"Baghdad, yesterday - The making of an Arab Jew"
A multi-cultural and multi-ethnic society

In 1950/51 the Iraqi government permitted its Jewish citizens to leave the country if they agreed to give up their Iraqi citizenship. Israel organized an airlift for the exodus which is described by Sasson Somekh in his book. Beate Hinrichs has read the work

Sasson Somekh (photo: &copy Vanderbilt University)
Somekh describes vividly the young writer's intellectual and emotional growth and maps the now-vanished world of Baghdad's book stalls and literary cafes

​​Sasson Somekh writes of a bygone world, which one dearly wishes had not vanished! Not everything that the author describes was all sunshine and roses, and the book is neither sentimental nor nostalgic. "Baghdad, Yesterday – The Making of An Arab Jew" simply describes the experiences of his youth through the eyes of an adolescent as well as from the perspective of someone getting on in years. Sasson Somekh was born in Baghdad in 1933, the middle child of three children in an Iraqi-Jewish middle class family. In 1951, he emigrated to Israel.

Revolutionary changes

In the early 20th century, around one third of Baghdad's population was Jewish. This was a time when especially those belonging to the middle class experienced revolutionary changes. After the end of the First World War and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the younger generation developed a secular Iraqi-Jewish identity. They attended secular oriented schools where the pupils learned to speak fluent English and French. Many Jews worked for British companies or achieved prosperity and standing through their own industry. Only a minority sympathized with the goals of Zionism, yet many were active in the Communist party. Jewish intellectuals also played an active role in the cultural life of Iraq. Many wrote prose and poetry in Arabic – including Sasson Somekh, who later, when in Israel, founded the Faculty of Arabic Language and Literature at Tel Aviv University. Among themselves, Baghdad's Jews spoke an Arabic dialect that differed from that of Muslim and Christian Iraqis by being supplemented with Hebrew and Aramaic expressions. Judeo-Arabic was an authentic Arabic dialect, yet was written in Hebrew script by the older generation.

The "Farhud" pogrom against the Baghdad Jews

Although in June 1941, the Jews of Baghdad suffered a brutal pogrom ("Farhud") that resulted in the death of hundreds, by the end of the 1940s, most Jews felt widely respected and integrated in society, writes Sasson Somekh. It was "a kind of golden age with regard to economics and education". Sasson Somekh relates the story of his youth during this time with great reverence. Offering numerous anecdotes and an abundance of detail, he provides a warmhearted and gently humorous account of his daily affairs and traces the lives of his relatives, friends, and acquaintances. For example, there are his playmates, the Sa'achi brothers, with whom the young Sasson spent carefree days on the islands of the Tigris. After the family emigrated to London, the two sons founded "Saatchi & Saatchi," which has since become a worldwide advertising agency. What is particularly captivating about "Baghdad, Yesterday" is the description of the multicultural and multiethnic coexistence. There is the Lebanese Shiite, who taught Arabic literature at the Jewish high school in Baghdad while conveying Marxist thought to his students. He became the author's literary mentor. Then there were the Baghdad Jews, whose forefathers had emigrated from Vienna in the middle of the 19th century, like the Baghdad Rosenfelds, who showed no sign of their Austrian heritage.

The "Baghdadi communities"

Also receiving attention are Jews who had already emigrated to India or Singapore in the 18th century to establish "Baghdadi communities" and had since built up small trading empires. They were the "Rothschilds of the East." By the end of the 19th century, they were sending relatives to British cities like London and Manchester, where, for example, members of the Sassoon family assumed high offices and honors. Sasson Somekh writes about emigration – but also about exile. He continuously makes inquiries into the fates of friends and acquaintances that he lost track of and attempts to tie up loose ends. Yet, many stories break off – and the break is the result of the forced exile and emigration to a new home in Israel. At the end of the 1940s, after the partition of Palestine, the Arab-Israeli war of 1948/49, and numerous bombings of Jewish establishments in Baghdad, many felt they had no alternative but to emigrate. Other Iraqi-Jewish authors and contemporaries of Sasson Somekh, such as Eli Amir and Sami Michael, have provided a belletristic account of their Baghdad years. A few of these portray a society that is less harmonious, but one in which multicultural coexistence is the normal state of affairs. And they all certainly share the reason that prompted Somekh to record his memoirs: "I belong, that is, to the last generation of Iraqi Jews who lived side by side with Iraqis of other religions, speaking a common language and participating actively in Iraqi culture."

Beate Hinrichs

© Qantara.de 2007

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

Sasson Somekh: "Baghdad, Yesterday – The Making of An Arab Jew", Ibis Editions, ISBN 978-965-90125-8-9

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