06 April 2009

Next year in Bahrain?

Not only is it okay to be Jewish in Bahrain, it's even fashionable, according to this New York Times story on the tiny community of 36.
“It’s fashionable,” said Rouben Rouben, 55, an electronics dealer who proudly displays his name, a recognizably Jewish one, on the sign above all four of his shops in Manama, the capital.
Last year, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa appointed a Jewish woman, Houda Ezra Ebrahim Nonoo, as ambassador to the United States, the first Jewish ambassador from any Arab country. The king also visited London to ask expat Jews to return, and he appointed Jewish business leaders to the Shura Council (upper house of Parliament).

The mostly older adults in the community are descendants of Iraqi and Persian merchants whose families have lived in Bahrain for centuries, say experts. Prior to 1948 and Israel's establishment, about 600 Jews lived there, but have left over the years to Europe or the US.

However, being Jewish there is still difficult for such a small group. The last synagogue is preserved but has not been in use religiously for decades; there is also a Jewish cemetery. News stories reported on Ambassador Nounoo's importing a London rabbi for her son's bar mitzvah.

Jewish shops, with family names on storefronts, are still found in the old market. Back in the old days, Al Mutanabi Road was known as Jews' Street because all businesses were closed on Shabbat.

Most Jewish merchants declined to be interviewed for the story, according to the story.
“The Jews of Bahrain are proud to be Bahraini, proud to be Arab,” said Nancy Khedouri, whose family business is a leading importer of tablecloths and linens and who has written a book on Bahrain’s Jewish history. “We are truly blessed to be living in an open and hospitable society.”

A six-member delegation from the American Jewish Committee visited Bahrain on March 18 and presented the king with its Leadership for Peace Award. Bahrain does not have diplomatic relations with Israel but agreed in 2004 to drop its boycott of companies that do business with Israel.
On the other side of the issue are those who take a cynical view, while the Shiite minority says they are discriminated against. The King is a Sunni.

Although Rouben is quoted in the story as saying “My best friends are all Muslims," the story ends with a quote from a Bahrain University history professor, Fouad Shehab, “I’ve known Rouben for years,” he said with a smile. “I go to buy from him. I don’t feel he is a Jew.”

Read the complete story at the link above.

For more on Nonoo and her genealogy, see this GulfNews.com story.

Nonoo studied at a Jewish school - Carmel College, Oxfordshire (UK) - studied business in Britain and the US and opened a shop selling computers and computer accessories.

One of the first Jews to settle in Bahrain was Saleh Eliyahou Yadgar, coming from Basra in the late 1880s. "He began as a tobacconist and later sold flour. He then started dealing with second-hand clothes and also commenced in the material trade supplied from abroad, mainly dealing in the sale of abayas, the long black dress covering worn by Gulf women," writes Nancy Elly Khedouri, a Bahraini Jew in her book "From Our Beginning to Present Day."

He and the other Baghdadi Jews who arrived in Bahrain in the early 1990s settled in with ease and some of them became involved in political life. "Issac Sweiry, Meir Dahoud Rouben and Abraham Nonoo, were members of the Manama Municipality. The membership did not bring about any hatred or problems," Nancy writes.

The Nonoo family history in Bahrain began with Abraham Nonoo "who left Iraq at the age of nine or ten with his uncle and came to Manama." Abraham was elected in 1934 as member of the Manama Municipality. His grandson, also Abraham, was the first Jew to be appointed to the Shura (Upper) Council in 2002 and served until 2006. The post was later assigned to his cousin, Huda Ezra Nonoo.

Read the complete articles at the links above.


  1. "...The king also visited London to ask expat Jews to return..."

    i wouldn't b so quick to b happy about these things, unfortunately history of the Jewish Nation in Arab countries shows that they use us for barging and intimidation purposes.
    just remember ~7 years ago (i think) about the Jewish prisoners in Iran.

    i really really realllly hope the king comes in peace, god knows that we're getting pretty sick of wars and conflicts, Jewish pray for peace for the last 2000 years :) happy passover to "Tracing The Tribe".

  2. Anonymous10:35 AM

    Hi, i arrived in bahrain for work yesterday and would love to find a place to have a seder. any suggestions?

  3. Re a seder in Bahrain. You might stop by the shop of Mr. Rouben who is quoted in the NYT story and ask him. Your hotel might also be able to make the correct contacts.