From Palestine to Baghdad by Motorcycle: Memories of a 1933 Trip

86 years ago, five bold young men set off on motorcycles from Jerusalem to the Iraqi capital, 1,200 kilometers away

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Na’im Yehezkel Tweg's trip to Baghdad, 1933.
Na’im Yehezkel Tweg's trip to Baghdad, 1933. Credit: Na’im Tweg Collection
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

In 1933, Na’im Yehezkel Tweg, then 23, mounted his motorcycle and set out on an arduous, 1,200-kilometer ride. The starting point was Jerusalem, the destination Baghdad, the city he had left with his family seven years earlier. Four friends joined him on this special expedition, one that would be hard to fathom today. But back then, when the British ruled in Palestine and also kept an army in Iraq, there was a feeling of almost unlimited freedom.

Dozens of photographs from this trip are preserved in the Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi Photographic Archives, which document Jewish communities from the Middle East. Archive director Nir Ortal has recently begun to research these pictures. The fascinating story behind the photos also stirs hope for a future in which the Middle East could also have open borders.

Later in life, Tweg described what was behind his decision to embark on this trip. In 1933, when he worked in the British customs office in Jerusalem, he read in a newspaper that Iraq’s King Faisal I had inaugurated an exhibition in Baghdad and invited people “to come see Iraq’s progress.” Right then, he made up his mind to accept the invitation and thus to visit the land of his birth, which he dearly missed. But rather than travel by public transportation, on buses run by the Nairn Transport Company between Haifa and Baghdad, he decided to find his way there on his own.

The motorcycle journey from Palestine to Iraq. Credit: Na’im Tweg Collection

Before setting out, he studied maps and met with the Iraqi consul in Palestine to obtain his government’s permission for the adventure. “I went to Haifa to meet with the consul and explain to him why I was traveling to Baghdad,” Tweg recounted in an article he wrote about the trip. “The consul was very interested and replied that he would write to Baghdad and would notify me as soon as possible if there were any answer.” The article was published in 1947 in Naharayim, a publication for immigrants from Iraq.

After some time, the consul gave Tweg his blessing, but warned him that the Iraqi government would not be responsible for anything that happened to the motorcyclists in the kingdom. “I went in, was invited to sit on an upholstered chair and was served coffee with a cigarette too,” Tweg wrote.

Credit: Na’im Tweg Collection

“He told me with a smile: ‘You will receive the visas,’ and he handed me a letter in Arabic from the Iraqi foreign minister that said: ‘The Iraqi government is not responsible for any one of us should a disaster occur or someone wander astray on the roads within Iraqi territory.’”

When he asked what would happen if they did get lost in the desert, the consul said the British army would search for them, but they would have to pay the costs. Before leaving on the trip, Tweg also obtained a permit from the offices of the Iraqi oil company to visit its refineries and other facilities in Kirkuk.

In his article, he wrote: “Within a week we had a group of five motorcyclists, four of them were Europeans who didn’t know the East and were not fluent in Arabic, but nothing can stand in the way of desire.” The five prepared fuel, water and spare parts and divided the tasks among them: mechanic, who would provide first aid if needed; photographer, treasurer and navigator. The latter job fell to Tweg.

Tweg's 1,200 kilometer journey. Credit: Na’im Tweg Collection

The five began their “bold” trip, as Tweg described it, early in the morning. After the first 300 kilometers, he wrote: “The desert is spread out before us like a round carpet that has no end.” When they reached the Iraqi town of Rutba, they were greeted by two Bedouin sentries with long braids who were armed from head to toe.”

The two “stood at attention to salute us,” he said. The next day, on the way to Ramadi, they stopped when they encountered a herd of deer “running and leaping at lightning speed.” It wasn’t the magnificent sight of nature’s beauty that made them stop, but thoughts of lunch. “We surrounded the deer in a big circle at a speed of 105 kilometers per hour until we finally caught three of them,” Tweg wrote.

Credit: Na’im Tweg Collection

But during their hunting expedition, they got lost. When they looked at the map, they discovered that they had gone in the direction of Saudi Arabia. “We thought of waiting for a car to pass, but who knows how long we would need to wait!” he wrote. “I started to look here and there hoping maybe I would find a sign and suddenly I spotted something shiny,” he said. It was a bottle of cognac. And luckily, behind that was the road.

On the way to Baghdad, one of the motorcycles broke down. “We stopped to fix it, and meanwhile a crowd of Arabs and Jews too gathered around us,” Tweg wrote. An Iraqi policeman also arrived. Two of the Jews wondered whether the motorcyclists came from Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. One of them went and wiped off the license plate with his fingers. When the Hebrew letters appeared, he exclaimed, “Hebrew letters!”

“I couldn’t hold back,” Tweg wrote. “I put my head down between my arms and started to cry over the situation of our brothers who are suffering in this land. I started speaking to them in their tongue.”

In Baghdad, Tweg visited the grave of his brother Yosef and then the five strolled through the markets. On the second day, they went to the exhibition that was the original impetus for the trip, but ended up disappointed. Tweg described it as “nothing compared to Tel Aviv’s Levant Fair.”

“The desert is spread out before us like a round carpet that has no end” Credit: Na'im Tweg Collection

On Shabbat they went to synagogue and when Shabbat ended they took a boat ride on the Tigris River. Before they left the city to head home, the British Consul in Baghdad asked them “to send regards to Tel Aviv.” At the end of the trip, Tweg wrote: “Thus the trip ended in success and with many photographs and plenty of adventures too.”

In 1947, when he wrote down his recollections of the trip, he also told a little about his family, saying he was the one who urged the family to make immigrate. “I kept saying we should go to Palestine. I influenced my family members and I finally succeeded,” he said, describing what happened in 1926. “We left Baghdad and drove in a small open car for five days and nights in the desert. We had to cover a great distance. ... From here we continued to Beirut. ... I would never forget this trip and I was always waiting for the day when I would cross this desert again myself. And it happened.”

After they returned safely to the Holy Land from the trip to Baghdad, Tweg married and raised a family. He continued working in the customs office after the state’s founding and until he retired. He died in 2004 at age 94.

Tweg’s granddaughter Maya was excited to hear about the pictures.

“My grandfather loved motorcycles,” she says. “My mother says he had a Harley.” She couldn’t say much more about him. “I don’t know that much about my family’s past, and unfortunately, there aren’t too many people left to ask,” she says. The pictures from the motorcycle trip will surely also help the family expand its knowledge about their adventurous grandfather.

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