Forward by Osnat Gad
I was always fascinated by stories my Grandmother, Leah Kort Gad Z’l, told me when I was a child. I remember that I would ask her to repeat the same story over, but today I don’t remember any. Leah was a great storyteller, she included descriptions of places and people and the stories always had happy endings. I later found that her brother, Zuvolun Kort Z’l, published Afghani folk stories.
For years I was trying to collect facts about Jews living in Afghanistan. How they lived, their folk stories, their food and their love for their friends.
In 2009 I met a friend who suggested that I record our people’s stories. In 2009 I met a friend who suggested that I record our people’s stories.
I interviewed my family members and my parents’ friends.I was excited but it took too long to transcribe the recordings, so I stopped.
I thought I should share a few of the interviews. The stories give us a clear picture of how our ancestors lived in Afghanistan.
Sam Levi was a friend of my dad’s, eventhough he is not an Afghani, his story is about how the Jews arrived to Herat.
If you have any stories you may wish to share or a question, please contact us.
Interview with Amnon Gad
This interview was made on 9/30/2009
O. Amnon, please tell me what you remember from your childhood in Afghanistan
A. I was brought up to be humble. I also think most of the Jews growing up in Afghanistan were taught to be proud,modest and to be humble althoughsuccessful.
O. What do you mean by humble?
A. First, whenever I wore a new suit, I was taught not to wear a new shirt. Whenever you wear new things, you should include one or two old clothings. You should not wear a new hat with new shoes or new suit.
O. Why did they feel this way?
A. You were not to show off, you had to be humble.
O. Amnon, where did you live?
A. The houses in Herat were called hyatt, like the Grand Hyatt hotel. The center of the compound had a big yard and was surrounded by few buildings. In the middle of yard was a water well used for drinking and cooking. On the opposite side of the hyatt were brick stones with charcoal and on top one would put the pots to cook.
O. Was the yard covered?
A. It was an open yard, one side was the house where we lived in the winter and the other side was the summer house.
Our house had a big living room where we slept. The roof was made with mud, bricks and stones so the rain would not leak in. It was very simple. When you walked in the street outside the hyatt you would only see a big wall. There was one big room where everyone slept. In the winter time they moved to the other side of the yard and in the summer they would move back to the other side.
A. In the summer we lived on the north side and the winter we lived in the south side. It had to do with the sun and the shade. On this side of the house (showing on a map) were balconies where they kept the charcoal and the wood they used for cooking.
O. How many families lived in the yard?
A. I remember there were four families, our family, Amou Isak family, Yaakov family and Eliahu Gad who just got married. It was the immediate family only. On one side of the yard was a tachpon, a flat thing. When it was too hot in the summer we all slept outside under the sky, it lasted 2 months. If it rained they would go inside. But it rarely rained.
O. Where did they bath and shower?
A. I remember that by the storage section they kept the cooking pots, pans and utensils, on the other corner they baked the bread on a stove-top oven. On one side of the storage room was a small room with a seat where they would pour water on your head and wash you. They used to go to Amom (bathhouse) once a week. It was on Friday when they would go to the Bathhouse, a Mikva. If they did not go to the Mikva they would use that room to wash. They lived like the Bedouins. The Afghans still live like that.
A few years ago I went to Afghanistan from Iran during the Shah regime. I wanted to do some business in Afghanistan. When I arrived I wanted to see the house I lived in. I thought it was a huge Hyatt, but when I saw the place, I was surprised; it was smaller than I remembered and I wondered how could so many families live in such a small place and be happy.
O. How many people slept in a room?
A. As many children as the couple had. We were 5-6 children so 6-7 people slept in a room, a minimum of 7 people to a room. We took the mattress, unfolded them and slept on them during the night; in the morning folded them again, put them in a corner and the room was empty again. There were no chairs or tables, we would sit on the floor and eat; once finished, we cleaned up, moved them back and the room was empty again. The mattresses, covers and pillows were on one side of the room and the room was clean.
Our Hyatt was considered big. We had a farm that grew wheat. Famine was a problem in Afghanistan and the neighboring countries before World War II, so our land produced gandom (wheat) and my father gave the extra to the poor people.
O. So they were farmers?
A .No, they were not farmers; they had a local Moslem man who farmed their land. They owned the land.
O. What other business did your dad have?
A. My father’s main business was carpets. He used to buy them and send them to his brother in London, Dodd Simon. Simon moved to London during World War I and didn’t return. My father sent him Afghan carpets, lambskins, Karakul, to sell in Europe.
Your father, Shlomo, told me a story that when communism took over Turkmenistan, or Uzbekistan, where my fatherhad his warehouses and kept his carpets and furs by the border, the Russians took over these warehouses and put a seal on them and it became their property. My father didn’t know what to do as he could’t break the seal; so he took a small army who were his workers and family and with camels, horses and donkeys, cut a hole on the roof of the warehouse and removed as much merchandise they could. Maybe he was able to salvage 20% of his stock. He and his army put their merchanise on top of the animals and went back to Afghanistan. When the Russians found that he took some of his merchandise, they issued an order to kill him and bring the merchandise back, not to bring him back as prisoner, only the merchandise. My dad successfully escaped to Afghanistan. He only heard about the reward on his head when he arrived home.
My father at times was rich, and then lost his fortune. It happened maybe 20 times in his lifetime. He was very rich and then very poor.
O. I know the Jews had to use Moslem’s names in order to do business.
A. Yes, my dad was Nassir Gad; I remember my dad found a nice Moslem man for a fee, who gave him his identification to export and import his business. When the money was transferred in the Moslem’s name, the man went to the bank, withdrew the money and gave it back to my dad.
O. So it was a trusted bond between them with no signature?
A. Yes, most of the time, the Moslems were honest and with no problems, but sometimes, they didn’t want to do it. My dad was always nervous about this exchange; so he had to give the Moslems more money until he was able to get his money back from the bank.
O. I found out that the Afghan Jews were originally from Mashhad. Did you ever hear this from your ancestors?
A. As I child I was curious about our origins, and I would ask my dad. He told me that his father was born in Afghanistan. His grandfather was also born in Afghanistan. He was not sure where they came from.
In those days, men did not live a long life and they died when their children were young. As far as we know, we came from Mashhad and originally from Babylon.
O. According to history the Jews left Mashhad in mid 1830s and traveled to Herat to escape conversion. Did you ever hear this from your ancestors?
A. The Mashhad Jews escaped conversion and came to Herat, it is a common knowledge but not from my ancestors.
O. So you never heard when our family arrived in Herat, what year?
A. No, I never heard this from my family. I know that some Jews came to Afghanistan from Bukhara, Russia. The Bukharin Jews had their own language, which is Persian mixed with Russian.
O. Do we speak the same language as the Mashhadi Jews?
A. Our language has a different Persian dialect. Also the Jews from Kabul have a different dialect than the Herati Jews. Most of us know our origins through our accents.
Most of the Jews in Kabul were originally from Herat. The last time when I was in Kabul and spoke to local people, I was told that my Persian was different than Kabuli, Herati or Iranian; they did not know where my dialect was from. They never knew Jews, so it was difficult for them to place the origin of my speech. They also said my Persian was the original Old Persian, but the accent was not familiar to them.
O. Please tell me about your father’s travel to Israel.
A. My father traveled to Israel twice, that’s why he was called Haji. He went to Palestine through Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq, there was no Jordan and no borders. They traveled on horses and donkeys through Iran and Iraq and then to Jerusalem.
Whoever went to Jerusalem, he is named Haji, so my dad was Haji Nisan. Just as when a Moslem travels to Mecca he is called Haji. When I would ask him why he was not moving to Israel like the rest of the Jews, he said that Israel was poor and they didn’t even have water.
O. Where did the other Jews live in Herat?
A. Some Jews lived next to each other and some further apart. I remember a Jewish family living next to our house. The main street was carved between our homes and it was called Main Street. The other street was called Mashhad Street, which was the route to Mashhad. Kabul Road was the route to Kabul. And the Outside Road went to outside of the city. Charso Road was the waterwell road.
O. Was the water in the well underground water?
A. The well contained rainwater.
O. What happened if there was no rain for a while?
A. Water was purchased from the city wells. The wells were dug down below water level. They used to also wash their carpets in the waterwell. The water was dark and dirty and we would have to wait a few days to have clean water again.
O. So the water in the well in your Hyatt was used for drinking, washing, cleaning carpet and no one would get sick?
A. No, no one would get sick, they got used to the germs. When there was not enough water, we used to go and buy water and carry it in jugs. The water came from the main city waterwells and it was cleaner.
When it snowed, we had the cleanest water. We used to put out our big pots to collect the snow. It was the best water I ever drank. We used to make tea and drink it.
O. Was his grandfather a businessman too?
A. No, his father was a farmer. As a child he worked hard for his father. His older brother Isak was called Mullah since he went to yeshiva since he was born first. Nisan did not go to school; but when he did business, he spoke 10 different languages. I lived with him in Kandahar for a year and half when I was a child. Many Jewish businessmen lived in Kandahar while their families lived in Herat. Kandahar was a business center and it took two days by buses and or trucks to get there. When I was last in Afghanistan I made the trip in one day, the Russians and Americans built new roads but when I traveled as a child the roads were muddy. The first time we went from Herat to Kandahar it took us 2 days, luckily it was not the rainy season. During the rainy season it would take months to travel between the two cities. The rivers overflowed and since there were no bridges, we would wait until the tide was low and then we would cross the river. Then the camels would tow the truck with ropes pulling it across the river. The car would get wet and then they would wait another month for the car to dry so they can go on. You don’t see these things in the movies. I remember them like it was yesterday.
O. How many Jews were doing the same trade in Afghanistan?
A. From Herat, my father and the Ambalus were businessmen and in Kabul, the Guls and the Aaron families were the business people.
When anyone had 10,000 rupees he was considered a millionaire.
They all wore pajamas, even today the Afghanis dress with pajama looking clothes. The pants are big and made out of cotton. It is the traditional Afghan clothing. On top they wear a long shirt down to their knees.
O. What type of food did you have?
A. They would buy fresh food every day, from a kosher butcher. They had 10 kosher butchers in one section of the market. There were 2-3 shocets who came daily to cut the chickens. If they had enough requests for meat, they would butcher a cow. It was the same cycle every day. On Fridays and special holidays they would keep the food outside and cover it with a basket to keep it cool.
O. Please tell me about your school.
A. In Herat we went to Yeshiva. In Kabul some went to local public schools. In Herat the Jews did not go to public school. I remember that my father wanted his children to go to public school and have a full range education and after school go to Yeshiva for Hebrew and bible studies. The Rabbis were against the kids going to public school. Education was important to my father. He was also the only Jew who paid a teacher to teach his daughters to read and write. His daughter Sara was very smart and later helped her father with his bookkeeping and record keeping. I think your father went to Moslem school; he had some Moslem friends that he kept in touch with. Your father knew how to read and write in Persian, Afghani, English, Indian, Pashto and Dari, Hebrew, Aramaic and other languages. Most of the Jews studied only Hebrew and bible studies. The Rabbis did not allow the Jews to go to local schools, they were afraid that the students would turn away from Judaism.
A. When I started talking, things came up that were long forgotten.
Another thing I remember is that when they cooked “Osh” they would send a plate to their neighbors. There was a saying “the neighbor’s food was always tastier than your mother’s food.”
O. My grandmother told me that after they would finish their work on Friday, the ladies would sit around and smoke Hashish through ghalyun, narguileh.
A. They smoked marijuana. The men used the marijuana seed to make a bong. They were laughing when they smoked it. It was normal. It was not against the law. It was part of life. In Afghanistan it was legal to smoke marijuana but not to drink alcohol. The Jews were allowed to make their own alcohol, Kiddush wine for Shabbat. If a Moslem drank alcohol, he would be killed, but taking heroin was allowed. They are big on growing pot and other illegal drugs. It’s a big business in Afghanistan.
O. Amnon, thank you very much for your wealth of information. It was fun.