In Last Days in Babylon, Benjamin delves into the story of her family's life among the Jews of Iraq in the first half of the twentieth century. When Iraq gained independence in 1932, Jews were the largest and most prosperous ethnic group in Baghdad. They dominated trade and finance, hobnobbed with Iraqi dignitaries, and lived in grandiose villas on the banks of the Tigris. Just twenty years later the community had been utterly ravaged, its members effectively expelled from the country by a hostile Iraqi government. Benjamin's grandmother Regina Sehayek lived through it all. Born in 1905, when Baghdad was still under Ottoman control, her childhood was a virtual idyll. This privileged existence was barely touched when the British marched into Iraq. But with the rise of Arab nationalism and the first stirrings of anti-Zionism, Regina, then a young mother, began to have dark premonitions of what was to come. By the time Iraq was galvanized by war, revolution, and regicide, Regina was already gone, her hair-raising escape a tragic exodus from a land she loved -- and a permanent departure from the husband whose gentle guiding hand had made her the woman she was.
Benjamin's keen ear and fluid writing bring to life Regina's Baghdad, both good and bad. More than a stirring story of survival, Last Days in Babylon is a bittersweet portrait of Old World Baghdad and its colorful Jewish community, whose roots predate the birth of Islam by a thousand years and whose culture did much to make Iraq the peaceful desert paradise that has since become a distant memory.
In 2004 Benjamin visited Baghdad for the first time, searching for the remains of its once vital Jewish community. What she discovered will haunt anyone who seeks to understand a country that continues to command the world's attention, just as it did when Regina Sehayek proudly walked through Baghdad's streets. By turns moving and funny, Last Days in Babylon is an adventure story, a riveting history, and a timely reminder that behind today's headlines are real people whose lives are caught -- too often tragically -- in the crossfire of misunderstanding, age-old prejudice, and geopolitical ambition.
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Last Days in Babylon
The Exile of Iraq's Jews, the Story of My Family
By Marina Benjamin
Copyright © 2008 Marina Benjamin
All right reserved.
At home in London during the cold Spring of 2006 I try to summon up images of Baghdad. I want to remember people's faces and voices, the traditional tilework I admired in their homes, the particular yellow of sunlight bouncing off sandy brick, the delicious skewered meat I ate in restaurants. It's an exercise I go through regularly, as an antidote to the litany of bad news that streams from my television screen.
The news, by now, has a numbing sameness to it. There has been another bombing, and more innocent people are dead. There's footage of cars burning at the roadside. Men in bloodstained clothing help other blood-smeared men to safety. Angry crowds remonstrate with shaven-scalped American soldiers. Women in chadors wail over lost husbands and sons. The city, I reflect for the umpteenth time, is lawless, unrelenting, and I feel a surge of relief that I live where I do, far away from all the violence and turmoil.
Two years earlier I witnessed similar scenes in Baghdad for myself -- from the safety of a hired car, in the company of a hired guide, and, more often than not, by peering through darkened glass. After the bombing of the Mount Lebanon hotel, an earlycivilian target of the post-war violence, I was among the crowds of Western journalists who had talked their way past the police cordons to commiserate with the locals and trade theories as to why that particular hotel had been targeted. Too many Westerners stayed there, said one journalist. Too many American Jews said another. No, said a third, the car bomb was intended for the Al Jazeera offices next door.
At the time I had been sickened by all the purient onlookers' interest (of which I was part, straining as was everyone else for answers that put a rational gloss on the senseless) and by the metallic smell of death, and I'd wanted to leave. But now, with my access to such information confined to second-hand relay, I think about how the television cameras do not lie.
Firsthand, as on screen, much of Baghdad appears forsaken. It sprawls across a grid of lookalike suburbs built out of dust-colored concrete with tatty high streets that are permanently snarled with traffic and sporadically patrolled by U.S. tanks. Bomb damage is evident everywhere. Refuse and rubble litter the ground. Police checkpoints, flagged up by double rows of painted oil drums, block off numerous roads, and street fighting is rife after dark. Anywhere, at any time, something might explode.
And yet there exists another Baghdad where, even now, it remains possible to capture something of the fabled magic of the ancient city. You won't see Ali Baba thieves spring from earthenware jars brandishing giant scimitars, or stumble across walled gardens concealing tiled fountains. But you can lose yourself in a confusion of twisting streets and fill your lungs with the loamy, musty air of what feels like centuries past. In a small corner of northeastern Baghdad, known locally as the Old City, all the odds have been defied, and something wondrous of the mythic past has come through the wars intact.
I feel as if I've known this other Baghdad all my life. A Baghdad of history and cultural romance, consonant with my family's recollections of verdant palm and scented orange groves, of picnics by the Tigris, and sun-baked afternoons spent cooling one's heels indoors, sipping homemade lemonade. Its local characters are colourful, voluble, and opinionated. Its politics are as labyrinthine as its streets. Its crumbling buildings creak under the weight of stories untold. It is a Baghdad I believed no longer existed, until I had seen it for myself. And it is the Baghdad that I want to remember beyond the firewall of current carnage, and of seemingly endless and irrevocable change.
The Old City is one of the few places in Baghdad where you won't see American soldiers, since most of the streets are too narrow to support armoured convoys. Western civilians are thin on the ground, deterred by the palpable lack of policing. Yet Westerners who do venture into this vibrant mercantile hub come to experience something of the "real" Baghdad. They come for the antique charms of its twisting streets and dusty alleyways, many of them so narrow you can practically span them with outstretched arms; for the smells of masgoof, the local fish speciality, smoking in open doorways; the sweaty clangour of artisans at work beating metal and scraping leather; and to rub shoulders with upright Bedouin chiefs dressed in impeccably starched dishdashas going about their everyday business.
Often they are hunting for hidden treasures. They know that there are medieval churches in the Old City, built by Armenian and Nestorian Christians, and elaborately carved twelfth-century gates tucked away in neglected corners, between the noisy souks and bustling coffeehouses. There are also imposing stone buildings dating, mainly, from Ottoman times. Occasionally, a dark street opens up onto the banks of the River Tigris, where an unexpected burst of sunlight flashes up off the water. But mostly the narrow streets fold in on themselves, hugging their secrets.
At midday, when the sun is blisteringly hot, these streets are thronged with people, dodging the wooden carts of goods pushed by small, barefoot boys and the donkeys laden with burlap bags, and lifting their robes to avoid being splattered by the filthy water that trickles down the middle of the street. The Western visitors mingle in, revelling in the place's very survival, for while the rest of Baghdad seems to have been have been sucked into the prevailing chaos, in the Old City the rhythm of life carries on just as it has always done, undisturbed either by the occupation or the fierce resistance to it.
I, too, had come to the Old City in search of the past, my family's past, coloured by fond memories I'd been spoon-fed down the years. And the enduring mystery was this: why were my relatives still so eager to relive it all?
The date was March 2004, ten months after President George W. Bush announced the end of "major combat operations" in Iraq. Despite the presidential assurances, war was still raging across the country, as the Americans continued to root out Baathist sympathizers, largely comprised of the most hardened core of Saddam Hussein's supporters who'd lost their influence with his removal. For their part, the Baathists, along with other less readily identifiable resistance forces, continued to fight back, and with brutal consequences. Baghdad was extremely dangerous, especially for Westerners whose value as collateral or PR was just beginning to be recognised. Nick Berg, the Jewish-American contractor whose videotaped beheading shocked the world, was executed only weeks after I left. His death, in retrospect, marked the end of one kind of war and the beginning of another, more intractable kind.
In spite of planning my trip meticulously I was frankly terrified of going into the country. Determined to be as inconspicuous as possible, I'd arranged to be driven through the night from Amman along the notoriously dangerous desert highway, which passes directly through the towns of Ramadi and Fallujah. Already the towns were hotbeds of insurgent fury, and home to bandits who stalked the desert road in speeding Toyotas. For hours I kept a sleepless vigil. Then, as daylight broke, I spied the chilling evidence of the bandits' handiwork, as we zipped past the blackened carcasses of one burnt out vehicle after another.
In the main, I saw Baghdad only by blazing sunlight when everything looked yellow and the hot dusty air clogged my throat. By night, I observed a self-imposed curfew, resigning myself to listening to the sporadic gunfire that crackled and snapped across the city skies from the relative safety of my concrete-reinforced and security-patrolled hotel complex. There was even the occasional thudding mortar, sometimes rather too close for comfort and a sure indication that one of the hotels where Westerners stayed, or one of the restaurants they frequented, had been targeted, if not always reliably hit.
Even by day my movements were restricted, except when I was accompanied by my guide Mahmoud, an irrepressibly tender hearted and cheery Shiite who had worked as a schoolteacher for many years, but who, after the war, had taken up the more lucrative job of chaperoning foreigners around Baghdad. "Mahmoud Shaker, driver and interpreter," it said on his business card in neat English script, above his address and phone number.
Mahmoud was short and plump, with smooth skin the colour of milky coffee, a trim black moustache, large doe eyes, and an unfailing sense of sartorial pride. Whatever the time of day and however scorching the heat, he would arrive at my hotel turned out in carefully pressed shirts and trousers and polished black loafers teamed with pale silky socks. Even when I roasted in far lighter (and much scruffier) clothing, Mahmoud wore a light tweed jacket and always remained the picture of composure. He was the father of three teenage girls, all of whom covered their hair with black cloth hijabs. His wife, who insisted every morning on preparing me a breakfast of sweet tea, oven-hot bread and clotted cream, was a Sunni Muslim from the town of Hit, in the Anbar region the West was now calling, as code for trouble spot, "The Sunni Triangle". Mahmoud liked to boast of his connections in Baghdad and he promised that although our tour of the Old City would be full of surprises, come what may, he would make sure I was safe. He even hired an armed bodyguard to discretely tail us.
Mahmoud had taken a particular interest in planning our tour ever since I'd informed him that my grandmother was born and raised within the folds of the ancient city centre. She was an Iraqi Christian, I told him, knowing that a splendid Armenian church lay within the Old City, where it once served a small but vibrant local community. I confess that even as I fed this not-so-small lie to my guide, who would later become my friend, I could feel a prick of guilt beginning to bore itself into the back of my head. Later it grew into a persistent hammering. My grandmother, a Christian! This was no small travesty, more along the line of a dancing-on-the-grave order of transgression. Surely, somewhere, she was protesting against my faithlessness with an outstretched finger -- the one poking against the walls of my skull.
I felt bad about lying to Mahmoud as well. In those perilous days there existed an implicit trust between journalists and their guides working in Baghdad. You were a team. You looked out for one another and decided between you how much danger you were willing to court. I had been lucky to hook up with Mahmoud as soon as I arrived in Baghdad. From the first he had been an excellent navigator and tactful interpreter, and he fast proved to be knowledgeable, reliable, punctual and discreet. He was curious about what I was up to so far from home, but he didn't press me for information. His gut told him that I was a "good person", and after I showed him pictures of my young daughter, he began addressing me familiarly as Umm Soren (the mother of Soren), Arabic-style.
Even so, I still couldn't bring myself to tell him that I was an Iraqi Jew. That my mother and grandmother were Iraqi Jews, and that one of the chief reasons I had come to Baghdad, putting myself in the way of danger when I would much rather have been back home in London with my daughter, was that I believed that this strange post-war hiatus in Iraq might be the only opportunity in years, perhaps even decades, for me to bridge the distance enforced by exile and get close to my past.
Instead, I told Mahmoud that I was working on a newspaper feature about the Jews of Baghdad, a minority group that had ancient roots in the land, dating from the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles of the eighth and sixth centuries BC, when much of the Jewish population of Judaea was deported. Jews had been here for more than a thousand years when the Islamic armies conquered Mesopotamia. They had flourished for centuries. From Ottoman times until the middle of the last century, Jews dominated trade and finance in Baghdad. They enjoyed religious and communal autonomy, hobnobbed with tribal dignitaries and government officials, and, in almost every sphere of life, they were conspicuous, prosperous and influential.
Mahmoud seemed interested to learn that the Iraqi Jews were so thoroughly Arabized that they spoke Arabic between themselves and were steeped in an Iraqi culture that they themselves had helped to shape, through literature, poetry, music and cuisine. They thought of themselves as Iraqis before Jews, I told him, and they cherished their religion as something that gave them communal rather than national distinction.
Of course, the Jews were now gone, I added, though this could hardly have surprised Mahmoud. Having once constituted more than a third of Baghdad's resident population -- which, in proportional terms, is roughly equal to the number of Jews currently living in New York City -- the Jews had been uprooted en masse, mostly in 1950 and 1951, after irreconcilable tensions between Iraq and the newly-founded Israeli state made it intolerable for them to remain.
Mahmoud was well aware of the Baghdadi Jews' legacy, as most educated Iraqis were. More to the point, he knew that the ancient Jewish Quarter had more or less overlapped large sections of the Old City. But when he realized that I was hoping to find traces of Jewish life in old Baghdad, he had shrugged his shoulders and frowned. "But there is nothing left," he said. "The place where the great synagogue used to stand is now a shopping centre. All the old houses that used to belong to Jews have been converted into tenements." Intending encouragement, he added that if we happened to strike up a conversation with some of the neighbourhood's older residents, they would be bound to remember the Jews. But if I was looking for evidence -- for artefacts, vestiges, even resonances -- I would be disappointed.
Unlike other ex-pats attempting to reconnect with a foreign homeland, at leisure to wander freely, talk to people, soak up the experience of being in a place at once familiar and unknown, I began to understand that I would have to make do with scraps. Given that this was Iraq, and that a war was on, I would be grateful even for that much. Nonetheless, I had heard it said that there were things that a keen observer might yet chance to discover; small cigarette-shaped indentations in the doorposts of houses to which Mezuzahs, long-ago pilfered for their silver, had once been nailed, and stars of David ingeniously incorporated into a building's brickwork.
And so we pushed on, my hope being that as Mahmoud guided my steps I could drift into a parallel universe, picking up echoes meant specifically for my eagerly attuned ear, while my eye alighted on hidden signs and symbols, invisible to all but an Iraqi Jew.
Our tour began on the eastern banks of the Tigris at the foot of the Maude Bridge, from where rolls of looping razor wire stretched away into the distance along the top of the pale stone embankment and vast piles of litter, heaped into neat mounds, awaited collection. The bridge had undergone a succession of name changes over the years, but it was still known colloquially as the Maude -- after the British General who had liberated the city from the deadweight of Turkish rule back in 1917 and then promptly died.
Through the shimmering haze of the morning's heat, I could just make out the old British Residency directly opposite us on the river's western bank. It was a large villa-style building with tall windows and thin decorative pilasters. Its faded grandeur alluded to the influence that the British had enjoyed here between the two world wars. This was where the indefatigable Gertrude Bell, a gifted Arabist and contemporary of my grandmother's, had worked as oriental secretary. Bell was one of a handful of Britons who had fought for Iraqi self-rule. Famously, she is reputed to have drawn Iraq's borders in the sand for the young Winston Churchill's edification. She had also urged King Faisal -- first king of this new-born nation, kludged together from provincial leftovers of the Ottoman Empire -- to appoint an Istanbul-educated Jew to his very first cabinet as minister of finance. The Jews were then approaching the pinnacle of their power in Baghdad. They were well-connected, urbane and bent on self-advancement. It was a soaring peak to attain after centuries of being merely tolerated -- but also, a dizzying height from which to fall.
Mahmoud parked beside the bridge, thinking that we would proceed on foot. He had already mapped out a zigzagg route that would take us along River Street, before doubling back to the water's edge to see the white stone seminary, or Mustansiriyah, now a museum and the best preserved example of Abbasid-era architecture remaining in Baghdad. After that, we would work our way back along Rashid Street to arrive at the Souk al-Serai, where book dealers, stationers, printers and sellers of political posters plied their wares under the invigilating shadow of the old Ottoman government buildings, as upright and dishevelled as a brace of calcified functionaries.
The Souk al-Serai occupies a set of interconnected and vaulted passageways, crammed with stalls displaying every kind of paper product: notebooks, cards, letter paper and, of course, books. It was crowded and dirty and smelled strongly like the public urinal it apparently doubled as. Most of the literature that I saw there was Arabic -- some religious, some not -- and there was a surprising availability of tattered John Grisham and Tom Clancy paperbacks. I stopped to buy colourful posters of Adb al-Karim Qasim and Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, champions past and present of Iraqi nationalism, before we moved swiftly on to a rendezvous with an aged barber who had been hairdresser to the young King Faisal II, Faisal I's only grandson and Iraq's last king, murdered in cold blood during the popular revolution of 1958.
The barber was one of Mahmoud's "surprises" -- a living, breathing testament to the Baghdad of another era: the real thing, if you will. His grimy salon on Rashid Street consisted of a tiny, whitewashed space containing two battered red leather chairs with rollered headrests and a couple of tarnished mirrors, and the walls were covered with sticky-looking photographs of Iraq's former Hashemite kings. The barber himself cut a figure of crisp cleanliness. He wore a stiff white shirt and clip-on bow tie and his trousers were held up over his round belly by old fashioned, striped suspenders. He had large goggling eyes, giving his face an expression of perpetual amazement, and his voice was a hoarse croak that came from the deep wells of his body. It had the discomfiting effect of turning everything he said into a gurgling confidence.
When Mahmoud introduced me as British, the barber shook my hand and bowed theatrically. Then he rolled his large eyes and said, "There are some people in Baghdad who hate the British. Why? Because they don't realize that it was the British who built Baghdad". His praise of the British was so sincere, so fulsome, that I wondered if he was aware of the irony of his comment: that the former builders of Iraq had, along with their American allies, recently reduced large swathes of Baghdad to rubble.
Rashid Street is the Old City at its most dignified. Running parallel to the river, the street is grand on a pre-automobile scale. Its stately pale stone-and-plaster houses are built over colonnaded walkways paved with big square flagstones, and its architectural confections include Corinthian columns, curling cast-iron balconies and tall windows. It is grey and shabby now, with many buildings on the verge of crumbling. But its old-fashioned shops and tumbledown coffeehouses, where pots of tea sit simmering by the doorway on open-flame burners, are as busy as ever. Peering into one of these smoke-filled caverns, I spied a roomful of men, some in lightweight linen suits, others in dishdashas, reading the papers and playing backgammon, passing the time of day clicking and swishing strings of amber worry beads.
At last, on Rashid Street, we were somewhere that ought to have prickled my skin with its familiarity. In my family's recollections of life in Baghdad, the street was a destination, an upmarket hub, a place of finery and indulgence. My grandmother shopped here on a regular basis, hiring a horse-drawn carriage, or arabana, and loading it up with bags as she visited one outlet after another. Orozdibak, Baghdad's original and much-feted department store, built over three stories tall, was located here. My mother remembers buying her first grown-up dresses from its stylish fashion department. When she was younger, my grandmother took her to Bata shoes for sandals and to Abu Maurice's for an occasional ice-cream treat. When she fell sick, the medications she swallowed came from the local pharmacy.
Back then, much of Rashid Street would have been Jewish. The shop owners were Jewish. The customers were Jewish. Even the street vendors and beggars were Jewish. My grandmother would have felt entirely at ease here, among her kind. My grandfather's own barber, not to mention his cobbler and tailor, would have been based here. And yet, years later, as I stood in the street trying to conjure up their ghosts, I had to face up to the fact that this Jewish history was gone. It had been written over, rubbed out, vanquished. It remained alive in living memory, of course, but even that was now fading. My grandparents are gone, and my mother and her sister are both in their seventies. When they talk about Baghdad now, details slip, names get left out. They still remember Rashid Street. Only it no longer remembers them.
A particular frustration was that I knew that my grandparents had lived only blocks from where I now stood, in the house in which my mother and aunt were born. But I dared not give the game away by asking Mahmoud to take me there. Besides, I had no idea of the house number, or even if it was still standing. All I knew was that their street, Taht al-Takia, was now a shoe market, and I couldn't think of a suitable pretext for stopping off there.
Instead we visited the Shorja, once the Jewish Quarter's largest open-air souk. In a city where the names of streets, markets, bridges and squares are routinely changed to keep up with new regimes and ideologies, and where, as a consequence, history has a strange way of disappearing, the Shorja has endured for more than a hundred years. That alone seemed promising, suggestive of other continuities.
The Shorja is literally a tunnel of commerce. You enter at one end and emerge at the other, and while you are in it you have no awareness of anything besides the constant clamour of people haggling over goods at the innumerable stands. I had to grab hold of Mahmoud's arm as we pushed our way forward with the rest of the crowd over shifting sheets of cardboard that covered the muddy ground underfoot. Glancing from side to side as we were thrust unhappily along, I glimpsed all too briefly the spice stands and soap-sellers, sweet stalls and nut vendors that lined the narrow street and also formed a pinched ridge along its middle. There were stalls piled high with plastic gew-gaws, children's toys and cheap clothing, gaudy stationery and coloured yarns. The sheer quantity of products was overwhelming, and together with the aggression of the shoppers and the sense of being pressed in on from all sides, I felt as if I were suffocating. When Mahmoud finally yanked me into daylight, I was panting for air.
As he dusted off his tweed jacket, Mahmoud looked at me expectantly, searching for confirmation that we'd just experienced a slice of authentic Baghdad. I babbled enthusiastically to say that we had. But, in truth, the Shorja has been a steaming, heaving, maddening disappointment. Unlike Rashid Street, which was at least a relic of its former self, the Shorja refused to speak to me. It offered up none of its secrets and none of its history and it left me feeling that I had come all this way on the basis of an illusion: namely, the faint but firm conviction that I somehow belonged here, and that this sense of belonging would be sharpened by the varied sensations of being here.
I expected the Old City to serve as my own personal medium, allowing me to commune directly with the past. I hoped it would be a conduit through which my grandmother would walk towards me as I'd never seen her, flushed with the ardour of youth, to tell me all about her life. In my innermost imaginings, I believed that our eyes would meet and our hands would touch; that some invisible knowledge would pass between us and fill me with a sense of who she was -- and therefore who I was. But it was not to be. There was no "footsteps" moment in my journey. Only clamour and heat and dust. The worst of it is that had my grandmother still been alive she would have been as much a stranger to the Shorja as I was.
In the heat of my disappointment, felt most keenly as we sought refuge from the mayhem of the souk in the dark emptiness of the Armenian Church, it seemed that I had not only lied to Mahmoud about my identity, I had lied to myself. How could I be an Iraqi Jew and yet feel so disconnected from my ancestry?
The Armenian Church is a wonderful building, fashioned out of reddish brick. From the inside it appears to be shaped a like a monarch's crown -- tall, multi-chambered, and with rounded, almost pillowy ceilings. It had been looted repeatedly after the war, stripped of every painting and statue, every altar cloth, candle and vestment, until it stood utterly bare, bereft of all ornament and cover, lacking, somehow, in dignity.
The church, in its present miserable condition, looked very much like I felt: disarmed, exposed and uncertain of its provenance. It was then that I knew that any claim I had on the country would need to be staked indirectly. That if I wished to revisit my grandmother's life I would have to re-imagine it rather than simply unearth it. That if I wanted to understand in what way I belonged to Iraq -- and it to me -- I would have to journey across the landscape of my family's collective memory.
If my history had been erased, I would re-write it, rejoining the tributary of my family's personal story to the fast-flowing and better-known narrative of public history.
Copyright © 2006 by Marina Benjamin
Excerpted from Last Days in Babylon by Marina Benjamin Copyright © 2008 by Marina Benjamin. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
THE LOST WORLD
THREE: JEWS AND POMEGRANATES
FOUR: VERY NICE TO MEET YOU
FIVE: WOMEN'S SECRETS
SEVEN: ARABS BEFORE MUSLIMS
EIGHT: WRITING ON THE WALL
TEN: THREE EVILS
ELEVEN: A FAIR EXCHANGE
TWELVE: LAST TRAIN TO BASRA
FOURTEEN: THE LAST JEWS OF BAGHDAD
FIFTEEN: GREAT EXPECTATIONS
Reading Group Guide
1. "I, too, had come to the Old City in search of the past, my family's past, colored by fond memories I'd been spoon-fed down the years." How would you compare Benjamin's expectations for Baghdad with the reality of what she encounters on her first visit there in 2004? Why are Benjamin's walks through Rashid Street and the Shorja, the open-air souk in the Jewish Quarter, especially frustrating? What prompts her to write that her grandmother Regina would find herself a stranger in Iraq, were she to visit today?
2. At one point, Baghdad's citizens included Jews, Sunnis, Shias, Kurds, Turkomans, Assyrians, Armenians, and Yazidis. How has nearly a century of Arab-Zionist conflict impacted the city's ethnic diversity? What religious, social, and political phenomena help explain the presence of a vibrant Jewish population in Iraq in the early twentieth century?
3. "[M]y grandmother never lost sight of the fact that her married life had begun as it was meant to continue -- with a test." In what respects was Regina's betrothal to Elazar typical of the era? How would you characterize their marriage, and what role -- if any -- did their age difference seem to play in terms of their obligations and expectations?
4. How did Iraq's gain of independence in 1932 serve to formalize the indirect rule of the country by the British? In what ways did the emerging forces of Arab nationalism and Zionism that coalesced around this time come to threaten the stability and security of the Jewish minority population in Baghdad?
5. "The farhud [of June, 1941] was pivotal to the consciousness of this generation, for which it functioned as a kind of awakening." Why did the farhud serve to polarize brothers Nessim and Solomon Sehayek in terms of their political philosophies? How did this act of violence against Jews by Iraqis underscore the complex nature of political and religious affiliation in the Middle East?
6. What effect did the shifting international allegiances during World War II have on the Jews in Iraq? To what extent were Jews perceived by Iraqis as affiliated with the British? How did the rioting and widespread mayhem during the farhud affect the relationship between the Jews and the British in Iraq?
7. In what respects did the Iraqi policy of denaturalization and the Israeli government's Law of Return alter the political landscape for Jews in Iraq in the 1950s? How did Regina and her family's flight from Basra to Bombay reflect the challenges faced by ordinary people to keep their families intact during times of political upheaval? To what extent did her experiences on board the Dumra seem typical of the time?
8. According to Benjamin, some 124,000 Iraqi Jews fled Iraq between 1948 and 1953. How did their treatment in Israel differ from the treatment of European Jews fleeing persecution? How significant was their inability to emigrate with their assets to the success of their assimilation? To what extent was their assumption into the Israeli state a convenient solution to the nascent country's need for cheap labor?
9. "This was how the last Jews of Baghdad viewed themselves, as quasi-tragic, quasi-romantic figures, isolated, stranded, immobilized." How do many of the Jews that Benjamin encounters living in Baghdad in 2004 feel about their decision to stay in Iraq? How would you characterize their plight? What keeps them in Baghdad?
10. How does the author's use of personal anecdotes and experiences from her family's history enhance your appreciation of the story of Iraqi Jews? What aspects of the narrative of Last Days in Babylon did you find especially surprising or illuminating, and why?
ENHANCE YOUR BOOK CLUB
1. Marina Benjamin smuggles vast quantities of kosher meat to the Iraqi Jews she meets in Baghdad, as a kind of "calling card" that will give her access to their secretive community. If you lived in isolation, with limited access to abundant sources of fresh food, what kinds of meals would you crave? Bring a recipe or a favorite dish to your next book club gathering -- one that embodies the kind of food that would get you to open your door to a stranger. Share your food (and your cravings) with your fellow book club members.
2. Benjamin writes that her grandmother Regina would hardly recognize some of Baghdad's most revered and historic neighborhoods in the aftermath of the many conflicts that have devastated the city in the last few decades. How has your childhood home and neighborhood changed over the course of your life? If you were to return now, how much would you discover has changed? How many of the neighbors and friends you knew as a child would you encounter? If time allows, revisit your old community and observe the changes. Or, connect with friends who are part of your past and reminisce about the way of life you enjoyed back then.
3. In Last Days in Babylon, author Marina Benjamin confesses that a photograph of her grandmother offers her a "silent rebuke" for not having been interested in her grandmother's life until after her death. What photographs of family members trigger powerful memories for you? Gather some of your most beloved photographs and bring them to your next book group to share with your friends. What emotions do these photographs elicit from you, and why? Do any of your photographs offer a "silent rebuke"?