Thursday, March 07, 2019

Haddad and Kattan memoirs: Jewish dreams were dashed

In this paper comparing the experiences of the two Iraqi Jews Naim Kattan and Heskel Haddad, the academic Nadia Malinovich charts their hopes for  pluralism in the new nation of Iraq and their bitter disillusionment after the 1941 Farhud pogrom.


For both Kattan and Haddad, strong attachment to Arabic went hand in hand with unwavering Iraqi nationalism and a sense of belonging to the larger community that also set them apart from the older generation. Recalling his primary school years beginning in the mid-1930s, Haddad recalls that the Jewish adults who surrounded him all “acted as if every Mislim [sic] was an alien being. No, it was even sillier than that. Sometimes Jews of Baba’s age acted as if they were the aliens and not really Iraqis at all. Didn’t they know that there were Jews in Iraq long before Islam arrived on the scene?”26 As for himself, Haddad recalled, he easily fell under the sway of the new government’s history texts, which “were as crammed with drama and romance as any of Scheherazade’s stories . . . I was a super-nationalist,” he recalls. “When we arrived at the chapter in which Iraq gained independence, my heart pounded and I restrained a cheer only with a supreme effort of will.”27 At several points in the text, Haddad speaks of his fierce loyalty to King Ghazi, and recalls that the highlight of his early childhood was the day that the king waved back to young Haddad, “and to me alone” when driving down his street.28
Kattan opens his book with an incident that similarly illustrates the specificity of his generation’s relationship to the Muslim majority. Gathered as usual at the Yassine Café for a literary soirée, Kattan is shocked when his friend Nessim, the only other Jew in the group, begins to speak in Judeo-Arabic rather than in the standard (Muslim) Iraqi dialect of Arabic. While each religious community—Christian, Jewish, and Muslim—had their own manner of speaking, Kattan explains, it was understood by all that the common language of their region was the dialect of the Muslim majority. Nessim’s bold decision, Kattan’s account makes clear, stemmed from a political commitment to an Iraqi national identity that had not existed for previous generations. Taking seriously the government’s official commitment to an inclusive nationalism that treated members of different religious communities equally, Nessim saw no need to engage in the kind of code-switching that had always been taken for granted as necessary and proper by Jews. Rather than being ashamed of the Jewish dialect, which Muslims often made fun of, Kattan asserts: “Nessim was assuming his difference. He wanted it admitted. He was presenting a fact. We were Jews and we weren’t ashamed of it . . . in a pure Jewish dialect, we had made our plans for the future Iraqi culture.”29
A New Social Universe: Breaking Down Barriers Between Muslims and Jews: Both Kattan and Haddad indicate that prior to World War I and the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Jews and Muslims lived in an ordered universe governed by well-defined relations that were both understood and respected. Growing up during the eras of both Iraqi nation building and Arab nation- alism, by contrast, the younger generation began to question these tradition- al fault lines, both evincing positions and engaging in behaviors that were shocking to their parents’ and grandparents’ generations.
Both memoirs paint a picture of traditional Jewish-Muslim relations in Iraq as ranging from cordial to warm to hostile (on occasion), but in all cases, highly formalized: for the most part, the two groups lived in separate neigh- borhoods, attended separate schools, and interacted with each other almost exclusively in the public sphere. While it was not unheard of for Jews and Muslims to enter each other’s homes, Haddad recalls, this would only be done on formal occasions.
We didn’t “drop-in” on M’silmin [sic] as we did among ourselves, and in all her life, my mother had never met an Arab woman on a purely social basis. As for myself, I’d never held a conversation with a Muslim my own age . . . there were tacit codes of conduct which were rigidly observed.30
In a similar vein, Kattan’s memoir emphasizes the traditional separation between the Jewish and Muslim communities. Neither his mother nor maternal grandmother, he recalls, would have ever wandered into the Muslim section of the city. This state of affairs, he suggests, was the result of both fear on the part of the Jews as a vulnerable minority, as well as a tacit mutual understanding. His mother would not cross the Muslim section on foot “except when she was forced to do so, trembling with fear and uncertainty.” As for his grandmother, “it would have been unthinkable to enter the Muslim section. Besides her fear of the unknown, she did not want to open the way to a possible reciprocity and allow Muslims to have a place at the synagogue.”31 Kattan’s paternal grandmother, by contrast, lived with her son—a well-respected doctor who treated many prominent Muslim families—in a small Jewish enclave within a Muslim neighborhood. His uncle’s position translated into great prestige among the notable families of the city, and Kattan recounts his and his grandmother’s attendance at a large party thrown by Muslim friends of the family in honor of their sons’ circumcisions. Kattan’s focus in this story, however, is his feeling of being an outsider at this celebration, and he notes that he and his grandmother did not stay for the dinner, by mutual agreement.
Our hosts had not pushed their hospitality to the point of inviting us to appreciate a huge variety of dishes. Besides, my grandmother, terrified as she was by the sly and frightening behavior of the germs my uncle was always talking about, would never have allowed me to put my hand into the plates from which the dozens of guests took their portions of stuffed mutton with oil.32 

As an adolescent, Kattan, by contrast, socializes informally with Muslims, which both his parents and grandparents find shocking. Kattan recalls his mother’s anxiety as he began to spend most of his time in cafés with Muslim poets, journalists, and writers. “My mother was deeply concerned: a Jew lost among strange Muslims older than himself.”33 For his father and grandmother as well this behavior was inappropriate and potentially dangerous. In an attempt to dissuade him from continuing to frequent Muslims in this way, Kattan’s grandmother “listed the boys in the family and the neighborhood who had been led along the path of perdition by their evil associates; all had known a sad fate.”34 The kind of formalized interactions with Muslims that she engaged in, these comments make clear, is very diffferent from the kind of intimate—and in her view inappropriate—socializng in which her grandson was partaking. 

In Haddad’s case, we see a similar kind of generational divide as he recounts the scolding he received in primary school when he came home late one day after “dropping in” to see a Muslim teacher at his school. The entire family was hysterical with worry, and his explanation of where he had been only made matters worse. “His house? You went to his house?” his father yelled in shock, and admonished him never to do such a thing again.35 Haddad recalls that throughout his childhood, he felt strongly that differences between Jews and Muslims should be downplayed in favor of a common Iraqi identity. Disappointingly, however, he found that his feelings were at odds with almost everyone else’s, including most notably, his father’s. Haddad finds his father’s attitudes in this domain confusing. He had Muslim friends that he much preferred to many Jews, Haddad notes, “but I noticed that when he was with them, he wasn’t quite himself—not exactly edgy, but extra controlled, as if he couldn’t relax that one last muscle. And yet, he said that when a Mislim [sic] was a true friend to a Jew, you could trust your life to him.”36  

To his satisfaction, Haddad’s father approved of his son’s contention that “blanket statements” regarding Jews and Arabs were not true in principle. Nonetheless, his father asserted, certain barriers between the communities were real and insurmountable: “It isn’t even good or bad or right or wrong . . . . It is the different way our minds work.”37 It was partly to illustrate this point, Haddad, suspected, that his father took him to a Muslim friend’s wedding party. Heading home, contented with the experience, Haddad wondered aloud about a strange phenomenon that he had noted—that every time he and his father used a plate, the servants had separated it out from the others. His father’s explanation curdled the cake and candy in his stomach: “To the Mislim [sic], all Y’hudim [sic] are unclean— like pigs to us.” Any dish they had eaten from, he went on to explain, would go through a process of ritual purification. “Once again,” Haddad recalled, “he’d laid out for me exactly like a teacher this lesson in relations with our Arab friends. As Baba knew it would, his answer stirred up another question . . . . If friends regarded us in such a light, what might we anticipate from strangers?” 38
This experience was heartbreaking for Haddad because, unlike his father, he was growing up as a citizen of a newly created Iraqi state promulgating a vision of oneness between Jews and Muslims—a shared Arab identity. Yet his father needed to “teach” him the realities that governed Jewish-Muslim relations because he was worried that his son would fall dupe to a promise of equality and brotherhood that was more rhetoric than reality. Indeed, both Kattan and Haddad’s stories are, in a sense, tales of shattered dreams and broken promises, as their unwavering loyalty to Iraq became a kind of unrequited love story. 

Read paper in full

Review of Heskel Haddad's 'Born in Baghdad' (formerly Flight from Babylon)

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