality that we Jews possess: The Jew is like a leek, which, whenever cut, grows back just as it was before. From this he concluded that a Jew must pay money to the king and his deputy at any time it is requested, the aim being that a Jew should never have more than 7 riyals, or about 112 Ottoman qirsh.4 We found out about this great new discovery of his through harsh suffering and torment. Perhaps he had discovered the existence of this “quality” in the margins of one of their saints’ books, or perhaps it had been deduced from a logic that is alien to all people of integrity, and to us in particular. Had he had time to realize his plan, perhaps he would have continued, with his great power of reasoning, to explain to us the other “qualities” that we possess. Instead, however, the government of kindness and mercy, our government, the Sublime Ottoman Empire, may its glory be exalted, came to Yemen.5 It is this same [Sayyid Muammad ibn Yaamīd al-Dīn] who currently serves as the imām for almost all the Arabs; his sermons and deductions having taken root in the minds of his followers. The imamate too fell into his hands as an uncontested gift from the previous imām, Sharaf al-Dīn, who resided in aʿdah.6 If the Lord were to again hand him over to the sublime rulers of the Ottoman Empire, they would teach this imām proper justice.

At that time, we lived in the depths of a sea of troubles, surrounded by innumerable misfortunes. We were living in a land of oblivion, an Arab [3] land in which Dumah, Mishma, and Massa had made us dwell.7 A war had broken out among them, which seemed like the valley of slaughter,8 and a great slumber and darkness fell upon us with no one to awaken, support, and spare us. Because of our enemies’ anger and destruction, there was no prospect of rescue. Plague, famine, and violence left us but few survivors in the city of anʿāʾ. In 1860,9 the plague gained strength, taking prisoner whomever it saw fit.10 But famine, in its mercy, embraced them, bearing them away in its arms. Violence dispersed [the Jews] in every direction; their houses fell into ruin, and their villages were destroyed. And from where else were their oppressors going to get their daily bread if not from a remnant of a remnant?! . . .11


1. Imām al-Mutawakkil Musin ibn Amad al-Shahārī made numerous attempts between 1854 and his death in 1878 to be recognized as the Zaydī imām, but he was never universally recognized as such. See ʿAbd al-Wāsiʿ b. Yayā al-Wāsiʿī, Taʾrīkh al-Yaman (Cairo: al-Mabaʿa al-Salafīya, 1927), 92–106; and Caesar Farah, The Sultan’s Yemen: Nineteenth-Century Challenges to Ottoman Rule (London: Tauris, 2002), 85–104.

2. On this incident, which occurred in 1863, see Joseph Tobi, The Jews of Yemen in the 19th Century (Tel Aviv: Afikim, 1976), 234 (Hebrew). The ha-Levi al-Shaykh family was one of the most prominent Jewish families of anʿāʾ. They were descended from Marī Yayā al-Shaykh, who was believed to have led the Jews back to anʿāʾ after their seventeenth-century exile to Mawzaʿ.

3. That is, the individual who was to become the widely recognized Zaydī imām, Imām al-Manūr Muammad ibn Yaamīd al-Dīn (r. AH 1307–1322/1890–1904), who died in a rebellion against Ottoman rule. Farah, Sultan’s Yemen, 155.

4. A silver coin of the highest value.

5. The Ottomans ruled anʿāʾ from 1872 to 1918. On the Jews during this period, see Joseph Tobi, “The Yemeni Jewish Community Under Turkish Rule (1872–1918),” in Joseph Tobi, The Jews of Yemen: Studies in Their History and Culture (Leiden: Brill, 1999), 85–106.

6. On these events, see ʿAlī b. ʿAbdallāh al-Iryānī and Amat al-Malik Ismāʾīl Qāsim al-Thawr, al-Mawqif al-Yamanī min al-ukum al-ʿuthmānī al-thānī ma ʿa taqīq makhūat al-Durr al-manthūr fī sīrat al-Imam al-Manūr Muammad b. Yaamīd al-Dīn (Damascus: Dār al-fikr, 2008), 314–22.

7. Genesis 25:14, referring to the names of three sons of Ishmael.

8. Jeremiah 19:6.

9. Hebrew year 5620.

10. On the chaos in anʿāʾ during the 1850s and 1860s, see Yehuda Nini, The Jews of the Yemen, 1800–1914 (Chur, Switzerland: Harwood Academic, 1991), 38–56.

11. What follows is the omitted portion of abshūsh’s short sermon on alms giving: “This misery of ours is the poverty referred to when Scripture says, ‘If your brother becomes poor and reaches out to you . . .’ (cf. Leviticus 25:35). But instead, you seize ‘whatever he needs’ (Deuteronomy 15:8), even if it is worth just a penny. Another verse says, ‘If you assess him as being poor’ (Leviticus 27:8). So, although you were told of his broken back, you [pretend] his trouble is hidden from you. You [pretend] that he anoints his face in oil morning and evening, that his tears are but kohl smudging his cheeks, and that his clothing is beautiful cotton, although it is worn and torn—so confused is your heart. Search and investigate well, and lo it is true: Silversmith, blacksmith, tanner, peddler, potter, day laborer, dung collector, vagrant, and bachelor—all seem rich too. [4] You say to yourself, ‘How does this person earn his living? I will do the same for my family.’ And if you had not already struck with your axe at the tree of his livelihood, you would slander them. If he were a silversmith, you would say, ‘He debases his silver.’ If he had some other trade, you would say, ‘He counterfeits his copper coins.’ If his hands were not stained by his work, you would say, ‘He stole.’ And if the respect of your peers was important to you, you would harm his reputation, saying, ‘He has come into some wealth’—and then an opportunist would find a means to exploit your claims to collect his debt. These are the four terrible judgments (cf. Ezekiel 14:21)—but poverty is worse than all of them.”