Baghdad was a terrible shock for her.
Meeda Elias, my maternal grandmother was just sixteen when she left her native Singapore with her new husband, also an Iraqi Jew, to join his family in Baghdad.
Iraq was not her native British Singapore. She found herself in a world she could never have imagined.
She spoke English and Malay, not Arabic. She cut her hair short, wore western dresses, and thrived on progressive ideas. Being young and bright, she picked up Arabic quickly, but she was not about to cover her face, shroud her body or stop dancing.
The very traditional Baghdadi family she married into couldn’t accept her, and she didn’t understand what it was to grow up in fear as they did.They didn’t understand how she, a Jew and a woman, dared speak out and talk back.
When men on the streets taunted her children or cursed her for a being a Jew she cursed them, in English.
“They threatened, ‘when the time comes we will kill all of you and take you and your daughters,’ it was horrible.”
She “confused them,” she said, “they thought I was with the (British) consulate because I spoke back in English.”
She couldn’t accept the fact that as a Jew and a woman who refused to avert her gaze, she was in fact endangering everyone. The family feared she would get them killed.
The Jews of Iraq (now Jew-free now like most countries in the region) were an ancient community pre-dating Islam. Jews were relegated to second-class dhimmi status, citizenship, a “protected minority” as long as they kept their mouths shut.
Granny didn’t understand. Coming from a modernized country how could she comprehend her new reality?
The family knew their place. She didn’t.
“Of course I talked back, I wasn’t scared,” and that was her problem, at home and outside the home.
She made friends, non-Jewish friends, “outside the family.” It was unheard of in the deeply insulated and fearful Jewish community of Baghdad in the 1930’s.
She wanted to socialize with “modern” people, intellectuals who spoke English and had interesting parties.
She met a young non-Jewish Syrian couple, a doctor and his wife, who were enchanted by her. “They loved me so much, they were Muslim and they loved me so much, ‘you are not like the other Jews, we like you,’” they told her.
She felt embraced by this couple and their eclectic group of Muslim and Christian friends.
Granny loved it all and defied the family. She refused to give up her freedom.
“They, (the Jews) were like mice, I didn’t understand,” Granny said; until the dinner party where the guest of honor was none other than Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem.
She sat in stunned silence as he spun his diatribe against the Jews of Palestine, Jews of Iraq, and the Jews of the world. She sat there quietly “like a mouse,” as a fear she had never felt before drowned out his words.
She never imagined “educated people” sitting around a dinner table listening to his plan to ethnically cleanse Jews out of the Middle East. She felt the hate and heard the silence of her friends.
I asked her what on earth was she thinking, how did she manage to sit at a table with the infamous Jew hater, the Grand Mufti? The man who went to Germany to meet and discuss the Final Solution in Arab lands as well as Europe, with his idol, Adolph Hitler.
“I didn’t know,” she said. “I thought it was only the hooligans on the streets who wanted to hurt us. Not these people, they were educated.”
“I was naïve,” she said.
With a mother who lived through the Farhud (the 1941 pro-Nazi uprising against the Jews of Baghdad) and fled Iraq, and a father who had to leave his native Egypt because they were Jews, I didn’t have the opportunity to be naïve.
I grew up stateless in Japan, among other displaced Jews from the Middle East and Holocaust survivors from Europe.
We waited a very long time for the freedoms America offered, the very freedoms we are beginning to see challenged with the rise and spread of Islamic fundamentalism and the inadequate response in the West.
Our president recently made the admission that he “underestimated” the threat of ISIL.
I fear the “liberal” community I identify with, is terrified to appear “Islamophobic,” and lose their progressive credentials. I fear America’s need to appease the Islamic states by refusing to equate Hamas and Hezbollah with ISIS and al Qaeda even as Netanyahu continues to explain that they are all “part of the same poisonous tree.”
It is time to wake up. It’s a dangerous thing not to know when to be afraid.
As my Granny found out, it is one thing to be progressive, it’s another to have dinner with those who want you cleansed off their platters.