Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Babylon remembered at Jewish Book Week

In March, Jewish Book Week (in association with Harif) featured a discussion between two authors whose recently-published works have ensured that the Jews’ 2,500-year sojourn in Iraq does not go unrecorded. Here is Lyn Julius's synopsis for Sameah.

Naim Kattan, the grand old man of letters born in 1928 in Iraq and now resident in Canada, is the author of ‘Farewell Babylon’, a memoir of his boyhood first written in French in 1976 and this year re-issued in English.

Marina Benjamin, a successful journalist and author born in London in 1964 of Iraqi-Jewish parents, has written ‘Last days in Babylon’, the story of the final years of the Baghdad Jewish community seen through the eyes of her grandmother, who was born in 1905.

The two authors came face to face at a session entitled ‘Remembering Babylon’, chaired by the Baghdad-born artist Linda Dangoor-Khalastchi.

Why did both authors choose titles containing the word ‘Babylon’ ? For Kattan, Babylon was a place where he was taken on school excursions by his Alliance Israelite teachers. Babylon had taken the Jews into captivity. Although they were poor slaves, they were rich in one thing – they were the people of the Book. Here they had written about that Book, a commentary known as the Babylonian Talmud. Kattan’s own book was a farewell to great ancestors who had bequeathed a book about a Book.

Marina Benjamin’s book, on the other hand, was part history, part memoir, part travelogue. Looking inwards and writing from the margins, an outsider like herself gains perspective. “Last days in Babylon” was not her first choice of title. She would have preferred ‘I am Iraq’ - the title of a poem written in 1957 by Muhammed Al-Jawahiri. She felt it symbolised the centrality of the Jews to the history of Iraq.

But Naim Kattan explained that this feeling of Jewish entrenchment in Iraq was already badly shaken by the Farhoud. Kattan himself aged 13 had lived through these terrifying two days of murderous rioting in June 1941 which had claimed 180 Jewish lives. It drove home the sense that the Jews were powerless to protect themselves. Kattan’s father ‘s only weapon was to recite the Tehilim. From that year on, his family sought to leave Iraq but no country would accept them. Educated at the Alliance in four languages and the best at Arabic grammar in his class, Kattan turned to French literature even as he wrote in Arabic and belonged to a circle of Iraqi intellectuals. His talent for French would prove to be his escape route – in 1947 he was granted a scholarship to study at the Sorbonne in Paris.

Marina Benjamin referred to the heady days after the end of the First Word War when the British installed Emir Faisal as king of the new state of Iraq. To his subjects, a patchwork of religions and ethnicities, Faisal had proclaimed that ‘we are all Iraqis’. She tried to capture the optimism that the nascent state would be more than the sum of its parts, and a sense of belonging extended to all. This feeling - as we all now know - did not last.

Kattan said that Jews were in Iraq before everyone else. “ We had great dignity. We never had been humiliated. Islam accepted Judaism and Christianity. Being Jewish was not superior, but normal.” Jews had always adapted to their host nations. Marina pointed out that a Jewish minister had cleverly tied the price of petroleum to the gold standard and Jewish civil servants had built up the new Iraq.

Compelled by a ‘Who am I?’curiosity, Marina Benjamin had gone to Baghdad in 2004. It was this quest for identity which had bubbled up to the surface in her life. What had she expected to find? She had not expected to find any traces of the life of her grandmother, but she tracked down the last 22 Jews still living there. Of 150,000 Jews in postwar Baghdad, 125,000 had been flown to Israel in the biggest airlift in history. What had happened to the Jews could only be termed ‘ethnic cleansing’.

Naim Kattan was utterly secure in his identity as an Iraqi Jew. When much later in Canada, people asked him why he did not change his name, a glance at his reflection in the mirror convinced him he could never be a Norman or a Nelson. The price he has had to pay has been to be ‘typecast’ as an Iraqi Jew and to have constantly had to tell his life story.

Marina commented that Iraqi Jews were not just expelled, but their history actively rubbed out. The Iraqi government had set up 40 committees to dispose of Jewish property quickly and cheaply. During the false dawn of 2003 following the Coalition invasion, there was talk of Jews returning to re-establish the community. In 2004, during her visit, the Iraqis were in the grip of an anti-Semitism that imagined the Jews would come back and buy up Baghdad.

When Kattan’s book came out in Arabic he was reproached for exaggerating the role of the Jews. As the people of the Book, on the other hand, he thought the Jews had a special responsibility to write their own history.

He felt no nostalgia for Iraq – just a relief that “we are still alive, and we made it elsewhere, and we are still Jews”. Expulsion was a blessing in disguise.“The best thing is that we were thrown out,” he exclaimed.

In moving from East to West, Naim had to change his language and culture, but his love of one language and culture did not stop him loving another. He re-invented himself in the three places he had lived in – Baghdad, Paris and Montreal.

Naim Kattan had been invited to return to Baghdad in 2003 to make a film. He never did. Paradoxically, it was Marina, who was not born in Baghdad and doubted that the place even existed, who needed to make her essential journey: ‘I want to celebrate who I am,’ she said. She had begun learning Arabic.

In short, when it came to ‘remembering Babylon,’ Kattan had never forgotten, and the memory was still a key part of himself. Benjamin, meanwhile, had made it her duty to fight against the active forgetting of Jewish history, before that history vanished forever.

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