Rethinking Baghdad — in a better place

Me: “I wish we lived in Baghdad’s Jewish Quarter.”

Mom: “What? The Jewish Quarter?” Raising her left eyebrow, “Are you crazy?”

I was longing for her nightmare.

Romanticizing the Jewish Quarter of Baghdad was the height of stupidity. “Booma” (unwise owl), she chided lovingly. Here we were, in California, in her San Francisco kitchen, with a view of the Golden Gate Bridge and I was talking about wanting to live where?

Abu Sifain, the Jewish Quarter, was the last resort, should her father’s business fail.

“I remember going there to visit relatives… at the entrance you had to pass a line of blind beggars sitting in their kaka.

“What? Jewish beggars?”

“Of course, lots of poor Jews in Iraq,” she sounded surprised I was so ignorant, but I live in America.

Ever pragmatic, “It’s a good thing it was so hot in Baghdad; it (the feces) dried up quickly,” she added.

“And not only that, where do you think they come first when they come for you?” The Jewish Quarter was the most vulnerable, “…always the poor get it first — we were all sitting ducks in the Farhud, they almost got to us, but luckily we lived in a suburb further out …”

She remembers the screams, “It was our pogrom.”

Even though I’ve heard the story before, it’s always as if I am hearing it for the first time. Rampaging mobs storming the alleys, the dwellings pillaged, the girls raped, the looting, the horror.

“The screams, the screams, they were coming for us…”

Mom never forgave the British for not intervening sooner. “What’s a few Jews to appease an appetite? Let the Arabs take it out on the Jews.”

It took 48 hours of terror before the British, who had a base nearby, gave the order to stop it.

“We went to see after, not a grain of rice left, the plundering was unbelievable… we will never know how many girls and women…thousands of lives ruined.” 

The Jewish Quarter was decimated, its residents broken, Baghdad’s ancient and strong-despite-it-all Jewish community traumatized.

But it took Sami Michael’s brilliantly executed novel, “Victoria,” set in the Jewish Quarter, to cure me of my romantic notions of community, continuity, and connection. I felt transported to a place I would only want to get out of.

“Victoria” caused upset within the Iraqi Jewish community in Israel. They were working overtime for respect among the Ashkenazim, the book fueled fears. “Victoria” takes place in a slum. The Jewish Quarter was not representative of Baghdad’s Jews, its doctors, teachers, and lawyers and successful businesses. Fear of being seen (again) by the Ashkenazim as ignorant impoverished Jews ruled by superstition woke past injuries.

A novel about life in Europe’s shtetls would depict a similar narrative of backwardness, ignorance, superstition, the grinding struggle of victimization, and poverty. But it wasn’t the Ashkenazim who had to prove themselves in modern day Israel, they were the elite, no different from any established group fearfully looking down on Mizrahi refugees.

The memory of Iraqi Jews sprayed with DDT upon landing in Israel was still fresh. Jews from Arab lands were used to being abused under Islam, which is why they left if they could, and fled when they had to. With nothing. They did not expect such treatment from fellow Jews. They did not anticipate the harsh entry.

The Ashkenazim were afraid of losing their“European” version of what Israel should look like.  With approximately 650,000 of the 850,000 exiled Arabic, Mizrahi, Sephardi Jewish refugees pouring into the newly established state, not only the demographics, but the culture was going to change. It would be more Mizrahi than Ashkenazi.

The Jewish refugees from the Middle East and North Africa, like their European counterparts, were determined survivors — they knew the insults and adjustment were excruciatingly painful, but temporary. “First you survive and then you thrive,” Mom said.

The fear on both sides was temporary; integration was inevitable. Israel society has become “Mizrahi-fied.” Rock star Dudu Tassa is only one of many examples of artists reclaiming cultural roots once demeaned. Mizrahim and Ashkenazim have come together in every arena. There is nothing as exciting as true integration in action.

Israel is where all our roots mingle and flourish today with a vitality I am not sure exists anywhere else. With the multiplicity of cultures from Poland to Yemen to Ethiopia and more, our people have created an energy we have never known. The innovations are mind-boggling.

Israel’s evolution is an incredible lesson in survival, intense self-determination, courage, and gratitude.  And joy. Israel is one of the most creative and “happiest” countries on the planet.

It’s an amazing feat, an incredible dance. Despite all the suffering involved in displacement, we are in a better place. Mom was right.

About the Author
Rachel Wahba is a San Francisco Bay Area based writer, psychotherapist and the co-founder of Olivia Travel. An Egyptian-Iraqi Jew, Rachel was born in India and grew up stateless in Japan. The many dimensions of her exile and displacement are a constant theme in her professional work as well as her activism as an advisory board member for JIMENA (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa).
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