Telling the Story of Yemen's Jews, and Their Legendary Poet

A new documentary about Shalom Shabazi doesn’t try to discover the absolute truth about Yemenite Jewry’s greatest poet. Instead, it offers a host of captivating, scholarly perspectives. The result is a concentrated Yemenite experience never before seen on the Israeli screen

“The truth is that the national consciousness of Yemenite Jewry has ignored the particular private personality called Shalom Shabazi and has elevated it to the dimension of a supernatural figure, created not by the force of precise personal or historical details, but by the force of popular beliefs and legends of holy men, and the like.”

The author of this passage, Yosef Yuval Tobi, a scholar of Yemenite Jewry, appears at the beginning of the new documentary film “Mori: Shabazi’s Riddle,” and cautions the director, Israela Shaer Meoded, that it is she who will bear responsibility if Shabazi’s character is depicted inaccurately in her work.

Photograph of a young Yemenite, early 20th century, by Ephraim Moshe Lilien
Ephraim Moshe Lilien

Immediately afterward, another scholar, Tom Fogel, is seen suggesting that the 55-minute-long Hebrew film should open with a warning to the effect that it is an adaptation of, or an optional way of looking at Shabazi’s life. Fogel, too, is concerned about the possible debasing of the character of a poet who has become a community myth, symbol and saint.

However, it seems that the director manifestly ignored the scholars’ advisories. She chose to undermine the truths and to make a film of multiple narratives that puts forward diverse interpretations of Shabazi’s life story and poetry, some of them quite bold. The result is a fascinating work that tells the story of both a poet and a community through the mediums of poetry, music and movement, from Yemen to Israel and back.

Shalom Shabazi was born in 1619 in the small village of Najd al-Walid near the city of Ta’izz in southwestern Yemen. His actual surname was “Mashta,” whereas the name “Shabazi” derives from the town of Shabaz, where he lived as an adult. The first years of his life unfolded during a difficult period for the country’s Jews, due to the war between the ruling Ottomans and the rebellious Yemeni people, up until 1635 when the Turks were finally expelled. Shabazi himself endured an orphaned, poverty-stricken, solitary existence, echoes of which resonate in his works.

Despite his financial plight, Shabazi acquired a very broad religious education, one that encompassed the entire universe of Jewish tradition. He achieved extraordinary fluency in the three languages that are the pillars of Jewish wisdom – Hebrew, Aramaic and Judeo-Arabic – as well as classical Arabic. Hence the intercultural mosaic that underlies his writings.

A poetic spirit impelled Sharazi from youth. Even though he was immersed in the study of Judaism in all its facets, poetry was the core of his spiritual activity, and the medium in which he was most prolifically creative. His 850 poems (written in both Hebrew and in Arabic translated to Hebrew) will be published next year in an academic edition, under the aegis of Prof. Tobi.

The manifold narratives of Shabazi’s life are reflected in the remarks of the film’s interviewees. Shaer Meoded has chosen not to set forth one single story; there are as many versions as there are speakers. Judaic studies scholar Bat-Zion Eraqi Klorman, for example, relates that Shabazi had three children, whereas poet Tuvia Sulami refers to four. The latter adds that Shabazi’s father died of natural causes, but Lea Avraham, a singer and former member of the Inbal dance troupe, describes the father was tortured to death in the presence of his young son. The diversity of biographical information stems from the fact that there are almost no surviving contemporaneous, written testimonies about Shabazi. The meager information we have derives from popular traditions handed down from one generation to the next and from biographical tidbits interspersed in his poetry.

The multiplicity of voices expressed by the interviewees is reflected in a particularly meaningful way thanks to the various interpretations the director offers for the poems. Thus, for example, “Ayelet Chen” (Graceful Gazelle) can be read as a work about love between a man and a woman, according to the bold exegesis of Lea Avraham, literary scholar Galili Shahar, and writer and poet Almog Behar. Alternately, it can be seen as a poem of longing for the Shekhinah – the “divine presence,” according to Jewish mystical tradition – and for the Holy Land, according to the conservative interpretation of Yehuda Amir, an expert in Yemenite poetry, and Uri Melamed, a scholar of modern Hebrew. The film itself shows no preference for either possibility. On the contrary: It creates tension and interest precisely through the debate among speakers characterized by different religious beliefs, age, gender and academic expertise.

Most of the film’s onscreen participants were born in Yemen or are descended from Yemen-born parents. The speakers are just one element of an imagined Yemeni space forged by the director, enabling the viewer to journey by means of a time machine to a singular locale.

That space is manifested in the language of the interviewees, with its gutturals, and by the Arabic that was an integral part of the vernacular and of the cultural lexicon of creative artists such as Shabazi, without their being repressed or contradicted. The music interwoven throughout the movie allows us to hear other sounds in addition to the language: specifically, the tin drums characteristic of Jewish Yemenite music. The result, when combined with the visual components – clips and photographs of landscapes and of images of men and women – is an Eastern or, more accurately, a concentrated Yemenite experience not seen before on the Israeli screen.

Although the film begins by telling on the story of Shalom Shabazi, a shift in the middle trains a spotlight on the place of poetry within the Jewish community of Yemen in general. This thematic expansion is likely a product of the director’s personal interest, making this something of a sequel to her 2009 documentary “Queen Khantarisha,” which focuses on the late Hebrew-language poet Bracha Serri and lyricist Naomi Amrani, within the broad context of women’s poetry in Yemen. In the new film, director Shaer Meoded deals with men’s poetry: Through Shabazi’s oeuvre she presents creative diversity including sacred poetry, the poetry of exile and redemption – poems that address religious issues and poems written to celebrate seasonal events and Jewish life.

Poetry that addresses social issues or historical events is accorded a central place here – works composed in the wake of a particular social or economic situation, or for certain public or communal occasions. There are, for example, biographical poems that reveal details about Shabazi’s personal life, history-themed poems about the reception accorded in Yemen to the false messiah Shabbetai Zvi in the 17th century, and other works that grimly evoke the traumatic expulsion in 1679 of Yemen’s Jews to Mawza, an arid, barren region of the country.

A Jewish family in Sanaa, 1901.
Hermann Burchardt

The power that poetry exercised over Yemenite Jewry shines forth in the film. Poetry was a means of healing and an escape from life’s harsh difficulties; it could herald spiritual redemption or transform reality. Shabazi’s poetry was written for the entire community, not only the educated rabbinic elite. As such, it became part of the overall culture of the community, cutting across class lines; it was not only set to music but also danced to. This point is underscored in “Mori: Shabazi’s Riddle” by its stunning interplay of text, music and movement. Lea Avraham explains this interplay as she herself moves between “a feeling of [the] connection between I hear, I understand the text, I experience it with the melody within me, and I express it by way of the experience.” Tom Fogel distills the essence of the phenomenon, citing “the engraving of the melody, of the text within the body.” Visually, the poems themselves are displayed in Shabazi’s manuscripts or in those of copyists, against a background of performances of his work by the late Israeli singer Ofra Haza and of archival footage of dancers in Yemen and in Israel.

Visual challenges

Shaer Meoded undoubtedly faced a considerable challenge in terms of visuals, attempting to evoke a personality and a period dating back four centuries. However, she rose to that challenge with great success through a dazzling display of Shabazi’s original manuscripts and of others produced by copyists, some enhanced by means of graphic processing. Archival photos and film footage from Yemen, probably from the last century, also help transport the viewer into the Yemenite space. These images reveal a diverse landscape, including villages that almost certainly do not represent those from Shabazi’s lifetime, since traditional Yemeni society, too, has undergone processes of change and development over time.

The most problematic visual elements in “Shalom Shabazi” are the interspersed portraits of Yemenite Jews – men, women and children – that appear without context or names. One immediately recalls the criticism leveled at curator Guy Raz over his 2012 photographic exhibition “A Yemenite Portrait,” in which no identifying details were provided for the individuals appearing in the photos. Some saw this as a reflection of the West’s self-perceived superiority over the East, or the supremacy of the colonial occupier.

What accounts for Shaer Meoded’s choice here? Is it due to an innate Western viewpoint, or does the answer lie in the specific social and cultural context of the film and the filmmaker? It’s regrettable that no use was made of works by contemporary artists of Yemenite origin, such as visual artist Leor Grady and dancer Evyatar Said, in which Yemen is a vivid presence.

Shabazi and his poetry stand out in the filmmaker Yair Qedar’s series “The Hebrews,” within whose framework “Mori: Shabazi’s Riddle” was produced. Qedar’s project features biographical documentaries about leading literary and cultural figures. Most of the films focus on writers of European origin who wrote in Hebrew during the past century. (One exception is “Black Honey,” about the life and work of Abraham Sutzkever, arguably one of the greatest of Yiddish poets.) The Shabazi documentary extends the scope of the series to include artists who wrote 400 years ago, or those who wrote in Jewish languages or in the language of the majority in their countries of origin – in Shabazi’s case, Arabic. It joins a 2015 film, also part of Qedar’s series, about the 20th-century Moroccan liturgical poet Rabbi David Buzaglo (“Song of Loves,” directed by Rafael Balulu), and a film Balulu is now working on about the Egyptian-born Israeli novelist and essayist Jacqueline Kahanoff.

The work of creative artists such as Shabazi, Buzaglo and Kahanoff underscores the need to expand the definition of Hebrew literature to encompass writers from Islamic countries who wrote in styles, languages and historical and cultural contexts that were different than those of European writers.

Shaer Meoded’s documentary ends with Shabazi’s words – “In my exile and my meagerness / I overflow with bitter weeping / and my heart is wracked with torment / God heal my ills / and show mercy to a meager body / that has faltered / and strengthen the doers of my healing” – displayed against a background of images of Yemenite Jews in immigrant and transit camps in Israel’s early years. The director is apparently trying to point to the absence of redemption or refuge for the Yemenite immigrants who made the transition from exile in Yemen to exile in Israel. Still, it’s impossible not to see the ray of light here in terms of the fate of Shabazi’s poetry, which continued to unify the community and bestow healing through words, entrancing music and redemptive body movement.

David Guedj is a historian of the Jews in Muslim lands, specializing in the culture and society of North African Jewish communities. He is currently a post-doctoral scholar at INALCO (Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales), in Paris.