In a narrow street packed with pedestrians and small shops stacked shoulder to shoulder, where voices of vendors mix with the conversations of patrons, a group of men sat in a popular coffeehouse. One of them said, “let’s imagine we’re in Baghdad,” and the men around him break into song: Khadri el-Chai, one of the most famous songs in Iraqi heritage, composed by renowned Iraqi Jewish composer Saleh al-Kuwaiti. Iraq’s Jews have carried Baghdad with them where circumstances had forced them to go, including Tel Aviv. There, they settled more than six decades ago, and built up a neighborhood they called “Little Baghdad”, becoming a shrine to the memories of Baghdad’s nights that refuse to die.
The topic of Jewish heritage, that the U.S. government wants to revive in Iraq, has refocused the spotlight on the history of this important community of Eastern Jews which played a prominent role in Iraqi life up until the 1940s. After the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the Americans stumbled upon a Jewish archive in Iraq, floating on a puddle of water in the basement of an Iraqi intelligence building. School records, old prayer books, personal photos of Iraqi Jews, and an old copy of the Torah dating back to the 17th century, were just a few of the contents of that historical treasure. The finds were transported in May 2003 to the United States, where they were restored using cutting-edge techniques to undo some of the damage they had sustained over the years.
After restoring as much of it as possible and burying what was completely destroyed in a special Jewish ceremony, the Americans cataloged and digitized the archive, and put it on display in Washington D.C.. They then returned it to Iraq in accordance with an agreement signed with its government. However, the Jewish community in the United States and other countries launched a campaign to prevent the return of the documents to Iraq, on the grounds that the previous regime had taken them forcibly from a synagogue in Baghdad in 1984, and that they now belonged to the Jewish community at large, and not the country where no Jews are left – except for a handful who do not dare declare their faith. However, Iraqis insist that this heritage is part of their country’s history and must therefore be returned.
Iraq’s Jews – Israel’s Iraqis
In Iraq, Jews were never an isolated minority living in a ghetto, but a vibrant and integrated community. Under the government of Abdul-Rahman al-Naqib (1918-1919), the first after the British invasion, renowned Jewish Iraqi figure Sassoon Eskell was appointed minister of finance. Eskell will serve in this capacity under four successive governments, and is credited for developing the economic and financial system of the nascent Iraqi state.
The Jewish community made many contributions to the world of business and finance in the country, with Jews occupying a large proportion of the seats in the Baghdad Chamber of Commerce, as well as dominating the money exchange and transfer sector.
In the world of arts, many Jews rose to fame, such as the composers Saleh and Daoudd al-Kuwaiti. Jewish Iraqi Salima Murad became Iraq’s foremost diva, and was the only artist to carry the title of Pasha. In the world of commerce, Jewish entrepreneurs were among the most renowned, dynamic, and active among their peers.
Following the dramatic escalation of the Arab-Israeli conflict in Palestine in the early 20th century, Iraqi Jews began to feel the consequences, which cast a heavy shadow over their lives. It started with anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist protests in Iraq, and the penetration of Nazi propaganda in the late 1930s. Things then escalated with murders and large-scale looting against Jewish homes in Baghdad in 1941, after the fall of the pro-Nazi Germany government of Rashid Aali al-Gaylani. This event was known as the Farhud, or the looting, where Jewish homes and shops were violated over two days and 175 men, women, and children were killed, in addition to 900 homes destroyed. But the final blow for the Iraqi Jewish community would not take place until 1950, when a law revoking the citizenship of Jews was passed, forcing around 130,000 Iraqi Jews, the majority of the Jewish community, to leave the country.
The story of brothers Saleh and Daoud al-Kuwaiti summarizes the tragedy of the Iraqi Jews. The brothers had a unique musical talent that prompted Umm Kulthum herself to sing what was her first and last Iraqi song, Salima Murad’s Qalbak Sakhr Jalmoud (Your Heart is a Stone), composed by the two brothers, when she visited Baghdad in 1932. This led to a friendship and a musical collaboration with Mohamed Abdel Wahab.
In 1951, the brothers were forced to leave Iraq. All their musical notes were confiscated at the Baghdad airport, before they went to a country that had not heard of them, and worked for the Israeli radio for a meager wage. Shlomo al-Kuwaiti, Saleh’s son, describes how musician Haskell Kojman met his uncle and father in Shkhunat Hatikva, the Iraqi quarter in Tel Aviv: “Deep in the market, Kojman saw the brothers sitting at a home appliance shop where they worked. Suddenly, he stood there and started weeping. He did not even go to talk to them. Kojman described to me that moment, saying, ‘In Iraq, to meet with your father and uncle, you had to seek help from a minister to arrange the meeting, that is, if you're lucky.’”
When I mentioned the subject of this article to my mother, she smiled before she reminisced and said: “I remember one day my parents took me to see the home of a Jewish family that had been put up for sale in Baghdad. I was a little girl, but I remember that the owner of the house told my parents after we finished touring her home with a voice full of hope: ‘Can I return the money to you and get the house back if we return later?’ After we left, my mother told my father: 'I will not buy this house at any price. This woman was forced to sell and it would be wrong to buy it from her.’”
My mother then told me another story. She remembered how one day, on her way home with her uncle, she saw Jewish families lying on the ground offering their belongings for sale. She took notice of a colored lantern. She said: “My uncle saw me when I paused in front of the lantern so he bought it for me. When we went home, I ran inside to show it to my mother. When she learned whom my uncle had bought it from, she threw it out and said in anger, ‘I will not let into my house any items taken forcibly.’ That day, I did not understand and I cried for the colored lantern. Now, after I lost everything I had in Baghdad, not only do I understand, but I also feel the same heartache too.”
The Arab-Jewish dual identity is an issue that still affects the lives of Iraqi Jews in Israel to this day, even though it has been a long time since they left Baghdad, Basra, and Mosul where most of them had lived. A debate still rages concerning whether or not to label them Arab Jews, ever since Zionist emissaries to Iraq, who visited Baghdad in the early 1940s, wrote that the Iraqi Jew “lives like an Arab. His culture is Arab, [and] he uses Arabic figures of speech.”
Famed Iraqi-Israeli novelist Samir Naqqash (1938-2004) continued to write in Arabic until his death, even though this reduced his readership in Israel. Being an Israeli citizen, he also lost touch with Arab readers. Samir was proud that his grandfather, who was given his name in Arabic because of his profession (Naqqash means the engraver), was the one to coat the domes of the shrines of Imams al-Khadhem and Jawad in gold in Baghdad. He would say, “Arabic is my language and I know no other language.” This was echoed by Dr. Shmuel Moreh, who once said in a television interview, in a sorrowful tone: “When I write in Arabic I write with the blood of my heart. Hebrew is a friend or a wife but not a mother and the love of the wife can never be like the love of a mother. I write in it but it cannot speak for my heart.”
What about the young?
The memory of Baghdad in the minds of the subsequent generations of Iraqi Jews in Israel may not be as alive, colorful, and vivid as it is in the minds and hearts of the first generation. It is not a memory as much as it is an amalgamation of stories they had heard from their parents during evening sessions, where they voiced their nostalgia for earlier times in Baghdad. Nevertheless, we see some attempts by young Iraqi Jews to bring those blurry shadows to life. Dudu Tassa, grandson of Daoud al-Kuwaiti, is a young third-generation Iraqi-Israeli artist, who started reviving the work of his grandfather and great uncle in a modern form that appeals to the tastes of young people.
His Hebrew dialect infused with some Arabic, reflects the effect of many years on what is left of Iraq in the minds of young Iraqi Jews in Israel. This is to be expected of those who found a new homeland after being expelled from their native one, and a new identity after being stripped of their original citizenship.
Yet their Eastern roots do not appear to be fading away completely, at least not for the time being. The collective memory of Eastern Jews (Mizrahim) is still alive, as evident in interviews with first-generation Iraqi Jews in the documentary Forget Baghdad. They still remember the pains of exile and their poor reception in Israel.
One of the four people who appear in the film said that he still remembered how they were received at Ben Gurion Airport, where they were sprayed with pesticides. “We felt as if we were insects”, he remarks. At the same time, the memory of being displaced and expelled, in addition to those of their last years in Iraq still leave a bitterness in their hearts.
Socially, some Iraqi customs are still alive among young Iraqi Jews. The Henna night before the wedding is one example, while their weddings still feature Oriental instruments and Iraqi music. Many have inherited the professions of their fathers back in Baghdad. In the Hatikva district of Tel Aviv, where many Iraqis live, we see shops selling spices that resemble those in the Shorja district in central Baghdad. Bakeries that sell traditional Iraqi pastries, and other trades that the first generation had rebuilt in a different place, stand as a memorial to a bygone life perhaps.
Yet, a more realistic attitude tells us that no past or inherited identity can replace current citizenship, more so if we were to add into the mix the bitter memories of forcible dispossession, and the passage of time that has rendered Iraq a faint shadow in the minds of third-generation Iraqi Jews. But the Eastern Jews who live in Israel, whose politics, economy, and culture are dominated by Western Jews (Ashkenazi), may find that rediscovering their roots and reviving them in culture and arts in the Israeli society, could help restore the standing of those who were seen as coming from less civilized and less cultured countries.
This would act as a distinguished cultural heritage that can counteract the Ashkenazi condescension, and resurrect for the Mizrahim a prestige that the Ashkenazis have tried to belittle by claiming that there is a conflict between the national identity and the enemy’s identity, even if it was cultural or musical. This takes on an even greater significance for Iraqi Jews, who take pride in their roots in the land of Mesopotamia, where the Babylonian Torah was completed and which was in ancient times the cradle of a rich Jewish history.
It is difficult to imagine that these Iraqi Jews would return to Iraq today, not only for security reasons, but also for lack of a social solidarity and acceptance, and the prevailing spirit of sectarianism. Yet, a deep and calm examination of our heritage and history can act as a platform for a more humanistic interaction with those who were previously the people of the same homeland.
Uprooting any people is a sin that must not be allowed to happen again, it is the same sin that Palestinians have been subjected to. Returning the Jewish archive, if coupled with good faith and an open mind, can be a way to start discovering the mistakes we have committed against them. This can be a way of cultivating the acceptance of others among new generations for whom identity has now shrunk to the confines of the sect and the tribe. History can be an instrument to build a future that overcomes the pitfalls of the past, but only if we read it well.