Ever heard of Salim Fattal? Most Jews, especially those in the English-speaking world, will not recognise the name. But among the Jews of Iraq, Salim Fattal is a giant of a man. First and foremost, he will be remembered as the custodian of the memory of the Farhud, the 1941 pogrom which sounded the beginning of the end for the Jewish community of Iraq.
Salim Fattal died on May 31, in Israel at the age of 87. A writer, film director and pioneer of Arabic broadcasting in Israel, his passing occurred 76 years to the day since the outbreak of the Farhud, an event he did so much to document. In 2012, he came to London to show to members of my organisation Harif the first episode of the TV series he made in the 1960s, recording eye-witness testimonies.
Born in 1930 and brought up by his widowed mother in the old Baghdad quarter of Tatran, Fattal provided a corrective in his memoir, ‘In the Alleys of Baghdad’, to the nostalgia of Jews from prosperous families. His autobiography records a childhood of deprivation and tragedy. Fattal joined the Iraqi communist party but had to leave Iraq owing to persecution. In his later years, Fattal devoted much energy to fighting revisionist accounts of Jewish-Arab coexistence which downplayed antisemitism in Arab countries ‘to flatter’.
Fattal’s uncle Meir, together with his business partner Nahum, were murdered on the first day of the pogrom on Shavuot 1941. Their bodies were never found. Giving his testimony in 2016 on the 75th anniversary of the Farhud, Fattal choked back his tears when he recalled his mother’s words: Only when I arrived in Israel could I talk about Meir without crying.”
In the 1960s Fattal interviewed 100 survivors for his TV documentary series. In 2016 he recorded this clip for JIMENA on the causes of the 1941 Farhud.
One arrival in Israel, he found work as an Arabic-speaking radio announcer, but his communist past caught up with him and he lost the job. He tried several other career paths, and each time he was fired for his past political beliefs.
“I came to the conclusion it’s better to work in a laboratory with mice,” he told a Jewish Weekly of northern California reporter.
In time he earned a degree in biology and a master’s degree in Islamic civilisation and Arabic literature. In 1962 he returned to Arabic-language broadcasting, first in radio and later in TV.
As director of Israel’s Arabic broadcasting service, Fattal had to fill three hours of airtime a day. On Fridays, he instituted the Arabic movie, screening bootlegged copies of Egyptian films. The slot became extremely popular, not just among Arab viewers, but Jewish Israelis. In 1968 he created a show called “Sammy & Susu,” one of the most watched Arab children’s programmes of the time. He also acquired programs from the BBC and American networks, all subtitled in Hebrew and Arabic.
But the defining event of his life remained the Farhud, which he vividly recalled as a boy of 11 in his memoirs. His family decided to bribe a policeman to protect them from the mob.
“We could see them right under our noses and if they had decided to attack us then, no one could have stopped them as it was very easy for the rioters to move from roof to roof. So we called our armed policeman from outside and begged him to fire a few bullets in the air to scare them away. Our policeman insisted on more payment and my Uncle Naim argued that we had already paid him generously. But our policeman kept repeating: ‘How much will you pay?’ while our situation was getting more and more threatening by the minute. Finally they agreed upon half a dinar per bullet. Had he refused, we would have taken his gun. The policeman fired two shots and paused and then two more shots, until he saw the rioters move away.”
Salim Fattal’s funeral will take place on 1 June at 13:00 Israel time at the Nes Harim cemetery. Israel’s Channel 10 will show episodes of Farhud Stories by Salim Fattal at 14.15 on 2 June, on Motzai Shabbat on June 3 and on June 10.