Book Review: The Story of the Jews of Baghdad

Books and AuthorsREVIEW: The Exile Of Iraq’s Jews
Reviewed by Razeshta Sethna, Dawn, August 3, 2008

Last Days in Babylon By Marina Benjamin

The news that comes out of Iraq these days is of suicide car bombs attacks, with more innocent people dying and insurgents combing the country for yet another fight with a rival group or coalition forces. Footage of men in bloody clothing with their limbs shorn off, some have barely managed to escape, helping women and crying children to hospitals. Women bellowing in voluminous black chadors are often seen in such reports beating their heads, cursing the war that has ravaged their country, killed families, leaving in its wake sectarian violence, lawlessness and poverty for generations.

Much has now been published about Iraq’s past politics, the present scenario built of chaos, poor governance and lack of security post-2003 both by writers with links to the country’s historical and cultural past as well as visiting intellectuals, journalists and developmental experts who have chanced to include Iraq in their literary repertoire. The new Iraq is about bomb damage, street fighting, infiltration of private security guards and US patrols.

The fabled magic of Ali Baba on a sun-baked afternoon or of twisted market streets and walled gardens with tiled fountains is of a past buried under the rubble of dust, and death.

Marina Benjamin, a first generation British writer born in London to Iraqi-Jewish parents, aches to discover this ancient past of colourful histories, but instead is driven through debris after violent fighting in Iraq’s Sunni triangle, where the towns of Fallujah and Ramadi, have become home to young children radicalised by insurgents. Having realised her Middle-Eastern roots, she had sidelined Iraqi ways, whilst living and working in London, until she visited war-ravaged Baghdad in 2004. In Last Days in Babylon she retraces the footsteps of her grandmother Regina, who abandoned her home and her privileged lifestyle, when she predicted the spread of anti-Semitism in Iraq of the 1950s.

Interestingly, Regina’s Iraq was one-third Jewish, at a time, when as a young woman she lived in a multi-ethnic society with medieval churches in the Old City built by Armenian and Nestorian Christians where nearby coffeehouses and noisy souks welcomed all Iraqis, where the restraints on women were homogenous, despite the insularity of each community.

The history of the Jewish community in Iraq can be traced to the Chaldean king, Nebuchadnezzar, who conquered Jerusalem in 597 BCE, deporting about 100,000 Jews to the capital of Babylon. That is when it is recorded that the Jewish community even modified their religion from one focused on judgement to one centered on salvation, so as to regain divine favour. In 538 BCE, when Cyrus II of Persia conquered Babylon, the Jews were permitted to return home but not many took up the offer and they chose not to leave Babylon. The Jewish community flourished in what then became Iraq till the 1950s, when the final expulsions, left the country with a handful of Iraqi Jews.

This historical narrative traces the tribulations of one family as it begins in 1905,the year Benjamin’s grandmother was born and the Ottoman Empire was dying. In 1908, the revolution brought with it the abolition of the Jews’ lowly status and when the British arrived in 1917, Regina’s own mother served tea in fine china cups, rather than black glasses, and was proud to possess double glazed windows at home (despite the Mediterranean heat of the summer when people slept on rooftops).

The author has documented her family’s past with a journalistic perspective, emphasising on elegant writing but not without ensuring we understand how communities have suffered (and continue to do so) in the crossfire of misunderstanding, prejudice, and the ambitions of other larger geopolitical parties.

As her grandmother was putting off strange suitors, Iraq was evolving into a nationalistic entity with Faisal, the moustachioed hero of the Arab Revolt who would soon be Iraq’s first king, declaring that all those living in Iraq were simply Iraqis and not Jews, Muslims or Christians. Regina’s fiancé, a man who was to be a stable husband but years older than her with acute asthma that would end his life, sent her a silver platter of sugared almonds so heavy, that two men had to carry it inside her father’s home.

Israel did not receive Iraqi Jews with open arms because as refugees from a Muslim country, they were seen as inferior to Israelis of European origin. What is interesting is that Iraqi Jews were Middle Eastern with a culture akin to their region; they spoke Arabic, dressed like their Muslim neighbours, ate the same foods and their identity was not linked to the West. Their expulsion was also a cultural demise.

The Jewish community might have been ardent Iraqi nationalists and unlike those Jews from Europe who, after the French Revolution gradually attained acceptance, they enjoyed a good life, surviving even the Roman and Hellenic times of turbulence and various Islamic epochs from the Abbasids to the Ottomans.

But it was unrelenting religious, nationalistic and xenophobic conflicts in the 1920s and after that created a downward spiral in their fortunes. Benjamin’s incisive expose of these political vicissitudes which transformed Middle Eastern Jewish communities is one filled with stories of nostalgia, pathos and loss. Benjamin unravels its beginnings, from mass demonstrations against Zionism to the point where street violence against Jews became depressingly commonplace.

In 1934, the fledgling Iraqi government joined in the persecution, instituting a series of discriminatory laws. Between 1936 and 1941, seven coups d’état shook Iraq, but violence against Jews continued through them all. The Second World War stressed the flow of Nazi propaganda and the resolute call of Zionism from within the Middle East created resentment.

But as Benjamin writes, as much as the Jews did consider themselves Middle Eastern and Iraqi, it didn’t matter that they were hugely patriotic. Jealousy directed towards them gained momentum as they were better educated and proficient in languages and also needed as advisors to King Faisal. But then, for two days in June 1941, while British and Transjordan troops approached Baghdad, a farhud (total breakdown of order) killed about 200 Jews and injured several hundred.

Arab nationalism began to foment in 1948 with the Allies’ victory and the creation of Israel, as hundreds of Iraqi Jews were jailed without trial, and also dismissed from the civil service. Many hid in their homes and feared conducting business as usual, Benjamin writes of her own family, some of whom travelled in fear to Israel, not even waiting for papers or permission. But Regina, her grandmother, refused to do so.

The Iraqi government offered them the chance to leave legally, so long as they forfeited their Iraqi nationality and most of their property. Benjamin’s grandmother was excluded by a Kafkaesque technicality; she was by now a widow, and only a father had the right to denaturalise his children. The authorities told her she could go but her children could not, so she found another way out, leaving in 1950 for Calcutta and finally, London.

After the mass airlift of Iraqi Jews ended in 1952, only 6,000 Jews remained in Baghdad. The Iraqis called this forced tragic exodus, the taskeet, the denaturalisation, though, as Benjamin writes, ‘today it would be called ethnic cleansing’. At the last count there were just 12 Jews in Iraq, a community that had formed the largest ethnic group in Baghdad in 1932, had disappeared.

It is amazing that any are there at all, given that they have had to survive the tumults suffered, the false peace of the 1950s and then the persecution that began again with the rise of the Baathists in the 1960s. At one point, just after the Six Day War, 3,000 secret police were recruited to spy on the Jews — though there were only 3,500 Jews left in the country. Some Iraqi Jews left for Iran, India and other western countries; most ended up in Israeli absorption camps.

Israel did not receive Iraqi Jews with open arms because as refugees from a Muslim country, they were seen, despite their rich culture, as inferior to Israelis of European origin. What is interesting to note is that Iraqi Jews were Middle Eastern with a culture akin to their region; they spoke Arabic, dressed like their Muslim neighbours, ate the same foods and their identity was not linked to the West. Their expulsion was also a cultural demise, Benjamin observes.

This is a history unknown even to most Jews. Benjamin narrates it fluently and passionately, a story of loss interwoven with history, complete with old family and other archival photographs evoking the fear and confusion of a people whose future of persecution would catch them unawares.


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