THE TRAP OPENS
Fleeing Islamic oppression, a community of Iranian Jews found themselves caught in a far corner of the Soviet Union
A herd of camels passes unhurriedly across the main road to the airport, briefly stopping traffic. No one gets annoyed; with the mercury somewhere beyond 35 C (95 F), it’s too hot, and besides, no one is in any greater hurry than the camels.
Such is the tempo in Ashgabad, a verdant patch located at the point where the Kara-Kum Desert ends and the snow-capped peaks of the Kopet Dagh Mountains – so close they can easily be mistaken for clouds – rise from the desert floor. Ashgabad is the capital of Turkmenistan, one of the most remote and underdeveloped, but resource-rich, republics of the ex-Soviet Union.
Nearly two years after independence from Moscow, Turkmenistan remains an oasis of stability in the chaos of the former union, untouched by political strife or rampant inflation, and unaffected by either the tribal conflict that is racking Afghanistan or the Islamic fundamentalism of Iran, both on its southern border.
Despite the current calm, Turkmenistan’s Jews are leaving. Around 2,000 Jews are thought to live here now, compared to perhaps 4,000 before independence
– there are no official statistics, and not even the Jewish Agency representative in neighboring Uzbekistan could say for sure. Local Jews say that within a few years only a handful will remain. Their departure will mark the final chapter in a tragic story: How a small number of Iranian Jews got caught in the grip of Communist rule, cut off from their relatives in Iran and from the rest of the world.
The story began in the eastern Persian city of Mashhad in 1839, when Shi’ite mobs forced the local Jews to convert to Islam. In the decades to come, the Jews maintained their religion in secret. Some also sought more hospitable homes to the north, in today’s Turkmenia, where they settled in the towns of Mary, Yoletan and Baram-Ali, all in the lush valley of the Murgab River.
In Mashhad itself, the “converts” faced the periodic wrath of their neighbors well into the first decades of this century. Mashhad-born Sarah Izgelov, now 80, can still remember the harassment: “When I was six,” she recalls, “we all climbed up into the attic to hide from mobs. It was Pesah, and the Muslims went knocking on doors asking for bread. Families that had no bread – They’re Jews!’ they’d scream, and try to break in.”
Sarah’s parents fled to Turkmenistan in 1923 when she was nine, settling in Yoletan, a city of 15,000 some 400 kilometers (250 miles) east of Ashgabad, where she still lives. They were among some 2,000-3,000 Mashhadi Jews living in the area, along with an active community of the region’s indigenous Bukharan Jews in Mary. In the 1920s, Soviet power was not yet firmly established in this distant corner of the recently deceased Russian empire, and even new ar rivals were able to set themselves up in private businesses as traders, tailors and bootmakers.
By the early 1930s, the shadow of Communism reached the Murgab valley, making business increasingly difficult. “My parents went back to Iran,” Sarah says, “but I was married by that time and my husband didn’t want to go back.” In the early 1930s, the Soviets sealed the border with Iran, and those on the Soviet side were trapped. Tamara Babaeva, an Iranian Jewish woman in her 70s today, born in Yoletan and now living in Ashgabad, recalls one Jew who’d left only weeks before the border closed. “He said he’d send for his things, but that was the last we heard from him.”
Sarah Izgelov never saw her parents again. In 1989, in the looser climate created by perestroika, a sister who had fled Khomeini’s Iran visited from New York; they hadn’t seen each other in nearly 60 years.
During those six decades, the Iranian Jews had little choice but to blend into Soviet life. Some moved to other Central Asian cities like Tashkent. Like the Bukharans Jews in those cities, the Iranians clung to Jewish tradition as best they could and did not marry outside the faith.
World War II brought Ashkenazi refugees to Central Asia, even to such remote places as Yoletan. “We saw immediately that they were Jews, and we put them up temporarily in the synagogue,” Sarah recalls. Today that synagogue is a basketball court, thanks to the Communists.
Across the border, meanwhile, Mashhad’s Jews had moved on – to Teheran, or abroad to Israel, the United States and other countries. In 1979 came the catastrophe of fundamentalist rule in Iran, pushing many Mashhadi Jews still in the country to flee. So, ironically, when the gates of the Soviet Union finally opened, there was no reason to go back to Iran. Quite the contrary.
“When Khomeini came, our cousins had to leave everything behind – carpets, silver, jewels, everything,” says Frieda Babaeva, Tamara’s niece, who lives in Ashgabad. Like many of these Jews, she carried a vision of safe and prosperous relatives in Iran that was smashed by the shah’s fall.
Frieda is the unofficial leader of Turkmenistan Jewry. She organized the first meeting of Ashgabad’s Jews in May 1992. The effort frustrated her, both because of the fearful and apathetic attitude she found among the city’s handful of Ashkenazis, and because of the government’s refusal to legally register a Jewish Cultural Society. But she has a measure of understanding for both. “Many of the Ashkenazis were persecuted by the Communists, so they’re afraid to stick their necks out,” she says. As for the Turkmen government, she says: “They’re worried about Islamic fundamentalism,
so they’re reluctant to register any organization with a religious flavor.”
A senior official close to Turkmenistan’s president, Saparmurad Niyazov, echoed the concern. “If we register a Jewish organization or a Russian organization, Islamic fundamentalists will pressure us for the same thing. We will not permit fundamentalism to get a foothold here,” said the official.
Local Jews say they do not feel threatened in Turkmenistan. “The Turkmen people are very tolerant and friendly toward us. We’ve never had any problems with them,” says Frieda Babaeva. Nevertheless, not many see a future here, despite the prospect that Turkmenistan’s huge reserves of natural gas may one day make this nation of
4 million as wealthy as Kuwait. The main subject of conversation among the country’s Jews is when and where to go.
A drive around the cool, shaded streets of Yoletan in the company of Sarah Izgelov’s 43-year-old grandson, Aradzhon, rapidly conveys the story: In an hour, you seem to have met every young Jew in town. There is Aron, 19, unmarried, bound for America in a few months, and Ravin, 31, married with two children, who has opted for Israel. Aradzhon is torn between the economic opportunities of America and the feeling that he and his family belong in Israel. His son, Moshe, 13, says: “We’ll be leaving, but I don’t know where we’re going.”