Monday, June 15, 2015

Baghdad Sami, champion of the world

 As this extract from Professor Shmuel Moreh's schoolboy memoirs shows, Jews in Iraq - generically referred to as Hisqeil (Ezekiel) - were thought of as cowards and were not expected to fight back. Hence, the deep Arab sense of humiliation when Israel defeated Arab armies in successive wars. The serialisation of Professor Moreh's autobiography on the online site 'Elaph' created much interest amongst Arab readers. He later published his memoirs under the title: Baghdad mon Amour.

Professor Shmuel Moreh (photo:Jerusalem Post)

 Sitt (Mrs.) Martha, who lived on our street, in the third house on the right, visited us suddenly and told my Dad about the "Al-Sa'doon Exemplary School”, established in 1937 as a Government mixed school that she headed.

This school was founded for children of the Iraqi Royal family, high-ranking civilians and army officers, judges and secretaries. It had changed its status from boarding school to day school and was opening its gates to students from all communities. She was interested in achieving equality between all the different religious communities within the school: she was asking my father to send ‘one or two’ of his six boys and girls, so there would be two Jewish children alongside the three Christian pupils who had joined recently. She added that her school was unique in Iraq, where boys and girls learned together and advanced teaching methods were used. Besides, it treated its students with respect and equality. The teachers abstained from insulting, cursing or humiliating students and did not use physical punishments, as was the tradition in other schools in Iraq.

 My father agreed to send me to that school. He sent with me my brother Raymond, so that I could keep an eye on him. In this way my father was able to save the high educational fees charged by the Jewish community, known then as “The Israelite Community”. Yes, that is how it was called before the establishment of the State of Israel. The name Israel was used by the Community to avoid the curse of “humiliation and submissiveness” imposed upon the Jews in the Qur'an if they were called “The Jewish Community”. Later on, after the establishment of State of Israel, and the stoning of the Community Center because it was called “The Israelite Community”, the name was changed to “The Musawiyeen” – the Community of the followers of the religion of Moses.

Upon hearing the words of Sitt Martha about equality, my father commented with irony: “Here we are! Great, the problem of equality with religious communities in Iraq will now reach its perfect solution”.

The day I joined my new school was unforgettable and full of events and surprises. On that historic day, and before leaving for the British “Andrew Wire Company for Import and Export”, where he was the Head Accountant, my father told me: “Take Raymond and go to school and give my regards to Mrs. Martha. Tell her that we are the children of Mr. Ibrahim Mouallem, my father sent us to study at your school according to your request.”

My father didn’t think it appropriate to send an escort to register us at the school, because in his eyes, I was already a man and should know to manage alone. Together with my brother Raymond, we were the only Jewish pupils in the whole primary school at that time.

 The students' attitude towards me showed me how much the Muslims and the Christians despised the Jews and mocked their notorious cowardice in a community which considers brutality as bravery. The minute in which I entered the school yard, one of the students approached me to ask the common question in Iraq: - “Are you a Muslim or a Jew?” - “Jew!” I answered spontaneously and indifferently.

Suddenly he shouted mockingly, while rubbing his hands together in delight: “Friends, come and see! There is a Jew here, a Jew, if you don't believe me, come, and look!” The other students arrived joyfully, shouting: “Jew! Jew! Where is the Jew?”

All of a sudden, one of them kneeled on one knee as if pointing a gun and shouted in a frightened and quivering voice, representing the parody of a Jew at a firing range in the Iraqi Army: "Abdalak Hisqeil (May I be your ransom, Hizqeil!), please tell me if the gun has fired or not?” The Jew was too scared to tell if the rifle had fired or not, and asked his friend, Hisqeil. Later, I realized that it was a sketch from a folk comedy, making fun of the cowardly Jewish soldiers doing target practice in the Iraqi army.

My uncle, the pharmacist Moshe Meir Rahamim Mouallem, told us that when he finished his studies in the Pharmaceutical Faculty in Baghdad in 1938, he was called for duty to train in the Reserve Officers' course with graduates from other Iraqi colleges and European universities. (Among them was Dr (now Sir) Naim Dangoor, today one of the real estate tycoons in London).

When it was my uncle's turn to train in target shooting, all the graduates gathered around him, mocking and shouting:”let’s tell Moshe the Jew if his gun fired or not”. They were surprised by his accurate target shooting. He was not confused when he shot the bullet. They congratulated him and said: "The usual rejoinder does not apply to you: "What did your heart tell you, Hisqeil [the Jew], when the shot exploded (Ash qal qalbak Hisqeil min taqqit al-tiqqaqa!).”

An Iraqi critic said after the Six-Day War: “It is a wonder how Israel made out of the Eastern Jews that were known for their cowardice, soldiers who fought so courageously against the Arab armies.” However, the world is a wheel of fortune, one minute you are up, the next you might be down.

After the sketch, other students acted out a different parody. They carried on their shoulders a young pupil and sang in a dialect mimicking the Iraqi -Jewish mother, lamenting the recruiting of her beloved son to the Army: Hesqeil imdalla' salleitunoo / waddonoo lil-Saghayoo / wu-Ummu tibki waghayoo / wil-fina ib-ghasoo tiftagh / Tala' usmoo bil-daftagh. (Hisqeil the dandy, may God bless him / They took him to the recruiting base/ His mother is weeping behind him / His skull-cap is loosely circulating upon his head / For his name appeared in the Registry Book (of recruiting). )

One of the students played the part of Umm Hisqeil (The mother of Hisqeil), worried because her pampered and spoiled son is joining the army. She escorts him, crying, to the army recruitment base, “Al-Saray”. Another played the part of Hisqeil. A third passed around the phina (the kippa religious Jews wear) on Hisqeil's head, paralysed with fear at his recruitment, and a fourth played the part of the clerk simulating registering Hisqeil in the book of recruits.

Later I realized that they had also made up a comedy making fun of the mothers of the Jewish young men who are scared to death and cry because their sons are enlisting in the army. After those spontaneous comedies, they looked at me triumphantly. I was surprised and embarrassed at their noisy enthusiasm and joyful mockery, as if they had won a battle. Suddenly, one of them shouted: “Hey, Jew, when we leave school, you’ll be done for!”

 At the end of the school day, and the endless teasing - they passed their finger across their necks to signify slaughter - and shaking their fists as if to say - “wait and see what we will do to you”, I felt alienation, frustration, loss and awful loneliness, or, as the Arab proverb says: "like orphans in a wicked people’s party". I felt obliged to agree to their challenge, put my faith in God and went out with them. They surrounded me and said, “Wrestle with us, or we’ll beat you up!” I answered in a challenging voice: “You go down to the ring one at a time, or two at a time, not all of you together against me.” They laughed mockingly but were surprised that I had agreed to wrestle with them and did not run away.

'Isaam shouted:” What does he think of himself, a hero?”. The leader of the pack, 'Abd Al-Rahman al-Jabi, who was the oldest of us, ordered the Christian student to be the first contestant. “Hey, Khayri, go for him!” As quick as lightning I put my right leg behind both his feet and, like the Iraqi famous wrestler 'Abbas al-Dik” who defeated Fritz, the German hero in a contest in Baghdad, I pushed Khayri to the nearest dry ditch on the boulevard, opposite the former minister Baban’s Palace.

Khayri's cheering friends were shocked at the sight of their hero lying on his back on the bed of the narrow canal, bewildered and helpless. One of his shoes flew away from his foot at the time of battle. (The shoes (Qundara) and slipper (Kala) are the weapon of choice among men and women to hit an enemy with. This kind of weapon they used to throw against British airplanes, hit Saddam Husain’s fallen statue in Al-Firdaws Square in Baghdad in the year 2003, and an Iraqi journalist hurled his shoe at President Bush in Baghdad in 2008 ).

 I took the shoe that flew off Khayri’s foot, sat on his chest, lifted it above his head and shouted: “Do you surrender or not?” Khayri answered, pleading: “Enough, please, enough!” His friends shouted: “Hey Khayri, it seems that you are a chicken, you are a failure!" I turned to his Muslim friends with the shoe still in my hand and asked “Come on! Who wants to be next?” Everyone answered as one: “No, no, from now on you are our friend! You showed yourself as brave, and not as a Jewish chicken!” That’s how I became one of the gang and my place was second to 'Abd Al-Rahman at the head of the pack.

 Later on, when xenophobia prevailed in Iraq, we were split into two groups; one included only Muslim students of Arab mothers. The second faction consisted of children of Christian women married to Iraqis who studied in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Britain and other European countries as well as children of Turkish women. I joined this group because they too felt like me, that they are an alien minority up against the majority of the children of Arab Muslims.

 Iyad 'Ali Ghalib, the son of a beautiful Swiss lady, became the head of the minority group and 'Abd al-Rahman Al-Jabi, his brother Talib and Faisal the son of Prime Minister Rashid Ali Al-Gaylani, headed the group of the sons of the Muslim women. When Faisal's father was appointed Prime Minister, he tried on the same day to blind the writer of these lines with his stick, a well-known punishment for Jews who dare to oppose persecution.

 The atmosphere in Iraq was tense and full of fear and anxiety. The arrogant behavior of the Fascist paramilitary youth groups, the news of Hitler’s victory (“the undefeated leader of German,”) the booming voice of Yunis Bahri behind the microphone calling “Hail o Arab!” from Bari, Italy, enthusiastically broadcast the victory of the Axis armies. On all war fronts, Rommel's victorious army in North Africa approaching towards El-Alamein on the Egyptian border near Alexandria, contributed to the atmosphere of fear and terror that gripped the Jews in the Middle East.

The walls of the school yard of Sa'doon school as well as other institutions turned into advertising boards for slogans commonly found in the streets and among the people, who were thrilled with the Axis victories. Those slogans were carved on the brick walls, and the students drew swastikas on them and other expressions of praise for the German leader: “Long live Hitler, the defender of the Arabs and Islam”, “Eliminate the germs”, “Hit Britain with your shoes”, “No ‘Monsieur’ and no ‘Mister’, God in heaven and Hitler on earth ” and other such awful statements directed against the Jewish population. The administration of the school hung up Qur'anic verses like: “Don’t think of the people who are killed for the sake of Allah as dead, but of living people who stay in the shadow of Allah”, and sayings from the ‘Hadith’ of the prophet like: ”live simply because a life of luxury eliminates pleasure and comfort.”

The children of the higher-ranking army personnel would come to school wearing army uniforms, decorated with diagonal leather strips on their chests and wide belts, and in their hands a commander's stick. On their small epaulettes the emblem of the high rank of Chief of Staff of the Iraqi Army. The paramilitary youth organization “Al-futuwwa” and “The youth brigade” were proud of their army outfits and would search the bags and clothes of the Jews in the streets in order to find if they had electronic devices, mirrors and other articles that could be used for alleged spying and beaming messages to British aircraft.

After a while, Umm Saati', the vice-principal of our school, announced that the Iraqi Board of Education had recommended that non-Muslims students be permitted to attend Qur’an classes, together with their Muslim brethren, without actively having to learn by heart the Qur’an. I saw in this a step towards equality, because we, the non-Muslims, spent time outside the Qur’an class getting bored and feeling that we were different from the Muslim majority.

 My friend, 'Abd Al-Rahman, would ask me to hear his reciting by rote certain verses of the Qur'an selected for children and I corrected his reading mistakes. In this way I learned it by heart with him too. When it was his turn, he would forget certain words and I would whisper them to him. One day, Umm Sati' noticed my whispering to him. She was angry and scolded him: "Shame on you, you silly idiot, Ya 'Abd al-Rahman! What! A Jew is teaching you the Qur'an by heart?" The kids laughed at the vice-principal’s words and 'Abd al-Rahman felt embarrassed. After that, he relied on himself to learn the Qur'an by heart without my help.

Once, when we were playing together by ourselves, 'Abd al-Rahman, who was older and bigger then me, said suddenly: "Sami, What do you think? Let’s wrestle!” I agreed. One held onto the other and he was watching out to prevent me from wedging my right leg behind his two feet to trip him up on to his back, a trick that had defeated others so easily. So I used the grip which we called the “the needle” (pressing two fingers between his ribs) against him. He stretched out his back in pain. At that moment my right leg did the job, and I was able to throw him on his back. He fell and quickly I sat on his chest and defeated him. He stood up alarmed, and looked around to see if there were any students who had witnessed his shame. He asked me in a begging voice, "please, don't tell anyone you defeated me. It is a great shame for a Muslim to be defeated by a Jew." I honored his request and reveal only now this incident, after 66 years. I ask his forgiveness for revealing his shame to my readers.

 A few months later, Jews were attacked on the streets; their houses were marked as Jewish by anti-Jewish organizations. On June 1, 1941 after the defeat of the Iraqi Army against the British, the massacre known as the Farhud started. That was when the Regent and the former Prime Minister of Iraq returned and the British Army abstained from entering Baghdad to maintain order. During two days 137 Jews were killed and thousands were wounded. We felt humiliated and betrayed. When the State of Israel was declared in 1948, most of us felt that this was our State and in 1950-1951 we left en masse to Israel on eagles' wings. ·

Shmuel Moreh is an emeritus Professor of Arabic Language and Literature at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem; Israel Prize Laureate in Oriental Studies (1999); Commander of the Order of the Lion of Finland (1986); Chairman of the Association of Jewish Academics from Iraq in Israel, Chairman of the Academic Committee, The Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center in Or-Yehuda, Israel. 

Shmuel Moreh: from boxer to prize-winning poet

1 comment:

Selina said...

I wouldn't have bothered to apologise/ask forgiveness to the friend that spouted bigotry such as that to be honest