Monday, August 13, 2007

Another review of 'Last days in Babylon '

Lyn Julius reviews Last Days in Babylon by Marina Benjamin:

Readers of Last days in Babylon -- be aware that Marina Benjamin risked her life to bring you this book.

In 2004, the young authoress left her husband and baby to embark on a hair-raisingly risky trip to Baghdad, capital of kidnappings and bombings. She quips that she is one of the few Iraqi Jews to have fought her way into the country while everyone else was trying to get out.

It was a necessary trip. As a quest for identity, though, it failed. Strife-torn, dangerous Iraq was not a good place to admit to being Jewish. Marina encountered a city with few reminders of its Jews - once a third of the city’s inhabitants - and one gripped by antisemitism and conspiracy theories. She was too afraid to find the house where her mother was born lest she attract suspicion.

But if Marina had not gone to Baghdad, she could not have brought the city alive in her prologue. The history of the Jews of Iraq is skillfully woven around the life of her uprooted grandmother Regina, which spanned most of the 20th century. The book comes neatly full circle: offering incongruous packets of kosher meat as her calling card, Marina introduces herself to the 22 Jews still left in Baghdad.

Three years after Marina’s visit, there are eight Jews left. The door has slammed shut on 2,700 years of Jewish presence in the Land of the Two Rivers.

To tackle the history of the Jews of Iraq, from the British occupation at the end of the First Word War to the present day, is to venture into a minefield. Facts have been erased, politicised, and distorted. Arab writers have blamed the Jewish exodus on bombs planted by the Zionists in 1950 -51, suggesting that Jews and Arabs lived in muticultural harmony before Zionism. But Marina Benjamin’s book leaves little doubt that the Jews were subject to a decade of persecution prior to their departure. Today we would call it ‘ethnic cleansing.’

In 1917 cheering Jews lined the streets when General Maude rode into Baghdad (it is an intriguing thought that the Jews could have inadvertently been responsible for his death, having served him cholera-infected milk with his tea). King Faisal tried to forge one nation from a multitude of ethnicities and religions. The Jews dominated trade and became the main allies of the British, effectively running the country for them in the 1920s and 30s.

On the personal level Marina leaves no topic unturned – the food the Jews ate, the houses they lived in, the way they dressed. The Jews were apolitical and socially conservative. Women’s ambitions were limited, their marriages were arranged, their lives devoted to their children and lived to the rhythm of Sabbath and the festivals. Marina’s grandmother had the strength of character, but also the pragmatism and adaptability typical of these Jews to make a life after her husband’s death and the family’s brutal uprooting. What a falling-off she experienced - from a comfortable, sheltered life with servants in the smart, new district of Bataween, to selling Crown wallpapers in Hownslow.

Writing elegantly and eloquently, Marina Benjamin is at her best when she chronicles the persecution closing in on her grandmother’s world: the rising hostility of the 1930s, the Farhoud massacre, the impact of the partition of Palestine and the first Arab-Israeli war. However, the narrative is marred by minor errors: the first minority to be massacred on independence, the Assyrians, were not ‘brought in’ by the British - they were even more indigenous to Iraq than the Jews.

Since the Jews were there before the Muslims, Marina wanted to call her book ‘I am Iraq,’ after the 1957 poem by Mohammed Mahdi al-Jawahiri. Just as well she did not: the phrase has connotations of a blood and soil patriotism that Jews, with rare exceptions, did not feel. As the old saying went,’ the country is for its people and the trade is for the Jews.”

It is a pity that the book ends on a sour note, highlighting, as is fashionable, the social prejudice that the transplanted Iraqi community encountered in the transit camps and development towns of Israel in the 1950s. But in 60 years Israel has become culturally much more of a Levantine state than its Ashkenazi founders had envisaged. As professor Sasson Somekh has observed with pride, the Iraqis were the best educated and most successful of the Jews of the East. And such is the pace of integration that in a generation or two there may be no such thing as an Iraqi Jew.

Other reviews here


Anonymous said...

BOOK REVIEW: Here is an interesting article.

SAN FRANCISCO - When it comes to spy novels and Middle East intrigue, after 16 spell-binding years, the gripping story behind the Middle East quagmire - its issues of nuclear weapons and the quest for a Palestinian State - is finally being told in a ground-breaking new book entitled, THE PALESTINE CONSPIRACY.

Author Robert Spirko created the work in such a way that every reader in the world would understand all the intricate issues in the Middle East and how close the region actually came to the brink of nuclear Armageddon. THE PALESTINE CONSPIRACY, a genre spy-thriller by Robert Spirko, was fourth on the best-seller list at Atlasbooks, Inc., a national book distributor. Ingram Books is the worldwide distributor.

Mr. Spirko has a unique way of holding the reader in his grasp as the plot of THE PALESTINE CONSPIRACY unfolds. He literally takes you from your armchair and immerses you into the lifestyle of the Bedouin, the Israeli, the PLO and the mindset of the Middle-Easterner.

THE PALESTINE CONSPIRACY is not just another spy-novel; it is the quintessential spy-thriller because it forces the reader to understand how both sides "think" and why that thinking ultimately led to repeated wars in the Middle East.

Spirko, a financial and geo-political analyst, turned his attention to the Middle East in 1987, after discovering several common elements related to the Middle East question. In working for peace, and after several frustrating years, he put down his analysis in writing and when he was finished, he not only had a solution to the quagmire, he had a story to tell.

But, nobody was listening.

Today, all that has changed, thanks to Olive Grove Publishers who decided to give his book a chance.

When the Palestinian question came to a festering crisis in 1990, he had already predicted several of the actual events before they occurred. For instance, Spirko predicted the Intifada and Persian Gulf War, missing the actual invasion date of Kuwait by only one week. He did this through spectacular supposition, analysis and prediction based on what he was "seeing" in the region.

When Spirko typed his manuscript, he set the work to fiction, about what he thought might occur soon in the Middle East involving weapons of mass destruction, nuclear proliferation, the Palestinian uprising before it occurred, and how the Palestinian question begged to be answered, little did he realize that every event he described in the book would eventually transpire.

His story of what was really happening behind the scenes in the Middle East is truly astounding and remarkable, and his contribution to the Camp David Peace Talks in 2000, formulated a solution to the Jerusalem question. When the BBC got wind of it, they termed it "as nothing short of brilliant" - Jerusalem becoming the simultaneous capitals of both Israel and Palestine in congruous or concentric zones.

Spirko originally copyrighted his book on October 20, 1987, in the U. S.
Library of Congress where intelligence agencies reviewed his work.

Today, finally, somebody is listening.

Spirko feels that both sides must return to the Camp David Peace Talks and resume where they left off and "freeze in place" the already-agreed-upon negotiating points.

“It's like a marriage where both spouses storm away mad in an argument.
They don't divorce and then try to resume their relationship, they come back together, settle their differences, and resume their marriage. It must be the same for the Middle East Peace talks," Spirko says.

The story begins in Beirut, Lebanon, once a great financial capital of the Middle East, which lay in ruin, having been systematically blasted to rubble during 20 years of inexhaustible civil war and siege by Israel, the PLO, Hamas, Hezbollah and Lebanese factions. Soon, the quest for a Palestinian State would be framed by these events; namely, the invasion of Kuwait by a neighboring rogue state, Iraq, with Saddam Hussein's goal of seeking nuclear parity with Israel.

In Mr. Spirko's story, Rick Waite, a forgotten UPI correspondent, and Adrienne Waters, a Pulitzer Prize journalist from the London Times, meet-up in Beirut with a PLO operative named Ahmed, who discovers a secret intelligence memo about a secret plan to destroy Israel.

In the ensuing chase to find the answer to this secret communiqué and what it means, a deadly race against time begins as the unlikely trio tries to halt the launch of a secret weapon from a hidden PLO base camp in the Syrian Desert. U. S. and British intelligence operatives have their own agenda, and attempt to stop whatever is going on to save the entire region from a nuclear holocaust.

Spirko weaves a tale of chilling duplicity and thrilling action, as the characters evade and devise a method to announce the discovery of nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles to the rest of the world - all while United Nations' delegates bicker endlessly.

An executive at BookMasters, Inc., says, "The book is absolutely stunning in the manner in which Mr. Spirko, tells his tale. He is truly a master as an analyst, and it's totally unlike anything else we've ever read in a spy-thriller. It keeps you turning pages and won't let you quit - until the very end. And, what an ending it is! If you crave twisting plots, thrilling spy-action and intriguing characters, then this is the book for you."

Spirko, whose own background includes a stint in the U. S. Air Force and has given his advice to the National Security Council in Washington, D. C., has a degree in journalism and knows first-hand about the newsroom and what it takes to be an intelligence field agent. His knowledge of the trade makes the story real, daunting, and strikingly similar to "The Year of Living Dangerously."

"THE PALESTINE CONSPIRACY drips with reality," quips a book reviewer from Olive Grove Publishers. "If books were rated by Siskel & Roeper, it would be given a two-thumbs up."

Not since, Casablanca, do characters as earthy as Rick Waite, or as beautifully mysterious as London Times reporter, Adrienne Waters, or as desperate as PLO operative, Ahmed, bring fresh characters to a story that will be remembered by readers for a long time.

The novel is a mass market paperback produced by Olive Grove Publishers, and can be purchased at area bookstores through Ingram Book Group, New Leaf Distribution, and Baker and Taylor, priced at $14.99, ISBN 0-9752508-0-9. THE PALESTINE CONSPIRACY can also be ordered on the web at, or email orders from:, or from Barnes & Nobles, Border's, Dalton's, & Follett bookstores at colleges and universities, WaldenBooks,,, and other popular retail bookstores. Or, readers and store managers can call 1-800-BOOKLOG, or 800-247-6553 direct, to order.

For readers who want to know what was really going on in the Middle East prior to the Persian Gulf War, Sept. 11th, and Iraq War, THE PALESTINE CONSPIRACY, is a must read.

bataween said...

Thanks for your suggestion, but this article in not really relevant to this website

Anonymous said...

I don't understand how a person like this author suggests that the Assyrians were brought by the British? When the Assyrians as mentioned are the indigenous people of the land which is today called Iraq.

As Assyrians we got accustomed to un fair,subjective points of views not only by the Arabs who came as invaders to the land of two rivers but also the Jews tend to do that,but in order not to generalize I will say the majority of them.

What's upsetting is that whoever writes about or mentions the ancient Assyrians they concentrate on accusing the Assyrians of all bad things yet they don't look at the positive sides specially when we know that the ancient Assyrians were responsible for many of what the western and eastern world have built upon today.

The Arabs as Bedouin tribes when they invaded Mesopotamia(Land between Two Rivers) had nothing to show and it was the Assyrians who transferred,translated to them all the knowledge of the time and taught them how to benefit of that knowledge.

As for the Jews who always mention that they were taken captives tend to forget that during their stay in Mesopotamia they were able to put into writing all that they had and was oral until then,even the Talmud is known as the Babylonian Talmud because it was written there and if we go further and put religion aside we will see that the stories in the Old Testament such as Genesis,Moses' story and others had much earlier versions in Assyrian and Babylonian mythology.As an example Noah is Utnapeshtim who built an Ark and Sargon of Akkad the first Assyrian King who established the Assyrian Empire told his birth story and how his mother put him in a basket covered on the outside with tar so that it wouldn't hold water and sent him down in the river to be found by a carpenter.Other examples would be the positions which the Jews who were raised in Mesopotamia had in the Kingdom.

Today in Iraq the indigenous Assyrians are being marginalized by the Iraqi government as well as other factions in Iraq and the heartland of Assyria(North of Iraq) is under kurdish control with the help of the international community when the indigenous Assyrians are being kidnapped,killed,and displaced because of differing in their identiry,culture,ethnicity and religion than the majority.

My point here was to concentrate on the un fair descriptions on the part of others when it comes to the indigenous Assyrians and their ancestors the ancient Assyrians just like Ms. Benjamin did even though she's not the first and won't be the last.

bataween said...

I could not agree more - history has given the Assyrians 'a bum rap'. They should be given credit where credit is due.
Ms Benjamin's exact words (p116) were:"..the (Iraqi)army massacred the country's Assyrian population, killing every male among them. The Assyrian Christians were settled in Iraq by the British..."

Eliyahu m'Tsiyon said...

Assyrians were recruited into military units by the British while they kept troops in Iraq. The Assyrians soldiers deserve credit for defending the British military base of Habbaniyah in 1941 from attacks by the pro-Nazi Iraqi army.

As to the ancient Assyrians, the cuneiform records that they left confirm the historical account recounted in the Biblical Books of Kings as it deals with the Assyrians. This was pointed out by James B Pritchard in his Archaeology and the Old Testament [Princeton 1958].

I have given information on the 1933 massacre of Assyrians in several posts on my site [Emet m'Tsiyon], as well on the 1941 Farhud massacre of Jews. I don't know of any Jewish authors who try to slander or slight the Assyrians. Mrs Marina Benjamin was probably weak on the modern history of Iraq, as are most people, Jews included unfortunately.

bataween said...

Thanks for that very interesting overview. I'm sure you are right that the error in the book was not deliberate.