By the rivers of Babylon

'Baghdad, Yesterday' is part of a growing literature recalling a world of Arabic Jewry.

bagdad book 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
bagdad book 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Baghdad, Yesterday: The Making of an Arab Jew By Sasson Somekh Ibis 187 pages; $17.35 Iraqi Jewry is possibly the oldest, and certainly the most celebrated of Diaspora communities, dating back at least to the first Babylonian exile of 587 BCE. That storied history came largely to an end with Operation Ezra and Nehemia, the emergency airlift in 1951 that brought some 130,000 Iraqi Jews here. Among them was the young Sasson Somekh, today a renowned Israeli-Iraqi scholar, poet and translator of Arabic literature, and self-described "Arabic Jew." In Baghdad, Yesterday, Somekh, born in 1933, recalls the city of his birth and youth: "What spurred me to write these memoirs is the fact that - while it has been estimated that by the early 20th century nearly a third of Baghdad's population was Jewish - there is no longer any sort of Jewish presence in Baghdad or in Iraq. I belong to the last generation of Iraqi Jews who lived side by side with Iraqis of other religions, speaking a common language and participating actively in Iraqi culture." Somekh acknowledges that his personal experiences in Baghdad were by no means typical of the larger Jewish community. Many Iraqi Jews were impoverished or working class, and religiously observant. Though descended from renowned rabbis, his family belonged to a largely secular Jewish middle-class that emerged in the 1930s and 1940s, in large part due to French and British colonial influences. Both of Somekh's parents were products of the French-speaking Alliance Israelite Universelle educational system, and his father worked as a clerk at the Baghdad branch of the British Bank of the Middle East. Many of Somekh's reminiscences here have a distinctly nostalgic, rose-colored hue: sleeping on the roof of his home during hot nights; looking up at the stars while listening to and memorizing entire scenes from such Hollywood movies as Moon Over Miami that were playing in the nearby outdoor Cinema Diana; playing with other local Jewish boys (including the Saatchi brothers, who later become British advertising moguls) on the small islands that emerged from the Tigris when the river sank in the dry summer months; eating at the local market the spicy pickled mango condiment amba, as it dripped down from the diamond-shaped sammon bread onto his cheeks, chin and shirt. Already in high school Somekh demonstrated a precocious talent for writing poetry in Arabic, a gift that earned him early entry into local cultural circles. He devotes considerable space to describing his encounters with these Iraqi authors, as well as reporting on their eventual fates, sections that will probably best be appreciated by those with some background in Iraqi literature. Much of Baghdad, Yesterday first appeared as a series of short pieces published in Haaretz, and the book retains an episodic feel. While an enjoyable and illuminating read, it doesn't quite have the polish and depth of, say, Andre Aciman's Out of Egypt, which described the cosmopolitan world of Alexandria's Jews during the same period. That book, like this one, is part of a growing literature of both fiction and non-fiction that recalls a world of Arabic Jewry that largely ended (except in Morocco and, to a much smaller degree, Tunisia) with the establishment of the State of Israel. Indeed, Baghdad, Yesterday was published by Ibis Editions, a small non-profit press based in Jerusalem and run by poet/translator Peter Cole (assisted by his wife Adina Hoffman, who like this reviewer is a former Jerusalem Post film critic) whose stated mission is dedicated "to the publication of Levant-related books of poetry and belletristic prose," and "to build bridges of various sorts, between Arabs and Jews, the communal and the personal, America and the Middle East, and more. In short, we hope that our books have changed and will continue to change the way individual readers think about this troubled region and about the lives and literatures of the people who live here." This is a worthy mission to be sure, but the effort to preserve and perhaps renew Middle Eastern Jewish culture brings with it an intriguing and sometimes controversial corollary issue, that Somekh addresses in part in his book. This is the historical discussion over the reason behind the mass migration of some one million Mizrahi Jews from Arab lands to the newborn Jewish state during the 1950s, an event that essentially brought an end to the epoch of Arabic Jewry, and in the specific case of Iraq has been the subject of particularly contentious debate. "The mass immigration to Israel that took place in 1950 and 1951 involved most of the Iraqi Jewish community, and it startled us," writes Somekh. "Coming in the wake of the parliament's decision to allow any Jew who so desired to waive his Iraqi citizenship, it posed a very serious dilemma for many Jews, most of whom eventually opted to leave for Israel." Some historians have contended that the seeds of that exodus were planted even before the birth of the Jewish state, in the Iraqi pogrom, called the Farhood, which erupted in 1941 when the British army occupied the country to overthrow its pro-German government, and angry crowds took out their resentment on the local Jewish community, robbing and killing thousands. Although this was a shocking episode, Somekh asserts that "to describe the Farhood as the beginning of the end doesn't convey the whole picture. The subsequent years were ones of recovery and consolidation of a sort previously unknown to the Jews of Iraq. No clear signs of discomfort were evident, and most people did not seem to be looking elsewhere for a place to live. So it is incorrect to say that the Farhood was in itself a turning point." Somekh puts additional stress on the political crackdown by the government during the late 1940s following an anti-British rebellion called al-Warthab (the uprising), in which several members of the Iraqi Communist Party, which like elsewhere included a disproportionate number of Jews among its members, were imprisoned or executed. Like many Iraqis of his generation (such as the novelists Sami Michael and Eli Amir), Somekh is clearly ambivalent about an Iraqi-Israeli immigrant experience in which many of the olim, including his parents, suffered a shocking drop in economic and social status on their arrival here. Still, while never explicitly making a judgment on the end of the modern Babylonian-Jewish exile, he tellingly closes the book with the story of one of the some 5,000 to 10,000 Iraqi Jews who decided to stay on after Operation Ezra and Nehemia, in this case a family friend named Clementine Kashkush. "Then in April or May of 1973, we heard terrible news: Police or soldiers had burst into Clementine's large house, and murdered her, her husband and three of her children. I think often of the Kashkush family." It was Saddam Hussein's brutal Ba'athist regime that finally wiped out the last remnant of Iraqi Jewry, which subsequently fled the country, as well as the progressive Arabic bohemia that Somekh also lovingly chronicles in Baghdad, Yesterday. Today, of course, the entire world knows the current sufferings of his birthplace. But Somekh ends his book on a note both melancholy and hopeful: "And so, little by little, language melted into language, landscape into landscape, and culture into culture. The years brought changes small and large, and Iraq somehow seemed now close, and faraway. But the stars that flickered over our Baghdad rooftop are the same stars I can still see - on a cloudless night - from my balcony in Tel Aviv."