Baghdad, from the other side of the tracks

A fleet of memoirs of Baghdad has been sailing into my library in recent years, like guffas floating down the river Tigris. Marina Benjamin’s ‘Last Days in Babylon’; Heskel Haddad’s ‘s ‘Flight from Babylon’; Violette Shamash’s ‘Memories of Eden’; Eli Amir’s ‘The Dove Flyer’; writings by Sami Michael, Sasson Somekh, Shmuel Moreh and Shimon Ballas.

Now comes an English version of Salim Fattal’s always riveting and charming memoir, In the Alleys of Baghdad, elegantly translated by Lenn J Schramm.

Salim Fattal’s memoir is another requiem for a city where Jews were once the largest single ethnic group. Jews made their mark on Baghdad continuously over almost three millennia – from the time that Nebuchadnezzar hauled the Jewish slaves into captivity by the waters of Babylon. Today five timorous Jews are all that remain from an influential and prosperous community of 140, 000.

Salim’s book, however, is set on the other side of the tracks. With zest and wit, he tells the comi-tragic tales of the Baghdad Jewish ghetto of Tatran, criss-crossed by dark alleys. It is a place of ancestral tradition and folklore where even the cellar snakes have a secret pact with the inhabitants.

Whereas some Iraqi Jews remember a comfortable, even idyllic life with servants, Salim’s childhood is marked by grinding poverty. The boy is forced to earn a living from an early age, while attending night school. His widowed mother cherishes the dream that her five sons would some day be doctors, lawyers, engineers, poets and scientists. The dream would come to pass – but not in Iraq. Salim is the poet and later makes a successful career as a journalist, film-maker and a founder of Israel TV’s Arabic service.

Jews more affluent were more likely to escape the WW1 Ottoman draft, but Tatran is caught up in a dragnet: despite Salim grandfather’s best efforts to hide young Jewish men, his brother Menashe is taken into the Turkish army, freezing to death on the front.
Tragedy strikes the family again when Salim’s uncle Meir is kidnapped and murdered during the 1941 Farhud pogrom in which 179 Jews were killed. Meir’s body is never found. The family survive a night of murder and rape by bribing a policeman with a shotgun into protecting them, by paying him half a dinar per shot.

Another uncle, Naim, drinks and smokes himself to an early death and a third, Joseph, is lured into the desert and murdered by two Bedouin associates.

After the catastrophe of the Farhud, triggered by an atmosphere poisoned by antisemitism imported from the Third Reich, the Jews of Baghdad sense they are living on borrowed time. Of the two paths offering redemption, Zionism and Communism, Salim chooses Communism. The Wathba protest movement of January 1948 against the neo-colonial Portsmouth Treaty with the British looms larger in Salim’s life than the war in Palestine.

As the keeper of the local Communist underground’s library in a bag under his bed, Salim narrowly escapes arrest by convincing the secret police that Chekhov was not a Marxist. He is a marked man but cannot afford to pay his passage out of Iraq. ‘Zionism was for Jews who had money’, he claims. But like other Jewish Communists, he eventually is forced to run for his life – to Israel.

A word about the vivid women characters who populate the book: the oversexed Habiba, who runs away with a Muslim to escape an arranged marriage, but is lured into prostitution; Salim’s first love Hanan, as daring a dalliance as the times then allowed; Tova, the Russian Jew on the run during WW2 to Israel, who finds in the Fattal family a substitute for her own.

Salim Fattal was motivated to write ‘In the Alleys of Baghdad’ in order to scotch one of the great myths of the age: “Before the Jewish state was established, there existed nothing to harm good relations between Arabs and Jews.” His Baghdad was a spirited city of warm interpersonal relations and humour, but it was also a place of untimely death, gallows and pogroms. Salim has dredged up his Baghdad from the ocean floor, but as with the Titanic, there is nothing much worth salvaging any more.

In the Alleys of Baghdad by Salim Fattal, illustrated by Ruth Doner (Paperback, $16.55, published by Shlomo Levy, Tel Aviv Tel 0525471060)

About the Author
Lyn Julius is a journalist and co-founder of Harif, an association of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa in the UK. She is the author of 'Uprooted: How 3,000 years of Jewish Civilisation in the Arab world vanished overnight.' (Vallentine Mitchell)