Saturday, April 05, 2014

How Adel turned into Oded (updated)

Oded Amit (left) with the storyteller Yossi Alfi

Oded Amit is a man with two names - two distinct personae - one Israeli, one Arab. He has been known as Oded since his arrival in Israel in 1970. But his given name in his native Iraq was Adel Muallem.

Oded told his story on Israeli TV in this 15-minute interview (Hebrew).

He should have been named Eliyahu, but his father decided to give him the Arabic name Adel (meaning 'straighforward') even before he was born. It was a safe choice, denoting that he could be considered as either Jewish or Muslim. Muallem was also neutral, meaning 'teacher' in Arabic. The reason for his father's caution: the 1950s were a delicate time to be a Jew in Iraq. Over 100, 000 Jews, second-class citizens, chose to take advantage of a window of opportunity to emigrate legally en masse to Israel in 1950 - 51. They were stripped of their Iraqi citizenship and their property frozen.

Oded's family thought seriously about joining their relatives in Israel. His mother was especially keen, but his father, an accountant in a Jewish firm, feared that he would be forced into a low-status job in Israel. He chose to stay behind in Iraq with his family. Oded grew up in a cocooned environment centred on his Jewish Frank Iny school and Jewish clubs.

The father's decision seemed to have been vindicated during General Kassem's 'golden age'. Between 1958 and 1963, Jews were considered equal citizens and could come and go as they pleased.

However,  Baath party rule soon ushered in a terrible period for the Jews. Soon after the 1967 war with Israel, Oded received a knock on the door. He was arrested and taken to prison. The authorities were threatening to accuse him of spying for the US or Israel. He was only released on payment of a large bribe.

Oded witnessed the hangings of nine innocent Jews in Baghdad's Liberation Square in January 1969. He determined to keep his head down on his engineering studies and dared not even leave the room in the breaks between lessons. He kept in mind his father's philosophy: 'the night is always darkest before the dawn.' In other words, however bad things were, they could only get better.

Oddly enough, however, Oded did find an outlet: he played the guitar and started a pop group. He composed his own songs. The band would play at Jewish weddings and Barmitzvahs.

However, Oded was desperate to leave Iraq and on 14 July 1970, the opportunity presented itself. He could join a party of Jews being smuggled out through northern Iraq into Iran, then an ally of Israel (all but a few hundred of the 3,000 Jews still in Iraq fled in this way). To the Iranian soldiers at the border suspicious that he might be an Iraqi deserter, he shouted the only Farsi word he knew: 'kalimi' (Jew).

He felt 'like a king' as the Jewish Agency arranged his departure to Israel.  It was goodbye Adel Muallem, hello Oded Amit.

Nadia, Oded's sister, adds:

My father did not emigrate to Israel in the 1950 because he was scared of the unknown and how to support a family of three young children. My sister Norma was 7, Adel was 3 & I was 2.

Adel escaped with me and another two young couples on 15th November 1970. We stayed in Iran until our papers were ready and we arrived in Tel Aviv on 3 December 1970. Our escape was arranged by Kurds through the Frank Iny school where I was a teacher.

When we escaped, Israel did not know that our group of Jews was planning to escape. I later learned at a Zionist conference in Jerusalem that Israel had a special arrangement with the Iraqi government to turn a blind eye to escaping Jews. They even had a representative on the border to Iran. We were the only group that did not notify Israel. When we arrived, the Iranians did not know who we were and became suspicious until we got to Tehran and got in touch with the Israeli Consulate.  A Jewish boy who escaped before us vouched for us.

 When we arrived in Israel, we did not recognize any of our relatives. No one from the Muallem family recognized us because the Muallems who were related to us had changed their surname to Amit. The representative of the Jewish Agency hosted us in her flat until our grandmother was tracked down in Beersheva. One relative led us to a HUGE family. Adel then changed his name to Oded Amit. I stuck to my name!


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