Shortly after receiving her master’s degree in ancient history from King’s College in London, Daisy Abboudi found herself listening to yet another dinner table conversation about her relatives’ early life in Sudan.
Sudan’s Jewish community, founded at the turn of the 20th century and numbering roughly 250 families at its zenith, was one of the smallest — and shortest-lived — in the Middle East. And while its members enjoyed warm relations with their Muslim neighbors for decades, Israel’s declaration of independence in 1948 and the subsequent wars unleashed by its Arab neighbors brought a flood of anti-Semitism that eventually forced the community to flee, most of them arriving in Israel or Switzerland as stateless refugees.
Still, many of the people who fled Sudan as second- or third-generation natives often get sentimental about their former home, of which they recall fond childhood memories. It was a feeling of inherited nostalgia that inspired the now-30-year-old Abboudi to begin recording this oral history, which she is currently compiling into a book as well as making available on her website Tales of Jewish Sudan and Instagram account Jewish Sudan.
“My grandparents were all born in Sudan,” Abboudi told The Times of Israel. “Well, that’s not strictly true — my paternal grandmother wasn’t born there, but she moved there as a child and her mother was from Sudan. So I started interviewing my grandparents and their friends, and it sort of just snowballed from there.”
The tales cover doctors and merchants, the observance of Jewish holidays, love and romance, and the mediocre performance of the small Jewish sports club. There’s also recollections of the anti-Semitism that drove Sudan’s Jews away, including discrimination in business and forced detentions and interrogations. In 1956 the Jewish winner of the Miss Khartoum contest was even stripped of the title and the opportunity to compete for Miss Egypt when the organizers discovered her heritage.
Though she hadn’t seen the banks of the Blue Nile in over 50 years, septuagenarian Lily Ben-David, whose testimony appears on the site, was wistful about returning to her birthplace — which considered Israel an enemy state — in a 2017 interview with the Associated Press. “If I could get a ticket under an assumed name, I will go, honestly,” said Ben-David, who fled Sudan in 1964 and now lives outside Tel Aviv.
With the announcement last week of a pending US-brokered deal that would see Sudan normalize ties with the Jewish state, Ben-David may soon be able to visit her childhood home — and put her real name on the airplane ticket.
Sudan fought against Israel in the Jewish state’s 1948 War of Independence as well as the 1967 Six Day War. It played host to the famous 1967 meeting of the Arab League in which eight states promised not to recognize, make peace, nor negotiate with Israel — a resolution that came to be known as the “Three Nos.”
But Israel’s ties with Arab countries have been warming recently, thanks in part to a push by the Trump administration. The establishment of ties with Israel would be hugely beneficial to the struggling Sudan, but it’s yet unclear if its interim government has the authority to finalize such an agreement.
Abboudi, who works as deputy director at Sephardi Voices UK — an organization that records and archives the experiences of Jews from the Middle East, North Africa, and Iran who have settled in the United Kingdom — was careful not to speculate about the normalization deal in a telephone interview with The Times of Israel.
Instead, she preferred to stick to the dozens of often bittersweet personal histories she’s collected since she launched Tales of Jewish Sudan in 2015. The site details the history of Sudanese Jewry, including where Sudan’s Jews arrived from, as well as personal stories, photos, and family recipes.
The following conversation has been edited for clarity.
The Times of Israel: Can you tell us a bit about the larger history of the Jews in Sudan – when did they first arrive and when did the community as we know it begin to emerge?
Daisy Abboudi: There were Jews in Sudan at the time of the Ottoman Empire, but not a formal community. The main bulk of the community came in the early 1900s, say 1907 onward, and they were generally merchants who saw an economic opportunity and came and settled in Khartoum, Omdurman, and Wad Medani as well.
We don’t know exactly when the first Jews arrived, though. There are various very brief mentions of individual Jewish people in Sudan from like the 1500s [CE], but those are all referring to individuals so we can’t really say that’s a community. When the British came into Sudan in 1898, there were 36 people who declared themselves to be Jewish, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t more — we just don’t know. The source material just isn’t here.
The Jews who came in the early 20th century, where were they arriving from?
They came from all over the Middle East — the rest of the Ottoman Empire. Iraq, Syria, Egypt, and then in the 1930s a few came escaping Europe. In 1956 a few came to Sudan from Egypt when many members of that community left [after the Suez Crisis with Israel]. It was never very big, probably 250 families at most — it was a really small community. They had one synagogue in the whole country, it was tiny.
What kind of infrastructure did the community have?
They had a mikvah [ritual bath] in the synagogue and in the rabbi’s house. They didn’t have Jewish schools, they went to either Catholic schools or the English schools. Only one that I know of went to a local school. They had a recreational club where they could meet, but they were generally very good friends with their Sudanese neighbors, the Greek community, the Italian community. There were many communities in Sudan. And they [the Jews] were quite well-integrated, I would say.
Interesting! From what I understand, this isn’t a very widely studied topic. How did you conduct all this research?
I interviewed about 70 Jewish people who lived in Sudan. There is one book by the rabbi’s son, Eli Malka, that was written in 1997, but that’s really the only book. Then there are a few articles in Hebrew by Nachem Ilan, and a couple in English by other academics, all based in America. But I have conducted a lot of my own research and relied heavily on oral testimonies. I’m actually working on my own book at the moment.
And when did the community start to disperse?
A very small number of the poorer members of the community left between 1948 and 1950 to Israel just for economic reasons. They thought “well, let me try my luck somewhere else,” basically, and then most people started to leave from around 1958. It started off in 1956 with a bit more anti-Semitism, and by1958 that intensified so that there was a steady trickle of people leaving.
1967 was again a big turning point, [after the Six Day War] there was again a spike in anti-Semitism which prompted the vast majority of people to leave, and then the last Jews of Sudan left in the early 1970s, along with many others. It becomes quite complicated but a lot of the “foreign” communities in Sudan left in the early 1970s, and the last Jews left at the time as well.
Was this violent anti-Semitism, as in some of the other countries in the Middle East and North Africa at that time?
It generally wasn’t violent. There were a few calls to violence in newspapers and at flashpoints, and graffiti and things like that. I think it was more a general feeling of being uncomfortable and not being welcome.
Is there any historical remnant of the Jewish community of Sudan – anything still standing?
There is a cemetery in Khartoum which is not in a great state, and that’s it. The synagogue was sold and became a bank in the ‘80s, and that building was then subsequently destroyed — so it wasn’t demolished as a synagogue, it was sold, became a bank, and then was demolished. And they generally demolished a lot of old buildings and made renovations in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, so basically, nothing exists anymore except for the cemetery.
What’s the general feeling among the Jewish-Sudanese diaspora, do they want to go back to Khartoum?
I mean, no one’s going to move back there to live, they’re all too old for that now, but I think they would absolutely love to get to a stage where, like [the former Jewish community of] Egypt, they could go and visit and travel as tourists, absolutely. And I went in January, it’s a beautiful country. There was a lot to see.
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