It was early 1940s Bahrain and my grandmother Sharifah bint Ibrahim was sitting in the courtyard of her home in Fireej Al-Thuwawda, a then prominent Manama neighborhood. A knock came on the house’s wide, wooden double doors. My grandmother smiled as she rose to open the door; she knew exactly who was standing behind it.
Every Saturday morning, her neighbor and longtime friend, came over for a visit, carrying with her a big, aluminum cooking pot and the ingredients for that day’s lunch. The two kissed and exchanged pleasantries in their sweet and heavy Bahraini accents, as my grandmother warmly welcomed her inside the house that had become her second home. Seated, my grandmother’s friend watched as my grandmother lit the stove so she could cook their families’ lunches. After all, it was Sabbath and being a Jew, her friend could not light a fire to cook.
The more I told others about the friendship between by my grandmother and her Jewish friend, the more I realized that, outside of Bahrain, most people in this region and beyond have no idea that there was and still is a thriving Jewish population in the kingdom. This discovery prompted me to write this piece.
There was no one more applicable to speak to than H.E. Nancy Khedouri, author of From Our Beginning to Present Day, a book chronicling the history, customs and traditions of Bahraini Jews, to gain a deeper insight of the community. We spoke on a warm summer afternoon.
The Origins of Bahrain’s Jews
“The dynamic Jewish community of The Kingdom of Bahrain are all from a common historic background, who trace their roots back to the first Jewish people who arrived mainly from Iraq in the 1880’s, under the reign of Shaikh Isa Bin Ali Al Khalifa, establishing themselves in Bahrain in search of a better quality of life,” begins Nancy.
“They managed to comfortably integrate into the texture of the society,” she continues , “and mainly lived in the Manama area and prominent neighborhoods such as Fireej Al-Fadhel.”
Occupations Bahraini Jews Have Held Over the Years
When it came to occupations, says Nancy, “the Jews of Bahrain spread their nets wide and worked in various professions in Bab-Al-Bahrain (Gateway of Bahrain) located in its capital Manama. The local Jewish traders sold various items ranging from tobacco, olive oil, perfume, electronics, textile and ready-made garments and many owned personal properties. There were those who were in the record-producing business or involved in the leasing of cinemas.”
The main market area where the Jewish traders were concentrated was widely known as ‘Sekkat Al Yahoud’ ( The Jews’ Street) and was a popular route for shoppers. Some businesses still continue to exist in the same location in Bab-Al-Bahrain today.
“There were those who were money exchangers or employed as bank advisors and head-cashiers” she adds, “ while others worked at the Telecommunications Company known as ‘Cable & Wireless’, today’s Bahrain Telecommunications Company (BATELCO), and Bahrain Petroleum Company (BAPCO). Some were teachers at the public and private schools.”
Family businesses around from the 20th Century continue to thrive today.
Notable Bahraini-Jewish Women
As for Jewish women, Nancy tells us that many worked as teachers or nurses, playing an important role in many Bahraini lives.
“The most famous midwife was ‘Um-Jan’ [ ‘the Mother of Jan’], who was known to be a ‘Mother to All’ ” says Nancy, as the majority of the well-known families in Bahrain used to call on her to help with child deliveries, something she had been certified to do since 1920. Her popularity stemmed from the warmth, affection, and comfort she provided mothers and children in her care.
Another notable Jewish woman was “a famous seamstress, who taught Bahraini women how to master a special design that was later used in thobe al-nashil, our country’s national dress for women, ” Nancy adds.
Today, a number of Jewish women continue to play an important role in society, and occupy diplomatic and governmental posts, with H.E. Nancy Khedouri herself being a member of the Kingdom’s Shura (Consultative) Council. Nancy’s Law Degree has been a hallmark in her role as a member of The Shura Council and member of its Foreign Affairs, Defence & National Security Committee (having been elected unopposed as its Deputy Chairperson for the second and third consecutive sessions of the Third Legislative Term), in which she feels privileged to work together with her Muslim and Christian colleagues, as a family unit to draft bills before they become laws.
Her first cousin, H.E. Houda Nonoo, served as Bahrain’s Ambassador to Washington D.C. from 2008 to 2013.
The Number of Jews in Bahrain
Precise statistics as to the number of Jews who have lived in Bahrain throughout the years are difficult to come by. According to some Bahraini researchers, however, there may have been between 1,500- 2,000 Jews to begin with, though the number is less today due to emigration. Bahrain never expelled any Jews.
“The Bahraini Jews who decided to leave in the late 1940’s and 1960’s did so, on their own discretion, selling their properties, leaving with their personal belongings and capital” Nancy explains. “ Till today, those Bahraini Jews who left to reside abroad, continue to stay in touch with their Bahraini Muslim, Christian, Hindu and Bahai friends and highly praise Bahrain and its citizens, expressing a longing for those good old days.”
“To date, the community that remains today, are well-known, law-abiding citizens, who have established close friendship ties with many of the respectable citizens of Bahrain” she adds. “ This kinship emanated from their school days and the depth of their bonds has grown stronger over the years. This, no doubt, reveals the peaceful coexistence between the Bahraini Jews and the people of other faiths living in the Kingdom of Bahrain. Full Freedom of Worship is allowed in Bahrain and Bahraini Jews honour their High Holidays and celebrate their festivals accordingly in the home.”
Some of the Community’s Customs and Traditions
“Bahraini Jews have been brought up in a Middle Eastern lifestyle, centered around Middle Eastern principles and the culture and traditions that prevail in Bahrain” says Nancy.
For example, Bahraini Jewish weddings are preceded by henna parties, in which the bride’s hands are covered in beautiful henna art in preparation for the big day.
“The Sephardic Jews of Bahrain have maintained the rich custom of henna for many years, adapting it from the customs prevalent in Morocco, India, Yemen, Iran, and Middle East, where many resided” explains Nancy in her book, in which a whole chapter is dedicated to the traditions and customs of Bahraini Jews.
Another chapter is dedicated to the traditional foods of the Jewish community of Bahrain. Many Iraqi foods such as Erouk Samak, Kibbah Burghul, and Louzina are listed, highlighting the Iraqi origins of Bahrain’s Jews.
Though Bahrain is the only Gulf state to have an officially registered synagogue, which was established and funded by a French pearl trader known as ‘Baig’ in the 1930s, celebrations of all kinds mainly take place in the family home. This is because, during recent years, the Bahraini Jewish community decided not maintain an operational synagogue.
“We opted not to maintain an operational Synagogue, due to it being in a very busy heart of the town, far away from where the Jewish community reside and due to the difficulty of having to maintain the quorum of ten men, known as a ‘Minyan,’ to commence the daily prayers, three times a day” explains Nancy.
However, this has not stopped tourists keen to learn more about the Jews of Bahrain from touring the Synagogue’s exterior, as well the nearby Jewish Cemetery, which is located next to the Muslim and Christian cemeteries in the heart of Manama.
For Sekka readers who would like to read more about the history, culture and traditions of Bahraini Jews, Nancy Khedouri’s book can be found at Jashnamal Bookstore outlets in Bahrain.
Sharifah Alhinai is the Managing Storyteller at Sekka.