Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Kurdish convert seeks Jewish roots

AKRE, Iraq, May 24 (AFP) - Hajj Khalil is the last Muslim with Jewish roots in the Iraqi Kurdish village of Akre. One of his dearest wishes is to travel to Israel to apologise to his cousins for failing in his duties as a host when they visited him five years ago.

"In 2000, several of them came to see me and I didn’t even greet them, let alone invite them to stay. Despite the autonomy enjoyed by Kurdistan, Saddam Hussein had spies everywhere," says Khalil Fakih Ahmed, a 74-year-old wearing the traditional Kurdish headdress.

In Akre, a large cluster of hillside houses some 420 kilometres (260 miles) north of Baghdad, near the border with Turkey, place names are one of the few reminders of the former Jewish presence.

The last Jews in the region left Iraq between 1949 and 1951, just after the creation of the state of Israel.

One block of houses is still called Shusti -- or ’Jewish town’ in Kurdish -- but the old synagogue was destroyed long ago.

In the mountains overlooking the town lies a plateau called Zarvia Dji (Land of the Jews) where the Jewish community used to gather for celebrations.

"My grandmother converted to Islam when her husband died and my father had just turned 10," Hajj Khalil recalls, sitting in his garden with his children and grandchildren around him.

"When the Jews left, we stayed because we had become Muslims."

But in the streets of Akre, Khalil and his family are still called "the Jews". More

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