Being the last Jew of Kabul? It pays the rent

By Lalage Snow , November 21, 2013
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Zablon Simintov at the synagogue he maintains in Kabul

Zablon Simintov at the synagogue he maintains in Kabul

Zablon Simintov is infamous. A bitter feud with Ishaq Levin, with whom he shared the only synagogue in Kabul, was widely publicised.

Their mutual hatred was so fierce that they frequently denounced each other to the authorities for espionage: being the Last Jew of Kabul was a title worth fighting for.

When Mr Levin died in January 2005, Mr Simintov won and, with the victory, came media attention.

In Afghanistan, bribery is endemic; money changes hands as baksheesh for almost anything from a taxi ride to an electricity bill to a company contract. Simintov is no different; the attention he garnered came at a price. He claims to have been paid for every interview he has given down the years.

Citing virtual penury and a dislike of media attention as his financial motivation, he then goes on to state, somewhat proudly, that he receives handouts from journalists every week.

In the single room he calls home on Kabul’s Flower Street, he deals out a deck of business cards from the world’s media and lists the organisations that have paid him, and how much. “So how much will you pay me?” He peers over his glasses and suggests a few hundred dollars and a bottle or two of whiskey.

The contradiction is not unusual in Afghanistan where the struggle for basic survival is commonplace. In the intervening negotiations, he speaks a little about his restaurant a few doors away. Due to the exodus of the international community and soldiers, he says he has racked up crippling losses.

The establishment is a cold, ill-lit room of greasy, Formica tables and walls adorned with images of hunting. A calendar last changed in March 2012 hangs on the back wall next to a broken clock. It is every inch the antithesis to eateries frequented by ex-patriots.

However, it is unclear whether the Balkh Bastan Restaurant still belongs to him. Habib Qalshudin, 24, claims to have bought the place a year ago.

But although Mr Simintov keeps himself to himself and is notoriously miserly, the traders and restaurateurs in the area respect him as an elder, as part of the community and as alone and far from his people. They also respect his religion and the militant antisemitism found among many Muslims the world over is noticeably absent: “He can pray to his god, and we can pray to ours. It is not a problem.”

Mr Qalshudin and his friends, who have come to drink tea, laugh when the story of Mr Simintov’s rapacity is relayed. “That’s what he does; every week foreign people come to speak to him and give him money.”

The JC did not pay for this article.

Last updated: 4:45pm, November 21 2013