Jonathan Wright reviews Iraqi Jewish Novelists by Khalida Hatim Alwan

al-Iraqiyyun al-Yahud
(Iraqi Jewish Novelists)
by Khalida Hatim Alwan

Published by Mesopotamia Press, Baghdad, 2015


The Arab Jews of Iraq


The past is a foreign country, they say, with good reason. Without constant reminders of how life was at a certain time in a certain place, it’s easy to assume that it was just an earlier version of the present – without the trappings of modernity such as mobile phones, the Internet, cheap air travel and ready-made meals you can pick up from the supermarket and heat up in the microwave.
In the case of Baghdad and other Iraqi cities, the past even in the lifetimes of people alive today was a completely different place. On the eve of the Second World War, Baghdad alone had about 90,000 Jews, part of an Iraqi Jewish community that numbered more than 120,000 people. A third of the city’s population was Jewish and many of them were prominent in public life – as politicians, lawyers, businessmen, educators and craftsmen in many trades. This was the largest and most influential concentration of Arab Jews in the world. I use the term “Arab Jews” deliberately, as some of them still do, because that was how most of them saw themselves. They were Jews by religion but Arabic was their mother tongue and often their only language, and they were fully integrated into the culture and civilisation that Marshall Hodgson called Islamicate – centred around Islam and Muslims but embracing a diverse range of subcultures.
Their world was turned upset and largely destroyed in the ten years between 1941 and 1951, and Baghdad was much diminished by the loss of them. By the mid-1950s only a few thousand Jews remained and even that community continued to decline, until by the 21st century they were only a handful. Since large numbers of Jews had been living in Iraq for at least two thousand and several hundred years, the link between the disaster that befell them and the rise of Zionism in the first half of the 20th century, culminating in the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, is impossible to avoid. Local Iraqi politicians contributed to the disaster out of prejudice, greed and ignorance, mostly for short-term populist advantage.
Israel declared itself a state in May of that year and the Iraqi authorities responded within months with a succession of measures that made it increasingly difficult for Jews to live in the country. In March 1950 a new law gave Iraqi Jews a one-year opportunity to emigrate on condition that they relinquish their Iraqi citizenship and abandon most of the property. In its manifest injustice, the Iraqi government’s treatment of the Jewish population almost equalled Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians who stood in the way of a large Jewish state in Palestine, and the injustices that accompanied the massive displacements on the partition of India. Iraqi Jews dispersed widely but many of them joined an organised air lift that at one stage was taking 500 Iraqi Jews a day from Baghdad to Cyprus and then on to Israel.
Such a large group of people, many of them well educated through the French-financed schools of the Alliance Israelite Universelle, naturally included a number of writers, as well as younger people who would later feel driven to record their experiences in writing, often in fictional form. These writers are the subject of a thorough, 520-page overview of their literary production – Iraqi Jewish Novelists by Khalida Hatim Alwan, published in Arabic by Mesopotamia Press in Baghdad.
They range from Samir Naqqash, a tragic genius who clung to his Iraqiness and to the Arabic language throughout his troubled and peripatetic life, to Sami Michael, who switched to Hebrew in the 1970s and found a place for himself in Israeli society, albeit as a leftist, a defender of civil rights and a critic of discrimination against Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews inside Israel. One of the writers, Naim Kattan, has spent very little time in Israel, moving in Montreal in 1954 and flourishing as a prolific writer in French on a variety of themes, not exclusively on his Iraqi heritage or memories. Yet another, Anwar Shaul, who was well established by the 1940s as a writer of short stories and of poetry in traditional styles, stayed on in Iraq despite the harassments and ran a printing business there until he finally gave up and moved to Israel in 1971 at the age of 67.
Alwan concentrates on the elements of commonality between them, such as the many references to Iraqi Jewish traditions and rituals in their works and their ideas about religious and national identity and “otherness”. She also explores aspects of their literary technique, such as the way they incorporate poetry and references to music and other arts into their works.
She says this group of writers shared a certain set of beliefs about the status and role of the Jewish community in Iraq – that they had a right to live in Iraq, that they had made an important contribution to Iraqi national life, that Judaism was a religion that could and should be dissociated from the political ideology of Zionism and that the persecution of Jews in Iraq in the period shortly before and after the creation of Israel was a gross injustice that they needed to expose.
Communism was also a common theme because it transcended religion and offered Iraqi Jews equal status with members of all the country’s other religions and sects. Several of the writers, especially Sami Michael and Shimon Ballas, retained their communism as they tried to find a place in Israeli society.
But unfortunately Alwan’s book tells us tantalisingly little about the men themselves (they are all men, as far as I can determine) or about the psychological effects of being uprooted at short notice from the society into which they were born and then being transported at short notice to an unfamiliar country where they did not know the language and where they were dominated by European Jews who often treated them as inferior relatives. Nor does she examine the thinking that determined why some writers continued to write in Arabic while others adopted Hebrew.
But the fact is that many of the writers showed an extraordinary and puzzling attachment to the language in which they were educated – standard literary Arabic, which was different from the colloquial Iraqi and the colloquial Judeo-Arabic that they would have spoken in the street and at home.
“I tried to write in Hebrew but my way of thinking is restricted to Arabic, which I have clung on to,” said Isaac Bar Moshe, who served as an Israeli diplomat in Cairo in the 1980s after the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty and wrote a lengthy memoir in Arabic of his childhood in Iraq. “It was my mother tongue. I was twenty-three when I left Iraq and I never found an alternative as a means of expression.”
“Arabic is my language and I know no other language,” said Samir Naqqash, who did in fact speak Hebrew competently. “From the first moment I have lived within this shell. I have not been influenced by the Western culture that prevails in Israel and I have still not found its language. I arrived in Israel at the age of thirteen as an Iraqi Arab, and after fifty years I left it like my father, as a pure Arab.”
Shimon Ballas, who adopted Hebrew as his medium of expression more readily than many of his fellow Iraqi Jewish writers, said that he did so mainly for practical reasons, rather than as part of adopting a new identity, as one might expect from someone who was in effect expelled from his native land by hostile forces. “I haven’t forgotten Arabic. It’s still a part of my cultural and spiritual identity although I’ve switched to writing in Hebrew for reasons that you well know, including the fact that I have to write for readers that understand the language I write in,” he said.
In Outcast*, his best-known work, published in English translation in 2007, Ballas hints at his ambivalent relationship with the country of his birth by fictionalising the life of Ahmed Soussa, an Iraqi Jew who converted to Islam and stayed on in Iraq after the massive exodus of the 1950s. The convert hero recalls how he wrote a letter to the London Times in 1930, arguing against denial of Islam and imitation of the West, and in favour of “Eastern peoples” maintaining their authentic identity as members of a different civilization, an essentially Muslim civilization which may, in time, take on some traits of Western civilization.
“I articulated an honest call to all Jews in the Arab East to emerge from their separatism and join shoulders with their Muslim and Christian brethren against Zionism. Jihad against the Jews? Only a mean, disfigured spirit could interpret my book that way. Not against them, but for their own good as human beings, I believed, and still do, that it was their duty to break free of the tribal concept, to shake off the ethnocentric and xenophobic mentality that characterizes Judaism, the same mentality that finds its vulgar and brutal expression in Zionism,” the protagonist says.
Bar Moshe explained the ambivalence and even outright hostility of many leftist Iraqi Jews towards Judaism and Zionism thus: “They would say, ‘I was brought up on Judaism, but I’m someone who has renounced his religion. I’m against religions. I’m disgusted by Judaism, but communism asserts, and I believe, that the communist system respects freedom of religion . . . That’s why I tell you that Zionism is a fascist and iniquitous political movement that is hostile to religions and hostile to Judaism itself. I am an Iraqi before being a Jew.’”
Shalom Darwish, one of the older Iraqi Jewish writers, fled to Iran during the period of turmoil because he refused to go through the process organised by the Iraqi government, which required a renunciation of Iraqi nationality. “I saw renouncing my nationality as insulting. I had inherited it from my parents and my forefathers just as I had inherited the traits what ran in my blood . . . It wasn’t a garment that I could put on and take off however or whenever I wanted or when it was asked of me by people whose forefathers had come to Iraq hundreds of years after mine.”
Samir Naqqash was probably the most extreme case of antipathy towards Zionism, an attitude that was personal as well as ideological. “We came here (to Israel), and it was a very great disappointment,” his sister, Samira Yosef, told Haaretz newspaper in remarks published in Naqqash’s obituary in 2004. “We were very humiliated, and as a result, my father died very young, two years after our arrival. He died, like my brother, of cardiac arrest. We were in tents for the first two months, in the Sha’ar Ha’aliyah camp, and then spent a year and a half in tents in the Amishav camp, and then we were there for eight years in shacks, until they built apartment houses.”
Naqqash never settled down. Aside from Israel, he lived at various times in Turkey, Iran, Lebanon, Egypt, India and England, but his only real home was an Iraq that no longer existed. Some of his work is extraordinary. He went to Egypt several times and met the great Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz. He then tried to settle down there, on the mistaken assumption he would be welcome, but it was not a happy experience.
“I warned him,” said Professor Shmuel Moreh, the Iraqi-Israeli academic and writer who is in many ways the dean of the writer community. “I told him, it’s a known fact that the Egyptians regard every foreigner as an enemy and a spy. But he told me, they appreciate me there very much. There I can live from my books like a king. What happened was that after three months he and the whole family returned here, because the Egyptians almost lynched him,” said Moreh, quoted in Naqqash’s obituary in Haaretz.
Moreh has been a driving force behind the Jerusalem-based Association for Jewish Academics from Iraq, which must count as one of the most unusual institutions in the Middle East, publishing thirty-four mainly literary works in Arabic between 1980 and 2007, apart from other works in Hebrew.
Inevitably those books were almost impossible to market in Arab countries and at home the audience for such works is shrinking year by year as Israelis of Iraqi origin lose touch with their parents’ or grandparents’ language and points of reference.
“It is very unlikely that in the foreseeable future new Jewish writers in Arabic, or dynamic (Jewish) communities using Arabic as their first language, are going to emerge. Fifteen hundred years of Judeo-Arabic speech, and nearly as many years of writing, in Hebrew or Arabic characters, are now nothing but past history,” says Sassoon Somekh, writing on the website Sephardic Horizons.


* Extracts from Outcast were published in Banipal 21, Autumn 2004, translated from the Hebrew by Amiel Alcalay, who wrote a commentary on the book and Ballas’s works. Outcast was finally published in full in 2007 by City Lights Books, and was reviewed by Judith Kazantsis in Banipal 31, Spring 2008. The review is available to read online at A French edition entitled Signes d’Automne, translated from the Hebrew by Sylvie Cohen, was published by Samuel Shimon’s Editions Gilgamesh in Paris in 1996

This review was first published in Banipal Magazine  no 47 Autumn-Winter 2016