Friday, March 29, 2013

Stop being so Ashkenazi-centric!

                                        Moses rescued from the bullrushes in Egypt

In the week that a prominent international leader made a speech calling Israel a haven for refugees from, among other places, North Africa - but failed to mention the Middle East - Reuven Shirazi, a Cambridge student of Iraqi origin, vents his frustration in The Jewish Chronicle  at the way the British Jewish community ignores the Sephardi Story.

A prominent Jewish leader came to speak to the Jewish Society in Cambridge recently. In his speech, he outlined how essential Israel is for Jewish continuity, noting how it had absorbed refugees from Europe (after the Holocaust), India, Ethiopia, and later the former Soviet Union. Afterward, I asked why he didn't mention the swathes of Jewish refugees from the Middle East and North Africa, since it is surely a gross oversight to miss out the communities that, along with their descendants, now constitute between 50 to 60 per cent of Israel's Jewish population.

This is but one example of a phenomenon endemic to most of the UK's Jewish cultural, educational, and religious life: it is very Ashkenazi-centric. The first Jews to set up shop in England, after Cromwell allowed them back in1656, were Amsterdam Jews of Spanish and Portuguese descent: Sephardim. It is only since the 1880s that Ashkenazim resettled en masse in the UK, fleeing pogroms in Russia. Yet our cultural references, intended to make us appreciate our commonality, are of kugel and gefilte fish. Yiddish words such as "mensch", "frum", and "schepping nachas" are frequently used. It is often assumed that all our grandparents came from the shtetl; in truth, even in the Ashkenazi world, many lived in the cities (particularly in Western Europe). In the Sephardi world, there were always more cosmopolitan Jews.

Growing up, I had known that there were Sephardi Jews and that my family came from Iraq, but that there weren't really Jews in Iraq anymore. But in my Jewish education I heard nothing about the pogroms, forced expulsions, revocations of citizenship and confiscations of property that led to the vast exodus from Iraq, Egypt, and other Arab and Muslim countries. These facts I only discovered at my own initiative. Yet having gone through the Jewish educational system, I am very knowledgeable about the Holocaust and the events surrounding it.

Without comparing those two tragedies (though they were linked: the Farhud in Iraq was partly inspired by widely-disseminated Nazi propaganda, for example), both were formative events of the post-war Jewish world and must deserve attention. Likewise, from a socio-religious perspective, the grand religious schisms in the Ashkenazi world are presented as issues affecting the entire Jewish nation. I refer to the differences between the Reform, Conservative, Modern Orthodox, Liberal and Charedi Jews (the latter themselves very divided). Yet the impressive mutual recognition of legitimacy, unity of purpose and moderation in the Sephardi world - which consists of truly diverse communities from lands as far apart as Iran and Morocco - is rarely acknowledged. Perhaps, if given more attention, this could serve as a model to inspire reunification in the Ashkenazi communities around the Jewish world.

Anglo-Jewry unquestionably has a large, engaged Sephardi minority. From my experience, and having spoken to others in the last few years, this subgroup often feels disengaged from the cultural, religious and educational experiences offered by the community. Commonality with the Ashkenazim is most felt in support of Israel. Because Israel is a melting pot in which Mizrahi culture is influential and widely appreciated, young Sephardim identify strongly with the country.


Read article in full

Monday, March 25, 2013

Mind the Gap!


Posting will be light to non-existent while Point of No Return takes a break  for the Passover/Easter/ Nowrooz holiday. Wishing all readers who are celebrating the festival Moadim le Simha.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Passover isn't Passover without 'Silan'

Passover, the festival of the Israelites' deliverance from slavery in Egypt, begins tomorrow night. Each Jewish community seems to have its own recipe for Passover haroset,  symbolising the mortar which the Israelite slaves used to make bricks. Iraqi Jews traditionally mix silan - or date syrup - with walnuts. But as Rachel Wahba discovered in the Times of Israel, western convenience stores have taken the hard labour out of the process of turning the dates into thick syrup.    

In my grandmother’s time, making what we Iraqis call silan (see-lan), a syrup, made from dates, was a daylong labor of love. She cooked and stirred and squeezed the dates dry in cheesecloth for hours. I watched how the brown juice turned into thick syrup, silan! Iraqi dates deliver the thickest syrup. The mixture in the pot glistened. “It’s not ready till you see that shine,” she taught me.

When you mix finely ground walnuts with the silan (usually at around a 4:1 ratio of silan to nuts) to thicken the texture into a “mortar,” you have Iraqi haroset.

And now, this once laborious process has been dramatically changed by imported silan, found in any good Arab and Middle Eastern grocery store. An electric blender makes grinding down the walnuts much easier.

I have yet to meet one person who has not fallen in love with the taste and asked what was in it only to be shocked by the simplicity of this “mortar” for the bricks our people laid.

When it was my turn to carry on the tradition and turn the world on to Iraqi haroset, I found a can of silan in a Middle Eastern grocery store in San Francisco. Like, a Passover miracle, I felt like I had waded through the sea when I found silan, all ready, no cheesecloth, no sweating over a hot stove for hours. Same taste. No kidding, really it had the same home-made taste.

But the following year, Passover was coming and the store stopped carrying silan.

It just so happened that I was going to be in New York before Passover and I had heard about a particularly well-stocked Arab grocery store on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn.

Ready-made: a miracle!
Ready-made: a miracle!

And there it was! My excitement was palpable. “How do you know about silan?” the shopkeeper asked. “My mother is from Baghdad, we know silan!” I told him.

Read article in full

Friday, March 22, 2013

The onward march of monoculturalism

 Jewish musicians in Morocco  (photo: JIMENA)

Not content with driving out their minorities, Arab states are denying that Jews ever had a presence there.  The mere mention of the word Jew has become offensive. Seth Frantzman writing in the Jerusalem Post blames the rise of Arab socialism for the onward march of 'monoculturalism'. I would rather pin the blame a national and religious fascism, beginning in the 1930s,  that cannot tolerate the 'other'.

In 1948 there were 250,000 Jews in Morocco. Today there are less than 4,000. Across North Africa most ancient and important Jewish communities vanished in the years 1940 to 1970. In February, when “Tanghir-Jerusalem, echoes of the mellah” was shown at a theater in Tangier a crowd of several hundred gathered to protest it. The film was by Kamal Hachkar and sought to explore the history of Jews who had left Morocco to settle in Israel. In March Egypt banned the screening of a film about the Jews of Egypt. Like Hachkar’s film, the documentary traced the lives of Egyptian Jews up through the 1950s when the community left the country.

Throughout North Africa, and the rest of the Muslim world, there is a rejection of the mention of Jewish history in the region. At the same time there is a slow, grinding destruction of whatever vestiges of historical Jewish life remain. For instance, the Eliahu Hanabi synagogue in Damascus, which dates from the 8th century, was badly damaged in fighting on March 3. On January 27, 68 gravestones were defaced and destroyed in the Jewish cemetery of the town of Sousse in Tunisia.

Raphael Luzon, a Libyan Jew, was arrested in July of last year for returning to the country to try to refurbish a synagogue.

It isn’t enough that the Jewish communities don’t exist any longer in these countries, the people also seek to erase the idea that they ever existed.

This pattern of “monoculturalism,” the advancement of the history and existence of only one culture, has been on the march throughout the region. In the 1950s many large cities in the Middle East were bustling, diverse metropolises. For instance, Tunis was 20 percent Jewish, and 100,000 Italians and 13,000 Maltese also lived in and around the capital city.

Alexandria had large communities of Armenians, Greeks, Maltese, and people from all over the world. Today those communities are gone, their properties nationalized since they were categorized as “foreigners.”

The hatred toward them smoldered in the hearts of some of the local Muslim population.

In the fascinating book Jewish Culture and Society in North Africa, one writer notes, “Within the context of military rivalry [of the 1940s] Italophobia grew... Muslims also accused the 13,000 Maltese of Tunisia of being lackeys of British imperialism.” In the conspiracy-laden Arab world, hatred of the other was cultivated, so that each group that was not Muslim was accused of being a collaborator with some outside power, or accused of having too much financial power.

When people write about the destruction and vanishing of every ancient minority group in the Middle East, from Assyrian Christians to Iraqi Yazidis, we see behind this a policy of monoculturalism. But what is fascinating is the degree to which these societies that have homogeniezed themselves by deracinating Jews and others from their homes in the 1950s and 1960s, now also reject the notion that Jews ever existed in their country.

Egypt and Morocco’s reaction to similar films is but one example. Another example is the banning by Egypt of Jewish pilgrimage to the tomb of Rabbi Ya’akov Abuhatzeira. A Cairo court forbade the pilgrimages while a local mukhtar noted, “We prohibit Jews from visiting the tomb because we identify with the Palestinian people and because we do not want to offend the Egyptian public’s sensitivities.”

Similarly in Morocco the protestors shouted against “normalization” with Israel.

The “sensitivities” in the region are so extreme that even a movie about history or a pilgrimage is so offensive that it must be banned. The mere mention of a community that, while it lived among the majority population was subjected to insults, discrimination and harassment, is considered unacceptable. Imagine American “sensitivities” according to which the very mention of the fact that American Indians ever existed, let alone were killed and driven from their homes, was “offensive.”

Although in some ways the Arab Spring has made this monoculturalizing tendency more visible, it has its origins in the rise of Arab socialism in the 1950s.

Read article in full

Mark Steyn: Islam is king on a field of corpses

Thursday, March 21, 2013

BHL banned by Tripoli mayor

 Bernard-Henri Levy poses with Libyan rebel soldiers in September 2011 

The French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy has been banned from visiting Libya as part of a delegation led by former premier Nicolas Sarkozy.

The ban, by the mayor of Tripoli, comes as a blow to Levy who visited Libya to show his support for the rebels' anti-Gaddafi campaign. He claimed to have been invited by the Libyan prime minister Ali Zeidan during his visit to Paris in January. The latter has denied issuing the invitation.

A spokesman for the Tripoli town hall said: " We haven't invited him. If he comes we will shut the door on him." The town hall claims its security is at risk from attack by Islamist militias.

The high-level French visit was timed to coincide with the second anniversary of French intervention on behalf of the rebels.

More (J-Forum - French)

David Gerbi snubbed by Amazighen

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

'Jews of Egypt' film cleared for screening

Mark Steyn: Islam is king on a field of corpses

 In the old days, Alexandria bustled with non-Muslims: now they are all gone

Without their Jews and other minorities, the Maghreb and Levant are today dull places. Islam is king on a field of corpses, laments Mark Steyn in this National Review elegy for the death of the cosmopolitanism of the Arab world:

Some years ago, for a telly documentary, the BBC sent the novelist Lawrence Durrell back to Alexandria, the setting of his eponymous Alexandria Quartet, his "prose poem to one of the great capitals of the heart." Durrell had lived in Egypt during the war years, and did not enjoy his return. "The city seemed to him listless and spiritless, its harbor a mere cemetery, its famous cafés no longer twinkling with music and lights," wrote Michael Haag in Alexandria, City of Memory. "His favourite bookshop, Cité du Livre on the rue Fuad, had gone, and in others he found a lamentable stock."

Only on the Western fringe of the Ummah, in a few Moroccan redoubts, can you still discern the flickers of the way it was. Otherwise, to anyone who knew the "Muslim world" of the mid–20th century, today's Maghreb and Levant are dull places, drained of everything but Islam. And Durrell was returning in 1977: Another third of a century on, and Alexandria's stock is even more lamentable. Indeed, his cast of characters would be entirely bewildering to contemporary Alexandrians: an English writer (of course), a Greek good-time girl, a homosexual Jew, a wealthy Copt. In the old days, Alexandria bustled with Britons, Italians, and lots and lots of Greeks. All gone. So are the Jews, homo- and hetero-, from a community 50,000 strong down to some four dozen greybeards keeping their heads down.

I got an e-mail a year or so back from the great-grandson of Joseph Cattaui, a Jew and Egypt's finance minister back in the Twenties: These days, the family lives in France — because it's not just that in Egypt a Jew can no longer be finance minister, but that in Egypt a Jew can no longer be. Now, in the absence of any other demographic groups to cleanse, it's the Copts' turn to head for the exits — as in Tripoli and Benghazi it's the blacks'. In the once-cosmopolitan cities of the Arab world, the minority communities are confined to the old graveyards, like the rubbish-strewn Jewish cemetery of broken headstones, squawking chickens, and hanging laundry I wandered through in Tangiers a while back. Islam is king on a field of corpses.

Read article in full

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

On this day in Mashhad: 'convert to Islam or die'

 Mosque in Mashhad, a major Shi'a pilgrimage destination

March 19, 1839, is the date that the Jews of Mashhad, Persia, were given the choice of converting to Islam or dying, in an event that came to be known as the “Allahdad,” meaning “God’s Justice.”David B Green of Haaretz records the terrible events of that day: 

The ultimatum was preceded by an attack by an angry crowd on the neighborhood where the city’s Jews resided, during which nearly 40 Mashhadi Jews were killed. Following that, the rest of their 2,400 or so brethren publicly accepted Islam – although most continued to practice their Judaism surreptitiously.

Jews had only resided in Mashhad -- in the far northeastern corner of Persia, and today Iran’s second-largest city -- since 1746, when Nader Shah, the empire’s king, moved his capital there and ordered 40 Jewish families to accompany him.

Mashhad was already a major object of Shi’ite pilgrimage and was known for the piety of its population, which did not welcome their new Jewish neighbors. Nonetheless, those Jews, who were confined to a ghetto-like neighborhood on the city's outskirts, created a community, developed trading ties with other towns in the region and eventually with their immediate neighbors too, and grew to some 200 families.

The Allahdad began, as such events usually do, when rumors began to spread that the city’s Jews were mocking the Muslim religion, and on a holy day, no less.

The public appealed to their religious leaders, who turned to the town’s political leader, who granted the crowd permission to vent their wrath on the Jews. They invaded the Jewish quarter, attacked homes and businesses, burnt books and destroyed the synagogue. Thirty-six Jews lost their lives that day.

The physical violence was followed by the demand that the surviving Jews convert. The community capitulated to the demand and its members became “Jadid al-Islam” – new Muslims. They took on Arabic names, began to publicly embrace the rituals of Islam, including making the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca.

At the same time, in a manner very similar to that of the crypto-Jews during the Spanish Inquisition, they also secretly continued to live as Jews. They gave their children second, Hebrew names, they fed the unkosher meat they openly bought to their animals, and carried out shehita (kosher slaughter) surreptitiously. They also established clandestine synagogues in their basements.

They reproduced by hand the sacred Hebrew books that had been destroyed during the Allahdad, and used them to continue teaching their children Torah. They even found a way to avoid having their children intermarry with non-Jews, by marrying them off to other members of the community while they were still very young, age 9 or 10, so that when inquiries came from the city’s Muslims, they could say their children were already spoken for.

Only after the ascent of Reza Pahlavi, the father of the last shah, to power, in 1925, and the start of a period of social liberalization, which included freedom of religion, did the crypto-Jews who still lived in Mashhad return to openly practicing their faith. That period lasted until 1946, when anti-Jewish riots erupted in Mashhad yet again. At that point, the city’s Jews began to leave en masse. They went either to Tehran, where they constituted a distinct community, served by 10 “Mashhadi” synagogues, or left Iran altogether.

Today, all the descendants of the Jews of in Mashhad are outside their native land. Most can be found in Israel, and there's a large contingent in New York - in Kew Gardens, Queens, and in Great Neck.

Read article in full

'Tunisia went downhill since the Jews left'

 The Griba synagogue on the island of Djerba, setting for the annual Lag Ba'Omer Hillula

If you want to know about Jewish refugees, ask an Israeli taxi driver.

Shimon Bokhobsa left Tunis in 1961 with a suitcase and very little cash. The family did not have  any property to leave behind, as they lived in a rental  apartment in the city.

 The Bokhobzas came first to an Israeli ma'abara (transit camp) in Kiryat Shemona, before spending several years in another.

He had been back to Tunisia since and had even been on the Hillula (pilgrimage) to Djerba. The immigration officer at the airport said: 'welcome, monsieur Bokhobsa !",  recognising his Tunisian- Jewish name. His group from Israel spent 10 days in the country touring with an escort.

Shimon was disappointed at the dirt and decay. The country had gone downhill since the departure of the Jews: "The Jews were the businessmen, the traders. They maintained and improved everything." The Tunisians he met felt nostalgia for the era when the Jews lived among them.

However, he was confident that Tunisia would not succumb to  islamification under the Muslim Brotherhood. The Tunisians had always been secular and open to western influence.

Antisemitism in France was a different matter. Shimon's family had all migrated to Israel, but Tunisian Jews were now moving to Israel from France.    

Monday, March 18, 2013

Jews excluded from Yemen 'dialogue conference'

Rabbi Yahya Youssef

A Yemeni news medium is reporting that Jews have been left out of Yemen's 'national dialogue conference', despite promises made to the Rabbi of the Jewish community, Yahya Youssef.  Here is a rough translation: (with thanks: Ahuva)

Rabbi Yahya Youssef told "Barakish Net" that he was surprised that the names of members of the Jewish community provided to  President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi to represent them in the dialogue conference had been left out.
 Rabbi Yahya Youssef said that this exclusion will give a negative view of the Yemeni government in dealing with minorities, and is incompatible with the objective of dialogue to achieve equal citizenship without discrimination.

Civil society organizations have been keen to involve Jews in dialogue. As Yemeni citizens they have  their rights guaranteed to them by the Constitution and the law.

Read article in full (Arabic) 

Jewish community excluded from Yemen 'national dialogue' conference (The Media Line)

Secret op. lets Jews from Morocco study in Israel

 Most of Morocco's 2,500 Jews live in Casablanca, where their children attend the Alliance Israelite school

Young Jews from Morocco are studying in Israel as part of their degrees. Some choose to stay on: there is no future for us in Morocco, one tells Ynet News:

 Thirteen young Jewish men from Morocco began their studies at the Machon Lev academic institution for men in the Jerusalem College of Technology this year.

These youngsters are part of a fast-growing phenomenon of Moroccan Jewish families sending their children to study in Israel, particularly at the Jerusalem institute These 13 men join 25 other young Moroccan Jews who arrived in Israel in a secret operation in the past three years. Machon Lev helps them maintain their Jewish tradition and values while engaging in academic studies.

On their way to Israel they pass through several countries, in an attempt to cover their tracks and ensure that the Moroccan authorities are unaware of their real destination.

Encouraging their arrival, the State of Israel lets them in without stamping their passports, thus protecting the families left behind and allowing them to return safely to Morocco after completing their degree.

The young men study engineering and high-tech for four years, and most of them decide to immigrate to Israel upon completing their degree. "There is no future for us in Morocco," explains  Itzhak, an accounting student. "I came to Israel and I see myself staying here in the future and starting a family."

Read article in full

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Pro-Jewish Iraqi Muslim was almost kidnapped

Point of No Return exclusive

Nabil Al-Hudairi (pictured), the Iraqi Muslim who stood up for the rights of Iraqi Jews at a conference on religions held last year in Suleymaniya, Kurdistan, narrowly avoided being kidnapped.

During the conference, he was told that a car had been sent to meet him, escorted by some 20 men. A friend advised him not to get into it.

Although Kurdistan is nominally autonomous, agents of the Iranian regime are known to operate there. They abduct 'undesirables' and whisk them over the border into Iran.

One such case is Mawlud Afand, editor of the Israel-Kurd magazine. He disappeared on 8 June 2012 and has not been seen since.
Attending the first ever conference to be held on religions since the fall of Saddam Hussein, Nabil al-Hadairi managed to write three articles of the Conference communique, stating the importance of correcting the Constitution by recognising Judaism as an official religion alongside Islam, Christianity and others.

 He rallied support from President Jalal Talabani and the president of Iraqi-Kurdistan, Masood Barazani, to legislate a law of citizenship in Iraq to enable the Jews to regain Iraqi nationality and reward them with parliamentary seats proportional to their actual size.

Al-Hadairi also wrote a clause recognizing the rights of Jews to Iraqi nationality and including the right of Iraqi Jews to return. Another clause recognises the crime of displacement and its effects as well as the need to maintain and not tamper with Iraq's Jewish heritage.

The Redacted Iraqi Jews (Gatestone Institute)

The clock cannot simply be turned back for Iraq's Jews (Jewish Chronicle)

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Joe Samuels: How I survived my escape from Iraq

How Jews escaped Iraq in 1949: this is Joe Samuel's story, as told in The Times of Israel (with thanks: Lily)

A video surfaced in January of Muktadar Al Sader, the Shiite militia leader, pleading for Iraqi Jews to return to help rebuild their homeland. Right. Imagine me, my family or any Jew, walking the street of Baghdad wearing a kippah or going to the synagogue today. How long would I or my family last?
My story is one of the 135,000 stories of Jews who fled, were forced to leave, faced torture, had their properties confiscated and were made to live like prisoners in their own homeland. We will never go back. No one in the Iraqi Jewish community is deranged enough to even think of going back.

Al Sader’s words bring back harsh memories of my escape from Iraq.

In Basra, cold weather in December was unusual, but in 1949 the temperature was in the 40’s, and it was bitterly cold at 11 at night. I had put my life in the hands of two Muslim smugglers and I wasn’t alone. There were 15 other teenagers, including my younger brother, Nory. The underground movement to help Jews escape out of Iraq had arranged for a boat to take us to Iran. We boarded, one at a time, at varying intervals, in order to avoid raising suspicion in the neighborhood. We had no luggage, money, food or water.

The boat, if it could be called that, was about 30 feet long and 10 feet wide. It had no seats, beds, toilets or motors. It moved by punting, a method of propelling the boat forward with long sticks. It was designed to carry light cargo such as manure or hay to the farmers in the delta. In their hay cargo, the two smugglers had devised a false bottom with a space below that measured about 10 feet by 10 feet and about 2.5 feet high. We crouched in complete darkness in this dungeon. I was appointed the person in charge for the journey. The first thing I did was make holes in the hay so that we could breathe. Our escape depended on luck, the tide and the bribed border police.

So that our crossing would coincide with the tide, at about midnight, the two smugglers pushed the boat out of the tributary river. Our beacon of hope, Iran, was downstream and across the river, two to three hours away. The sound of water splashing broke the stillness of the night and was sweet music in our ears. As we moved down the main river Shat el Arab, “the river of the Arab,” our hearts lit with hope for freedom.

However, after about an hour that sweet sound of splashing water stopped. All was quiet except for the sound of the wind. I went out through the hole. The two smugglers looked worried. “We can’t move,” one of the men said, “the tide is with us, but the wind is against us.”

I went back through the hole and told everyone to close their eyes and sleep a bit, while we waited for the wind to subside.

We docked inside a tributary of the river. The hours passed quickly and I began to worry. My heart was beating faster than the wind, as dawn started to break. We would not be able to move during the day and we were going to miss our rendezvous. What about food, drinks or toilets? What if some villagers were to spot us and tell the muchabarat, the secret police? After all, we were leaving Iraq illegally and this was a capital crime.

I couldn’t share my fears with the boys and girls. One boy was only thirteen. Instead, I put on a stoic face and assured them that everything was going to be alright. We had to wait until darkness to move again. Some started to cry. I felt the same way, but I held back my tears.

One of the boatmen went to get some food. I warned him not to buy food in bulk, since that might create suspicion. It was toilet time, in the early morning. One by one we got out of our hole. One boy, a good friend of mine whose brother had been arrested on Zionism charges just a few weeks earlier, shook so much he couldn’t stand. The boatman returned after an hour with some bread, cheese and dates. Like rats, two or three of us came out of the hole, ate something and went back in, until the whole pack was fed.

I was in Arab garb and wore a long white gown and a kafia on my head just like the boatmen’s. I wandered away from the boat and sat under a tree in the shade. I closed my eyes and yearned to sleep. I couldn’t. My life passed before me as if on a movie screen.

I remembered the Farhood of June 2, 1941 in Baghdad, when the mobs murdered over 200 Jews and thousands of Jewish homes were looted. I was 11. I survived. At 14, two Muslim boys ran after me with a knife. I outran them. I survived. In May of 1948, after Iraq and four Arab countries failed in waging war against Israel, many Jewish youths were arrested, tortured or simply disappeared. Once more, I survived.

Just a few days earlier, the secret police had stopped me at the train station when I arrived from Baghdad. I was with my brother and two other boys traveling to Basra. One of the policemen asked me my purpose in coming to Basra. I told him that I was visiting my cousin. When I mentioned his name, Agababa, the policeman’s eyes lit up and his tone of voice changed. He became sweet and gentle and said he knew my cousin well. He got his Arrow shirts from him. I survived again. The other two boys were sent back to Baghdad. We never heard from them or saw them again.

On the boat, the hours passed slowly. This was the longest day of my life. A river patrol passed by, unaware of the human cargo hidden in the stack of hay. I was frightened and frustrated. I began to pray, “God, please let it be night so that we can make our final escape.” I went back into the hole. I assured everyone that by the next morning we would be in Iran and then in a few days we would be in Israel.

Finally, night came. My angels worked overtime. We had the tide and a favorable wind. When the moment was right, we were back on the move and before dawn we crossed the river. Three worried men were going crazy looking for us on the other side. They had been there from the night before.
“We are safe, we are in Iran,” I shouted happily. One by one, my fellow rats came out of the hole, drained and haggard; some with tears, others with a smile as wide as the river we had just crossed.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Former synagogue set ablaze in Benghazi

 Smoke billows from the church

 The jihad against the Christians of Libya continues, with the news in the Libya Herald that a former synagogue, now a Coptic church in Benghazi, has been gutted  by fire. 'First the Saturday people' - there are no Jews in Libya anymore - 'then the Sunday people' is the expression that springs to mind. With thanks: Andrew:

Benghazi’s Coptic Church was set on fire by arsonists today, Thursday. The building, a former synagogue near the City Hall, is said to have been gutted.

No one was hurt in the attack. The  attackers whose identity is unknown are said to have told members of the church to get out of the building. The priest was taken to the residence of Egyptian consul for safety.
It is reported in Cairo that the Egyptian Foreign Ministry has condemned the attack and said it would pursue the matter with the Libyan government.

It is the second attack in a fortnight on the church. On Thursday, 28 February, assailants assaulted and the priest and an assistant. In that instance, the attackers were said to be hardline Islamists. The incident, which was subsequently condemned by the government, followed the arrest of a number of Copts in Benghazi accused of proselytizing. The allegations turned out to be unfounded and were dropped although the Egyptians were then deported; it was reported that they were in Libya illegally.

Reports in Benghazi say today’s attack was in revenge for Monday’s assault at the Libyan embassy in Cairo when dozens of Copts threw stones, tore down the embassy’s nameplate and burned the Libyan flag. The demonstration followed allegations that an Egyptian Christian who died in jail in Tripoli the previous day had been tortured to death.

Read article in full

Coverage of Egyptian film ban shows press bias

 When Jews show bigotry towards Arabs, the press goes into overdrive to show Israel as a rotten society riddled with racism. When an Arab state  engages in an antisemitic film ban, the story is handled by the newspaper's film critic. Adam Levick points out these  painful double standards in Algemeiner:

The ancient Jewish community of Egypt, which totaled nearly 80,000 citizens in 1948, is now practically extinct – the result of state sponsored ethnic cleansing in the late 40s and early 50s which included the seizure of Jews’ assets and property, the revocation of their citizenship, arbitrary imprisonment, torture and pogroms.

Whilst the question of how the mere cinematic depiction of Egypt’s Jewish community could possibly represent a security threat is a staggering one, and what the film’s censorship’s portends for other minorities in the country a serious subject, the first indication that the Guardian will not be taking the broader implications of the ban seriously is that news of the decision was covered, not by their Middle East editor, or another political analyst, but by their film critic Ben Child.

Child is out of his depth on the issue and the report fails to explore the most intuitive questions about what this official act of censorship implies about a nation evidently in complete denial about the fact that, due to state-sanctioned racist politics and official incitement over the course of little more than fifty years, they’ve eradicated a Jewish community which dated back to biblical times.

If Egyptians were held to the same moral standard as Israelis, critical, progressive minds would be demanding that Egyptians come to terms with their antisemitic history, that a national soul-searching is in order to account for racism so endemic that the President of the country can publicly lecture about the importance of passing down antisemitic values to the next generation of children and not the slightest national shame or outrage ensues.

As progressives won’t demand such a moral accounting of the ‘Egyptian soul’, nothing will change and nothing will be learned. The injurious effects of the hard bigotry of no expectations will continue to prevent a ‘Arab Spring’ worth its name from ever taking root.

Read article in full 

More about 'Jews of Egypt' by Amir Ramses

Thursday, March 14, 2013

1970s Jews in Iran were 'like the Jews in Germany'

  A Jewish physician  and his family in Iran, circa 1880 (photo: JIMENA)

What do Laudie Freed, Luci Cohen-Zimering and Doris Nachum have in common? They are all Jewish refugees whose stories are recorded on the JIMENA website. Last week, JIMENA unveiled 11 different sections covering the Jewish communities in 11 different countries. Report by Sandy Rashty for The Jewish Chronicle:

Iran-born Laudie Freed, who left Tehran in 1966, said experiences of "some of the Jews in Iran were like the Jews in Germany. After all the oil money had poured into the country in the 1970s and the country was prosperous, [the Jewish community] didn't think anything could happen to them."

Ms Freed says her uncle Habib Elghanian, a well-known Iranian Jewish philanthropist, was executed for building a skyscraper in Tehran because "you cannot build a building higher than a mosque".

The mother of three also recalled a time when her father was called a "dirty Jew" as he tried to buy vegetables from a cart owner. "I have never been back to Iran and I never want to go back," says Ms Freed, who now lives in California. "I don't know how safe it is [for Jews] there."

Surprisingly, Ms Freed has praised Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has been accused of antisemitism and saying that Zionists control the world. "At least he speaks the truth of his heart and doesn't disguise it," she says. "He brings to light the true fanaticism in the Iranian government."

Luci Cohen-Zimering, from Tunisia, said she grew up in a Jewish area in Tunis at a time when "Jews were respected and highly ranked professionally. For Pesach, we all gathered around a table covered in a white table cloth and adorned with crystal glasses," she recalled.

She says in 1967, after the Six Day War, "Jews were attacked in the streets and the synagogue was burned." Returning to Tunisia in 2000 felt "like total chaos. The taxi driver could not even find the street where we lived because the names were different. The Great Synagogue was heavily guarded by soldiers for safety."

Doris Nachum, 53, recalled a mass of attacks against Jews in Libya, when the Six Day War started in 1967. She lived above a synagogue in Tripoli and reports that "whenever something happened in Israel - there would be Arabs out in the street rioting and looking for Jews. [At the start of the Six Day War] our home was the first target - they were banging at the door - it was horrible. They were chanting, 'kill the Jewish'." The family later escaped to Israel before Doris moved to the US in 1989. It is believed that 40,000 Jews lived in Libya in 1948. The number fell to 7,000 in 1967 and today no Jews live there.

Read article in full

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Film on Egyptian Jews blocked before its release

 Amir Ramses, director of the film: 'shocked'

The Egyptian authorities have sunk to new levels of cowardice by refusing 'Jews of Egypt', Amir Ramses's new film, a licence to go on general release. The Times of Israel reports: (with thanks Michelle)
CAIRO (AP) — Egyptian security agencies have stopped the screening of a documentary on the Egyptian Jewish community a day before it was due to debut in local cinemas, the film producer said in a statement Tuesday.

He said no reasons were given.

The “Jews of Egypt“, a documentary that follows the lives of the Egyptian Jewish community in the first half of the 20th century until they left under duress in large numbers in the late 1950s, was screened in Egypt last year in a private film festival and had been approved by censorship, a regular procedure in Egypt.

Trailer for the film 'Jews of Egypt'

 Film producer Haytham el-Khamissy said he heard from the chief of the censorship authority that a security agency asked to view the movie before granting it a license to be shown in theaters.
“I was shocked when he told me this and when I learned that this had already happened” before the 2012 festival screening, el-Khamissy said in a statement posted on the film’s official Facebook page.

“There is no excuse for this except delay and obstruction,” he said. “I announce the delay of the screening of ‘Jews of Egypt’ until a solution is found for this inexplicable problem, inherited from long years in the parlors of the Egyptian state securities and which aim to terrorize thought and repress creativity.”

Under the former regime of autocratic leader Hosni Mubarak, security authorities kept a tight lid on discussions of religion and minority groups, occasionally banning books or rejecting movie scripts that dealt with such issues.

Read article in full 

Egypt bans film about Jewish community (The Guardian)

Film on Egyptian Jews to be released 

Film on Egyptian Jews causes uproar

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Escape from Iraq: Emil Somekh's story (Part 2)

 Emil Somekh's family was among the first to try a new smuggling route through Sulaymaniyah in northern Iraq (Kurdistan) and into Iran, then friendly to Israel

Here is the second part of Emil Somekh's nail-biting account of how he escaped from Iraq in September 1970:

 It was a long trip of several hours. In the evening we finally reached Sulaymaniyah and the taxi took us to the open air restaurant where we had fixed our rendez-vous with the smuggler. I noticed that the place was nearly empty and the smuggler was nowhere to be found. After some time he showed up stealthily and told me that he had spotted some secret government agents in the place and that he could not take us now.

He advised us to sit there, order food and he would come to pick us up later. As we were eating some starter delicacies I was wondering if it could be our last meal. We also ordered  main dishes with grilled meat on skewers. But it was delayed. I was thinking that the smuggler might come at any time and I did not want to miss the delicious meal. I went to the place where they prepared the meat on the fire and I was urging them to hurry up. Just as the meat was ready, the smuggler arrived. So I asked them to wrap the grilled skewers for us and we paid and left the restaurant with the smuggler.

 Just as we left the restaurant we saw the smuggler’s truck. It was a standard truck for transporting goods with a cabin that could seat just two  passengers besides the driver. So my father, mother and my young sister Zetta squeezed besides the driver. The funny thing was that Zetta was then 12 years and she was dressed in a mini-skirt and high-heel shoes. No matter how much we entreated her in Baghdad to wear something more suitable, our requests fell on the deaf ears of a typical teenager. So my mother had to cover her legs with a cloth as she squeezed between my father and mother beside the driver!

My brother Terry and I were instructed by the main smuggler to climb on top of the driver's cabin and to sit there in full view with our Baghdadi clothes, which were completely out of place in this area where everybody was dressed in Kurdish clothes. The smuggler told us that if the army stopped him he planned to tell them that our car has broken down and he had found us and picked us up! That is  why he did not give us any Kurdish clothes to wear and he left us in our Baghdadi clothes. So it looked to me that maybe he was preparing simply to abandon us to the Iraqi army at the first obstacle – not an easy feeling at the start of the second phase of our perilous journey into the unknown!

In a short while I realized how perilous our escape really was! It turned out that the route the smuggler chose took us right through the Iraqi army camps. It seemed that according to the terms of the armistice agreement signed in March of that year between the Iraqi government and the Kurdish rebels, the Iraqi army was supposed to give free passage to the Kurdish fighters.

It was like a scene from a James Bond movie. My brother and I were sitting openly at the top of the driver's cabin, in full view of the soldiers in the Iraqi army camps. I was incredulously looking down at the Iraqi soldiers going about their business - just a few hours earlier we had been in Baghdad, scared of our own shadows. We took a few minutes to pass several Iraqi army bases. We saw tanks, trucks, soldiers, and army barracks. Then the smuggler told me and my brother to get down from the top of the driver's cabin and to sit inside the enclosed part of the truck, where goods are usually stored. He said the fact that all the army camps we passed till now have not stopped us is nothing since they could have radioed to the last camp, which we were arriving to and they could stop us there. My father, mother and sister were still sitting beside the driver, in full view of everybody.

As we entered the last army camp, the smuggler started to pray. I knew we were entering the really serious phase of our escape. My brother Terry was looking through a hole in the truck’s side and I kept asking him whether we were out of the camp. It was a really big camp; the last Iraqi army camp before the Kurdish autonomous area. It took us about 10 minutes to pass through this camp. Finally we reached a bridge that had Iraqi soldiers at either end. This was the last bridge controlled by the Iraqi army before the Kurdish Autonomous Region. The soldiers at the start of the bridge waved us through. But as we approached the end of the bridge we saw the soldiers giving a sign to stop.

 At this moment, instead of stopping, the driver put his foot on the gas pedal and speeded up. A shouting match ensued between the Iraqi soldiers and the armed smuggler and his assistant Kurdish fighter, who were hanging out of either side of the truck. We zoomed past the soldiers stationed at the end of the bridge and I waited for the shooting to start as we rapidly travelled away from them. But the shooting never occurred and we sped away from the soldiers around the bend of the road and into the mountains.

My take of the encounter was that the soldiers had met the smuggler and his team before when they were moving goods along this road. According to the armistice agreement signed half a year earlier in March between the Iraqi government and the Kurds, the government soldiers were not supposed to stop the Kurdish smuggler. But seeing that he had Baghdadi people with him was something new - and that is the reason why the soldiers probably wanted him to stop. He decided to take his chance and he dared not stop. He called their bluff and they did not dare start a firefight with him - this could ruin the armistice agreement.

As we turned the bend in the road into the mountain and away from the Iraqis, I though the difficult part of our escape was over. It was 2 am in the morning and  a moonless night. But suddenly the driver turned off the main headlights of the truck as he drove along the narrow mountain road. I asked the smuggler why:  he said we were now in an area with no government. It had become a No Man's Land full of dangerous bandits. We travelled without lights along these dangerous mountain roads to avoid being spotted by the bandits. After about one hour of driving we stopped for a rest by a mountain stream.

We decided to eat the meat that we had picked up at the restaurant in Sulaymaniyah at the start of our journey with the smuggler. It was totally quiet in the mountain; we just heard the sound of the flowing water. I was a bit nervous and I preferred chatting with the smuggler. He was boasting to us about the weapons supplied to the Kurds by the Israelis and how he had smuggled the arms to the Kurdish fighters.

After resting we continued our journey in the truck towards the Iranian border. We were about to reach the part of our journey where we would have to continue by foot. The smuggler was saying to me that my mother has packed too many clothes in the suitcases he had taken from us and they were too heavy to carry in our journey on foot. He asked me to open them and throw away some of the contents, without my mother knowing. I told him I did not want to do this. He gave up on the idea.

 Finally we reached a spot in the mountains where the truck stopped and we continued on foot, the smuggler assisting us with the suitcases. My young sister was still wearing her heels and she had difficulty walking on the mountain trail. We walked for about half an hour. As we were walking along a road alongside the mountain, the smuggler said we had to stop there: we were very near the border and he could not continue with us. The Iranians might accept us but for him it was dangerous to get close to the Iranian border post. He said he would leave us there and we should wait till daybreak and then continue along this road until we reached the Iranian border post.

 He said he would be waiting a close by in a Kurdish village called Tuwaila and if the Iranians turn us back he would take us back to Baghdad! It was a crazy idea, I thought – coming all the way here to the Iranian border and then having to return back to Baghdad - no way, I said to myself! The smuggler wanted to leave, but my mother did not accept and told him to wait with us. So he stayed.

But he was nervous. We were sitting there by a deserted road at the edge of the mountain, all five of us in Baghdadi clothes, our suitcases around us, in this location in the mountains, which the smuggler claimed was very close to the border, hoping that he was telling the truth. As time passed, the smuggler was getting more and more nervous and he kept asking my mother to let him go because he was scared of the Iranians. Finally my father, who was restless and pacing back and forth, got angry at my mother and he told her that she should let him go.

Now we had to give him half the money, as agreed – 1, 000 Dinars – and  give him a code word that he could relay to my uncle Naim back in Baghdad so that he could claim the other half – another 1,000 Dinars! Now a code word had been agreed with my uncle to indicate whether the escape route was a good one - since we were the first to try it, and other Jews would need to use it. I had agreed with my uncle that if I felt it was a good and safe escape route then the code word would be TV – if it was an average escape route, then the code word would be RADIO. My uncle’s wife said jokingly back in Baghdad that if it was a bad road then the code word would be GRAMOPHONE.

At this point I could not faithfully convey a meaningful message to others who might follow about how good and safe the route was. The road itself was quite dangerous passing through the Iraqi army camps. The smuggler had not been frank with us about this at all, knowing that we would never have come with him had he told us. It was clear he was using us as guinea pigs to try this escape route out and, by keeping us in our Baghdadi clothes, he was hedging his bets and planning simply to turn us over to the Iraqi army if he could not pass through. There was also the very tense and dangerous near-armed confrontation with the Iraqi soldiers at the end of the last bridge before the Kurdish area.

To cap it all, we were now in some location in the mountains, without really knowing how near the Iranian border we really were. We had to take the smuggler's word for it. So according to all these factors the code word should actually have been GRAMOPHONE. But on the other hand I thought maybe he was telling the truth, and we were very close to the border.

I thought if I said GRAMOPHONE then all the Jews of Baghdad would think that something really bad had happened to us and their imaginations would run wild with theories of what had befallen us! So I decided to hope for the best and assume the smuggler was telling the truth - that we were close to the border. In that case, what we went through was nothing if the outcome was successful in leaving the Iraqi hellhole and reaching freedom in Iran!

 So I gave the smuggler his 1,000 Dinars and told him the code word was TV!

We bade him farewell and he left us. Before leaving, he told us to wait until the first sign of daybreak. We should then continue along the road to the Iranian border post, which he assured us was just around the bend in the road. He said my mother and sister should go about 100 meters ahead so that the Iranian soldiers would see women first. He also warned us that if any local people passed by us then we should continue immediately to the Iranian post.

We sat there in the middle of nowhere, waiting for daybreak. Time passed slowly. We were listening to the sounds of wild animals that roamed the forests of the mountains at the Iraqi-Iranian border. Just as were seeing the first small signs of daybreak, we saw a local Kurdish man coming towards us. He saw us sitting there, completely out of place, but he just greeted us, SALAM ALEIKUM, and continued on his way.

At this point we decided to move on. Just as the smuggler instructed, my mother and sister went first and we followed them, carrying our bags. Just as the smuggler said, as soon as we turned the bend in the road we saw the Iranian border post in the distance. Since my mother and sister were not carrying anything and we were laden with bags, some distance opened between us. I saw far away that the border crossing had gone up and that my mother and sister had gone through. We continued with the suitcases and soon reached the border post and went in. The Iranian soldiers escorted us to their commander’s cabin, which was atop a mountain overlooking the whole area. Just as we climbed to his post, the sun came out and we saw the most beautiful view we could have set eyes on – right at our feet, down in the valley, we saw the whole route that we had travelled at night with the smuggler. When he had pointed in the darkness towards some point in the mountain and said that was where the Iranian command post was, he was referring to the place where we were now. The commander told us to look down at awful Iraq: he gave us his binoculars to look through.

 My father, who has been in Persia for a short time about 30 years earlier, was so exhilarated  that he suddenly started talking Persian! He remembered what he had learnt in that short time, 30 years ago. We learned that the reason for the warm welcome we got from the Iranians was that the border posts were alerted by the government of the Iranian Shah, which had good relations with Israel, that Iraqi Jews were trying to escape. Still, we were the first Jews who have escaped through this specific border post. After a short time at the border post, we were taken by military car to the nearest Iranian army camp for interrogation. There were two major offenses for which you could be killed in Iran: if you were smuggling drugs or if you were a communist. My father told the interrogators that we were Jews and we are neither communists nor drug smugglers. We were treated very nicely by the Iranian soldiers in this army camp. The camp commander’s wife cooked lunch for us. At night, some of the soldiers gave us their beds to sleep in. The next morning they got us a mini-bus and we were sent, with armed escort, to the nearest big city - Kermanshah - to continue our interrogation.

 In Kermanshah we were put under arrest in a hotel. Delicious meals were brought to our rooms - white rice with chelo kebab was my favorite. Just before leaving Baghdad, I had bought shoes with thick soles for me, my father and brother. I had opened the soles and put several $100 bills in each shoe and then glued the soles back. With these shoes, full with the $100 bills, we had crossed the Iranian border. Now my father said that his shoes were dusty and needed cleaning and polishing. So he decided to send them out to a local shoe polish boy.

No matter how much I tried to convince him that there was too much money in them to just send them out, he persisted. The shoes came back with the money inside. I assume the kid who polished it would never again have so much money so close to hand!

After three days in this hotel, with no possibility of leaving, we finally got the permit to move on to Tehran. We were finally completely free.

We rented a taxi and we started on the road to Tehran, the capital of Iran. It was a wild ride with the taxi driver – more dangerous than our escape from Iraq. I thought it would be ironic that after escaping the Iraqi hell we were killed by an irresponsible Iranian taxi driver. After a few hours we finally reached Tehran in the evening. The taxi entered the city and we had no idea whatsoever where we would be heading. My father noticed a store with Cohen in the name. He assumed the store owner had to be Jewish. So we stopped the taxi and we went into the store. My father asked the store owner if he knew Nathan Bakhash and his wife Madeleine,  my father’s sister who had married and left Iraq for Iran nearly 30 years before. My father had had nearly no contact with her during all this period.

The store owner knew Nathan Bakhash. He called his home phone number. Then Madeleine was on the 'phone talking to her brother after all these years. They recommended a hotel to us; they said they would meet us there. We found the hotel; it was quite new, having been renovated. We checked in. After some time Nathan, Madeleine and their young daughter Linda arrived. Linda had a captivating smile that had a big effect on me. This chance meeting with Linda was to have a significant effect on my future life. But for the moment the smile had to wait, since I was yet to start my life of freedom.

Epilogue: The filling for my tooth was completed by an Iranian dentist in Tehran. My bold decision to escape through Sulaymaniyah, with all risks and uncertainty involved, proved to be the right one. A few days after we escaped, -as I thought would happen - the Iraqi government soldiers swooped  on all the Jews families in Erbil waiting to escape. They were all arrested and thrown in jail. Proof that a situation needs in-depth analysis. What looks like the easy way out might be the most dangerous after all!

Read Part 1 here

Monday, March 11, 2013

My escape from Iraq: Emil Somekh's story (Pt 1)

 A group of Jewish students from the Frank Iny school in Baghdad. Most of them would end up escaping Iraq illegally through Kurdistan

Terrorised  by the Saddam regime, the 5, 000 Jews still in Iraq in 1970 were desperate to leave, even if it meant risking their lives. Then an illegal route opened up through northern Iraq - Kurdistan. In the first part of his story, Emil Somekh tells how his father found a smuggler willing to help the family escape into Iran, then a friendly state - for a price. (With thanks: Lisette)

We had been trapped in Iraq since the Six-Day war in 1967. Actually since 1963, when the regime of Kassim was toppled, the Jews could not officially leave Iraq with a passport and had to escape illegally through Basra, in the South of Iraq, to Persia (Iran). But even this route was closed after the 1967 Six Day war between Israel and the Arabs and we were caught like rats in a bottle in Baghdad, with my father arrested on the 6th day of the 1967 war.

 In March 1970 a truce was signed between the Kurdish rebels in the North and the Saddam regime. An autonomous Kurdish region was established in the North of Iraq. In mid-1970, an Iraqi Jew named Fouad Sawdaye took advantage of the halt in hostilities and took his family and escaped through the Kurdish area of North of Iraq to Iran. News of his successful escape reached the Jews in Baghdad. Now everybody had a hope of escaping this hellhole. Actually Fouad was arrested by the Iranians, who did not believe he was Jewish, and was thrown into jail. He was lucky that he had a sister in Tehran who assisted in releasing him. All these details were not known then – but we knew that one bird had succeeded in escaping from the Iraqi cage.

 Now everybody wanted to escape also, although we did not know how. The Jewish Agency in Israel sent emissaries through the North to Baghdad; they met some prominent Jewish families in Baghdad and asked them to organize a group escape of Iraqi Jews. However these few families were just selfish and just took the opportunity to escape and did not organize anything for the rest of the 5,000-strong Jewish community trapped in Iraq.

In the atmosphere of hope that we might be able finally to leave Iraq and the uncertainty of how to actually do it, my father Ezra, being an enterprising and dynamic person, who suffered a lot by being put in prison for a year and a half and having his pharmacy business taken from him, travelled to the North under the pretext of selling pharmaceuticals. He met a Kurdish smuggler in a coffee house in the Kurdish area. My father asked him if he was ready to take us across the border to Iran. The man said yes and he set up a meeting with my father in Baghdad. But he never came. So my father took my mother with him and again they went to the North to meet the potential smuggler. He again promised them to come to Baghdad; but again he never came.

This time I decided to go myself with my mother to meet him. We met him at his house in Sulaymaniyah. I started to talk to him and I told him we were Jews and we wanted him to smuggle us outside Iraq to Iran. I was surprised to hear him say: “Your father did not tell me you are Jews - that is why I never came - actually I thought your father was a government agent and I was scared of him. That is why I never came to Baghdad. Now that I know you are Jews I am ready to take you personally across the border tonight, then later I will take your parents and your brother and sister across.”

It was very tempting to hear that I was so close to freedom, but I told him that he had to come to Baghdad and arrange to take us all together across the border. I went with my mother back to Baghdad. Every morning as I shaved, I looked at myself in the mirror saying: “You were so close to the border and he was ready to take you across, but you chose to come back to Baghdad and wait for him”. Every day in the afternoon I went to look for him in the coffee house where we set our meeting.

 He came on the sixth day. I took him, with his assistant, to our house in Hindiyah district in Baghdad. We sat with him in our spacious guest room, richly furnished with fine Persian carpets. We discussed with him the plan to smuggle us across the border. He said he was doing it for us because Israel had helped the Kurdish freedom fighters in their revolt against the Iraqi regime. He then nonchalantly said he would need some small expenses for the way – 15,000 Dinars! A very huge sum of money, worth about $50,000. It was clearly a mistake to have taken him into the guest room in our house – he assumed we were very, very rich. I knew he was bluffing – so I started negotiating with him and I quickly dropped him to 2,000 Dinars, in itself a huge sum of money for a Kurdish smuggler! As they were leaving my mother asked him if it was safe to escape with him – he answered that she did not have to worry as they were heavily armed! Hearing this, my mother waited until he left and she said she was not ready to go with him through Sulaymaniyah – we should all go to Erbil in the North, where all the Jews had started going, since the rumor was out that whoever arrived in Erbil, would be helped somehow to escape across the border!

During the night my mother convinced my father of her opinion and this left me alone in my belief that we should go with him. My calculation was like this: I would rather risk a very dangerous route with him through Sulaymaniyah rather than go with all the Jewish crowd to Erbil since I believed the government could not shut its eyes and would arrest the whole crowd in Erbil! In trying to convince us of her viewpoint, my mother complained that once we gave the smuggler the 2,000 Dinars what guarantee did we have that he would not just dump us somewhere in the mountains!

I said to my mother: if I can convince him to take half the sum at the border and then with the right code word from us he would have have to come back to take the other half from my uncle Naim, would it better for her? She said OK. I took with me my uncle Mozi and we went to meet the smuggler. Obviously he readily agreed – these were huge sums for him. He just begged  me to convince my mother not to pack too many bags since they have to carry them by foot to the border.

We made a date with him to meet him a few days later at a coffee house at the outskirts of Sulaymaniyah, a city in the North, from where he would take us and smuggle us eventually across the Iraqi border to Iran. My mother prepared five bags with basic clothing and the smuggler took them with him, with the plan to meet us in Sulaymaniyah several days later. I remember being in a movie theater those days before our escape and having mixed feelings of fear of the unknown mixed with the hope of finally escaping from hellish Iraq to the free world.

 I was having a tooth filling done at a dentist just before we escaped. At that time to do a filling the dentist drilled the tooth and put in some medication. You had to come back to him in a couple of days. At our next appointment, I urged him to do the filling but he decided to put medication one more time and gave me another appointment to do the actual filling. The problem was that he set the next appointment at a date later than the date set for our escape. So I thought - either I would sit in an Iraqi jail with an open tooth and potential toothache or I would have the filling done by an Iranian dentist!

 The evening before our escape, I went with my uncle Naim in his red Cadillac on the main Abu Nawas boulevard, with all its coffee houses along the Tigris River, to have a last look at that beautiful part of Baghdad. People were strolling along the boulevard terraces, overlooking the river, having a relaxed time, some of them Iraqi Jews I knew. I was looking at them hoping that this would be the last time I would see them here, hoping to finally escape from this place that hated us and tortured us.

That night as I went to close our garden gate, I saw a government secret agent hiding in the distance looking at our house. I said to myself it would be an irony if something happened to us on the eve of our escape. On the morning of our escape, we had breakfast - all the family together in our dining room. The funny thing was that after breakfast, my mother took the dirty breakfast plates to the kitchen sink and washed and dried all of them. I was looking at her in astonishment. I guess it was important for her that the secret police who would probably take over our house after our escape would have a lofty view of her as a clean housewife! Or I guess it was just the power of habit! Or it was simply to overcome her nervousness!

Then my uncle Mozi came and he started going around the house picking items he wanted for himself – a camera here, a radio there…he even was shaking our olive tree in the garden to get the olives… It looked very strange to me that here we were before the most dangerous move in our life and my uncle was thinking about the olives! Our servant, who was on a weekend holiday suddenly showed up. I told my mother that she had to find an excuse to send her off. I did not want her in our house as we were getting ready to leave. My mother told her that we were travelling to the North for a holiday and we would inform her when we would be coming back.

News of our impending escape somehow got around the Jewish community, maybe because they saw my father selling our Ford car. Suddenly people were coming to our house asking if we could take them with us. The funniest thing was that the father of my schoolmate George Dallal, who hated me and caused me a lot of trouble because I always beat him to the top of the class, came to us and asked  to take his son with us! The chutzpah – I thought if we were ever really to accept to take him, then we would simply dump him in the middle of nowhere! I was becoming worried that so many people were coming to our house. So I told my father, mother, brother and sister to leave the house and go to the house of my uncle Naim, in the same neighborhood, until the time arrived to take the taxi to the North. I stayed alone in the house for some time and then left also, leaving the lights on in the front.

We took the taxi to the North. Along the way the radio was blaring typical Baathist propaganda: unity, freedom, socialism. You also saw those slogans written on the government arches, constructed along the road to the North. How ironic! Saddam's Ba'ath party talking about freedom, while being one of the worst tyrannical butchering regimes in the world! But this is the nature of dictatorship – they think they can control your body and mind, using physical power, terror and incessant gibberish propaganda. I hated this propaganda with a passion. It was an insult to intellect and to logic. Hearing the radio spewing the propaganda, I was wondering if it was really feasible that within 24 hours we would be in Iran, free from this intellectual garbage. It was a great dream and I dared to dream.

On our way to Kirkuk my mother was still having doubts about going with our armed smuggler through Sulaymaniyah and was still badgering me and my father to go with everybody else through Erbil. At the Kirkuk junction, the final decision had to be taken – Sulaymaniyah or Erbil. I prevailed – I was adamant that we must go through Sulaymaniyah. My father was not swayed by my mother’s entreaties and he accepted my decision.

 I had purposely sat at the side of the driver because I had an identity card as a teacher where only my private and family name were written, skipping the customary father's name used in Iraq. Since my father's name was Ezra, a typically Jewish name, my teacher's identity card would identify me as a Jew. But by leaving out my father's name, the identity card showed my name as Emil Somekh, which could be a Christian name and had no indication of being Jewish. I purposely asked my father to sit on the far left side in the back so that whenever we were stopped at any of the police or army checkpoints on the way to the North, they usually just asked me to show my identity card and I showed them my teacher's identity card and they waved us onwards.

But as we approached a major checkpoint close to Sulaymaniyah, the soldier asked also my father sitting in the back for his identity card. As he saw his Jewish name, he smiled and then took it and entered his command post to consult with his superior. It was a tense moment, but finally he reappeared and he waved us onwards. What happened in his consultation with his superior we could not know, but obviously his superior just told him to leave us to continue, assuming we were going for a short holiday in the nice climate of the northern mountains of Kurdistan, the Kurdish portion of Iraq.

To be continued tomorrow

Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Jewish refugee experience goes digital

 Wedding of Selim Cohen and Rosette Sassoon at the Maghen Avraham synagogue, Beirut, 1955 (Photo courtesy of: JIMENA)

Congratulations to JIMENA on a remarkable online achievement - setting up websites documenting 11 Jewish communities. Their new websites will help fight the widespread ignorance that exists about the destruction of Jewish communities in the Arab and Muslim world.  

(JTA) -- A San Francisco-based organization has launched 11 websites to tell the stories of Jews who left Arab countries last century.

JIMENA  (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa) this week launched the websites in English and Arabic to tell the stories of Jews who left nine Arab countries, Turkey and Iran. The websites tell each country's story using videos, photographs and written narratives. They also include oral history testimonies of Jews who fled Arab countries for North America.

“Having the websites in Arabic will enable us to reach individuals in Arabic-speaking countries who otherwise may know very little of the Jewish history of the region,” Sarah Levin, director of JIMENA, said in a statement.

She credited efforts to document and share testimonies of Holocaust survivors and other victims of human rights abuse, including the USC Shoah Foundation institute, founded by Steven Spielberg, as the inspiration for the JIMENA websites.

JIMENA was founded by Regina Waldman and Joe Wahad, a Jewish woman born in Libya and a Jewish man born in Egypt, after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center.

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