Browsing through a secondhand bookshop on Allenby Road in Tel Aviv, I came across an old, dog-eared book, a bestseller by Sami Michael called Victoria. I seemed to recall reading the book before, yet I thought it might merit a re-reading, so I bought it.
To begin with, needless to say Michael is a great writer, who has written several bestsellers and has a reputation that I respect and appreciate. However, this particular book, which was published back to the 1990s and is set in pre-World War I Iraq, I have some issues with.
In it the author depicts the more sordid aspects of Jewish life in a poor, crowded courtyard in Baghdad. Incest, rape, adultery, abuse... these are some of the terms Michael uses to describe the Jewish community in the capital city of Iraq. I call this bad-mouthing Babylon. These are grim stories.
True, in my book Mibavel Bamahteret (Babylon in the Underground), published by Am Oved, I speak about the pleasure of sleeping on the roof on summer nights under the enormous sky, under the stars, inhaling the fresh summer night breeze after days so hot the tar and the asphalt on the roads would melt. But mostly we slept in ordinary beds – each of us in his or her own bed – with a jug of cold water nearby.
Yet in this book I read of families spreading mattresses on the roofs, flesh rubbing against flesh, husbands who sexually accost their wives before the eyes of children, a father who keeps his daughter as a consort, a brother who rapes his sister, and “the man of the house” regularly trotting off to whorehouses and burlesque joints in the evenings, leaving his wife behind to care for swarms of children.
This is vulgar. All these descriptions of sexual brutality, squalor and human wretchedness may interest the non-Iraqi reader, may even make a bestseller, but they are obscene, and portray a Baghdad I do not recognize. I was born in Baghdad only four years after the author, and know Iraq not less well than he. I agree with certain facts he presents, but condemn and disagree with the primitive picture he draws.
And Michael is not alone in this respect.
In the film Farewell to Baghdad by Eli Amir, for example, we see Jewish males wearing robes, skullcaps on their heads like those worn by Arabs, barefoot or with slippers or cheap sandals. In short, we see primitive people. Is this the true picture? The question remains to be answered by those who rub shoulders today with Iraqis. Let them judge.
I despise what Michael has to say about this Babylonian community. It might make for a bestseller, but Michael is not presenting the unvarnished truth. I have known families who lived in and around Baghdad, in the outskirts and the suburbs, who mingled with the Iraqi Muslim and British high society in clubs and opera houses, and who brought home their customs, table manners and fashions.
The Iraqi Jewish community had made remarkable achievements in business, banking and also in academia before it was thrown out of Iraq. Here in Israel they struggled to establish themselves, eventually achieving remarkable heights as well.
They succeeded almost in every field they engaged in.
I grew up with a father, Ovadia Murad, who worked with the British I.P.C. (Iraq Petroleum Company ) for over 30 years and who brought their way of life to us; their table manners, their politeness, their customs.
I lived with an uncle, Yehezkiel Murad, who was a judge, and mingled with the crème de la crème of Iraqi Muslim and British society and was a Freemason to boot. He rubbed shoulders with senior Iraqi government officials. His brother, Tawfiq Murad, was a gifted lawyer, mechanical engineer and the brains behind all the clever electronic gadgets that helped the Jewish Underground Movement in Iraq connect with the Israeli operators in Israel (then Palestine), and played a role in organizing the Underground Movement and managing the Chalutzim together with former Israeli minister Mordechai Ben-Porat and a host of courageous young boys and girls.
I lived with another uncle, Noury Murad, who was a doctor and whose social circle of surgeons, specialists and merchants who traveled the world brought glory and prosperity to Iraq. I have known many other families like mine, all over Baghdad, living in private houses, belonging to clubs, with highly developed social lives and the customs they imbibed from the British citizens, teachers and company managers in Iraq.
I have never seen any of my family members, or members of these other families, wearing robes and shuffling around their houses, or shouting in the streets, or keeping their daughters as consorts or engaging in any of the other horrible activities mentioned in Michael’s book.
True, when an engaged couple went out on a date, the custom was to send a boy out with them as a chaperone, with explicit instructions to stay with them at all times.
It was the custom in those days, and quite helpful in preserving the honor of the girl, and protecting her against abuse or being taken advantage of, or from even being exposed to bad manners.
These allegations of Michael’s against decent people who made up a highly educated and respectable Jewish community that was wooed by every governor and officer, whether Iraqi Muslim or British, only serve to tarnish the reputation of an entire community, and should not have been published.
I have no doubt that Sami Michael, and Eli Amir, are great writers – but great writers should strive for the truth and seek to enlighten their readers, and not to spread false, baseless stories to get attention.
The author is an Iraqi-born Israeli writer.