Walking along a quiet, narrow street in downtown Madaba, Jordan in late September, I’m on…
One warm night in Chicago, a 21-year-old ultra-Orthodox Jewish woman sits at the dinner table with her husband at the home of his family. Her Blackberry dings. She sees an e-mail from an unfamiliar address. Her biological mother, whom she has not heard from since she gave her up for adoption, has contacted her.
Rivka Abramovitz reads the e-mail, her curiosity intensifying into shock. She looks up at the Hasidic Jewish family seated around her. Should she tell them what the e-mail said? Definitely, no. Her long-lost mother’s sudden e-mail appearance had just told this Jewish woman that she is actually Arab.
At six weeks of age Rivka was adopted by a family in Indiana who converted her to Judaism when she was six months old and raised her as orthodox with their Litvish (Lithuanian) background. With the millenia-long Jewish/Arab conflict in Israel continuing into the present day and having lived previously in Israel herself, learning that she was by birth part Arab was major news for this Jewish woman. The additional news she received, that she was a member of the former royal family of Bahrain was, understandably, likewise shocking.
As a religious Jewish woman, Rivka could not spread this information around. She shared it with husband but she could not tell her mother-in-law. Rivka had never been Jewish enough for her to begin with, as she wasn’t from the same religious sect. The news that her son’s wife was filled with Arab blood would have killed her.
For five years Rivka kept her royal Arab roots to herself. Until she lost her beloved adoptive father, to whom she was very close. By this time she was divorced and living in Jerusalem. Losing her father made Rivka very angry. She felt that God had killed him. She made a trip home to Indiana and set up a meeting with her birth mother.
Her birth mother was descended from Blackfoot Indians. She had bribed someone at the adoption agency to learn her daughter’s last name. She had chosen Rivka’s adoptive parents, selecting a doctor to be her father because she felt this ensured Rivka would have a good life. Rivka’s mother was so desperate to find her long-lost daughter that when she discovered exactly who had adopted her, she went to Rivka’s father’s office to see if there were photos of her anywhere. She considered making an appointment to be seen as a patient so that she could learn even more about her daughter.
Instead, fortunately, a Google search came up with a website for Jewish happy occasions, and there she found Rivka, along with her wedding photos. Through the website she’d been able to send Rivka the message that she was part Arab, the e-mail that was now igniting Rivka’s desire to discover this part of herself.
Back in Jerusalem, her anger at God for her father’s death and her newfound interest in her Arab self caused Rivka to renounce Judaism. This process took a year. She changed her name from Rivka, which was her orthodox name when she was married, to Zomoruda, the name of an Egyptian princess which translates in English into the name Esmeralda, or “Emerald.”
Rivka had been living in West Jerusalem, which is Jewish. Now Zomoruda moved to East Jerusalem, which is Palestinian. She began telling people she was Muslim and started dating a man from Palestine. She enrolled in a Christian college for Arabs in East Jerusalem. Although she wanted to be thought of as Arab now, the Arab/Jewish chasm in Israel caused the school to see her as a Jew. They made her life so difficult that she left. She re-considered her name once again and decided to change it back to her original legal name of *Rebecca Abrams.
And she began digging deeper into her Arab roots. She located her biological father on Facebook. After messaging him, his daughter and Rebecca’s half-sister excitedly replied. When her half-sister told their father that his daughter had appeared, a daughter he had never mentioned, he denied that Rebecca was his. He had had an affair with Rebecca’s mother when he was married, and he wanted to keep this a secret. Later, though, he surrendered his secret and admitted that indeed was his.
From her newfound biological father’s family Rebecca was able to learn details of her royal lineage. The royal family of Bahrain, from whom she is descended, 500 years earlier had been deposed and exiled to Iraq. They had money, though, connections and influence. They became advisors to the king of Iraq and continued building their royal Bahraini fortune by founding what became the largest cigarette company in Iraq.
450 years later, Rebecca’s paternal grandfather immigrated to America. He was from Baghdad, the last one in the family to speak Arabic. He left everything behind in Iraq, except for his rugs and his shisha pipes used to smoke flavored tobacco. He had no desire to have any connection with his Arab roots and married a Western woman whose Irish blood mixed with his Arab blood when Rebecca’s father was born.
Rebecca doesn’t know why her grandfather wanted to leave his Arab roots behind him in Iraq. She might have gotten the answer to this question and many others too, as she arranged to meet him and the rest of her newfound family. However, her grandfather died three weeks before their meeting. So she never found out why he abandoned everything Arab except for his rugs and shisha pipes.
However, she did get to meet the rest of her birth family when her father’s son got married. The family – her new family – introduced her to the people of their city as a daughter and sister. Now Rebecca was officially accepted as a member of both a Jewish family and an Arab family, a rare accomplishment.
Now Rebecca wanted to dig even deeper into her search for the Arab part of herself. Although they had gone into exile 500 years earlier, some of her biological family had managed to remain in Bahrain. The first week of August 2016, Rebecca traveled to the country to meet them.
Her birth family had told her stories of their royal past, but she hadn’t seen any physical evidence until she reached Manama, the capital of Bahrain. There her two male cousins greeted her, one dressed in the traditional dress of men in the Gulf countries, a long white robe called a galabeya along with a ghutra, a white headdress, and the other cousin dressed in Western attire. They told her of the history of the Al-Bahraini family, her royal ancestral family. From them she learned that she is also a member of the Al-Asfour family, the wealthiest family in Bahrain today.
They showed her papers from hundreds of years ago during the period that her family had ruled the tiny island nation. As she looked through them she repeatedly saw the word “bin” which she knew means “son” in Arabic and is used in the names of Arab male royals. Then she noticed the word “Emir,” or “prince.” The combination of family stories along with the written evidence they now showed her convinced her that it was true – apparently she really is royalty.
One of her cousins had to catch a flight to England, but before he left Rebecca wanted to show them the full picture of her identity. “You know,” she said, “I’m Jewish.” This is not something one should cavalierly divulge when one is sitting amongst Arabs in the Middle East. Her cousins, though, did not go to the center of the city and initiate a riot. Instead, the cousin in the galabeya and ghutra said, “Great. Now we officially have every Abrahamic religion in the family.” Indeed with her Bahraini family’s Sunni and Shia Muslim faiths, the Christianity in the American branch of her birth family and now with her own Jewish faith, the former royal family of Bahrain is today composed of all three major Western religions.
Rebecca learned that, unlike most Middle Eastern countries, Bahrain is actually very close to its Jews. They don’t live in Bahrain anymore, as they’ve been run out of most of the Middle East, but they do own property and businesses in the country. Many have moved to London, where it’s easier to be Jewish than it is in the Mid East. However, from 2008 to 2013 the Bahraini ambassador to the United States was a Jewish woman. There is a synagogue in the country. And last year for Chanukah, candles were lit in Bahrain.
What do people say when Rebecca tells them about her family tree? They say “Who the hell is this person? No one believes me.”
As a Jewish woman with Arab blood, Rebecca Abrams has lived in Egypt and the UAE as well as Israel. She navigates her way through Arab countries by telling people not of her Jewish lineage, of course, but of her Arab lineage. She sometimes goes by the name of Zomoruda al-Bahraini.
Rebecca still keeps in contact with her Arab family but is now in the process of converting from the secular Jewish life she has been leading for several years back to the orthodox Jewish faith in which she was raised.
Written by Connect the Cultures creator, Sabina Lohr
* Rebecca Abrams is not her real name.