Maurice Goldenberg's shop in Khartoum (Photo: Frederique Cifuentes)
The fading frontage of Maurice Goldenberg's shop in Khartoum is the only proof that Jews once lived and thrived in Sudan under British colonial rule. There were almost 1,000 Jews, Sephardi as well as Ashkenazi. Today there are none. They and their descendants are scattered between the US, Israel, Switzerland and the UK.
Before Jews arrived from Egypt, Turkey and Iraq to form the modern community, eight Jewish families had been forced to convert to Islam by the Mehdi, who fought General Gordon at the battle of Khartoum. The converts were forced to take Sudanese wives and change their names. The Bassounis were originally named Ben-Zion, the Mandils Mendel.
Today's visitors to Khartoum can see one other relic of the Jewish community - the cemetery. But the Sudanese Jews in exile exhumed the graves of their relatives and had them reburied in the Givat Shaul cemetery overlooking Jerusalem. What's left of the Jewish cemetery in Khartoum is a rubbish dump.
Why did the Jews leave? For much the same reasons that Jews left every other country in the Arab world: fear and insecurity. After British colonialism ended and Sudan declared independence in 1956, Jews began leaving in the late 1950s and during the 1960s.
In the anti-Jewish atmosphere of a predominantly Muslim country, Jews were not helped by possessing documents that identified them as 'Israeli', thus making it easier to scapegoat them for discrimination.
One Sudanese-born Jew told me that the Jews anticipated persecution but fled before it could really come about. The climate in the Sudan was heavily affected by Egypt and Nasserist arabisation. Fearful Jews exported their assets, but the government froze their property. Later, their property was unfrozen. However, it was galling for Jews who managed to sell their properties for peanuts to watch property values subsequently soar sky high.
The least fortunate, as ever, went to Israel, but some, like the Gaons and the Tammans in Switzerland, were financially successful. They were instrumental in shipping out Sifrei Torah from the Khartoum synagogue to Jerusalem, as well as their loved ones from the Jewish cemetery.
The Jews of Sudan are now the subject of a film: The Longest kiss in history, by Frederique Cifuentes-Morgan. The film takes its title from the point where the Blue Nile meets the White Nile in Khartoum.
The (almost) lost history of the Jews of Sudan