Month: April 2014

From Egyptian diva to cleaning lady

The Al-Kuwaity brothers sacrificed fame and fortune in Iraq for a kitchenware shop in the poorest quarter of Tel Aviv. Zohra el-Fassia,who used to sing for the King of Morocco, was reduced to shuffling about in her dressing gown in a tiny Israeli flat. Now The Times of Israel tells the story of an Egyptian-Jewish diva, Souad Zaki, who became a cleaning lady in Israel to make ends meet. Unusually,  Zaki’s Muslim husband came to live with Zaki, a proud Zionist, in Israel. (With thanks: Orna)

TEL AVIV — Most people have heard of Egyptian sultry siren Umm Khultum,
the greatest female Arabic singer in history who dominated Middle
Eastern stages and airwaves from the 1930s to the 1970s and still enjoys
widespread acclaim. However, though she too was a prominent singer of
popular classical Egyptian music leading up to the 1952 Egyptian
Revolution, the same cannot be said of Souad Zaki.

political realities been different, Zaki may have become an
international singing sensation like Umm Khultum, who picked Zaki to
co-star in the hit 1945 film “Salamah.”
But as nationalism and anti-Semitism took hold in Egypt, Zaki, a proud
Jew and Zionist, left her birthplace and privileged status behind for
the life of a struggling immigrant in the young Jewish State. 

Thus, just as Zaki’s star was rising in Egypt, she became a cleaning lady at a bank in Tel Aviv.

In the wake of the recent Egyptian
Revolutions, there has been renewed interest in famous female Jewish
singers from Egypt. Music fans have been reintroduced to Layla Mourad,
the voice of the 1952 Revolution. Mourad, who was of Iraqi-Jewish and
Polish-Jewish descent, reportedly converted to Islam for her husband, or
career — or both.

From diva singer to working single mother: A photo of Souad Zaki with her 5-year-old son taken right before they left Egypt for Israel. (Courtesy of Moshe Zaki)

diva singer to working single mother: A photo of Souad Zaki 

with her
5-year-old son taken right before they left Egypt for Israel. 

of Moshe Zaki)

Faiza Rushdi,
an Egyptian-Jewish singer who, like Zaki, moved to Israel, came to
broad Israeli public attention over a decade ago when her daughter Yaffa
Tusiah-Cohen staged a one-woman show titled, “Ana Faiza,” about their
difficult mother-daughter relationship. (The story was followed up in a
2002 documentary film by Sigalit Banai, called, “Mama Faiza.”)

But of the three great female Jewish-Egyptian singers of the 20th
century, only Souad Zaki has been all but forgotten by all but the most
diehard Arabic music fans. For this reason, Zaki’s son Moshe, a
psychologist from Haifa, was pleased to meet with The Times of Israel to
recount his mother’s unusual life story.

Read article in full

The Jewish divas of the Arabic music scene 

Only 90 doomed Jews still in Yemen

This Sky News Arabic report on 26 April clearly blames antisemitism for the demise of the Jewish community of Amram, now reduced to three families. (Via MEMRI; with thanks: Lily)

The Jews of Yemen, now reduced to 90, will soon join the roll call of extinct Middle Eastern Jewish communities, Ari Soffer reports in Israel National News. Spare a thought for them on Holocaust Memorial Day:

 At the start of the twentieth century Yemen’s Jewish community
numbered approximately 60,000. But today, after centuries of
anti-Semitism which peaked in the last century, the community stands at
less than 90.

Most Yemeni Jews left the country in the twentieth century, during
the region-wide campaign by Arab states to ethnically-cleanse their
Jewish minorities, many of whose presence in those countries had
predated the Arab conquest and the emergence of Islam by centuries.

In all, approximately one million Jews from Arab countries were
either expelled or forced to flee due to anti-Semitic persecution. Many
of them and their descendants currently reside in Israel, and account
for more than half the Jewish population there.

But even the small number of Yemeni Jews who remain in the Middle East’s poorest country are slowly disappearing.

On April 26, Sky News Arabic aired a program on the last Jews of Amran province in western Yemen. The program was translated by MEMRI (the Middle East Research Institute).

The report revealed how the province, once a thriving center of Jewish life, now consists of just three families.

The rapid decline of the community is blamed largely on Houthi rebels, a Shia Muslim separatist group
fighting to secede from the Sunni-majority country. Interviewees
explain how Houthi rebels have systematically scapegoated Jews in the
region, both for religious reasons and due to the community’s perceived
loyalty towards Sana’a.

But Sunni Islamists linked to Al Qaeda have also been responsible for anti-Semitic attacks on Jews in the country, including
the murders of Jewish schoolteacher Moshe Nahari in 2008, and of
community leader Aaron Zindani in 2010. Both of their families
subsequently fled to Israel.

One of the experts interviewed on the program predicted that “within a
few years, nothing will remain of Yemen’s Jewish community.”

Indeed, by now that grim assessment is undisputed, but the question is why it has happened with so little media attention.

According to Jewish rights activist Lyn Julius, the relative silence
of the Jewish leadership regarding the plight of Yemeni Jewry was
necessary in order to avoid attracting even more hostile attention
towards them – particularly as most have chosen to leave for Israel.

“The demise of this 3,000-year-old community is very sad,” said
Julius, who co-founded Harif, the Association of Jews from the Middle
East and North Africa. “But I can understand why the leadership has been
silent – the exodus of the last Jews of Yemen has required

“There is the sensitive issue of the 70 or so still in Sana’a.
Hopefully they too will see they have no future and leave,” she adds,
sadly mindful of the highly dangerous situation in which they live.

While most of the few Jews remaining in Yemen at the turn of the
century have fled the country altogether as a result of this toxic
cocktail of violence and intimidation, some – including Yemen’s Chief
Rabbi – opted instead for the relative safety of the capital.

Yet that has been little better, as the dwindling number of Jews
offered “protection” by the government there are forced to live in a
state of virtual siege – and face the constant terrifying specter of
eviction from their last outpost of relative security.

In a rare interview last year Rabbi Yahya Youssef Salem detailed the miserable conditions of Yemen’s remaining Jews.

Rabbi Salem explained how even in Sana’a he was forced to cut off his
peyot (sidecurls), traditionally grown long by Yemenite Jews, as a
result of regular harassment by local Muslims.

“They took our homes, our land, our cars – they even took my historical library!” he lamented, referring to the Houthis.

And so, as this ancient Jewish community joins the tragic fate of so
many others in the Middle East, soon all that will be left is yet another memorial day.

Read article in full

The Dove Flyer film flies high

The Dove Flyer, a film by Nissim Dayan, based on the book by Eli Amir,has been wowing the Israeli public. Over 60,000 have flocked to see it on general release at cinemas around the country. Beyond all expectations, the film will recover its 9 million shekels’ cost, and even stands to make a profit.

Daniel Gad plays a boy who takes on adult responsibilities

Here is a review by Nozz:

“This is a fairly straightforward, authentic-looking story about how the Jewish community of Iraq, having been part of the local society for two and a half millennia, was hustled out– somewhere between expulsion and rescue– after Iraq found itself on the losing side of Israel’s War of Independence. (Iraq has no border with Israel, but sent troops anyway.) 

The story is shown through the eyes of a boy who sees previously hidden political activism and attitudes among his family and friends come to light, for better or worse, as the crisis develops and he is forced to take on adult responsibilities. Daniel Gad, as the boy, is too old– or at least too big– for the part. We’re forced to mentally subtract a few years from his appearance. The period scenery, on the other hand, looks good except that there can be no very broad outdoor photography because there is too much modernity in contemporary Israel where the shooting took place. 

The film is almost entirely in Arabic; among the audience, those who know the language took delight in some salty and picturesque phrases that were lost in translation. Based on a novel and evidently filmed with the novelist’s cooperation (he has a cameo), the film seems to take care to touch on several different angles within the political and social scene– friendships between Jews and Muslims, the communist movement that was active during the same period, the assimilationist option extending even to conversion, the Zionist movement, the arrival of Arab refugees from Palestine, and the cultural influence of the West. For those unfamiliar with the experience of Jews in the world of Islam, it’s an interesting picture and it suggests an important added perspective on today’s tensions.”

The film will be shown in London on 12 May at Cadogan Hall. Tickets £50 benefit the Babylonian Heritage Center, Israel. Tel 0207 730 4500

How the Shoah affected N. African Jews

Libyan Jews returning from Bergen Belsen camp

Tonight is the start of Holocaust Memorial Day in Israel. Awareness is growing that the Holocaust not only affected European Jews, but also communities in North Africa. If they were largely spared, it is because the Nazis ran out of time.

Here is a detailed account of the impact of the Holocaust on North African Jews on the US Holocaust Memorial Museum website.

The Jews of North Africa were relatively fortunate because their distance from German concentration camps in central and eastern Europe permitted them to avoid the fate of their coreligionists in Europe. They were also fortunate not to have had to live under German rule. The Germans never occupied Morocco or Algeria. Though they briefly occupied Tunisia from November 1942, after the Allied landings in Morocco and Algeria, until May 1943, the Germans never had the time or the resources to subject Tunisian Jews systematically to the measures implemented in areas under direct German rule in Europe.

Nonetheless, attacks on Jews and Jewish property by local European antisemites and native Muslims, which had taken place before the war in all three countries (Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia), continued unhindered by the Vichy authorities.

Even before World War II, the French government had set up internment camps in the French Pyrénées region to hold Spanish Republicans who had fought against Franco’s fascist rebels in the Spanish Civil War, persons suspected or convicted of political crimes, and Jewish refugees who had sought refuge from Nazi Germany in France.

After the armistice with Germany was signed, Vichy authorities sent foreigners (including Jews) who had volunteered for and fought in the French army against the Germans in 1940 and foreign Jewish refugees to work camps in Algeria and Morocco. Upon their arrival, the Jewish refugees received aid from local Jewish committees, as well as from the Joint Distribution Committee and the HICEM, an international Jewish migration organization. These organizations also tried to obtain visas and organize travel to the United States for the refugees.

The Vichy administration sent other Jewish refugees to camps in southern Morocco and Algeria to work as forced laborers on the pan-Saharan railroad line. There were approximately thirty camps, including Hadjerat M’Guil and Bou-Arfa in Morocco and Berrouaghia, Djelfa, and Bedeau in Algeria. Conditions were extremely harsh for the over 4,000 Jewish labor conscripts working on the railroad.

Read article in full

Henna customs of Jews of Yemen

Jewish bride and groom in Yemen

 Yemenite Jews shared with Muslims the custom of painting the hands of brides, but the Jews practised three distinct patterns. One survives to this day among the Habbani Jews of Moshav Bareqet in Israel. From specialist blogger Eshkol Hakofer: (with thanks: Michelle)

The use of henna among both Yemenite Jews (known as Temanim
in Hebrew) and Muslims is described in the travelogues of a number of
European writers (Niebuhr, 1772, pp. 65-66; du Couret, 1859, pg. 213;
Saphir, 1866, pg. 81), and it is mentioned by Yemenite Jewish scholars
as well (Saliḥ, 1779, 2:127; Qarah 1827).

But we still haven’t heard anything about henna patterns (Jewish
or non-Jewish)! The earliest record that I’ve seen of henna patterns in
Yemen comes from Freya Stark, an indefatigable British explorer (and an
incredibly brave woman who travelled alone through the Arabian deserts
and Central Asia at a time when few women dared do so).

She published a series of popular books on her travels, and
included some descriptions of henna patterns that she saw (1936, pp. 47,

[At a wedding in Makalla]: The palms of [the women’s] hands [were]
reddish brown with heavily scented henna and oil and painted outside in
a brown lacework pattern, like a mitten.

[In Tarim]: [The Sultan’s 10-year-old daughter] stood gazing at
me, shy and gorgeous, her little hands done in lace patterns and wheels
of indigo with henna tips; her hair in seventy-five plaits at least,
fluffed out on her shoulders in curls.

Amazingly, Stark also includes a photograph of a woman’s hennaed hands (with the paste
on), taken in the late 30s in the Ḥaḍramaut. She describes how the
pattern is made “by an artist who lets a thin thread of the paste drip
from her forefinger, guiding it into patterns as it does so” (1938, pg.

Among Yemenite Jewish communities, however, I have seen records of
three main types of henna patterns, each of which appears to be
distinct from the types of patterns practiced by the neighbouring Muslim
communities (at least according to Stark).

The first, common among the Habbani Jews of the Ḥaḍramaut, is
characterized by a wide circle around the entire palm, sometimes with a
dot in the centre. The fingers are then painted with broad stripes, and
the fingertips are hennaed solidly.

This pattern was in fact continued after the Habbani Jews
immigrated to Israel, and it’s still done even today among Jews of
Habbani descent (living mostly on a moshav called Bareqet) — the only
Jewish henna patterning technique to really survive into the present

The second type was practiced among the various villages of
central and north Yemen, consisting of rows of dots, usually clustered
in triangles, diamonds, or quincunxes, between stripes across the
fingers and back of the hand. Some brides in Israel continued this
tradition into the 80s but as far as I can tell, it has essentially
disappeared today.

The third, the most elusive and the most elaborate, was practiced
by the Jews of San‘a. It is described extensively by several Yemenite
writers, including ‘Amram Qorah (1954), Yosef Kapah (1961), and Yehuda
Levi Nahum (1962).

I summarize their description on my website:
it was essentially a four-step process. First, the hands and feet were
covered with henna, which was left on for a few hours and then washed
off. The next day, a professional artist known as a shar‘e drew
designs on the skin in molten wax (the pain being explained as symbolic
of the pain of marriage… Lovely). After that, henna was applied over the
wax and left on overnight. The next day, the henna was removed and the
hands and feet covered with a mixture of ammoniac and potash (shaḍḍar),
which was rubbed off after an hour — this turned the henna a deep
greenish-black, while the areas protected by the wax retained their
orange shade.

There were variations on this technique — sometimes the wax was
applied directly on the skin before any henna; sometimes the overnight
henna was skipped and they put the shaḍḍar right after the wax.
But overall, it must have been stunning to see, especially with the
additional ornamentation that was added in black (from a gall ink called
kheṭuṭ), yellow (from turmeric,

hurud), and blue (indigo, nil).

Read article in full:


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