Professor Shmuel Moreh has been taking the Arab world by storm with his amusing and engaging memoirs, published on an Arabic website. A translated instalment has now featured in Haaretz.
Writer, researcher and Israel Prize laureate Shmuel Moreh has published his memoirs in chapters, on the Arabic Internet site Elaph. An agile Arab publisher hastened to collect the chapters and publish them in book form, without the permission of the author, and has already brought out a second edition of the volume. Presented here is an adapted translation of one of those chapters.
I had completed my studies for a master's degree at the Hebrew University when my father arrived in Israel via Iran and Turkey (1961) . He expressed wonderment at this peculiar country, where everything is the reverse of what is usual in Iraq. It's a country that sends a student to learn Arabic language and literature, and whereto? To London, the capital of the Western world and of the empire on which the sun never sets!
"I can understand that they'd send someone to study chemistry, physics and economics," said my father. "But Arabic? What will they do with it here?" My father continued to think this way, with the worldview of an Iraqi merchant who asks every morning: What is the dollar exchange rate today? He bought shares on the stock market and purchased lands in Israel but nearly lost the money remaining to him from his savings in Iraq, which was smuggled to Israel via London.
He used to say, gritting his teeth: "By God, I don't understand this upside-down country. May the Lord have mercy on Iraq. There we knew how to calculate our steps. Open your hand a bit, slip a few dinars into the official's hand in order to grease the process of your request a bit and everything will fall right into place. Here there is no bribery, there is no cronyism and there isn't the magical religious saying: "Do it for the sake of God! Do it for the sake of the Prophet Mohammad!' Here everything is according to the dark law of the inhabitants, a law I don't understand."
My father obtained from the deputy director of the Shaare Zedek hospital in Jerusalem, Mr. Nahum Pessin, authorization to receive medical care whenever necessary. This, after he donated a considerable sum to the center. The certification was supposed to have enabled my father to be admitted in an emergency at any time, even if it was not the turn of this hospital, which he preferred, on the night duty roster. In this way my father felt protected, and took pride in the thought that modern medicine would protect him from old age and exhaustion.
But apparently he had ignored the Arabic proverb: "Since when is the apothecary able to repair what time has ruined?!" If he fell ill, my father would hospitalize himself in the best room at the hospital, and the man responsible for donor relations, Mr. Pessin, would come visit him with a basket of fresh fruit and reassure him. He also enjoyed the ministrations of the prettiest nurse in the hospital. They knew of his love (or weakness ) for beauty and the years did not change his taste and his admiration of the fair sex. He would become angry if they were tardy in examining him. I would comfort him and tell him there are lots of traffic accidents and emergency situations in the country because of the instability on the borders.
My father did not suffer from the cultural and psychological shock suffered in Israel by immigrants from Iraq and the countries of the East. In particular, he did not suffer from not knowing the Hebrew language or from the differences in customs and traditions. He did not suffer from the change in the role of the father - that is, the collapse of patriarchal sovereignty in the oriental family, with support of the family getting passed along to the daughters and sons who began to work and support their parents. The trait that helped him acclimatize was his mastery of six languages. Back in the time of the Ottomans, he had learned Turkish, French, English, Arabic and Hebrew. During the period he was in Persia in the 1920s, when he was an agent for the British automobile manufacturer Ford, he spoke and read Persian well. He had enough money to enable each of us to complete his studies abroad and to help each of his four sons buy a home and a car, after helping with the weddings of my two sisters.
He was not a burden to us. He had a strong will and pride in himself, and everyone respected him for his intelligence and his insistence on his dignity. He was not superstitious and he even donated some of his body parts to be taken from him after his death for medical research. He assumed people around him respected him because of his strong personality.
He attributed no importance to the smiles he received from doctors, officials and realtors when they heard his heavy Iraqi accent, which was obvious when he spoke Hebrew. He did not try at all to imitate the Ashkenazi accent but pronounced the letters bet, resh, ayin, qof and the soft gimel, as though they were Arabic consonants.
"And why not?" - he would say. "After all, Hebrew, as you know, is a Semitic language, and you Europeans messed it up and transformed the aspirated het into a guttural khet, the ayin into an aleph, the tet into a taf and the resh into a ghesh. Give thanks unto the Lord, for he is good! What do you want? For me to talk in a garbled and foreign accent? My accent is the correct Semitic accent and the Hebrew language is, after all, Arabic's twin sister."
He enjoyed speaking Arabic with the Arab doctors, pharmacists and patients at Shaare Zedek hospital and volunteered to translate for the Arab patients so the doctors would understand what was troubling them. He was happy to sit with Israeli Arabs and tell them about Iraq, life there, the island in the Euphrates in summer, when the current was weak and slow, the moonlit nights and the various kinds of grilled fish.
He would tell them: "You are impressed by the fish in the Kinneret? By the life of Allah, in Iraq every fish is the size of a whale. And what you call rivers - are those rivers at all, the Jordan and the Yarkon? If you could see the length and width of the Euphrates and the Tigris, then you would be impressed."
He spoke often about Iraq, and he didn't permit criticism or mockery of it. "There aren't any better dates than those in Iraq, or melons and watermelons, or grapes and oranges and there are no tastier lemons and apples. The size of a flower in Iraq is like the size of a tray. The soil in Iraq is so fertile that the watermelons grow there on both sides of the asphalt roads."
His Arab friends from Abu Ghosh and the hospital would say to him, "Tell me, if so, then Iraq is God's paradise."
To which he would respond: "Why not?"
And then they would ask him: "So why did you leave Iraq if it was paradise?" He would shake his head and say to them in despair: "It was paradise before the Ba'ath Party destroyed it. Everything is in the hands of God, everything is in the hands of heaven. Maybe it is punishment for those who massacred the Jews in the Farhud [the pogrom of Baghdad, in 1941]."
In his eyes, everything in Iraq was better: The people were more dignified and respected one another, they honored the elderly, the Iraqis were generous and hospitable. "There is no one like the Iraqis" - he would say. "For this I love them." Then he would sigh and say: "It is a pity about those vanished days. When the Muslims used to see how efficiently I managed my businesses, they would be amazed and say: "Ibrahim Efendi, ya Abu Jacques - it's too bad you are a Jew. Why don't you convert to Islam and we'll call it quits?!"
Then my father would remember Yehezkel, who remained in Iraq, converted to Islam and changed his name at the Interior Ministry to Haki, lived with a Muslim woman as his common-law-wife, took pride in being her companion, eating and drinking at her place and sleeping with her. She kept him on such a short leash that he couldn't move without her agreement.
One night "Haki" felt like rebelling and going out with his friends to the island in the Euphrates, with a quarter of a bottle of arak, a grilled fish, grilled onions and tomatoes, seasoned with hot Indian curry, warm esh tanur [Iraqi flatbread ], "genuine Indian mango pickle" and mezze - appetizers including salads and everything else he he longed for.
Yehezkel stayed out until after midnight and returned home in an elevated mood, humming Arab muwali songs and wobbling like a drunk with a bottle of Zahlawi arak in hand. When he arrived, he was unable to find the keyhole, banged on the door and continued in his attempts to find the keyhole, until his patience gave to and he started to shout: "Hey woman, open the door, I'm tired. Where are you, you ... ?"
The door opened slowly and when he stuck his head in to see who had opened it for him at long last, he immediately felt a stunning blow on his pate. It was the long heavy stick for pounding the bulgur for kubbeh. He fell to the floor, bloodstained and in a faint.
"You Jew son of a bitch," shouted the woman. "How dare you leave me and go to your whores? Are they more beautiful than I am or is their bottom larger? You stinking Jew villain."