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Farewell to Dejla
Stories of Iraqi Jews at Home and in Exile
By Tova Murad Sadka
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2009 Tova Murad Sadka
All rights reserved.
The Status Quo
* * *
The rabbi sipped at his sherbet. Apricot-flavored sherbet, rose-watered, ice-topped, floating in golden-edged glass. Some recipe against Baghdad's dry heat. He leaned back on the sofa and watched the ceiling fan set at its highest. It could have been bearably warm were it not for his long thick robe, the underwear trousers and the huge turban. Lucky European rabbis dress like ordinary men.
A hesitant tap at the door.
"Come in," the rabbi sighed.
Daoud with his bewildered look and tied tongue.
"Now, what is it, Daoud?"
"The policeman returned the rice."
"You told me to send twenty kilos of rice to the new captain of the Shorea. He sent it back."
"He sent it back, hm." The rabbi bobbed his head. "We had no problem with Ahmad."
"What?" Daoud looked perplexed.
"Ahmad, the previous police captain."
"Twenty kilos of rice for the first three months," the rabbi murmured and sipped at his sherbet, "twenty of sugar, the next three months, then the twenty of flour, then the two trunks of dates."
"This one is better, rabbi, honest, no bribes."
The rabbi laughed, choking on his sherbet and splattering the drink on his robe. To enjoy his laugh or attend to his robe? He chose the latter as Daoud frantically grabbed a towel and wiped the drops.
"Daoud," the rabbi began patiently. "The captain's salary is not enough to buy shoes for his ten children, maybe fifteen or twenty, who knows. And he would spare the 'wealthy Jews' as the Moslems call us?"
The rabbi became thoughtful. "Now listen, Daoud. In ten days, we will have the king's birthday, so send the captain twenty kilos of sugar for the occasion."
"Twenty kilos of sugar."
"Yes. Maybe he likes sugar better." The rabbi chuckled.
"You think so, rabbi?"
"Go Daoud, go now, it is my nap hour." The rabbi shook his head.
Were gullible employees really better? No ambitious mischief behind one's back, no treacherous schemes ... except for the ones due to unwitting stupidity? The unconscious, yet efficiently troublesome improvisions of the gullible.
Daoud shuffled off and closed the door behind him. The rabbi took off his turban and stationed it on the end table. Then he pulled off his shoes and lay down on the sofa. No other furniture in the room except for a desk and a chair. The rabbi's glance fell on the morning newspaper. Some skirmish between Jews and Arabs in Palestine. The British occupation forces. ... Did the Shorea captain sense a loop in the local status quo?
The rabbi closed his eyes and started his silent sleep mantra — his birthday, day and month repeated over and over again. But his mind drifted, roamed everywhere and nowhere, chasing off his sleep. He thought of his bare office. And when bare is the place, bare is the soul! Some furniture should be bought to make the place look decent. The Majlis — the Jewish council — should allow the expense. Again he began his sleep mantra. He needed his strength. He would concentrate fully and sleep would finally soothe his mind and body. It didn't. An unpleasant thought buzzing and buzzing like a fly. The returned twenty kilos of rice.
Protection bribes for police captains were as old as the world, that is the Jewish world, its means for safety and survival. The rabbi took care of the two captains presiding over the Jewish quarters of the old city. The same exact bribe for both, on a regular basis — a good recipe to avoid problems. But this new one in the Shorea.... "Let's not worry, let's wait and see," the rabbi told himself, "let's not think about it."
He did not think about it and benevolent sleep enveloped him.
An urgent knock at the door and Daoud came in, blurting, "The captain returned the twenty kilos of sugar."
"Hm." The rabbi sipped at his sherbet. It tasted warm and somewhat sour. "Hm," he repeated and remained silent for a few seconds. "Get me some more ice," he finally said and extended his glass to Daoud.
Daoud slowly picked up the glass, looked at the rabbi and rushed out.
He came right back, tickling the ice cubes in the golden-edged glass. "Here, rabbi."
The rabbi extended his hand. "Time to see Jawad," he murmured to himself. "Daoud, call Jawad's office and make an appointment for me. The sooner the better."
"Yes, Jawad Muntassar. Baghdad Chief of Police."
"Wait, just a second, Daoud." The rabbi picked up the morning newspaper and read a little. The skirmishes between Jews and Arabs in Palestine did not look that serious. "Don't call Jawad's office yet," he finally said.
It would be better to wait and see. Groping in the dark and taking measures, versus studying the situation and then preempting the opponent's strategy before it took shape; he opted for the latter.
"Don't call Jawad's office yet," he repeated. "Let's wait and see."
The door burst open, and a large man barged in with breathless Daoud after him.
"I told him you are busy, rabbi, but he ...," Daoud began.
"Rabbi, please." The man's voice shook. He was a butcher. The white, slightly bloodied apron, the muscled arms ...
"It's all right, Daoud," the rabbi said. He turned to the butcher. "What is it, my friend?"
"Rabbi, I am afraid." The butcher breathed hard. "Today, a police captain came to inspect my shop. It never happened before."
The rabbi nodded.
"The captain said I don't keep good hygiene. I showed him how everything was clean, immaculate clean, but he just shook his head. Finally he said he wants to see me in his office this Friday, to discuss the matter. You know I keep everything clean, rabbi, you know that."
Again the rabbi bobbed his head. "Did the captain come alone?" he asked.
"Did he go to the other butchers' shops?"
"Did he ask the other butchers to come to his office?"
"He will," the rabbi murmured to himself. Then he turned to the butcher. "I ... I will try to take care of it. Don't go to his office on Friday unless I tell you. Return to your shop and wait for my word."
"Rabbi ...," the butcher pleaded.
"I will take care of it. I will try."
"Thank you rabbi, thank you."
"Now Daoud," the rabbi said as soon as the butcher left. "Call Jawad's office and make the appointment for today. Today."
"Yes, rabbi. Let me get your sherbet."
"No Daoud, not now."
He would enjoy it better after seeing Jawad. As Baghdad's Chief of Police, Jawad knew that his captains were bribed for the Jews' protection. Hopefully he would take care of the matter.
The rabbi walked the paved narrow street, with Daoud on his right and another employee on his left. There was no need for a taxi as Jawad's office was three streets away. The two-story houses provided enough shade, but the thick robe, the underwear trousers and the huge turban. ... Lucky European rabbis who dress like ordinary men.
The majestic two-story police headquarters had two huge columns in front. One policeman stood by each column. The rabbi slowed his steps and nodded to Daoud who went over to one of the policemen.
"The rabbi is here," Daoud announced.
The policeman left his post and went inside. Immediately Jawad appeared at the threshold, tall, slim, jovial and mustached. "Welcome, welcome, rabbi. Such an honor." He bent his tall figure and extended his hand.
The rabbi shook the extended hand and bowed his head. Jawad's good graces were secured by the Majlis. The rabbi did not feed the big fish. They were the responsibility of the Majlis.
"Come into my office, please. Such an honor, rabbi."
The Moslems' smooth tongue. The sharp dagger at short notice or no notice at all. The rabbi went into Jawad's office while Daoud and the other employee remained in the hallway.
Jawad helped the rabbi into an armchair. Did he look like he needed Jawad's help, the rabbi wondered? He was only fifty years old. It's the thick robe and the huge turban. The European rabbis....
Jawad's office was large and well-furnished. A sofa, four chairs, a desk and a cupboard. And it was so cool. Not only the ceiling fan, but a desk fan took care of the hot air. A good idea. Two fans working at one time. The rabbi should have the same in his office. The Majlis should allow the expense.
"Some sherbet, rabbi?" Jawad was all smiles as he caressed his mustache.
"No thank you, chief. I would not take much of your time. I just came to thank you for the new police captain of the Shorea."
Jawad remained silent, and the rabbi continued.
"He is very good. He is honest. We send him twenty kilos of sugar on occasion of the king's birthday and he refused to take them."
Jawad's pleasant features remained impassive. There was a moment of silence before the rabbi continued.
"He is also very concerned about the hygiene in the butchers' shops. He went to inspect them himself."
Jawad looked perplexed.
"One by one." The rabbi stressed his words.
"Hm." Jawad looked thoughtful. Then he shook his head. "I am so sorry to disappoint you, rabbi. This captain was sent to the Shorea on a temporary basis and we have to transfer him. The poor Moslem district of Ashouria lacks all hygiene, much more than your district. It needs someone like him, honest and conscious. So we need to transfer him, soon, this week maybe. I am sorry, rabbi."
"I understand. The welfare of the more needy comes first."
"Now, rabbi, some sherbet maybe?"
"Yes, thank you. It is hot."
As soon as he finished his sherbet, the rabbi took leave of Jawad and headed toward his office. Noon already. Time for a good long nap. Should Jawad receive something extra for his congenial welcome to the rabbi? He could get the twenty kilos of rice that anyway would have gone to the Shorea captain. But it might create a precedent. And the Majlis might object. Better to leave the decision to the Majlis; Jawad was its responsibility. What mattered was that the status quo was still in place.
For now!CHAPTER 2
Shoula and the Moslem Man
* * *
Nazim was passing by her room when suddenly he stopped at the threshold. "Why do you keep your curtain open, Shoula?" he asked. "You are in full view of the neighbors."
She smiled, noting the concern on his face. "Because," she spoke slowly, "because, brother dear, I like to have some light in my room."
"At least, close the curtain half-way."
She grinned. "How about quarter-way, dear brother?"
"All you know is how to tease," he complained, shook his head and walked off.
"No one has a view of my room except the grandmother across the street," she called after him.
No response. Did he hear, or didn't he? Oh yes, he did hear.
She shrugged, walked to the curtain and closed it a quarter. A little more than a quarter; she was feeling magnanimous. Let him check on his wife. He had no business bothering her.
True, there was much proximity between the neighbors and consequently little privacy; Shoula knew that. But it was the structure of old Baghdad; the winding streets were less than four yards wide and all the houses were attached. Also, the houses' second floors protruded, providing shade for the pedestrians, and most had at least one room with a window facing the street. Shoula happened to occupy the only one in her house. Across the street, right opposite hers, was the one belonging to the neighbors' grandmother who hardly used it; she must be busy with the children and grandchildren. As to pedestrians in the street: they could hardly see Shoula except if she stood or sat very close to the window.
It was a Jewish neighborhood and she liked to sit knitting by the window.
Sometimes her mother would join her and they would chat while enjoying the street scene. There were the young boys and girls going to school, the men hurrying to their businesses. It was a small neighborhood and Shoula knew quite a few of the frequent passersby. The family across the street were a young couple with three children, the husband's mother and his two bachelor brothers. The bachelors would hurry, early to work, and early back home. They seemed conceited, walking erect, their heads high and wet with hair cream, their shirts halfway open, showing off their hairy chests. And they were young, in their late twenties at most, while Shoula was thirty-five, going on thirty-six. But she was still very attractive.
She went to study her reflection in the cupboard's mirror. She was pretty if not very pretty. Her small black eyes were lively and her beautiful brown hair long and thick. And she was slim, rather small-breasted, but tall and well-shaped.
She left her room and headed downstairs. Her mother was preparing dinner and Shoula offered to make the salad.
"Do you know ...?" Shoula began.
"I know. Nazim told me about it."
That was not what Shoula had in mind. But just as well.
"I explained to him," her mother went on, "that you don't open the curtain when you dress, and that the window across the street is the grandmother's. And your bed is in the corner, completely out of sight."
Shoula's mother sided with her most of the time; she felt sorry for her, because by now Shoula was officially declared a spinster. What Baghdadian Jewish bachelor would marry a thirty-five-year-old?
"Of course, if you don't mind, Shoula, you could leave the curtain halfway open. And you could close it when you're not in the room."
There was diplomatic Mother, siding with Shoula yet ... always a yet. Conciliatory? All right; that was what mothers were supposed to be. An open curtain indeed! Her mother and brother should worry about something far more serious, that is if she were to tell them about it. It had happened twice and it disturbed her a great deal. Once as she absentmindedly came to sit by the window, she saw a man urinating in the street corner. He was dressed in a suit, his head wrapped with the Moslem kaffiya. He lifted up his head and, seeing her, he began manipulating himself, pressing his prick against the wall. She immediately backed inside her room, scared and disgusted. From then on she became careful, watching the street before sitting at the window. It was not often that Moslems passed by the Jewish quarter and she hoped it was a one-time thing. But it happened again when, after inspecting the street and seeing that the coast was clear, she sat knitting by the window. But as soon as she raised her eyes from her knitting, she saw the same Moslem watching her and again pressing his prick against the wall. She had hurried inside the room, sunk onto her bed and tried to steady her heartbeat. And she had decided to stop sitting by the window for at least a month before trying it again. He would certainly stop. Meanwhile he was depriving her of her window and she visualized taking a hammer and cracking his head.
"Don't put in too much vinegar." Her mother's words brought her mind back to the salad.
The sudden shrill cries of Nazim's children. Teffeh was four, a pretty girl, and Nouri, a well-developed boy, was two. Shoula considered them spoiled, but Mother disagreed. Dola, their mother, would soon bring them to the table for dinner, to mess up and disturb. "They are like your own children," Mother once said.
"No, they are not like my own children," Shoula had snapped. "They are Nazim and Dola's. They are not my children."
"I just meant they are living here with us," Mother's voice had faltered, but Shoula would not ease the situation; she just headed to her room and left Mother to reach her own conclusions, whatever they were.
"Could you put the bread on the table?" Shoula's mother asked.
"Sure," Shoula said and did.
The table was set in the backyard porch. It was early May, but already hot. The smell of the pinkish bean flowers caught Shoula's nostrils. She sniffed the air and sighed. Amazing how the fragrance of flowers sent her mind wandering into a strange, beautiful land: tall sturdy trees and a cloudy sunrise giving a pinkish glow to the leaves, while a silvery river flowed in the background.
"Nazim," Mother's sharp call brought Shoula back to the backyard porch. "Dinner is ready."
Nazim and Dola came, Nouri in Dola's arms, Teffeh on Nazim's shoulder.
Dola had her brown hair up, her long neck showing. She was rather pretty and soft-spoken. She and Dola were not friends, so to speak. You could not have a conversation with Dola except about her children; as to other matters, she was Nazim's mouthpiece. "Fine," Mother would say. "As a daughter-in-law, Dola is not bad at all. And she is a good decent wife to Nazim, which is important." Nazim was good-looking, tall and slim, with large greenish eyes and bushy black hair. He had a wide nose and his nostrils would dilate and quiver whenever he got excited or angry.
Nazim was silent. Exhibiting his displeasure with her? She should check his nostrils, she laughed to herself. And Dola was mute. In solidarity? There was some dutiful wife.
Excerpted from Farewell to Dejla by Tova Murad Sadka. Copyright © 2009 Tova Murad Sadka. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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