Israel's Iraqis shun chance to vote in Amman for Baghdad gov't

Some would have cast ballots if there were polling stations here.

It's Election Day in Iraq. Inside a rundown, one-story building on a side street elderly men with thick mustaches drink small glasses of sweet tea. They sit at cheap Formica tables and chat in Iraqi-accented Arabic as they play dumneh (dominoes) and tawleh (backgammon). The voice of Um Kulthum, the most famous Arabic singer, resonates in the background. No, this is not a coffee shop in downtown Baghdad. And no one here has voted - nor will they. It's Caf Ateret in a poor suburb of Petah Tikva, one of Iraqi Jews' most popular homes away from home. More than 100,000 Iraqi Jews left Iraq for Israel in the early 1950s. Although they left behind their homes, passports and businesses, their language, music and food came with them. In the streets of Petah Tikva, shopkeepers still speak with customers in Arabic, classical Arabic music wafts over the airwaves and kubbeh meatballs and kichiri rice commonly fill customers' plates. On Thursday, as millions of Iraqis made their way to ballot boxes in Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Iran, England, Canada and the US, Israeli-Iraqis stayed in their coffee shops. None bothered to make the trip to Amman where they could have voted. Despite their irrevocable cultural link to their country of birth, the Jews who left Baghdad, Mosul and Basra for the State of Israel feel disconnected. Most didn't even know they were eligible to cast ballots. "Are Jews allowed to vote?" asks Musa Zemertov, 78, in Arabic as he throws the dice. The wrinkled old Baghdadi with white hair is an expert in the Arabic language and has written a booklet of more than 1,000 Arabic expressions, which he would like to publish before he dies. Voting today, however, did not occur to him. Others say they didn't want to make the trip to Amman, where the closest out-of-country polling stations were set up. "If I could vote here I would and so would my sons," said Nahum Bago, 67, who was born in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. Down the street at Mamma Suham's Restaurant, there are only four tables to sit at but seven pots of different Iraqi delicacies to choose from. "Solana aqu?" asks Baghdad-born Avraham Banai, 70, hoping to get a portion of Suham's famous spicy fish. "Maqu," answers Suham Halali, a large woman with bleached hair and a pink shirt, as she scoops kichiri - rice with red lentils and garlic - into a bowl. "It's finished." Banai said he would have liked to vote but doesn't have time. "If there were a representative office here I would go; it's my right," he said, adding that he would have voted for Kurdish President Jalal Talabani's party. In the corner of the tiny restaurant a television is turned to Al-Jazeera, the Arabic network, which broadcasts live scenes of people walking to polling stations in Iraq. Suham's son, Yair, speaks Iraqi Arabic with the restaurant's customers almost as well as his mother. But the stocky 44-year-old says he could not care less what happens in Iraq. "I am Iraqi," says the Israeli-born man, "but I have no connection with the country. Iraq is not a place for Jews." Baghdad-born Yehezkel Dalal, 67, watches the TV closely as he eats stewed beef with rice. "No [Iraqi-born Jew] will go and vote," he says. "Why should we? Some of us feel part of the Iraqi people and some of us don't. But why should we enter Iraq's internal issues? We don't know the candidates and we don't know the parties."