Friday, November 20, 2020

Albert Nissan remembers his mother the rebel

Widowed in 1952, Albert Nissan's mother Victoria remained in Iraq through the 1950s, witnessing the exodus of her nieces and nephews to Israel, and the crack-down on the Iraqi Communist party in the 1960s. But she was wise enough to use her connections, and brave enough to stand her ground against injustice and extortion.  Albert Nissan was deported from Iraq in 1970 but Victoria obtained a passport to leave the country legally. Her son looks back on her remarkable life:


Albert Nissan: deported from Iraq in 1970

Free thinker, independent, self confident, clear-headed with excellent social skills. That was my mother.

 The youngest of five sisters, she decided to pursue a career in teaching. She shed her abaya, changed her name to Victoria (hence the name Albert for her firstborn), applied to be a teacher and got her certification from The Teachers' Institute.

 She got assigned to a position in Khanekin, some 150 kilometers north-east of Baghdad. Mother insisted on going to her post while her friend Sit Simha resigned her post. Her family sent one of her nephews with her as chaperone. In Khanekin she registered her nephew in an Islamic school. But mother’s assignment did not last more than a few months as she was offered a job in the Alliance for Girls in Baghdad and quit her job in Khanekin. But not before her nephew received  praise for knowing more about Islam that the Muslims in school. 

  On Wings of Eagles 

Victoria was excited by the prophecy of Isaiah to the exiles of Babylon; that they would return to their land on wings of eagles. She saw the possibility of seeing the realisation of  the prophecy during her lifetime. She used to tell me that in more than two thousand years, Jews did not know how to interpret the prophecy until she saw Jews returning to Israel on (wings of) planes. 

She walked in pro-Zionist demonstrations and walked against anti-Zionist demonstrations. She told me that in the anti Zionist demonstrations she was shouting “Down with Arabism”. And together with my father, they bought land in Palestine. 

Sefer Berlik سفر بر 

Mother always whispered when she talked about her uncle not returning from the war in the Balkans. In 1912, Montenegro rebelled against the Ottomans. It was  later followed by other Balkan nations. Sefer Berlik was a “Call to Arms” by the Ottomans. Muslims in Iraq and the Levant had to join the army. Non-Muslims who did not want to go to war had to pay 40 gold Turkish pounds, a large sum in those days. Those who could not pay the Jizya, had to join the army, but many young Jews went into hiding. The Balkan war was a disaster and it showed the Turkish organizational deficiency. People say that when the Ottoman army arrived to a frozen lake, they received the order to cross without verifying if the ice could support the weight of the army and its mechanized equipment. The ice collapsed and a large part of the army drowned. 

There is an old song that goes like this: 
“The army of the Sultan 
Slept in the elements 
And drank salty water”

One can deduce that the Ottoman army was not equipped with adequate winter gear and there was a shortage of supplies. A large chunk of the army died from cold and malnutrition. It is said that only one to five percent came back from the war. The husband of my eldest aunt used to tell the story that when he saw the Turkish gendarmerie approaching, he jumped on his horse and fled towards Iran. He reached safety but his horse died under him.

  Nieces and Nephews 

When one of her sisters died leaving teenage kids, Victoria counselled them on their education and later arranged for some of them to get married. Her house was open for all her nephews and nieces and at age three and four, I still remember them in  my home. Suddenly they weren’t there, as they left  for Israel. 

More than two decades later,  there was constant celebration when she was with them and later, every time she visited Israel. Speaking to the Nissan young ladies, I wish that mother had lived to see you in adulthood because you have her tact, her clear-headedness and her approach in attaining goals.

Communist Purge 

In the early 1960s and following a coup d’état, there was a bloody purge of communists in Iraq. Those in power did not have a solid base. They armed their civilian party members and posted them around the capital and perhaps in other cities of Iraq too. Most of them were high school teens who went on the rampage collecting people under suspicion of being communists. And by the same token, the teens arrested young women and threw them in camps: cases of rape, pregnancies and suicides followed and were very common. The young women who were raped and pregnant were killed by their families to cleanse the family’s honour. 

And one day, people arrived at our home looking for Victoria the communist. Mother calmly told the group that she was staying in her own house. Then they started asking about the other Victoria. Little by little, with logic and tact, they were convinced that they should be looking somewhere else and left. 

Dealing with officers in positions of power

 In the mid 60s, someone arrived at our house, escorted by police, claiming that my brother “ Roubel” caused a car accident and killed a woman and heavily injured his brother. The man claimed his brother was dying in hospital and he was seeking justice for him. Now, Robin and Albert were both spoken of as "Roubel" in Iraqi slang. So we weren’t sure which person it was. But the claimant said that “Roubel” was heavy-set. 

In the police station, mother asked if the accuser could identify “Roubel” and he pointed to the only heavy-set guy. My mother wanted to see the dying brother and the police colonel asked the same question. The man changed his story and said his "dying" brother was coming to the police station. And suddenly the “dying” brother walks into the station without a scratch on him. And mother sarcastically asked the colonel if he thought that this guy was injured, And the case was dismissed. We believe that this was a scheme to extract money from a heavy-set young Jewish man who fitted the Muslim name “Roubel” and was spending money in nightclubs. The brothers hit on the wrong “Roubel”. 

  A lioness protecting her cubs 

 After our arrest ( in 1970 the author was detained for attempting to cross the northern border illegally - ed) mother wanted to monitor Lieutenant Muthanna*’s moves, as she mistrusted him. She started showering his warrant officer with gifts and money. And it paid off. The warrant officer told mother one day that Muthanna was sending a letter to all government deparments inquiring if I owed money to the government. A mean-spirited move intended to keep us for years in detention until all replies had come in. Upon hearing of Muthanna’s move, mother went above his head and complained to the chief. She was indignant, saying it was absurd if he believed that a “boy” in his early twenties owed money to the government. Muthanna was ordered to destroy the letter and expedite our paperwork so we would get out of Iraq. 

Social Skills Pay-off 

After our deportation, mother requested from one of many of her contacts, a Kurdish sheikh, to get my future wife Rosy over the border. Rosy was in Iran in less than two months after our deportation and preparing to leave for Holland via Israel. 

No Harm in Asking 

Soon after our deportation, mother applied for a passport in a time when the issuing of passports was practically unattainable. In her application she wrote that she did not want to stay in this country after her children had been deported. She wanted to leave “this country” and she would not be coming back. She endured ridicule and sarcasm for her act. She arrived to Holland in less than 12 months after our deportation.

 I see a lot of mother in her three granddaughters. Their tact, their social skills, analytical approach and business sense remind me of our mother. Mother lived 17 years after her arrival in Holland.

 I try never to miss the anniversary of her death where I go up to the sefer torah and sing the Haftarah to her. Her Haftarah could never be more appropriate. It talks about a woman whose husband died and left her with two boys (and one daughter).

* Lieutenant Muthanna was in charge of Jewish affairs at the Nationality and Passports office in Baghdad. He was a notorious antisemite, known for his humiliating treatment of Jews seeking his services.

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