Farewell, Babylon: Coming of Age in Jewish Baghdad

Farewell, Babylon: Coming of Age in Jewish Baghdad


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ISBN-13: 9781567923360
Publisher: Godine, David R. Publishers, Inc.
Publication date: 04/28/2007
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 13.00(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.70(d)

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David R. Godine

Copyright © 2007 David R. Godine
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-56792-336-0

Chapter One

The coffee pot had just gone around again and we were all holding cups of bitter coffee when Nessim made his entrance. His gestures were emphatic and exaggerated like those of a retired actor, but he put such elation into his words that he never gave the impression of being on stage.

The discussion was lively that evening. Nazar could not contain his enthusiasm since he had started reading the American novelists. He urged the group to enroll in the school of Saroyan and Hemingway. "It's the ideal every young Iraqi writer should be aiming at."

Zaki interrupted. He disagreed with Nazar. It was in our own rich past, in the great Arabic literary tradition, that we should seek our inspiration.

"But the Arabs haven't produced any novelists," said Nazar, who had just published a collection of short stories.

"What about the Thousand and One Nights?"

"All right, but those are folktales that aren't really part of the literary tradition...."

"Don't wear yourself out, we know the rest," Nessim interjected. He had written an essay on Balzac and translated several of Maupassant's stories. "Here are the models to follow."

We got together at theYassine Café every evening, making plans for the future based on our day's reading. It was an endless debate that we resumed night after night. We were painfully tracing our path, each of us seeking in the others' approval a confirmation of the dictates of his temperament; and under cover of discussing the future of our culture, we were defending our own first writing.

That evening was marked by an unusual note. Nessim spoke in the Jewish dialect. We were the only Jews in the group. All the others, except for a Chaldean and an Armenian, were Muslim and their dialect served as our common language. In Iraq the presence of a single Muslim in a group was enough for his dialect to be imposed. But was it a true dialect? Every religious community had its manner of speaking. All of us - Jews, Christians or Muslims - spoke Arabic. We had been neighbors for centuries. Our accents, certain words, were our distinguishing marks. Why did the Christians draw out certain words? We were told that in this way they were perpetuating the traces of their Nordic origin. But then the Nordic Muslims, those from Mosul, should have spoken like Christians. The Jewish manner of speaking was sprinkled with Hebrew words, explained by long familiarity with the Bible and prayers. But how to explain the presence of Turkish and Persian words in our dialect? We would have had greater contact with invaders and pilgrims than the Bedouins. Then what about the Muslims who, during the Ottoman era, were forced to learn not Arabic, but Turkish in school?

We had only to open our mouths to reveal our identity. The emblem of our origins was inscribed in our speech. We were Jew, Christian and Muslim, from Baghdad, Masrah or Mosul. We had a common language, that of the Muslims of the region. An inexhaustible source of confusion and cruel ridicule. What better entertainment for a young Muslim than listening to an old Jewish woman from the poor section of Abou Sifain speaking to some Muslim official? She mispronounces several Jewish words, following them with a couple of common Muslim expressions. With many contortions of the mouth, she finally succeeds only in mispronouncing her own dialect. The effect is inevitably comic.

Semi-literate Jews always studded their phrases with one or two Muslim terms when they spoke to other Jews. Borrowing a few words from the Muslims proved that one had dealings with them, that one associated with them and that one was not content with the poor company of other Jews. The rich Jews were no less ashamed of their accent and they never missed the chance to slip a few words of English or French into their conversation. A child who called his father "papa" or "daddy" was already guaranteed a future aristocracy.

The Muslims borrowed only from literary language. They felt no need to cast an unfavorable judgment on their dialect. And they turned to the dialects of Jews and Christians only to amuse visitors. A typically Jewish word in the mouth of a Muslim was synonymous with ridicule. In emancipated intellectual circles there was no thought of borrowing the Jewish accent and even less of making fun of it.

It was unusual, then, for Nessim to speak in his own accent among so many Muslims. Was it another joke? No, he was not speaking exclusively to me. He was completely free to do so, despite the presence of the others. But he was not addressing me. He was not even looking at me. He was speaking to Nazar, Said and the others.

It was very important not to attach too much importance to this new whim. Everyone tacitly wanted to attribute this outburst of comic dialect to Nessim's bantering nature. It was of no consequence. Most of all, we must guard against giving any special import to this jesting.

Nessim persisted, straight-faced. It was as though he were taking special care to choose all the Jewish words that usually got a laugh from Muslims. Imperturbably, he pleaded Balzac's case and talked of his enthusiasm for Stendhal, whom he had just discovered. Like a coward, I chose silence. Still displaying all his enthusiasm for the French novel, Nessim called on me to participate. Finally he asked me a question directly. It was useless for me to escape. He would persist.

I chose a middle course. My words were neither those of the Jews nor the Muslims. I spoke in literary Arabic, the Arabic of the Koran. Then, in a supercilious tone and with contained anger, Nessim corrected me: "You mean...." And he translated into perfect Jewish dialect. He compressed his lips in a gesture of hatred. He exaggerated our accent. I could see in his look a mixture of sorrow and commiseration. I was betraying him. I was ashamed to utter in the presence of others the words of intimacy, of home, of friendship. Nessim was forcing me to take a stand against the solidarity of the group. I could not reject our common language without humiliating myself. It was no longer the language of friendship, but of the clan. I listened to myself and the Jewish words stood out in all their strangeness, coldly naked. My sentences were frozen. Before I uttered them, I heard them echo in my ears. I was reciting a lesson I had learned. I slipped in a French word. Nessim, pitiless censor, immediately translated into the Jewish dialect.

No one smiled. The new rules of the game had been accepted by common accord. The Muslims with good grace paid no special attention to the new language that was stating its unaccustomed presence. Generally they looked at us without seeing us. Now, mysteriously, they recognized our features. They were noting a new color in the panoply. Later, everything would be restored to order, as no one would want to admit the existence of particular cases.

In our group we were neither Jew nor Muslim. We were Iraqis, concerned about the future of our country and consequently the future of each one of us. Except that the Muslims felt more Iraqi than the others. It was no use for us to say to them, "This is our land and we have been here for twenty-five centuries." We had been there first, but they were not convinced. We were different. Was our coloring not lighter than the Bedouins? Did we not know foreign languages? The fact that the best students in Arabic in the final examinations were Jews, that the Alliance Israélite school produced the best Arabic grammarians, changed nothing. Our identity was tainted. So be it. Nessim was assuming this difference. He wanted it admitted. He did not intend to convince and he had no evidence to produce. He was presenting a fact. We were Jews and we weren't ashamed of it.

By the end of the evening, we had won the game. For the first time the Muslims were listening to us with respect. We were worthy of our dialect. We were clothed in our own garments. Our mouths were restored to their true form, the one they had worn for generations in the secrecy of the home. This was the likeness which best suited us and it was reabsorbed in the intimacy of our minds. We had not been forcibly assimilated into some vaguely defined group. We had not been cast in a mold with unknown rough surfaces. The masks had fallen. We stood there in our luminous and fragile difference. And it was neither a sign of humiliation nor a symbol of ridicule. In a pure Jewish dialect we made our plans for the future of Iraqi culture. We did not take shelter behind the veil of an artificial equality. Our features were emerging from the shadow; they were being drawn. They were unique. Our faces were uncovered, recognized at last.

In the heat of the discussion, Janil and Said borrowed some of our familiar expressions. They stammered over words they had heard so often but never allowed to cross their lips. They apologized for their awkwardness.

As the evening progressed, Jewish words came more frequently to these foreign mouths. It was decidedly uncomfortable to carry on a long conversation in two distinct languages. Perhaps Nessim would stop being so intransigent. Now it was up to us to go along with the others, go halfway towards those who displayed such obvious goodwill. It was particularly important not to claim victory too soon. We had to hold on to the end. New habits are created so quickly, and so quickly forgotten. Nessim's tenacity bore fruit. By the end of the evening Said and Janil and all the others too were being introduced to the Jewish dialect, with as much awkwardness as comedy in the serious matter that it was.

Chapter Two

Our relationships with the group were steeped in quietude. We were dealing with emancipated liberals and revolutionaries who were working to demolish the walls put up by prejudice and misunderstanding.

A few darts fluttered across this limpid horizon now and then, bringing us back to order. We rejected their stigmata and soon ignored our wounds. They were merely scratches on our self-respect. We must be unbiased, must consign to oblivion these bitter reminders, these anachronistic survivors of a distant time when nothing interfered with an open display of prejudice. It was our duty to lift the veil. A few explanations, some judiciously recommended reading, and our companions' eyes would be opened, finally and forever. And then the light would shine in all its brilliance.

It was an exchange which Nessim and I pursued for hours at a time. To chase away his perpetual concerns, I made a show of imperturbable optimism. I minimized the meaning of certain words and gestures while Nessim saw in them undeniable signs of terror.

I often had to yield to his arguments and give in to the evidence. When he reproached me for not speaking about the position Chaplin had taken against anti-Semitism in my article on him, I had to admit that I had, in fact, devoted several paragraphs to the question that was so painful for both of us, that I had even quoted the words Chaplin had put into the mouth of his hero at the end of The Great Dictator. Said, going beyond his role as editor-in-chief, had taken it on himself to eliminate these paragraphs. He would not have mentioned it if I hadn't asked him for an explanation. There was nothing unexpected in his reply - something about the layout. Nessim accused him of hypocrisy and I tried feebly to contradict him. Fundamentally, we were in perfect agreement. And a year later Said would no longer be concealing his game. One day when I didn't come to the café, his pan-Arabic orthodoxy was confirmed. He announced to the assembled group that he would carefully censor my writing, which often concealed a strong odor of Zionism.

Nessim and I shared the same prognostics, the same reading of the events, but I had the hesitant desire, despite the present opposition, to hope for better times and to go on believing in a cooperation which would be essential but difficult to achieve. Far from reproaching Nessim for his intransigence, I urged him on. And so the balance was restored. On the risky road where I was adventuring, he was my security and my keeper.

Nessim carefully read the works of all the great playwrights, Greek, French or English, contemporary or classic, although he had never set foot in a theater. He suffered from a fever like the one that had afflicted his models, and in a few days he had completed a tragedy with contemporary resonances. But his characters bore Hellenic patronyms. It was a harmless exercise, as there were no stages in Baghdad. If no one knew whether the work was playable or not, the author at least had the satisfaction of self-respect; it would be submitted to the judgment of readers. Its imminent publication had already been announced in the newspapers. Out of prudence and a simple concern for phonetics, the editor felt it necessary to Islamize Nessim's family name, and Abraham became Ibrahim. What was the difference? It was the same patriarch, the father of Isaac and Ishmael, whose story is told in the Bible and the Koran. But it was harder to fool Nessim. He was a Jew and it was as a Jew that he would introduce himself to the public. Abraham's face would not be disguised under the anonymity of Ibrahim, and the author's stubbornness would definitely frustrate the few dozen eventual readers of this Graeco-Judaeo-Iraqi work.

Nessim forced his nature and spent all his time throttling his most powerful impulses. Fearing his true spontaneity, he flaunted a borrowed one: hair always in a mess, a shirt never burdened by a necktie and exposing most of his chest to the wind. He took great care with his untidiness, but he was only concealing his natural elegance. He did his utmost to hide his tenderness behind an apparent inflexibility and cruelty, but he only presented an air of insolence that was hardly amusing. He walked quickly, and during our long walks I was forced to adopt his rhythm. It was as though we were in a race. He hurried on, driven by an urgent need to move. And then he would be led imperceptibly to unmask his flayed features, to strip bare his own raw wound, which he was bound to protect from the cruel looks of strangers. He took nothing seriously and discovered the comic in the most dramatic situations; but one had only to touch, unconsciously, this secret cord and he would be transformed into stone.

On the threshold of this invisible door he would stop short, frozen. The scene that unwound before his child's eyes rose out of the shadows in all its nakedness and violence. Who among us was not marked by the Farhoud?

For centuries we had taken pride in living on good terms with the Muslims. Then in just one night thirteen centuries of shared life and neighborliness crumbled like a structure of mud and sand. Farhoud. It was the beginning of May. The hot summer wind had been blowing for several weeks and we had already moved our beds onto the roof. We were asleep when the signal was given. Baghdad was a free city and the Bedouins could make a clean sweep.

We had lived through a month of martial fever and nationalist talk. That year, 1941, the British army was retreating on all fronts but it was resisting in the face of assaults by the Iraqi forces. There was no breach in their line of defense at Habbaniyah, and the Union Jack still flew at the Shouaiyba base. Morning, noon and night, communiqués from Iraqi headquarters announced hypothetical victories and added up the enemy's heavy losses. The government of Rashid Ali was growing impatient. The help he was anxiously awaiting from Berlin was long in coming. Hitler made promises and did not keep them. Between a communiqué and a vengeful declaration, the radio broadcast endless messages in code addressed to friendly countries, to allies near or far. In this holy war being fought against a reviled invader, there was no question of Jews or Muslims. We were all in the same brigade in this fight to the death against a colonial power that was sucking our blood and our oil.

On the threshold of puberty, I was being tortured by the violence of nascent desire. What better diversion than this noble struggle in which we were recklessly hurling ourselves? We would liberate our country. Jews or Muslims, we had but one enemy: the English. The Englishman would be crushed. And with help from Germany we would be rid of him once and for all. The tall blond Germans were mythical figures, valiant saviors of wounded honor. Before the Muslims' overwhelming enthusiasm we kept silent, but in the intimacy of our homes it was another story. My brother my uncle, our neighbors, spoke of the Germans in low voices and cautiously, as of an imminent catastrophe-We knew how Hitler would treat the Jews, and the Nazis' Iraqi disciples did not reserve a more enviable fate for us. But I did not share these old people's fears. There was no possible comparison between Iraqis and Germans. Once we were independent, we would all work together, united in our desire to build a new society.


Excerpted from FAREWELL, BABYLON by NAÏM KATTAN Copyright © 2007 by David R. Godine. Excerpted by permission.
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Farewell, Babylon: Coming of Age in Jewish Baghdad 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
markusnenadovus on LibraryThing 4 months ago
I found this title fairly interesting. It gives a good biographical look at a Jew living in Iraq. No "fireworks" or extremely dramatic stuff, just a good look at the human elements of the situation and some of the hardships encountered.