IN 1987: The Rev. K.B. Kedem is flanked by Seraph Kedem (left) and Shakeenah Kedem (right). Courtesy Shakeenah Kedem-Fentis
Shakeenah Kedem-Fentis

SHE ESCAPED: In 2010, Shakeenah Kedem-Fentis took a commune Jeep and just kept driving from the Nahzirah Monastic Community. She took with her three of her children; two of her other children who’d been banished soon joined her.

A pot of curried lentils simmered on the kitchen stove, steam rattling the lid. Shakeenah Kedem tossed salt into the stew and stirred, humming to herself. Her reverie was broken when two of her teenage children burst through the screen door carrying wild greens harvested from the nearby woods.

“We found salad!” her daughter, N’horaw, shouted, tossing the basket onto the counter. She ran back outside with her brother Alephtahb, their dirt-stained purple monastery robes flying behind them.

Shakeenah observed her children experiencing freedom for the first time in their lives.

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It was the autumn of 2010, and Shakeenah and her five children, ages 18 to 25, had taken refuge in the home of an acquaintance in Eureka Springs. For the past 12 years, they had lived on a 100-acre wilderness compound 36 miles southwest of Yellville, down a long, remote dirt road. They were part of an eight-member religious order called The Nazir Order of the Purple Veil, and lived in what they called the Nahziryah Monastic Community. Because they were required to wear purple head to toe, locals referred to them simply as “the Purple People.”

Two weeks earlier, Shakeenah Kedem had packed up a few possessions into a commune Jeep and, along with two sons, Niraj and Alephtahb, and daughter, N’horaw, set out to retrieve her two missing sons, Rawm and Quadish. Their father, who called himself the Rev. Baba Nazirmoreh Kadmeeayl Ben Kedem, had sent the two young men out of state to stay with another community member for being defiant.

Shakeenah was forced to turn around when she realized the few hundred dollars of cash she carried wouldn’t support a long journey. She decided to go to Eureka Springs, rather than return to the compound. There, David Roll, a local carpenter, opened his home to the family. He’d previously met the “Purple People” selling merchandise in Eureka. Rawm and Quadish soon joined their mother and siblings.

“And that’s how we came back into the world,” Shakeenah said in a recent interview. “We were like refugees in our own country.”

***

Eight years later, Shakeenah, who is 56 and living in Fort Smith, is sharing the story of the harrowing life she and her family endured under the Nazir Order of the Purple Veil for more than 28 years. And though almost a decade has passed since she fled the compound, the trauma continues. Just last year, Quadish “Ary” Kedem and Alephtahb “Amrita Mukti” Kedem took their own lives.

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“People look at us and have no clue what we’ve been through,” Shakeenah said. She detailed her experience in five hours of recorded interviews and hundreds of texts and emails over the past year.

The Bronx, N.Y., native first learned about the commune in 1981 at age 18, when she encountered a handsome young Nazir man proselytizing outside Carnegie Hall in Manhattan. She fell in love, abandoned a budding career as a vegan baker, performance artist and fashion illustrator, and followed him to a backwoods Mississippi trailer camp near the town of De Kalb.

There she met the group’s charismatic founder, Rev. K.B. Kedem, along with a dozen followers, mostly women and children. Kedem established the Nazir Order of the Purple Veil in the early 1960s, according to a website maintained by the group.

Gaunt, with large, brown eyes and long, black dreadlocks, Kedem was a Black Hebrew Israelite, a name given to various small African-American religious groups who believe themselves to be the descendants of a lost tribe of Israel. Black Hebrew Israelite beliefs and practices vary widely, but some adopt Hebrew names, practice polygamy, reject birth control and keep strict vegan diets. Kedem, however, forged his own spiritual path. He preached an asceticism derived from the Essenes, an ancient Jewish sect. Later, he mixed in an amalgam of Eastern contemplative mysticism.

“It was beautiful at first,” Shakeenah said, remembering her early days as an initiate at the spiritual commune, “meditating and preparing vegan meals together, gardening and harvesting wild foods, washing our clothes in the creek, playing music and chanting, making crafts to sell.”

She smiled faintly, adjusting a purple scarf around her neck, a remnant of her former spiritual regalia.

Things changed in 1982, after her fiancé was killed in a car wreck along with Kedem’s second wife, Ema-Gadola Kedem, and two of their sons. Shakeenah stayed on with the commune to help raise the reverend’s four remaining children, then ages 8 to 17.

“There was an attraction,” she acknowledged. “He was strict, but he could also be loving and playful.” Two years later, the reverend sealed their relationship with spiritual vows, but insisted she remain his disciple, and he, her master. She agreed. She had just turned 21. He was 46.

Over the next several years, five babies followed. Shakeenah was forbidden to mother them, she said. Children born into the group were communally raised by women who were with the group off and on and who were rigidly controlled by Kedem.

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In 1985, the commune relocated to New Orleans, where Kedem opened a bookstore and gift shop called the “Veil of Truth Center for Metaphysical and Esoteric Learning” on Ponce De Leon Street. Shakeenah, her five children, several of Ema-Gadola’s children and others lived in close quarters inside a small apartment in the back of the shop. The women and older children spent their days in silence making crafts to sell in the store and on the streets.

In the late 1990s, Kedem’s paranoia over an impending “Y2K” apocalypse drove him to move the order one more time. He purchased 80 acres in Marion County in 1999. His family and occasional visitors dug gardens; planted orchards; erected cabins, a main lodge and workshop; and painted everything purple — their signature color, one Kedem believed promoted enlightenment.

IN MISSISSIPPI: Rev. Kedem at the Mississippi commune in 1984.

But, by then, communal life had become hopelessly bleak, Shakeenah said. It started back in New Orleans, where Kedem began to force members to physically worship him and prostrate themselves at every encounter, foreheads pressed to ground — or suffer severe consequences.

“He would strike, in the face, especially around the eyes,” she said, pointing to a dark permanent scar on the white of her left eye. “He strangled us. Not only me, but the children. And he would often do this,” she gestured, placing her hand over her mouth and nose, “almost suffocating them.”

In the last year, a half-dozen other former members of Nahziryah Monastic Community have come forward on the record, describing life under the purple veil. They have said they were forbidden to speak, even amongst themselves. When addressed by Kedem, they had to respond in “Sahgole,” a Hebrew-based language he had invented. Meals were limited to lunch and supper, the children given only a protein drink for breakfast. Everyone, including the young members, had to meditate for an hour at dawn, noon and dusk. If the children fell asleep or stole food, they would be punished, Shakeenah said.

“The violence would be described as extreme,” she said, her eyes welling with tears. “He would lay the children out on the ground, and beat their backs with boards,” she said.

Retaliating only made things much worse for everyone, Shakeenah said. Leaving, with no resources, seemed impossible. Barred from seeking conventional medical care, she tended to her children’s fractures and wounds using splints and natural remedies. Family members who spoke on the record revealed scars on their heads, arms, backs and faces.

“This was my home, since I was a teenager,” Shakeenah said when asked why she stayed. “This was all I knew. I had taken lifetime vows under the Nazir veil to be a renunciate.”

To cope with the pain, she would pretend the abuse was a form of severe training a disciple might receive from a strict Eastern master. Even when she left the compound in 2010, she believed at first it would be a short leave of absence.

AT THE COMPOUND: Purple is the color for the main dwelling.

At Nahziryah Monastic Community, everyone worked seven days a week cleaning, cooking, growing food and chopping firewood. The older children and women manufactured spiritual merchandise and crafts to support Kedem. They crocheted clothing and hats and fabricated incense burners and jewelry, which the women silently sold at festivals, farmers markets and online for income. The children, however, weren’t allowed to leave the compound and grew up with no contact with the outside world.

Janja Lalich is a professor emerita of sociology at California State University-Chico who operates the Cult Research & Information Center. Once a cult member herself, she’s written several popular books on the subject.

“Members [of cults] don’t fight back,” she said, “because of the intensity of the indoctrination.”

“Essentially no one joins a cult,” Lalich said. “They will get drawn in by the message or leader. More than two-thirds get recruited by friends, family or co-workers. [They are] slowly brought in until they are convinced by messages of enlightenment, financial success and physical improvement.”

Multiple phone calls and emails to Kedem seeking comment about the abuse allegations were not returned. He did mail a packet of spiritual paraphernalia, including bumper stickers, CDs and a written response in purple text on white paper: “Peace be to Jacqueline Froelich.”

Family members said that on at least three occasions they secretly contacted authorities for help both in New Orleans and Marion County, but that Kedem managed to convince investigators who came by that all was well. Searches of Arkansas court and criminal records and calls to the Marion County prosecuting attorney revealed no complaints or arrests. Child protective services agencies in Arkansas and Mississippi said they could not comment on specific investigations due to confidentiality rules preventing public disclosure of records. Queries to the New Orleans Police Department and the FBI yielded no records, either.

***

Lalich said religious leaders in particular can get away with terrible abuse.

“As a society, and because of the First Amendment, we have a reluctance to hold religious organizations accountable,” she said. “Look how long it took for the Catholic Church to be held accountable for its abuses.”

Cults that are sequestered from society, she said, are only exposed by ex-members brave enough to come forward or media willing to investigate.

“A cult is a group or social movement that’s led by an authoritarian, extremely domineering, narcissistic, charismatic leader who sets up a structure with systems of control and influence in order to keep the members obedient and loyal,” Lalich said. “And followers over time give over their decision-making power and sense of self to this person’s ideology and will pretty much do whatever that person says.”

THE FAMILY: Alephtahb “Amrita Mukti” Kedem, N’horaw “Aleen” Kedem, Quadish “Ary” Kedem, Shakeenah, Nazir “Niraj” Kedem and Rawm Kedem, circa 2009.

Kedem today is nearing 80. Family photographs reveal a frail, emaciated elder with graying dreadlocks poking out from beneath his purple hooded robe. Until recently, he advertised Nahziryah Monastic Community as a spiritual retreat on a website, thepurplepeople.org, and had a listing on an intentional communities directory. As of this March, the website and the listings were no longer online. Kedem continued to sell essential oils, jewelry, accessories and other merchandise on an Etsy store and a separate website.

One longtime follower, Seraph Kedem, remains with the reverend on the compound. She joined the commune in Mississippi and now serves as the reverend’s caregiver — despite, according to Shakeenah, also enduring years of physical abuse.

Kedem teaches that he is “beyond time” and omniscient. Anyone in his presence, including visitors, is required to address him in the third person and to abstain from using any personal pronouns. Public records, however, reveal that he is not eternal. Born Duval Mitchell, according to his eldest daughter, in 1940, he was raised Catholic in Chicago. He converted as a young man to the Black Hebrew Israelite faith and cultivated a small following before moving south to Mississippi, leaving behind his family of origin.

Shakeenah said he also tried to leave behind his identity as an African American. “He rejected his racial identity,” she said, in what Shakeenah now believes was the result of internalized racism.

Notoriously, the Ozarks of north-central Arkansas are home to a number of white nationalist groups that could also be considered cults, including the Knights Party of the Ku Klux Klan, Christian Identity and the League of the South. But aside from minor vandalism to the commune’s purple mailbox by rowdy teenagers, the commune was never harassed, according to members and queries to law enforcement.

Arkansas black history scholar Guy Lancaster, the editor of the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture, offered a theory as to why.

“Because they [the Purple People] readily assert and maintain their own difference, their own separateness, from the wider predominately white society,” Lancaster wrote in an email. “Because they are not attempting to integrate white social spaces, but instead keep to their own, they do not constitute much of a threat. In fact, their obvious strangeness, as denoted by their clothing and behavior, has probably helped to keep them safe, for it increases their social distance from the mainstream even more.”

“Nobody in the area trusted them at first,” said Roland Pangle, a retired union electrician from Marion County who was on a first- name basis with Kedem. “The rumor was they all carried machine guns under their ankle-length purple garments.”

“Nazirmoreh questioned if I was CIA, FBI or law enforcement,” he said during a phone interview, laughing.

Pangle helped out with electrical repairs at the commune in exchange for browsing the commune’s library, which was filled with religious and spiritual texts. While there, he had the rare opportunity to observe the community in action.

“All of the members had to prostrate themselves to Nazirmoreh every time he showed his face, and the children had to disappear,” he said. “They were not to be around.”

Pangle, however, said he was unaware that Rev. Kedem had a violent streak. Since learning about the alleged abuse, Pangle said he no longer associates with him.

David Roll, the Eureka Springs carpenter who opened his home to Shakeenah and her children after they fled the compound in 2010, had first encountered the “Purple People” several years earlier selling merchandise in Eureka.

“They turned my house into an ashram,” he said, recalling the family’s initial emergence in a telephone interview last year. “They pushed the couches back, laying out their blankets and beds, meditated, cooked vats of curry and served wild foods harvested by the kids from the hollow behind my house.”

After decades of living in silence and seclusion, the youths went wild, Roll said. They stared at the television, rummaged through his house and workshop and ran through the neighborhood, all the while chattering to each other in broken English.

“Purple clothes were torn,” Roll said, smiling. “They had no more boundaries.”

The children also had no Social Security numbers, school or medical records — including vaccinations — or street clothes. Roll had to call on friends for help.

“We had some meetings to discuss, ‘What are we going to do with this family?’ ” he said. Thousands of dollars in cash donations appeared, along with five offers of temporary housing. The youths were enrolled in English literacy and GED classes, and eventually took jobs at a poultry processing factory in nearby Berryville. One son was able to purchase a vehicle and start a private taxi service. Their mom made crafts and practiced natural healing arts for income.

“You know, there was an incredible innocence about all of them,” Roll said. “I’ve traveled a lot of the world. I’ve never seen this situation. I’ve never experienced anything that innocent. This purity. But it was also slowly being revealed that it was a complicated purity and that there were some things going on here.”

***

Several other former members of the community corroborated Shakeenah’s account that Kedem physically abused his followers.

Atawraw Kedem Sislo, 46, was among the six children born to Kedem’s second wife, Ema-Gadola, who was killed along with two of the children and Shakeenah’s fiancé in the 1982 car crash. Atawraw was born in Chicago but grew up on the Mississippi commune and relocated with her family to New Orleans. She left the cult in the summer of 1991 at age 18, emancipating herself from the community.

“I didn’t want to be a prisoner in my own house,” Atawraw said in an interview early this year. “He had beaten me one too many times. Once he forced me to lay face down on the ground, and hit me with a board up and down my back. If I screamed, he would hit me harder, so I covered my mouth with my hand.”

FAMILY: Joyce Jones (left) was advised by a cult deprogrammer not to intervene in the decision by her daughter, Shakeenah Kedem-Fentis (right), to join the commune

She said the beatings felt like near-death experiences.

“There was a lot of head trauma. I had a cracked skull,” she said, showing an indentation on her scalp. “In Mississippi, he would make us kids sleep out in the woods as punishment, or stand, arms outstretched holding heavy books,” Atawraw said. The abuse caused her to break out in hives, she said.

“In New Orleans he once picked up my little half-brother, Niraj, and slammed him against the wall, breaking his leg,” she said. Family were forbidden to seek conventional medical care, so the child’s leg, she said, was splinted with duct tape and boards by another member of the commune.

Atawraw said their father would even punish Shakeenah’s babies for crying.

“And if that didn’t work, he would put a pillow over their face. They had no choice but to stop crying because they were gasping for air,” Atawraw said.

Atawraw said she and her siblings grew up terrorized, watching her father physically assault Shakeenah and other women in the cult.

“When Shakeenah was pregnant, he would punch her in the stomach,” Atawraw said. “Or push her down the stairs. But if we voiced opposition? That was a punishable offense.” Shakeenah confirmed Atawraw’s account.

Atawraw and her siblings were home-schooled in Mississippi, but the schooling stopped by the time they moved to New Orleans, she said. There, the older youths were forced to make and sell merchandise in flea markets along Canal Street.

“If I didn’t fulfill my daily crocheting or jewelry quota, there would be no lunch,” she said. “And if the authorities came by, we would have to hide.”

***

Quadish “Ary” Kedem, Shakeenah Kedem’s youngest son, said in a January 2018 interview that his early life was rough and scary.

“I was choked, smothered, beaten in the crib,” he said, softly crying. “Thrown up against the wall.”

Ary was 5 years old when the community moved to the Ozarks — a means, he said, for his father to further isolate them.

“He spanked us with 2-by-4 lumber, brooms, shovels, rakes and picks,” he said, his voice breaking. Ary also said Kedem would deprive the children of food and water for punishment.

“He would put us on a three-day dry fast, which means no eating or drinking whatsoever. And, because of that, I be waking up while everyone else was asleep to get into the fridge to get something to eat, ’cause I’m so hungry.”

As he grew older, Ary said, he tried to stop the violence.

“Once, I heard my mom screaming, and saw her being drug by her hair down the stairs, helpless. I screamed at my father to let her go. He pounced on me.”

He said the few visitors who came for retreats were completely unaware of their brutal circumstances. In a separate interview conducted by text message, Shakeenah’s eldest son, Rawm Kedem, said he, too, was assaulted by his father.

“When I was about 2 or 3 years old, my dad picked me up and held me as high to the ceiling as he could and threw me on the floor with force,” he wrote. “He would drag us from the top bunk bed and let us fall on the floor.”

Rawm said his father would also burn him with lit matches, beat him with boards and starve him as punishment. “He beat one of my brothers with a 2-by-4 with nails, as well as a shovel,” he wrote. “He stomped one of my brothers’ head on a rock all because he did not bow down before his feet.”

When asked about the abuse in a January 2018 interview, Ary’s sibling, Alephtahb “Amrita Mukti,” who had transitioned to female, silently pulled up her sleeve, revealing a deformed arm. It was broken by her father, she said, when she attempted to get food from the kitchen.

Amrita Mukti came out several years ago as a trans woman. The 28-year-old was months away from undergoing gender confirmation surgery when her body was discovered May 7, 2018, in her Fayetteville apartment by a landlord. Police records indicate she had been struggling with depression. Her death was ruled a suicide.

Her brother Ary’s body was discovered by a passerby, two months later, at dawn, hanging from a tree in a local park. Police confirmed his death a suicide.

Separate memorial services were held for both Amrita Mukti and Ary Kedem at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Fayetteville. The services were attended by hundreds of supporters, friends and family. Their father did not attend. Shakeenah said Kedem’s belief system prohibits members from going near dead bodies. At Ary’s memorial Shakeenah sang, “Let It Be.”

“They are free now,” she said, six months later. “Free from pain.”

***

Shakeenah Kedem is now married to digital artist Kedar Fentis. Today, she goes by Shakeenah Kedem-Fentis. They make their home in Fort Smith, where she works as an artists’ agent and healing arts practitioner. She’s also earned a following on Facebook, where she discusses her journey.

MEMORIALIZED: Shakeenah’s children Ary and Alephtahb (who transitioned to female and took the name Amrita Mukti) both committed suicide.

Shakeenah’s mother, Joyce Jones, lives nearby, as does her daughter N’horaw “Aleen” Kedem, who is raising a child. Rawm, who lives in Carroll County, recently obtained his industrial truck driving license and is traveling the continent, his dream job. Middle son Niraj is an artist and farmer who also resides in Carroll County. Niraj and Aleen declined to be interviewed for this story.

Atawraw lives in Bentonville with her young son and is working as a solar energy consultant. She also drives for Uber and Lyft and is a food-service worker in Bentonville Public Schools.

Joyce Jones said she consulted a cult deprogrammer in the 1980s after her daughter first went missing, but was advised to not push for contact or intervene. Kedem did finally consent to a visit, one time, to the New Orleans commune in 1989.

“It was beautiful,” Jones said about the commune’s living quarters. “Clean and spacious. It relieved my angst.” She was completely unaware, however, that her daughter and grandchildren were being assaulted on a regular basis.

Chicago artist Makeba Kedem-Dubose, Kedem’s eldest daughter, was raised outside the cult by her maternal grandmother.

For years, growing up, she held her birth father in high esteem. Then she visited him at the New Orleans commune.

“I saw things I didn’t want to see,” she said. “I saw my father hit a baby with a stick.”

ESCAPED: Atawraw Kedem Sislow (right) lives in Bentonville and is a solar energy consultant and a driver for Uber and Lyft. She left the cult at age 18.

After that, she said, she had limited contact with her siblings, until they contacted her for help.

“They wanted to confront our father, but were really afraid,” she said by phone. “So, I came to Arkansas and traveled with them to Marion County to see him. Our father denied everything. He tried to make it seem like my siblings were lying.”

Makeba Kedem-Dubose says she’s recently learned from her family that her paternal grandfather also inflicted violence on his family. She believes her father suffers with mental illness.

“Some sort of God complex,” she said.

In a recent text, Shakeenah wrote that looking back she realizes that her once-beloved teacher kept impregnating her to “build a following” while making her forsake motherhood and her family roots to focus completely on him.

In their last remaining days in the community, she wrote, her sons and daughter grew bravely defiant, finding ways to intercede when they heard “the Teacher” — their father — beating their mother.

“I think it was actually through me observing all of my children, and my own reactions or nonaction, that I began to realize that this man had a way of striking fear — and getting away with it,” she wrote. As a young woman she never learned how to establish personal boundaries, she said.

Still, she said, some of the contemplative spiritual practices she absorbed over the decades continue to resonate with her.

“I hold onto certain values I gained through the journey,” Shakeenah said. “Gems found within the rubble. The essence of a path should not be diminished because the messenger had a deranged mind and distorted teachings to his own benefit.”