Thursday, February 25, 2010

Eli Amir, brilliant chronicler of the Iraqi exodus

Eli Amir

Surprisingly few books about the Jews of Iraq in English have dealt in detail with the Taskeet, the period of the mass Jewish exodus from Iraq to Israel in 1950. All this is about to change, now that famous Israeli writer Eli Amir's captivating novel The Dove Flyer has been hauled out of Hebrew language obscurity and published in English. In her review below, Lyn Julius hopes that the book will become a classic:

The Dove flyer by Eli Amir (Halban 2010, £10.99)
One wag once observed: if you want a book consigned to permanent obscurity, publish it in Hebrew.
Recent years have witnessed an explosion of books in English about Iraqi Jews. There was, Marina Benjamin’s ‘Last Jews of Babylon’ Violette Shamash’s Memories of Eden, Ariel Sabar’s In my father’s footsteps, Ivy Vernon’s Baghdad Memories, Mona Yahya’s When the Grey Beetles took over Baghdad, Naim Kattan’s Farewell Babylon. None, however, focus in any great detail on the period of the Taskeet - the forced exodus of the Iraqi Jews to Israel.
Eli Amir’s The Dove Flyer is the novel par excellence of the Taskeet. It came out in Hebrew as Mafriah hayonim as long ago as 1992, but British publishers Halban are to be congratulated for having dug it out of obscurity. The novel is set during the turbulent three years between the execution of Shafik Addas, the Jewish businessman on trumped-up charges, to the flight to Israel of almost the entire Jewish community in 1950- 51.
Kabi, the teenage, testosterone-driven narrator, is caught up in the turmoil gripping the Jews of Iraq following the first Arab-Israeli war. Hizkel, Kabi’s Zionist uncle and a key figure in ‘the Movement’ has just been arrested and thrown into jail, but Communists too are being hounded. The novel traces the increasingly desperate efforts of Kabi’s father, Hizkel’s brother, Abu Kabi, and Hizkel’s attractive young wife Rashel, to establish Hizkel’s whereabouts and get him released.
When consulting soothsayers and a dodgy kabbalist do not yield results, Rashel and Abu Kabi engage the services of Karim al-Huq, a Muslim lawyer. Al-Huq locates Hizkel, but Abu Kabi is forced to appeal to his wealthy relative Big Imari to use his influence with the Prime minister to secure Hizkel’s release. Abu Kabi has not spoken to Big Amari since the latter ‘stole’ Abu Kabi’s inheritance of rice fields, and that of another cousin, Salim Effendi, the headmaster of the Frank Iny Jewish school.
The feud with Big Amari is pivotal in propelling both men in opposite directions - Abu Kabi towards Zionism and fulfilling his dream of growing rice in Israel, and Salim Effendi - whose fantasy is to marry the famous Muslim belly dancer Bahia - to seek salvation in the universal Brotherhood of Man through Communism. By the end of the novel, both men find their dreams shattered.
Although The Dove Flyer is nominally fiction, the story is based on real people and real events. Eli Amir uses his characters as mouthpieces to rehearse the debates and attitudes current at the time. Even the names are symbolic: al-Hibaz, the baker, al-Huq, the lawyer, Rabbi Bashi, literally the Chief Rabbi , the Pasha, the leader. The Jewish singer Salima Murad is thinly disguised as Salima Pasha.
Abu Kabi argues the case for Zionism: '' a people without a land is not a people". The Jews will no longer be whipping boys and slaves to the Muslims. “Tolerance is a form of discrimination”, he says memorably.
In contrast to the Zionists and the Communists, the old tobacconist Hiyawi, a devout Jew, is the nostalgic link with the Turkish past and beyond. According to Hiyawi, the Muslims have never forgiven the Jews for not converting to Islam. Their motive is envy - because the Jews were the first monotheists, who preceded the Muslims in Babylon. The latter envy the Jews because they are still there.
Kabi’s mother does not share her husband’s dream of Jerusalem, hankering for a bygone age of coexistence with the Muslims. The Dove Flyer of the title, Abu Edouard, represents the Arabised Jew, rooted in Mesopotamia for the last 2,000 years, who thinks Abraham’s first mistake was to have forsaken the Land of the Two Rivers for Canaan.
The dove is a brilliant conceit, an allusion to the people of Israel ‘like a dove longing for its redeemer’. Abu Edouard’s doves have carved out their niche in Iraq under Muslim protection. They are at home in his dovecote. By the end of the book, however, the Jewish doves are jostling for space with the doves of Abu Edouard’s new Muslim neighbour as the Jews leave Baghdad in their droves.
Conflicting Arab tendencies are to be found within a single Muslim family: Ismail is the nationalist rabble-rouser. His father is the Islamist Hajj Yahya, who incites the mob to murder the Jews in the 1941 Farhoud, while his wife Hurriyya, Kabi’s wetnurse, is determined to defend her Jewish neighbours. The lawyer Karim represents the moderate view, seeing minority rights as key to the construction of the new Iraq. When Abu Kabi tells Karim the Jews can’t be expected to live in constant fear as eternal scapegoats, Karim tells him: “ A homeland isn’t a hotel you leave because it’s uncomfortable.”
Rabbi Bashi is modelled on the character of Rabbi Sassoon Kedouri: Kedouri was deposed as community leader as a result of pressure from women whose menfolk were in jail, protesting at his spineless approach to the authorities. The Pasha is based on the character of Nuri al-Said, the pro-British Iraqi Prime minister. In the book, the Pasha argues that the hanging of Shafik Addas provided an outlet for Iraqi fury at their humiliating defeat in Palestine, and prevented the outbreak of a second Farhoud. Moreover, the Pasha claims that by sanctioning the Taskeet exodus, originally conceived as an exchange of population with the Palestinian refugees, he was doing the Jews a favour.
When Abu Kabi and his family finally get to their new Israeli home, a fenced-in tent camp by the sea, his ambition to grow rice is frustrated by bureaucrat after bureaucrat. He wryly observes that in Israel, a democracy, “you can say what you like but no one listens to you; in Iraq you can’t say what you want but whatever you do say is listened to.”
His anti-Zionist wife, who had no expectations of Israel left to dash, adapts better to the new reality than her husband. Among others washed up unexpectedly on Israel’s shores are the Dove Flyer’s Arabised daughter Amira, and Salim Effendi. The Zionists are more successful at spiriting out Communists like Salim than their own people – Hizkel is left behind to languish in his Iraqi jail while his wife takes up with the Muslim lawyer.
The book is a breathless and captivating Cook’s tour of Iraqi Jewish life, sensual and full of colour, from a cruise on the Tigris to a pilgrimage to Ezekiel’s tomb. From the quemar to the okra, the zingoola to the umba, the food alone is a dazzling feast. But the Jews live under the spectre of a second Farhoud, and the constant sense of anxiety that minorities experience in the Middle East.
In truth Jews like Eli Amir grew up in fear of Muslims. Kabi is taught by his father to avoid certain quarters, to use a Muslim name, to disguise his Jewish dialect. Baghdad is far from paradise: Kabi is almost beaten up in the cinema and almost sodomised in the Turkish baths. Even an audience alone with the king is not advised because of the latter’s reputation for paedophilia. In its brutal frankness, The Dove Flyer today almost appears politically-incorrect.
Amir’s answer to the Jewish dilemma – should we stay or should we go? - is an unfashionable Zionist one, but he is saying that Zionism too has its disappointments. The book is an indispensable read for anyone who wants to understand Arab-Jewish relations, warts and all, and deserves to become a classic.
Eli Amir will be in conversation with Danna Harman of Haaretz at the Sephardi Centre in London on Wednesday 3 March at 7.30pm. (See Harif for details). Eli Amir will also be at Jewish Book Week on 4 March at 5.30pm.


Anonymous said...

Book on the Israeli obsession with Iran:

Eliyahu m'Tsiyon said...

The book referred to by Anonymous seems to be the same book that Amnon Rubinstein took apart in the Jerusalem Post a few days ago. This is another case of the nutty professor who is all too eager to psychologize away any problem that gets in the way of his own fantasies.

When Ahmadinejad denies the Holocaust, why, he is only announcing that he is open to dialogue. And the Holocaust did not affect Jews in Arab lands or Persia -- supposedly.