ABUJA, Nigeria — He must have been tired of me and my emails. I had certainly sent plenty of them, the first in June 2013 seeking assistance and permission to photograph the Igbo Jews of Nigeria.
“Your project and program are very interesting. I’ll do whatever I can to assist you,” Remy Ilona wrote back. “Let’s keep on talking.”
And so we did…for the next two years.
When I finally did arrive in Abuja in August 2015 for a 5-day visit, the lawyer and renown author of numerous books and papers on the Igbo Jews of Nigeria was, alas, not there. He was in the United States for a Jewish studies program. In his stead, Izuchukwu Onuchukwu, a 34-year-old architect would be my guide, my minder, my companion, my security detail in Abuja, the nation’s hectically calm (yes, hectic and calm, at the same time) capital city.
I could have used Izu at the airport in Istanbul from where I flew to this West African country. The plane was an hour late, then became an hour and a half late, followed by a rugby scrum to get on board. Passengers stuffed the overhead bins with boxes and plastic bags, whatever held their stuff together. I tried to hold myself together, agitated by the unexplained delay and the pushes and bangs of every other passenger as they slipped by my row 5 aisle seat.
On the other end of the 6-hour flight was something unexpected: quiet, calm at Abuja airport. Granted it was 12:15 a.m. when we touched down, but I was prepared for chaos nonetheless. But, my bag was the third one on the conveyor belt, no one stopped me at immigration or customs, the hotel driver was waiting for me with my name on a sign as arranged, and there were all but about 3 cars on the road to the hotel, 42 kilometers (26 miles) away. There were, however, plenty of police and soldiers with big guns at several check points.
But then there was my hotel room. (Play chilling music from Psycho.) It was just gross, and I had been “upgraded” to an “Executive Suite” complete with a horrid carpet (yikes to hotel carpets), wires protruding from here and there, and a dimly lit room (better to hide the carpet, no doubt). The bed was big, comfy, and fresh, thankfully. I got through the night, willingly “downgraded” my room in the morning, and from then on, all was perfect (not with the hotel, but with everything else).
I was in Abuja to meet and photograph four Igbo Jewish communities (though I’d only get to three). Igbo (pronounced and also spelled Ibo) — a corruption of the word “Hebrew” — are an ethnic group from southeastern Nigeria. Most of them follow Christianity, but upwards of 30,000 Igbo claim to be the descendants of ancient Jewish traders. Today, there are a few dozen Igbo synagogues in the country, mainly in Igbo Land, but also in Lagos and Abuja. For security reasons, I limited my Nigerian visit only to the capital, a relatively calm zone in the country.
DAY 1, Friday, August 21, 2016: I met Izuchukwu, or more simply, Izu, in the lobby at the appointed time of 11:00 a.m. With him was Festus, a member from the same community. I was really pleased to meet them because it was only then that I felt like my Jewish Igbo experience was beginning.
A misunderstanding about my evening plans to visit Chabad-Lubavitch of Abuja meant they had not put anything on the agenda for the day. Instead, we went for lunch, then visited the home of the leader of the Ghihon Hebrews’ Congregation. I gently cooled myself with my Japanese uchiwa fan while we sat in the family room sipping beers. We would all meet again the next day. Though I hadn’t yet taken a single photo, I was pleased with my first day because I felt very welcome.
Before 6:00 p.m., Izu and Festus accompanied me to Chabad, not more than 10 minutes by taxi. I then spent the evening with Rabbi Israel Uzan, his family, and a few members of the ex-pat community comprised mainly of Israelis working for SCC construction company.
Rabbi Uzan, a French national, established the first Chabad outpost in Abuja in 2012. He serves some 400 community members (most of whom apparently work at SCC), including 120 or so children. Being the summer holiday season, however, things were much quieter than usual at Abuja Synagogue, a short walk from Chabad House on the SCC compound.
In fact, I was lucky to meet the Rabbi at all.
“It will be a pleasure to assist you in you in Nigeria but fortunately I will be in Paris in the date. So please to organize you trip after the 5 September. I will be back in Nigeria,” he told me by email a couple of months before my arrival. In the end, he and his family arrived back in Abuja the same day I did.
“Shabbat service starts at 7 p.m.,” he informed me. “After, we do a Shabbat meal. You are welcome.” Fantastic, I thought.
When I arrived at the house, the Rabbi and his wife were upstairs busy attending to the small children in preparation for Shabbat. While I waited, I took a few photos in the main room where it was evident Shabbat meals and gatherings are held. When I first got there, there were a few candle sticks and a few loaves of challah randomly clumped on the table. Rabbi Uzan came down with his kids by 6:15 and hurriedly assisted in setting up the table before lighting Shabbat candles with his daughter.
“What time does Shabbat actually start?” I wanted to know.
We walked briskly to the synagogue a few minutes away. En route, I snapped some photos from behind as the kids struggled to keep up with their father. When we got there, I had 12 minutes to photograph the empty synagogue. I set up and worked under pressure. The last click chimed in Shabbat.
There were just enough men in attendance to count a minyan, but the community itself doesn’t count the one local Igbo Jewish man who is clearly devout and very well versed in the prayers. So, technically, we were one shy of a minyan.
After the service, we returned to the house with two others. There were only 4 guests that evening, but interesting people. One of them was a British man who spent his youth in northern Nigeria who only recently returned to do business here. There was a woman who was born in Nigeria, grew up in Nigeria, lives in Nigeria, who is Nigerian, but of Lebanese descent. She hardly fit the “appearance” of a Nigerian. “It confuses people,” she said. “I often get questioned at immigration.” The most interesting people attend Chabad-Lubavitch Shabbat meals.
DAY 2, Saturday, August 22: The Igbo Jews devoutly observe Shabbat. When I arrived at the Ghihon Hebrews’ Synagogue in the Jikwoyi district of Abuja in the late afternoon, I found a circle of community members in the derelict community building adjacent to the synagogue engrossed in conversation that sounded more like an argument than respectful debate. Things became quiet pretty quickly, however, when I sat down with them.
Each of the dozen or so people introduced themselves and welcomed me to their community. We then went inside the synagogue where upwards of 50 people, including women and young people of varying ages, were milling around chatting. The women sat separately in the demarcated ladies’ gallery at the back. Some of them were crowned by beautiful head ties, a head scarf worn by women in Western and Southern Africa.
The men formed another circle and pulled up a chair for me. One person read the weekly parsha which had been printed off the Chabad-Lubavitch website. It was dated August 2003. The reader didn’t miss a syllable, even reading aloud the verse and chapter notes of each section. What followed was a spirited debate about the interpretation of trees planted on the Temple Mount and whether or not they represent anything, or even if their beauty is a distraction from the Torah. By extension, the question was then put to the position of the Nigerian and Israeli flags on either side of the Aron Hakodesh.
“Respect…revere…worship…symbolic…” I heard all these words being tossed around. Some argued for the removal of the flags. Then, one of those lovely ladies in a head tie stood, gestured her hand over the mehitzah at me, and invited me to speak.
“Let us see what our visitor has to say on the matter,” she invited.
“You want me to speak?” I confirmed. She nodded.
The room went silent. “Well,” I said, “I have been in hundreds of synagogues around the world. To the best of my knowledge, the flags merely represent the nation in which the community is located, and an obvious link to the the land of the Jewish people. I don’t think it’s more complicated than that. I don’t think there is any obligation to place either of the flags in the synagogue. I think it is more customary than obligatory.”
That settled nothing.
Later, after the long and thorough Shabbat service, the flock carried on outside with their spirited chatter to the point that it again almost seemed like an argument. I piped in.
“You know how I know you are Jews?” I quizzed them to uncertain faces. “Because you love to argue.”
That was received with laughter and I think I assured myself of being an honorary member for the day. I then took advantage of the ebbing day light to photograph the synagogue and the delightful congregation.
DAY 3, Sunday, August 23. Izu came for me at 10:00 a.m. No, 10:40. Nope, he showed up on Africa time: 11:40. With him was Perez.
“Like Shimon Perez,” I said. He smiled. Perez is another community member. In his car, we drove some 45 minutes to reach the Tikvat Israel Synagogue in Kubwa, another district in Abuja. The journeys started to feel the same. We’d start out on a big main road heading out of town only to turn off somewhere onto a pot-holed dirt track with giant rocks. Just as we pulled up at the synagogue, a tire blew beneath the Magen David on the outside wall of the synagogue. Thankfully, we were not stranded in the middle of nowhere.
On this day, there was a general meeting for the leadership of all four Igbo communities in Abuja. Consequently, I met many familiar faces, but good luck remembering anyone’s name. They were there to discuss matters related to forthcoming visitors. I wondered if they’d held a similar meeting in advance of my arrival. It didn’t take long for that spirited, argument-like volume to get turned on, but not before, once again, one by one, each member stood, introduced themselves, and warmly welcomed me.
I was invited to snap, as they like to say here, as much as I liked. I took some photos, but then removed myself for a while to photograph the synagogue. It’s somewhat rough around the edges, but there is a kosher Sefer Torah in the Aron Hakodesh. Behind it, there’s a space for several more Torah. For the time being, the space is empty. There seemed to be few straight lines in the concrete/wooden structure.
Outside, goats and chickens roamed the garden, and one friendly, scruffy dog pretended to guard the place while he snoozed. Midst the goats, I found members talking. I joined in and was schooled on the complicated history of the nation. I was impressed by the knowledge and interest in local politics. I confessed that I’m something of a news junky too, just not for Nigerian news. It felt a little weird, even slightly unnerving, talking about Boko Haram in the very country that that cancer rages.
I went back inside the makeshift community room and took more photos of the meeting. I think they missed me and were immediately eager subjects. The end of the meeting was signaled by toasting with beers, whisky, and wine and a whole lot of garden eggs, a bland, green fruit they eat by the dozen.
With the tire repaired, we made the journey back to my hotel round about 4:30. It had been an extraordinary time.
DAY 4, Monday, August 24. I had a casual morning with enough time to have a bit of a workout in the threadbare hotel gym. Izu and Perez came for me at 11:00. We set out down that familiar main road before again venturing off onto a rugged dirt track. It wasn’t far before we reached the diminutive Beit Knesset Siyah Yisrael, little more than a room at one end of a larger building. Just their bit was painted in the familiar white and pale blue on synagogues around the world.
I met with only 9 members of the congregation (about half), including Festus whom I’d met on the first day. This is also Izu’s synagogue, and Remy Ilona prays here too. By now, I was accustomed to the introductions procedures, but I was genuinely heart-warmed by the sincerity and gusto offered to me. One by one, each stood — even the ones I’d met twice already — and said a few words. I did my best to reciprocate the warmth by offering my gratitude for the welcome and opportunity to meet and photograph their community.
One person asked about the importance of speaking Hebrew as part of being Jewish. I thought that was a good and interesting question.
“I think reading Hebrew is important for the prayers,” I said, “but I don’t think actually speaking Hebrew is essential as a determining factor of who is or is not a Jew. I don’t speak Hebrew. Most American Jews don’t. I speak Japanese, but that doesn’t make me any more Japanese. I understand why you ask, even worry, about it, however. But not speaking Hebrew doesn’t diminish your Jewishness. It’s what’s in your heart that matters.”
They all seemed satisfied with that.
Another member said in his introduction that he was seeking “truth.” I wanted to know more.
“I was born an Igbo Jew, but I followed Christianity,” he explained. “But I wasn’t satisfied. I didn’t feel any connection to God. I found that truth as a Jew and I returned to the community.”
“Religion is something that is imposed upon us,” I replied. “We generally follow our parents, and only when we come of age do we really interpret the significance of faith, or lifestyle, in a meaningful way. So I think it’s good that you found your own way.”
We shared a lot of meaningful conversation. It wasn’t all fluffy introductions and niceties and smiles for the camera. I didn’t start photographing for about an hour until we shared some soft drinks and peanuts. I had my own photo taken with every member there. As I posed with one person, about 4 others were snapping pics on their cell phones. I didn’t know where to look. Finally, I set up my camera on my tripod for a full group photo.
When we were done, the community leader gifted me an okpu, a traditional Nigerian cap that the Igbo often wear as a kippa.
“We want you to have this,” he said. “We want you to have something to remember us by. We are really happy you are here.”
I was touched. I accepted the okpu and placed it on my head (removing my hand-knit kippa from the Abayudaya Jewish community in Uganda).
“Now you are an Igbo Jew,” he said to a chorus of laughter.
I then reset my camera as we posed all over again for another group photo, this time, with me in the center as an honorary Igbo Jew.
DAY 5, Tuesday, August 25. Departure day. I wasn’t flying out until midnight, and wasn’t leaving the hotel till 8:00 p.m. Izu had intimated we may get to one more community, but by late morning, it was apparent that wasn’t going to happen. So I quite happily spent the day at the hotel writing, exercising, and organizing. Izu joined me around 6:00 p.m. and we just hung out until he accompanied me to the airport for my midnight flight out.
While I was in town, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon stopped by for a couple of nights too. I heard him comment on the potential of the nation and that prosperity must be cultivated and shared. Somehow, that notion fits the Igbo Jewish community. They are certainly prosperous in heart. They are cultivating a sincere Jewish life. They are sharing their world with visitor. Their vision is to be a recognized member of the Jewish world. Through their eyes and aspirations, I felt that Nigeria holds more promise than I had previously thought.
Lest I forget, I’ve got my okpu to remind me.
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