Aunt Rania: Almost Queen of Yemen

This is a story of how one marriage proposal can on the one hand offer a glorious future and on the other hand seal another promising path in life. This is the story of my aunt Rania (1932?-2009). To write this post I had to piece together several different family tales and verify them with historical facts. As a child of Yemeni immigrants in Israel, stories from the old country seemed to me as taken from a world of legends, nothing real. Yemen of the early 20th century and the lifestyle of my family there were very remote and foreign from the life I knew in Israel.

Aunt Rania’s story begins with the story of her father, my grandfather, Shaul Yitzchak Shuker(Issachar in Hebrew) Meshulam*. In the patriarchal Yemeni culture, he was the person who held the key to her future. Shaul was the youngest son of 10 children in a Jewish family in Sharab, the Jewish area in Taiz, the third largest city in Yemen.  He had 4 brothers and 5 sisters. Shaul’s father died when he was an infant, leaving behind a poor widow who struggled to support her children. From an early age Shaul showed a talent for commerce. His first business adventure was when his mother gave him some sewing products, which he managed to sell going from door to door. As he grew up and proved himself to be a savvy trader, a Muslim neighbor loaned him a big sum of money and from there his road to riches was short. He made most of his fortune from coffee trading, a crop that the governorate of Taiz, which includes the city of Mocha, is very well known for. 

My grandfather Shaul Yitzchak Shuker Meshulam

With his growing wealth, Shaul also developed social influence in the Jewish community and among the Yemeni regime. He became close to the King of Yemen, Ahmad bin Yahya who entrusted him with the responsibility to collect the poll tax** from the Jewish people of Yemen.

King of Yemen Ahmad bin Yahya

Shaul was very generous with his money:  my aunt Shoshana (who passed away this February), my father’s eldest sister, recalled how their house was always open for the poor and hungry.  During a famine year she told me that there was a line of people from the house to the horizon – all were given a bag of wheat and money. Many homeless widows and orphans lived and worked in the family estate and poor people who had no money to pay their poll tax could trust Shaul to pay it for them. When it was time to go to Israel in 1949, Shaul paid for the people in his community in Sharab to travel to the airport in Aden, from where the Israeli airplanes took them to Israel. When Israeli government officials wanted to reimburse him for that, he refused to take the money, “It is my Mitzvah,” he insisted. Generosity aside, the quality about him that I found to be the most cherished is the fact that he loved my grandmother very much.  According to the law in Yemen he could have married up to four wives but Shaul was very happy just to have the one woman in his life. His love and devotion to my grandmother Hannah is a legend in our family. Together they had nine surviving*** children: Shoshana (Ghania), Moshe, Rania, Mazal (Saida), Natan, Lea, Sarah, Rivka, and my father – Shlomo.

Left to right. Back:RIvka, Shlomo, Moshe, Shaul, Natan, Mazal. Front:Shoshana, Hannah, Lea, Rania, and Sarah

Shaul used to travel a great deal for his business. During his travels to the port city of Aden, which was ruled at the time by the British, he was exposed to the English culture. The English culture was very different from the Muslim Yemeni culture and he found it fascinating. Aunt Shoshana told me that he was amazed by the fact that the English people send their daughters to school. In the Yemeni culture women were only good for marriage, cooking, taking care of the house, and having children. He considered sending Rania to an English boarding school**** in Aden.

This piece of information did not sit well with what I heard about aunt Rania’s marriage. I was told that she was forced to marry when she was about 12. On the morning of her wedding day she ran away from home and hid in the ruins of an old house. A neighbor found her and Rania was brought by force to her wedding. The ceremony went on while she was cursing and spitting on her future husband.

For many years I carried these two conflicting stories and I could not make sense of them. How could a kind, loving, and generous man who considered sending his daughter to school end up marrying her by force? My aunt Rivka solved this mystery for me. She wasn’t born yet when Rania was married, but she remembers hearing the story from her mother. 

In 1944, Muhammad al-Badr, the crown prince on Yemen, moved from Sana’a the capital to Taiz. Riding on his horse in his new town he saw a beautiful girl playing in the fields. He wanted her. Asking around to find her identity, people told him she was Rania, the daughter of Shaul Yitzhak, the friend of his father. Muhammad hurried back to the palace in Sana’a and asked the king to ask for Rania’s hand from her father. When the King and his entourage started heading to Sharab to deliver the royal marriage proposal, Shaul’s friends at the palace sent him a warning of what was going to happen.

The last king of Yemen Muhammad al-Badr

To let Rania marry the prince meant that she would have to convert to Islam. This is an inconceivable idea to a religious Jewish person. Shaul knew that once the king arrives and asks for Rania, he could not refuse him. Not having much of a choice, he decided to marry her quickly to Chaim Cohen, a poor Jewish boy who worked for him to support his family. When the king arrived he was disappointed to find out that the woman (girl, actually) that his son desired was already a married woman. 

Chaim Cohen

Chaim died in Israel from an unknown illness, leaving Rania a young widow with nine children between the ages of 14 to three months. For the family she was always a queen. A gentle soul with majestic manners, no matter how hard life was.

In one of my visits to Israel, on the day of my flight back to the US, I went with my mother to say goodbye to all my aunts. When we arrived to aunt Rania’s house she looked at me and asked in dismay “Your husband doesn’t buy you jewelry?” I reached with my hand to touch my bare neck. “He does auntie,” I told her and explained, “I just packed the jewelry so I’ll be comfortable during the long flight I have ahead of me.” She wasn’t convinced. “You know, a husband has to buy his wife jewelry. It says so in the Torah!” That explained why all her daughters in law showed up to family events all covered with gold. Shortly after this visit I was at the mall when I noticed a gold bracelet that I fancied. I called my husband “Do you want to make aunt Rania very proud of you?” I asked laughing. “Get it.” He said.

If you think the story of Rania’s wedding is horrendous wait until you hear the marriage story of my aunt Mazal. When I think of the life of women in Yemen or in other countries where women’s rights are oppressed I cannot be grateful enough to the fact that I was born and raised in Israel.

*Last name in Yemen is either the name of the father or grandfather or the  name of the city of the man: last name Sharabi is for a man who is from Sharab, Adani - for a man from Aden and so on. Family identification of women  is by the father or husband's name; by using the words "Bint Al" - daughter of or "Marat Al" - wife of before mentioning the name of the man. 
**All non-Muslim residents in Yemen had to pay poll tax to the regime.  
***Three boys died in infancy in Yemen.
****Aunt Shoshana was already married at the time, so going to school was not an option for her. In Yemen girls marry between the ages 9-12.