Fiction / Tom Sawyer on the Tigris

Ilene Prusher
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Ilene Prusher

by Eli Amir ("Mafriah Hayonim," translated from Hebrew by Hillel Halkin.Halban, 560 pages, 11 pounds sterling (paperback )

Stories of Iraqi Jews at Home and in Exile, by Tova Sadka.

Academy Chicago Publishers, 250 pages, $16.95

Some places you leave and don't look back at, certainly not with a sense of romance and nostalgia. For obvious reasons, one doesn't find the Jews of Poland, Russia or Germany speaking wistfully about their final years in the old country. But neither does one find most Jews from the Muslim Middle East still singing the praises of the life they had before immigrating to Israel or points West.

The exception, it seems, is Iraq. There is something about the Jews of Baghdad in particular - whose community represented the longest-standing diaspora in Jewish history, harking back to the first millennium B.C.E. - that has kept its sons and daughters connected to their bittersweet

past and longing for a lost homeland. Two recent books zero in on the love-hate relationship Iraqi Jews had with their native land during their last decade in Mesopotamia, when the newborn State of Israel would either help them get out or lure them out, depending on one's viewpoint, in a historic exodus in the early 1950s.

The more substantial of the two is "The Dove Flyer," a novel by Eli Amir, who left Baghdad in 1950 at the age of 13. Amir is well known in Israel not only for his four novels but also for his role in public life, in the areas of both immigrant absorption and Israeli-Arab cooperation. Here, he writes a touching coming-of-age story of a young teenager in Baghdad at the time of the controversial and complicated process of the Iraqi Jews' immigration to Israel.

The novel at times seems so closely to resemble what appears to be Amir's real-life experience as a Jewish teen in Baghdad that one wonders whether he should have simply stuck to his own personal story and called it a memoir. His protagonist, the young Kabi (Yaakov ) Imari, eventually comes to Israel and agrees to have his surname changed to Amir, as the Ashkenazim he encounters can't manage to pronounce his name. Kabi is a likable character who serves the role of narrating the labyrinth of life in Baghdad, all the while bringing with him an adolescent libido to rival the protagonist of an early Philip Roth novel. Kabi makes breathless journeys through Baghdad's neighborhoods and is smuggled in and out of the prison where his uncle, a leading Zionist, is being held. All of this is done with a kind of wide-eyed adventurousness that gives the book something of a Tom Sawyer-on-the-Tigris feel to it.

In Baghdad, Kabi lives in the shadow of a father who is a prominent figure in an important Jewish family that has splintered into three factions, each of which comes to represent an ideology that defined the Iraqi Jews of that era. There are the Zionists, including his father and the jailed uncle, the communists, and the landed Jewish gentry. The latter are wealthy Jews who survived the anti-Semitic pogrom of 1941 known as the Farhud by virtue of their connections with Baghdadi aristocracy, including the royal family, but by 1950 they are a dying class.

This triumvirate of forces - represented by Kabi's Zionist father, Kabi's communist headmaster at school, and a powerful and wealthy estranged cousin known as "Big Imari," the sole inheritor of the rice farms that made the family fortune - defines the novel's dynamic.

In one scene that demonstrates the clash between the Zionists and the non-Zionist communists, Kabi and his friend Edouard try to pass as Muslims in a tough neighborhood, but their Jewish-accented Arabic gives them away. Kabi ends up with a black eye, and Edouard with a bloody nose. Kabi uses this as an opportunity to chide his friend for his Marxist politics.

"So what do you think of the masses now, comrade?" I asked.

"They're downtrodden and illiterate. They need to be educated."

"About Jews! They didn't attack you for being a Communist."

"The imperialists provoke them."

"And you, comrade, propose to spend the rest of your life among them?"

"This is my country."

"God help you."

While we watch these competing forces vie for the right to determine the future of Iraq's Jews, we are also treated to some fascinating scenes of Baghdad life. The story explores the largely unhappy relationship the Jews had with Iraq's power brokers, some of whom fell under the sway of Nazism during the 1940s and had virulently anti-Semitic views. Although the reason they teamed up with the Axis powers was ostensibly to rid Iraq of British influence, fascist ideology took root and, arguably, stayed on through Saddam Hussein.

Up until the 1950s, however, we learn that many saw the Jews as part and parcel of Iraqi life, as long as they didn't agitate for too much in the way of equal rights, or even the right to maintain contact with family and friends who had since moved to Israel. Throughout the period the novel covers, Iraq's Jews were beset by pervasive fears, and involved in various layers of intrigue over the question of whether they would be allowed to leave. On the one hand, Iraq is unquestionably their home. On the other, they are being made to feel less and less welcome, and the Farhud, in which 175 Jews were killed and many homes and businesses were looted or destroyed, seems like the writing on the wall, heralding further violence and dispossession.

In Amir's Baghdad, to be Jewish is to live on borrowed time. At the same time, the attitude of many Jews toward their fellow Iraqis is one of aversion and condescension, painting a landscape of mistrust and stereotypes that hardly reflects the conventional wisdom that Jews and Muslims happily coexisted in the Iraq of the day. The novel drags, however, when it attempts to capture so many trials and tribulations that it seems it will take forever for the Jews to leave Iraq for Israel, as some 80 percent of them did in 1950-51. Some scenes border on the didactic, as if the writer is trying to give the reader more of a history lesson than a plot-driven novel.

At times, "The Dove Flyer" becomes a tedious and hard-to-follow accounting of the disputes of the community's competing power brokers. It becomes clear that Amir wants to explain the great battle going on within the Jewish community of the time between Zionists and communists, and to prove the ultimate superiority of the Zionist outlook. Those who belong to neither camp and want to stay rooted in Baghdad, like the narrator's bourgeois cousins, are portrayed as having sold their souls - people who essentially survive by paying protection money to the most powerful neighborhood gang.

Missing is the background that would explain to the reader why this famous chapter of aliyah is so controversial, accompanied as it was by rumors that Mossad agents set off bombs in Baghdad to scare reluctant Iraqi Jews into signing up for immigration. Although there is a slight hint in the novel that fellow Jews might have planted the bombs, it isn't at all clear in the narrative that Israel was likely involved in these events.

The book also has point-of-view problems. Although we have as our first-person narrator 15-year-old Kabi, there are numerous scenes in which the teenager can't possibly have been present, and could not have been privy to the conversations we "overhear." The most jarring of these is when Kabi's father goes to have one last rendezvous with his former lover, the famous Salima Pasha, a renowned Jewish singer who enjoyed great fame in Iraqi high society.

Surprisingly for me - a reviewer who relishes any opportunity to visit Baghdad, whether in person or in fiction - it is the book's closing chapters, when the family finally makes it to Israel, that are most poignant. The description of the breakdown of Kabi's proud father, who experiences enormous disappointment after years of dreaming of life in Zion, is perhaps the most touching of all. It is here we see the odd mismatch of cultures, and feel for a people who had a sophisticated, urbane and ancient culture but are now reduced to living in tents and eking out a new existence due to Ashkenazi discrimination and the raw newness of a state ill-prepared to absorb so many immigrants. This is a chapter of early Israeli history that has long been a thorn in the side of olim from around the Middle East, but particularly Iraqis and Moroccans, who bore the brunt of European snobbery and were viewed as culturally backward.

Here, the writer loosens up his edifying tone and tells the moving story of a man who has been broken and aged by the journey between cultures. Kabi's father, referred to as Abu Kabi in the book, is a watchmaker who had dreamt his whole life of planting rice paddies in Zion - in part to reclaim his family legacy, which was usurped by Big Imari - only to find Israel too arid to sustain such a water-thirsty crop.

Many of the themes that arise in "The Dove Flyer" make their way into "Farewell to Dejla: Stories of Iraqi Jews at Home and in Exile," a book whose very title indicates how hard it can be to say goodbye. The fact that the author chooses the word "exile" suggests longing, and even a glimmer of hope that a return may be on the horizon. The stories evince an odd mix of belonging and alienation that seem inherent to the Iraqi-Jewish experience.

But unlike Amir's book, which spends time capturing the sense of a young teenager having adventures in 1950s Baghdad, the stories of Tova Murad Sadka, a Baghdad-born writer who arrived in Israel in 1951 and moved to the United States in 1967, have a more haunting quality to them.

In a poignant story called "Their First Pogrom," we observe the sad tale of Mustapha, a soft-hearted Muslim who is belittled by his wife because he didn't manage to jump on the bandwagon of pillage and plunder that was the Farhud. We meet Jewish characters who are twisted and humiliated by bribing the police on a regular basis to keep their enemies from harming them. And beyond Baghdad, we meet Iraqi Jews trying to make new lives for themselves in Israel and in America, but constantly finding that the ways of Iraq set them apart from those who surround them. In Israel especially, the Ashkenazi Jews make them feel dark and primitive; the Iraqis find the Ashkenazim overly assertive and arrogant. In one story, Mrs. Dallal complains about the ultimate irony: "In Baghdad they called us Jews and here they call us Arabs."

The mixed feelings, if not a trace of regret, are most tangible in the title story. The immigrants gather in clusters and bemoan their situation late into the evening. "Slowly, reluctantly, the Iraqi immigrants would disperse, for, unlike Baghdad nights, those in Israel were damp and chilly. No more sleeping on the roof: gone were the long, breezy nights under the skies, with the cool bedding, the moon, the stars and Allah above."

"By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and we wept when we remembered Zion." Those words from Psalm 137 recall the exile of the Jews after the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E. and the destruction of the First Temple. Years after the vast majority of Jews left Baghdad, the former Jewish residents of the land between two rivers - the very definition of "Mesopotamia" - seem to harbor a similar nostalgia for the land they left. These books enrich the canon of literature that explore the meeting of two great cultures - Jewish and Iraqi - that mix no more.

Ilene Prusher is a Jerusalem-based journalist who covered the U.S. invasion of Iraq and its aftermath between 2003 and 2005. She teaches journalism and writing, and she blogs at www.ileneprusher.com/blog.

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February 2011

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Tom SawyerContinued from page 1

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A character in one of Sadka's stories complains about the ultimate irony: 'In Baghdad they called us Jews and here they call us Arabs.'

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