MOMENT’S FILM REVIEW: “The Jews and the Longest Kiss in History”
By Samuel Warshaw
Frederique Cifuentes Morgan, a London-based, Parisian-born filmmaker, in Sudan to make a film about the history of its cinematic industry, was wandering around some familiar haunts in downtown Khartoum one day, when suddenly she noticed something intriguing. There in front of her was an ancient and faded shop-front sign for an optician, with a vast hand-painted eye. Mostly it was written in Arabic; but at the bottom, in old-fashioned English lettering, it proclaimed the founder to be one Maurice Goldenberg – not a typically Sudanese name by any stretch of the imagination.
So began her search to discover more about the Jews of Sudan; and the outcome is a diligently-researched, beautifully-shot and well-structured film seductively entitled ‘The Jews and the Longest Kiss in History’. Before your pulse starts beating too fast be advised that the phrase is in fact a local Sudanese name for the confluence of the White and Blue Niles, the rivers that provide the country with almost all its water, and, by extension, for Sudan herself. One of the film’s most memorable images is of a train traversing the broad confluence of the two Niles.
Through interviews in London, New York, Tel Aviv and Geneva, footage of modern Sudan and archival film and photographs, the film explains and brings vividly to life the history of the Sudanese Jews. Their story, though briefer, is not dissimilar to that of some of the larger and better-known communities of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa: a story of the settlement of pioneering oriental merchants, a (sometimes very long) period of dynamic flourishing and finally post-war dislocation (the origin of the above-mentioned, clearly Ashkenazi, Goldenberg, is doubtless, ironically, the exception – sadly we don’t hear more about him!)
The first few Jews arrived in Sudan in the early nineteenth century from Mesopotamia. Enterprising cotton merchants seeking commercial opportunities, they settled in the Egyptian-controlled territory. By the time of the Mahdi, the self-styled Muslim prophet who seized Sudan in 1885 (infamously murdering General Gordon), there were eight Jewish families, whose men were forced to convert to Islam and marry local Muslim women. But in 1889 the British defeated the followers of the Mahdi and, though nominally establishing joint Anglo-Egyptian rule, in reality took control of Sudan, laying out modern Khartoum with a street plan based on the Union Jack and ushering in a period of stability.
Most of the original Jews converted back to Judaism and a significant number of others arrived, from Mesopotamia and elsewhere in the Ottoman Empire, who, alongside Armenians, Greeks, Lebanese and other immigrant communities, formed a principally mercantile middle class between the English colonial administrators and the native Sudanese (rarely socialising with either). Many were involved in cotton production, which, greatly expanded by British irrigation projects, remained Sudan’s main, and only large-scale, industry. Others were groundnut and peanut exporters, while the Douek family established the country’s pharmaceutical industry.
The community was never large; at its height in the 1930s it numbered just short of 1,000, so there was no Jewish school and most Jewish children attended the Italian mission school. The Chief Rabbi of the community, Shlomo Malka, had successfully negotiated with the priests to allow Jewish pupils to take lessons in Judaism during catechism classes. There were synagogues and Jewish social clubs and, as in other colonies, the Jews generally led industrious, comfortable lives, with servants in abundance. The turning point in this pleasant state of affairs was 1956, the year of Suez and Sudanese independence. Sudan’s new government aligned itself closely with Nasser and (though ethnically probably more African than Arab) his pan-Arabism and joined the ferociously anti-Israel Arab League.
The community maintained reasonably good relations with the new government, and prominent Jews were invited to join the official banquet when Nasser visited. However most began to feel their positions precarious and their businesses in danger of government expropriation. Between the late 1950s and early 1970s they emigrated, generally being deprived of their citizenship and dispossessed of much of their property along the way. The better-off Jews, notes one of Cifuentes Morgan’s interviewees, tended to go to Switzerland, the UK or America, the “lower class ones” to Israel (a socioeconomic division in the exodus of Mizrahi Jews which occurred more widely but often goes unmentioned).
Eventually, in the 1970s, one of the last Jews left for Switzerland, bringing with him the synagogue’s Torah scrolls (in an amusing episode in the film he tells how he frightened a customs official out of his intention to examine them by describing their terrible mystical powers). That journey symbolised the end of what can be considered a Jewish community in Sudan. But not quite of Jews in the country: though not stated in the film, it emerged during the Question & Answer session at the premiere that one or two Jewish families remain (and, rather bizarrely, most of the black and Arab Sudanese in the audience seemed to know them personally!)
According to audience members, some of the few remaining Jews are from the families forcibly converted by the Mahdi, where only half the family converted back to Judaism, so they are half-Jewish, half-Muslim families but remain very close to one another, with the Muslim members retaining the surname ‘Israel’! Apparently they didn’t want to appear in the film, presumably keen to maintain a low profile in Islamist Sudan, but, given the sensitivity of these issues it is imperative to present as complete a picture as possible and the fact of their continuing presence should have been mentioned.
Any discussion of the exodus of Jews from Arab countries inevitably raises the historical questions, that have become today political touchpaper, of the extent to which the Jews left because of discrimination rather than general political and economic instability and, in a case such as Sudan, insofar as they were discriminated against, the extent to which they suffered specifically anti-Jewish discrimination as distinct from discrimination experienced by other non-natives identified with the era of colonial power. While it is undeniable that anti-Jewish discrimination was widespread, its degree and therefore the answers to these questions vary from country to country and even between individual cases. It is pretty clear from the film that circumstances were not conducive to the continued presence of the Jewish community in Sudan, but also that Jews had good relations with many native Sudanese and didn’t experience, for example, the level of terror associated with the mass exodus of the Jews from Iraq. Hopefully the film will stimulate further research in this area.
One finds almost universally among Mizrahi Jews an exuberant nostalgia and affection for their countries of origin that appears even to overcome the enduring sadness at the dislocation of their lives and dispersal of their communities. Sudanese Jews are no exception. Speaking of how so many cultures lived peacefully side-by-side, Valery Levy, born in Sudan, said it breaks her heart to see what is happening in the country today. A scene shows Sudanese Jews gathered in someone’s kitchen in Tel Aviv singing Egyptian Arabic songs from their youth. And the audience at the premiere tittered as another interviewee bargained for vegetables in Tel Aviv’s Carmel market, and then lovingly enumerated the ingredients of various Sudanese dishes which she still prepares for her children and grandchildren almost sixty years later. This must be approaching, and may well be longer than, the period for which her family was in Sudan. The tendency of Jews to attach themselves so intensely to the societies in which they find themselves is, of course, remarkable. It all reminds me of my grandmother’s objection to a comment made by Howard Jacobson on the radio that “trees have roots, Jews have legs.” “Nonsense,” she said, “Jews have roots, but they have mobile roots that they carry with them and put down wherever they come to rest.” She’s right, of course, and this film is an excellent portrait of a community that, in a short space of time, firmly put down such roots, and, to those unfamiliar with the subject, a valuable introduction to the modern history of Mizrahi Jews more generally. And as one senses the passion the Sudanese Jews feel all these years later for Sudan, the implication of the title that the country’s poetical epithet is a suitable metaphor for the relatively brief Jewish presence in Sudan ceases to seem a stretch. If the millennia-long Jewish presence in the Middle East and other parts of North Africa was the longest marriage, the 100-odd years’ love affair of Jews with Sudan is surely a contender for the longest kiss in history, especially when, as Cifuentes Morgan’s film shows, more than half a century on, they are still kissing the country farewell.