Generations of Namesakes

Delving into the biography of his grandfather, Sasson Somekh finds himself intrigued by the history of the name they share

Sasson Somekh
Sasson Somekh

Apparently, I shall never know the exact history of the life of my maternal grandfather and the circumstances of his death. He was executed in the town of Kut al-Amara in southern Iraq by the Turkish army in 1917 during World War I, on charges of having collaborated with the British army that was moving north toward Baghdad.

My mother's father was born around 1875 in Baghdad and attended the Alliance Israelite Universelle school, and was thus fluent in at least two European languages. When in 1914 the British army occupied the port city of Basra at the southern tip of Iraq and began to move north, it needed interpreters and purveyors of food supplies for its soldiers and fodder for their horses. Apparently, my grandfather associated himself with His Majesty's Army in the city of Basra, to which he had moved with his young family for business reasons, and arrived with the army in Kut al-Amara.

Astonishingly, the defeated Turks managed to repulse the British from Kut al-Amara and retake the town. For some reason, my grandfather remained behind after the temporary retreat of the British, and the Turks executed him (by hanging, apparently) along with other "collaborators."

Many details concerning my grandfather's life and death, and the little that I do know, is not sufficiently substantiated. Everyone I have asked of the generation of my mother, Farida, and of my grandmother, Simha, held back from giving me full answers. I myself gave up asking them because the mere mention of the story of my grandfather would make his widow and his children very sad.

Now that all who knew my grandfather or had close knowledge of his story have passed away, I find myself with a truncated and confused story. Several times, when I have been in London, it has occurred to me to visit the splendid archives of the Foreign Office in the British capital with the aim of garnering information about the retreat from Kut al-Amara, and perhaps even finding some mention of my grandfather; however, this visit has not taken place to this day.

Both forename and surname

And why is it so important to me to know the whole story? A search for roots? Perhaps (even if somewhat belated). But, above all, it is because of the fact that I am named after him - Sasson. And as this grandfather was also a member of the Sasson family (he was the brother of my paternal grandfather, Shmuel), his full name was the same as mine. Because of the tragic circumstances of his life and death, all his sons and daughters (there were five) named their first-born sons "Sasson" after the deceased, and in addition to them, a number of other relatives of a second degree of consanguinity were also called "Sasson."

Thus, the name "Sasson Somekh" covered five or six descendents, all of them born in the 1920s and the 1930s. When the Jews of Iraq arrived in Israel and other places at the end of the 1940s, some of these Sassons changed their names. Three of them are now called "Dan." The surprising thing about them is that they had not consulted one another about the new name, and each of them adopted it at a different time and place. To the best of my knowledge, there are still two called "Sasson Somekh" - one of whom lives in the Silicon Valley and the other in Ramat Gan.

And by the way, to this day it is not clear to me why the name "Sasson," ["joy," in Hebrew] which is not in the Bible, became so common in the Baghdadi Jewish community. (Sasson as a forename is also extant here and there among the Jews of Turkey, Bulgaria and Syria, but in most of the Sephardi communities, it serves as a surname and not as a forename.) Most of the Hebrew names in the Iraqi communities are biblical - "Moses," "Abraham," "Isaac," "Jacob" and the like. They have a special fondness for two names - "Ezra" and "Heskel" (Ezekiel), two biblical figures who, according to tradition, are buried in southern Iraq in towns along the banks of the Euphrates River.

Another name of which the Jews of Iraq are particularly fond is "Liyahu" (Eliyahu), along with a series of Arabic names that relate to it, derived from the root "KH-DH-R," which has to do with "green."

In addition to the Hebrew names, many of my generation (and a bit before) bore "neutral" Arabic names (that is, names that have no connection to the roots "H-M-D" or "H-S-N," which have definitely Islamic connotations), such as "Munir," "Jamil," "Naim" and even "Fouad" and "Ghazi," the names of modern kings who ruled Egypt and Iraq. And last but not least were names that came from English and French, such as "Maurice," "Albert" and "Henry" (my youngest brother's name).

A prestigious appellation

All these names (to which we shall return) have a logic to them - biblical names, modern Arabic names and European names. But what explains the infiltration and spread in recent centuries of the name "Sasson," which does not belong to any of these categories? I have pondered this question, and here, too, I have not arrived at a satisfactory answer. I heard one idea in the course of my search from my maternal uncle, the late Fred Somekh.

On a visit to the Kiryat Shaul cemetery for a family memorial service, we passed by several tombs where men named "Sasson" rested, all of them born in Baghdad and southern Iraq. I asked my uncle what he thought was the reason for the popularity of this name. He mused for a moment, and as usual, offered a perfectly reasonable explanation: The prestige of this name has its source in the glory won by David Sassoon, a Baghdadi Jew who arrived in about 1830 to India, where he established an economic empire that many compare to that of the Rothschilds in Europe. Some of his descendents rose to greatness in many and diverse fields in the countries of Asia and in England. One of the greatest English poets of the 20th century, Siegfried Sassoon, was a grandson of his.

As noted, this was a perfectly reasonable explanation, but as I pondered further, I recalled that the forename of the founder of the Indo-British dynasty was not "Sassoon" but "David." Later, I discovered that there had been other 18th-century Jews who bore the forename "Sasson." I call that a tie!

In any case, there were very many of my generation who bore this name. In my class at the Jewish Shammash high school, there were three boys called "Sasson"; in Iraq during the 1940s, there were two prominent Sassons, though they were very different from each other: Rabbi Sasson Khedoorie, who was the head of the community and the chief rabbi for 20 years, and Sasson Dallal - a fiery communist who, in 1948-49, served as general secretary of the Iraqi Communist Party and was ultimately executed by Nouri Said's regime when he was 22.

And as I have touched upon the names of my Baghdadi contemporaries, I will add a few observations about the European names that during the 20th century infiltrated in an ever more powerful flow into Jewish homes in Iraq. The beginnings of this infiltration were no doubt prompted by the Alliance schools in Baghdad, Basra and other places, but also by the growing influence of Great Britain, after the occupation of Iraq in 1917 and even preceding it.

A mark of belonging

It should be noted that at first, foreign, European names were given to the daughters of the educated classes, names like "Esperance," "Georgette," "Pauline," "Albertine" and "Odette." (The latter two names are the names of young and adored women in the work of Marcel Proust. Was one of the women who taught French in Baghdad a devotee of "Remembrance of Things Past?") Some of these French names were, in fact, biblical names that are pronounced differently in the European languages than they are in Hebrew - "Rebecca" (Rivka), "Rachele" (Rahel), "Eva/Yvette" (Hava) and so on.

However, some of the names favored by the Jews of Iraq between the two world wars were New Testament names, even it their origins were Hebrew. Notable in this context is "Madeline" (or "Magdalene," from the village of Migdal), which was especially popular. I doubt that any Iraqi Jew was clearly aware of the origin of this pretty name.

Another name that had taken root in Baghdad by the beginnings of the 1920s was "Victoria." Many middle-class girls bore this name, as did the heroine of Sami Michael's eponymous novel and three of my aunts. The name "Victoria" symbolizes, in effect, the beginnings of the English orientation that began to find its way to the Jews of Iraq at the end of the 19th century when Iraqi Jewry "gave birth to" satellite communities in the cities of India, as well as in cities like London, Manchester, Hong Kong and Singapore. (The first prime minister of independent Singapore was David Marshall, whose original name was David Mashal).

With time, the selection of English names expanded and, in the 1930s and 1940s, it gained ascendance over its French rival, with a fashion for names like "Daisy," "Joyce" and "Gladys," as well as men's names like "William," "Raymond" and "Charles." It must be noted that World War II completed to a large extent this process of Anglicization, and one might even say Americanization. Names like "Maurice" and "Edmond" changed their form from French to English, moving the accent from the second syllable to the first. In a similar fashion, the accent also moved in women's names like "Doris" and "Suzanne."

In some names, the change went beyond the placement of the accent: the French "Rachele" gave way to the Anglo-American "Rachel," and "Charles" as in Boyer became "Charles" as in Dickens.

I have never done a sociocultural study of the matter of these names and their significance on the social history of Iraqi Jewry. I hope that younger scholars will take the initiative and do this. Nevertheless, it seems to me that the massive infiltration of names drawn from the Arabic, the French and the English, as well as the continued use of Hebrew names, are evidence of a significant move toward pluralism. This move began initially among the Westernizing middle class, but even weaker classes, whose knowledge of the languages of Europe was usually limited, adopted the new names because these bore social prestige and symbolized a new hope for them.

It must be noted that the European names that became favored by the Jews of Iraq did not weaken their Jewish-Iraqi identity, and were certainly not accompanied by processes of assimilation as was the case in Europe. On the contrary: The European names became an identifying mark, almost, of belonging to the community. At the same time, the multiplication of modern Arabic names stressed the exit of the Jews from the relative isolation that had been imposed upon them during the Ottoman era, and their desire to become part of the new Iraqi nation that was taking shape between the two world wars.

These two trends - the adoption of European names on the one hand and Arabic names on the other - were not contradictory. In the very same home, you could encounter three brothers, of whom the first was named "Maurice," the second "Ezra" and the third "Saleem." All three of them belonged to a society that was becoming secularized, while at the same time, maintaining its unique Jewish-Iraqi character.



Automatic approval of subscriber comments.

Subscribe today and save 40%

Already signed up? LOG IN


Election ad featuring Yair Lapid in Rahat, the largest Arab city in Israel's Negev region.

This Bedouin City Could Decide Who Is Israel's Next Prime Minister

Dr. Claris Harbon in the neighborhood where she grew up in Ashdod.

A Women's Rights Lawyer Felt She Didn't Belong in Israel. So She Moved to Morocco

Mohammed 'Moha' Alshawamreh.

'It Was Real Shock to Move From a Little Muslim Village, to a Big Open World'

From the cover of 'Shmutz.'

'There Are Similarities Between the Hasidic Community and Pornography’

A scene from Netflix's "RRR."

‘RRR’: If Cocaine Were a Movie, It Would Look Like This

Prime Minister Yair Lapid.

Yair Lapid's Journey: From Late-night Host to Israel's Prime Minister