Monday, January 15, 2007

Emad Levy tries to leave Baghdad

Joseph Braude in the New Republic on the dilemma facing Emad Levy, one of perhaps a dozen remaining Jews in Baghdad. Emad is unwilling to stay yet unable to leave : (with thanks: Albert)

Shortly after Saddam Hussein's ouster in 2003, I visited Emad Levy and his father, Ezra, at their starkly furnished home in Baghdad. Emad was the city's last 'rabbi', and he and his father were two of its only remaining Jews. I wasn't the only Westerner who stopped by their house in those heady days immediately following the end of Saddam's rule. Harold Rhode, a Pentagon official, had visited recently along with Tamara Chalabi, daughter of Iraqi National Congress chief Ahmad. So had a Daily Telegraph reporter from London.

Everyone had their reasons for stopping in. For me, the meeting was an opportunity to connect with my roots. My mother was born in Baghdad, less than a mile from the Levy home. Here, I could listen to my family's dialect of Judeo-Arabic--it is even rarer than Yiddish, alas, and growing rarer every day--spoken in its historic headquarters by the final holdouts from a once-proud Jewish community, reduced in the span of just a few decades from 140,000 to virtually nothing.

Last October, Emad was the subject of an article in The Washington Post because he had finally decided to leave Iraq. "I have no future here," he explained. "I must go out to have a life for myself." If you didn't know Emad, you might have gotten the impression from the story that he was an ultra-religious symbol of continuity with Jewish Babylonian history. In fact, Emad's relationship to Judaism is a bit more complicated than the Post let on. His father grew up in an Iraq where Judaism was still strong. He lived among massive numbers of Jews well into his adulthood--as late as 1941, Jews still made up a plurality of Baghdad's population--and, though almost all of those Jews had emigrated by 2003, Ezra still connected viscerally with the eclectic culture they left behind. (...) Shortly after I met him in Baghdad, he decamped to Jerusalem for good.

Emad was different. His father had grown up in a time when it was still possible to live an openly Jewish life in Iraq, but Emad did not have that luxury: He needed to fit in. One of his friends told me that, when they hung out as kids during the 1980s, Emad spoke perfect Muslim dialect and watched "naughty German movies" on a bulky new VCR. I was a wild kid back then, Emad told me--hardly religious. It was only later in life that Emad became devout. He was, in fact, a Baal Teshuvah--a born-again Jew. He discovered his connection to Judaism on his own terms, teaching himself to read some Hebrew while conjuring a Jewish world he had barely known--and learning to live in it, nearly alone.

The Post's interest in Emad comes as no surprise: Arab Jewry's scant remnants always make for compelling human interest stories--a media curiosity. For decades, Arab dictators would put their Jews on display for foreign writers, requiring them to provide scripted testimonials to the regime's supposed tolerance toward minorities. Meanwhile, some Israeli journalists would sneak into Arab countries and come back with tales of wealthy Arab Jews--materially comfortable but politically oppressed--in golden handcuffs or not-so-wealthy Jews in ordinary handcuffs. The latter stories were, of course, more accurate--but also more damaging to their subjects. "We got spooked by the publicity," Bahraini Jewish leader Ibrahim Nunu told me recently, recalling an Israeli journalist's surreptitious foray into the country in the 1970s.

"Some of the remaining Jews here have avoided reporters ever since." More recently, glib coverage of Iraqi Jewish issues appears to have unwittingly provided fodder for Islamist militants. Three years ago, The Wall Street Journal ran a front-page profile of eccentric millionaire Naim Dangoor, who had appointed himself "exilarch" of Iraq's Jewish community from his home in London. Though few Iraqi Jews actually recognized him as their leader, his claim on their behalf to $20 billion in Iraqi assets was deemed newsworthy by the Journal as well as The Guardian. On the trip where I met Emad in 2003, I read alarmist coverage in the local press of an Iraqi Jewish plot to snatch back real estate under Dangoor's leadership and a fatwa prescribing death to any Iraqi who sold his land to a Jew.

At this point, Iraqis probably don't have to worry about Jews buying up land. In Emad's case, the reverse is happening: He is currently trying to sell his house so he can leave Baghdad for good. I called the family recently for an update. His brother Salih, who lives in Holland, gave me Emad's new Baghdad cell phone number and asked me to relay a message: "Tell Emad to get out as soon as he can. If the house won't sell, forget the house!" But Emad, who picked up his phone after sundown in Baghdad on a recent Saturday night, told me that his departure would take time. "You may question why I don't just leave, even now," he said. "But the house is more than just its value in money. It's my blood."(...) not only are Jews discouraged from buying property in Iraq, it turns out they can't get rid of it, either. Emad's fellow Iraqis are making it both impossible for him to stay and impossible for him to leave.

Joseph Braude is the author of The New Iraq: Rebuilding the Country for Its People, the Middle East, and the World

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Anonymous said...

I would love to help Emad in anyway I can,Im an Iraqi and I can accommodate him in London and help in any way I can.

bataween said...

Hi Ahmed, that is very kind of you. Emad is now in Israel.

Anonymous said...

What happened to Ezra levy?

bataween said...

This is a TV report made in 2009 when he was 82 and living in Israel. We don't know if he is still alive.