Sunday, January 14, 2018

How Linda Menuhin lost her father in Saddam's Baghdad

In this interview in the Dutch newspaper NRC-Handelsblad (Holland's equivalent to the Guardian) the Israeli journalist Linda Menuhin tells Floris van Straaten how she tried to unravel the mystery of the disappearance of her father in 1970s Iraq. A personal tragedy was made into a film, Shadow in Baghdad. With thanks for his translation  to Nathan Weinstock.


Poster from the film 'Shadow in Baghdad', which tells Linda's story 
      
 It’s only at the very last moment that Linda Menuhin-Abdul-Aziz, who was 20 years old at that time, dared tell her father that she wanted to flee to Israel illegally with her younger brother. On the said day in 1970 the taxi was ready and parked in front of their house in Baghdad, in a street where an increasing number of Jews were leaving due to intensifying oppression. Menuhin remembers that he said: “I think it’s wrong to do so”. “That was the last time I saw him”. 
Although she has often told the tale since then, her voice still trembles again for a brief moment 47 years later and a brief silence sets on in the library of the Israeli embassy in The Hague where our conversation is taking place. 

That’s a moment that will always stick with Menuhin. Not only because these are her very last recollections concerning Baghdad where she was born but also because a few years later her father, a Jewish solicitor, did not make an appearance in the synagogue on the day of Yom Kippur in order to sing the psalms there as he was accustomed to do. Since then he disappeared without leaving any trace, having most probably been arrested and murdered by the police of Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s strongman.
  
Sometime later, Linda – who had settled meanwhile in Israel in the company of her brother and later also of her mother and sister who were also fled Iraq – there was an article in The Jerusalem Post. It mentioned a certain number of Iraqi Jews who had been killed, among them her father, Jacob Abdul Aziz. Apparently her lawyer father was being legally consistent and just couldn’t bear the idea of violating the laws of his country by fleeing his homeland illegally. It  proved to be fatal as far as he was concerned. 
Although the news hit Linda and the rest of the family like a sledgehammer, somehow it sounded unreal. They just didn’t know how to deal with this information. “It was there and yet it wasn’t”, explains Menuhin: “According to the Jewish tradition you must have a grave in order to commemorate the deceased  and we didn’t have that. And therefore we didn’t pray for him”. 
No news was forthcoming from the Iraqi authorities. They did obtain a letter  by way of answer to a letter which they had sent to Jacob with a detour via an aunt in the USA. It bore the mention stamped on it: “Has left the country”. So had he left the country after all? Menuhin: "There wasn’t the slightest indication that he had done so but of course the authorities could claim whatever they wanted to. They were not required to give any explanation concerning my father’s disappearance”.  
For better or for worse Linda and her family resumed their life. Some of them succeeded better than others. Linda’s brother, who had proved full of talent at school, suffered from psychiatric problems and ended up having to undergo long-term treatment. Linda herself became a journalist at the Israeli State broadcasting company, specializing in the Middle East. 
In that way she still remained in touch with Iraq. But it was only in 1991 when Saddam Hussein fired Scud missiles at Israel during the Kuwait crisis that her own memories about Iraq bubbled up in her mind. "Every day I had nightmares about Saddam Hussein. It triggered  a personal crisis. I hated the Arab language, which was the language of my daily work. I gave up my job.” 
 In 2003 too, when the Americans and the British invaded Iraq and chased Saddam out, she was continuously absorbed by the subject, although by that time she had no job. "Iraq was once more in my house all day long”, she says laughing. 
 Perhaps that thanks to Saddam’s downfall she might be able to find out more about her father’s fate. "Iraqis work in an orderly fashion and record everything, like the Nazis”, says Menuhin. "Perhaps I would be able to trace documents relating how he had been arrested and questioned. I just couldn’t accept the idea that he was only murdered because he was a Jew.”
A pogrom in 1941
About that time an Iraqi-Jewish acquaintance told me: “I’m going back to Iraq, why don’t you go with me?” Menuhin didn’t dare. Instead the idea occurred to her to produce a film about her father and the demise of the Jewish community in Baghdad. She started to collect testimonies - from a distance – from Iraqis who had fled, to London among other places. Also from Muslims. 
Almost nothing subsisted then from the once so flourishing Jewish community in Baghdad. "Even when I still was a child, it had already shrunk dramatically, compared to the past”, explains Menuhin. Under the British mandate, times were good for the Jews, but after the beginning of World War II antisemitism rapidly increased against the some 135.000 Jews. The dramatic watershed was the pogrom which occurred in 1941. In just two days, 180 Jews were killed. 
"Terrible things happened. Robberies and murders. Body parts of children were cut off in order to steal precious bracelets and other jewels.” This pogrom left a deep scar and radically modified the relationship between Jews and Non-Jews. "The Jews felt that their life was at stake. So the proclamation of the state of Israel in 1948 also sparked off an exodus of Jewish refugees.”      

For those who stayed behind - among them Jacob Abdul Aziz’s family – the situation became much more difficult. According to a new law, anyone planning to leave for Israel had to leave all his assets in Iraq. "I was born in my grandfather’s house. He had also registered to leave. That house was also confiscated by the authorities. But we were allowed to keep on living there in exchange for paying a modest rent.” 

 If life still remained bearable for Jews to a certain extent up to 1967, after Israel’s victory over the Arabs during the Six-Day War their situation swiftly worsened. "The Arabs said that the Jews in the Arab states would have to pay a very heavy price for that. They were viewed as being a fifth column.” 
  
 "If we wanted to travel further than 80 kilometers from home we needed a special permit. We were only allowed to deduct small amounts from our bank accounts. Jews were not allowed to work for the public sector any more. Our Jewish sports club was closed. Jews were no longer allowed to be members of clubs. Universities were closed to Jews. After school hours, I sat at home and would busy myself knitting and sewing”, said Menuhin laughing. I took French lessons. We all tried to improve our linguistic skills”. 
 
Hung in Tahrir square  

At the beginning of 1969 matters hit rock bottom. A certain number of Jews were arrested - as far as is known without the slightest proof - for spying for Israel. On January 27th, they were hanged in Tahrir square, the great central square in Baghdad. “Some 25,000 Iraqis came to watch the scene and to celebrate. I knew one boy who was hanged, he was 17 years old. I cannot describe the anguish we all felt.”
A little later a family member of Menuhin was also arrested: an accountant. “They seized  him at home and returned him in a jute bag dead. Nor was he the only one. Some fifty Jews at least lost their lives in this manner or disappeared never to be seen again.”
More and more Jews secretly tried to flee to Israel. Being a lawyer, Jacob Abdul Aziz felt no inclination to do so, although his practice as a solicitor had dwindled when his Jewish clients left. Towards his wife and children, he acted as if everything could not fail to improve soon.   
"Many Arabs were convinced that Jews were sucking Iraq’s blood. At the university which now accepted Jews again, a booth was placed at the entrance in order to raise funds for Palestine. ‘Give a dinar, kill a Jew' was the slogan there. On such days being a Jew, you had better stay at home.”     

At this time, a friend offered her the chance to flee the following day. Her brother would be able to join her. “I was afraid to discuss the plan with my father beforehand”, she says. “I bought an abaya and my brother managed obtain an old jacket at the flea market”. In the small bus that brought us to the Kurdish areas we sat as unostentatiously as possible among Kurds. And that’s how we got to the town of Suleimaniya. In the evening we stepped into a jeep which rushed without lights through the cold, dark mountains - it was the end of December 1970. 

“The police is pursuing us”, their escorts told them. Menuhin said: “At a given moment we had to get off the vehicle ; it was pitch black. There stood a smuggler with his donkeys, waiting for us. We arrived at a stream after following a slippery track. “Iran is on the other side”, the smuggler told us."And indeed Menuhin and her brother managed to reach Israel via Teheran – at that time, Israel wasn’t yet considered the arch-enemy.
Shortly afterwards, Jacob Abdul Aziz was arrested and questioned: where were his children? But after some time he was released thanks to the help of some Muslim friends. He was re-arrested  some months later, this time for several months. In August 1971 his wife and younger daughter also fled, again without his consent. “My mother was afraid that otherwise she would never again see my brother or myself and therefore had no faith whatsoever that they might be permitted to leave the country, as my father hoped”. After that, the only contact that remained with him was through the post, via an American aunt. 
Shadow in Baghdad

She just “couldn’t manage” to produce a film about her father. Then she got in touch with the movie director Duki Dror, whose father had been arrested in Iraq during the fifties.   He saw something in the project, but somehow it didn’t work. Three years later an interview with the American-Iraqi TV network Alhurra speeded things up. She explained that she was still hoping to clarify the issue of her father’s death.
  
An Iraqi journalist came forward online. He was a Shi'ite who only knew about Jews in Baghdad from what he had heard from his grandma. He offered to try and trace Linda's father. The contacts with the journalist play an important role in the film. Menuhin only met the journalist once, not in Iraq but in the Jordanian city Amman. Due to security reasons he did not want to reveal his identity. 
But the journalist’s search did not yield any results:  her father was probably buried in a notorious complex where many prisoners ended up losing their lives.
 Shadow in Baghdad, the film about her search, hit the screen in 2013 and had a therapeutic effect on Menuhin. The production of the film and the contacts she established with many people willing to help her operated as a healing balm on her soul. After the film came out, that feeling intensified as a result of her discussions in the diaspora with other Iraqis who had fled their country. It was for a film screening that she was in Holland at the end of 2017. 
"Finally I became conscious that so many other people had been persecuted by the regime and had suffered under it, not only Jews, but also Muslims and Christians. For many years I had walled myself off from this reality. Many Iraqis who have seen the film understand that it also tells their story. We are like one big family whose members have all suffered under that wretched regime.” 
Does Linda Menuhin still want to return to Baghdad?  She laughs: “My mantra is that I only want to return to Baghdad as Israeli ambassador.”
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