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The Making of Arab Jew

The Making of Arab Jew

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Published by razan

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Categories:Types, School Work
Published by: razan on Nov 04, 2010
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11/04/2010

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SASSON SOMEKH
128
from
Baghdad, Yesterday:The Making of an Arab Jew
PrefaceIn
1951
, at the age of seventeen, I left my native Baghdad and immi-grated to Israel. I moved with my family and the bulk of the ancient Jewishcommunity of Mesopotamia—a community that’s thought to have comeinto being upon the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem in
587b.c.e.
Over the course of millennia it experienced various transformationsas the country came under the rule of a parade of imperial powers, includ-ing the Babylonians, Persians, Arabs, Turks, and British.My years in Baghdad were, I admit, fairly uneventful. To my good for-tune, my life as a whole hasn’t been shaped by any particular hardships orby persecution. (In this respect, it differs markedly from the lives of someof my Baghdadi friends who suffered because of their membership in theZionist or Communist underground movements.) What spurred me towrite these memoirs is the fact that—while it has been estimated that by the early twentieth century nearly a third of Baghdad’s population wasJewish—there is no longer any sort of Jewish presence to speak of either inBaghdad or in Iraq. I belong, that is, to the last generation of Iraqi Jewswho lived side by side with Iraqis of other religions, speaking a commonlanguage and participating actively in Iraqi culture.The Lettuce BedsIn
1939,
my family moved to a new house in a neighbor-hood called the Lettuce Beds (in Arabic, Bustan al-khass). The house wascozy and surrounded by a narrow garden. My father invested most of hissavings and energy in its construction. This house was located not far fromour previous home, where I was born, and which was but a short walkfrom the Tigris. Our old neighborhood was called the Eastern Gate, and itwas outside the bounds of the traditional Jewish quarters. Our new neigh-borhood was mostly middle class and mixed, with Jews, Christians, andMuslims living alongside one another.I was about five years old when we moved, and I remember neither thehouse being built nor moving into it. I have a picture that my father tookaround the time the construction was completed. The house was fully mod-
 
ern (in other words, European) and in the photo it stands alone, girded by a wall. The interior—and this I remember well, since we lived there until weleft Iraq—consisted of two floors and six rooms, one of which was particu-larly spacious and served as a reception room.Over the course of the months and years that followed our move, housesof similar size, sometimes larger, became popular, and more and morehomes like ours were built in this area, which eventually filled six or sevenstreets that burst with people and greenery. The land itself belonged to thestate and was divided into
1
,
600
-foot plots, which were leased for ninety-nine years at a scant price to whoever wanted to build their own house andlive there. The neighborhood, true to its name, was the area where the fra-grant lettuce of Baghdad was grown. (Several years ago, I read a novel by anIraqi writer who remained in Baghdad until after the
1991
Gulf War. Thebook’s main characters reminisce about the “good old days” before Sad-dam Hussein, nostalgically recalling the beloved and refreshing lettuce,which was, says the novel, no longer available to the residents of the city.)Who lived in these houses? Many of the residents were Jewish, the major-ity of them clerks and professionals: they were doctors, lawyers, teachers,and small-time merchants. Very rich Jews (and non-Jews) lived far from thisarea, in vast, luxurious villas. Among them were many of the nouveauxriches who had profited from World War
ii
and the ensuing years and hadbuilt themselves small palaces.Most of our immediate neighbors were Jewish, including—as I was tolearn only years later—the family of the now well-known Israeli novelistSami Michael. They lived on an adjacent street, but in those days I had notyet met Sami, who was to become one of my dearest friends. Our neigh-bors to the right were well-to-do Christians originally from the Tel Kef region in northern Iraq. My mother and the women of that house—twosisters married to two brothers—enjoyed good neighborly relations. They would talk over the low wall that separated their garden from ours. Forsome reason, I didn’t befriend the sons of these neighbors, though they were around my age. I did, however, become friends with the Armenianfamily that lived across the street. Their family name was Tajirian (fromthe Arabic word
tajir,
meaning merchant). I became very attached to theirson Azad, who was a few years older. Every so often after school, I woulddrop by their house. I’d accompany Azad to the nearby café where he andhis friends studied for their school exams. There I got to know severalMuslim book-lovers from whom I borrowed reading material, includingsome that was considered dangerous, such as books by the Coptic Egypt-ian writer Salama Musa, an important intellectual who spread his liberalsocialist ideas in the
1920
s and
’30
s.The Tajirian family didn’t like to discuss their past, but hints of it weredisplayed in the photographs that hung on their walls and were taken intheir native Armenia. A photo of a radiant-faced Armenian priest and his
Somekh
Baghdad, Yesterday
129

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