The Unlikely Emissary
While Nonoo has kept a low profile in Washington’s Jewish community—except for an occasional Friday night dinner and holiday service at the Chabad House—she has been an active behind-the-scenes networker. It was she who organized the meeting between King Hamad and Bahraini Jewish expats in the U.S. She was also involved in arranging a dinner at the home of Rabbi Levi Shemtov, director of the Washington office of American Friends of Lubavitch, with the Bahraini foreign minister and representatives from Jewish Federations of North America, B’nai B’rith International, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and other Jewish organizations. Perhaps most significantly, she also invited representatives from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. “Houda has a tremendous amount of clout,” says Shemtov. “She is known to be very close to the foreign minister and the king.”
Visitors to embassy events, including a Ramadan iftar, have noted Shemtov or other Jews in attendance. “It is very symbolic that Nonoo is Jewish,” says Amy Riolo, a culinary expert specializing in Middle Eastern culture and cuisine who attends many events at the embassy. Riolo thinks it harks back to the times when Jews lived in Islamic lands peacefully and respectfully. “She is a symbol that this can happen in modern times, too.”
The louder the unrest in Bahrain, the quieter Nonoo has become: She has remained conspicuously silent on recent events, not answering media inquiries or making any public statements. Still, her imprimatur can be seen: According to one journalist in Bahrain, 14 international journalists were detained at the Bahraini airport on February 17th until the State Department leaned on Nonoo, who took immediate action. Soon after, the journalists were greeted by Bahraini government officials, apologies were made, and the journalists were given private rides to their destinations in Bahrain.
The Bahraini Jewish community is remaining tight-lipped as well. While it is clear that the disparities between Sunnis and Shiites can no longer be swept under the rug or papered over by multiculturalism, it is in the interest of the country’s Jews to remain loyal to the Sunni government, stresses Sotloff, adding that even if the Shiites take power, he does not expect the tiny, non-threatening Jewish community to be in danger.
Ambassador Nonoo is not in a position to comment, but her cousin, Shura Council member Nancy Khedouri, has. “We are in full support of His Royal Majesty, our government and our national defense team, who ensure that peace and stability continue to exist in our precious country, Bahrain,” says Khedouri. “Please continue to remember the Bahraini nation in your prayers and that His Royal Majesty and Bahrain will continue to be under the Almighty’s protection,” Khedouri says, concluding with an emphatic “Amen.”