My time in Yemen as a Fulbright researcher turned out to be one of the most profound experiences of my life. Ostensibly, I was in Yemen for ten months as a researcher to explore identity and culture as a contrast point to my experience in Egypt the previous year. But I really came to Yemen for an adventure and to be free and unknown.
I wandered villages and talked to people. I learned how to swim in Socotra, a small island nestled between Somalia and Yemen. I remember sitting on the beach with my European friends when a man on a boat approached us and demanded food from us- to this day I’m not sure if I get to call him a pirate or not. I traveled to a friend’s wedding in Sadaa, the heart of the Houthi stronghold, long before the Houthis became international news. It was a beautiful wedding but also quite sad because my friend was an American teenager from Los Angeles who had been pulled from the States to have an honorable tribal wedding. I suppose the $85,000 dowry to her father may have also been an incentive for her marriage. I went because she begged me to go with her and to photograph the whole trip. It was really taboo to photograph women, even in the mid-2000s.
I remember crowds of people silently watching me read Arabic lessons on my laptop- a skill they did not have. I learned the differences between single and married girl abayas. And when people started offering me their guns to shoot I knew it was about the cut of the abaya, and not me!
In 2005, Keisha Toms went to Yemen on a #Fulbright U.S. Student award. While there, she used photography to explore identity and cultural exchange. Her Fulbright experience inspired Keisha to join the Foreign Service, where she could keep learning about new cultures and share American culture with the world. "Walk with people. Get to know them. Talk with them," she says. "That's what I would say the Fulbright experience gave to me." #CulturalDiplomacy
Posted by The Fulbright Program on Saturday, September 22, 2018
But it was Moshe, a Yemeni Jew, who embodied everything about Yemen and taught me so much about being a Foreign Service Officer.
I first learned about the small population of Yemeni Jews while walking to my Arabic class in downtown Sanaa. I noticed an old Yemeni man walking in the souq, the market, wearing a Yarmulke and traditional Hasidic payot sidelocks, just like so many of my fellow New Yorkers that I knew in Brooklyn from college. Immediately, I had questions and called my Yemeni friends to understand more about the Yemeni Jews.
Turns out the souq I walked through every day, Souq al Milh, the salt market, was traditionally a place where local Jewish people sold their goods, including salt. Jewish Yemeni were also famous for their magnificent Jewish wedding jewelry. I frequented the souq and bought several pieces, but the Arab Spring would soon halt my visits there.
My friends knew I was researching identity and culture as a Fulbrighter, so they offered to introduce me to a Jewish family to learn more about their lives and experiences. Moshe’s family lived in Raydah, a small town with a few hundred Jewish families. He allowed me to tour the community: I remember seeing the Torah pedestaled in a small synagogue and an older man reciting the text near a tree.
Moshe and his family, like every other Yemeni, fed me the best of their food and told me about their 300-strong Jewish community just north of Sanaa. He identified as a proud Yemeni and he had no intention of moving to another country despite sporadic threats to him and his family.
As an African American, I felt a strong connection to this 30 year-old butcher with nine children. I admired his decision to share with me his family and his culture rather than discuss the threats that swirled around him. Mostly, I admired Moshe because he refused to let anyone tell him he wasn’t Yemeni enough just because he was a minority.
The last time I heard from Moshe was after I had returned to New York to begin graduate studies at Columbia University’s School of International Affairs. He had left a hurried message asking me to call him back because he needed help.
Moshe was dead by the next time I asked about him. On his way from the souq, perhaps after buying groceries for another curious student, a gunman murdered him in the street because he was Jewish. December 2018 will mark ten years since his death and I still remember my friend.
I have always carried a guilt about Moshe. I’ll always wonder if there was something I could have done to help when he called. Moshe believed that I could help him because I came from the great City on a Hill. He didn’t care about my background or my personal baggage. To him I was an American who had the potential to help him and his community.
Moshe’s death – and my desire to prevent this from happening again – is what inspired me to become a Foreign Service Officer and promote human rights and democracy in the lives of people just like Moshe all around the world.
About the Author: Keisha Toms is a Foreign Service Officer and an alumna of the Fulbright U.S. Student Program.
Editor’s Note: This entry also appeared in the U.S. Department of State’s publication on Medium.com.