Thursday, July 17, 2008

Iraqi-Jewish festival in London: an Arab view

The poet and author Khalid al-Kishtainy has written this fascinating report on last month's Iraqi-Jewish festival Halahel - the word means ' trilling for joy' - in the London-based Arabic newspaper Ashark al-Awsat (With thanks to Eileen K for the link and for her translation):

"The Jewish Iraqi community in London organised, under the leadership of Niran Basson-Timan and Edwin Shuker, a festival called Halahel celebrating the heritage of the Jewish community in Iraq, which is considered to be the oldest and most prominent of the Jewish communities in the world.

"Its history goes back to the Babylonian captivity when the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzer captured Jerusalem and took its inhabitants back to Babylon as captives. There, they absorbed the rich Babylonian heritage and blended it with their own heritage to establish the structure of their religion and culture.

"The festival included different topics ranging from politics and history to music and the arts. Many prominent personalities from Israel and Britain participated in all these topics, having one
thing in common, namely their Iraqi roots. Iraqi Jews, unlike other Jewish communities could not get rid of their Iraqi roots and their longing for Baghdad and Basra. For instance,
the musician Sarah Manasseh's ancestors had left Iraq in the nineteenth century for India where she was born and brought up. She then emigrated to Britain without ever setting foot in Iraq. Yet
despite all that she devoted her life to Iraqi music and formed a musical group called The Rivers of Babylon.

"Wailing and lamentation are an important part of the Iraqi personality. The programme contained many such events like the Farhood ((The Looting in 1941) and the Taskit (The stripping of Iraqi nationality) and all the suffering that the Iraqi Jews had faced since the Thirties when the Palestinian problem erupted.

"I listened a lot and conversed with many of the people present. However, I did notice that the Palestinian subject was avoided in our conversation. Neither myself nor the people present breached the subject.

"To me, this is a very important point. Unlike other Middle Eastern Jews, Iraqi Jews were known for their political maturity plus their liberal and left-wing intellectual spirit. Many of them were communists and the Israeli society had a special respect for them as the grandchildren of Babylon. It was expected that they would play an important role as a bridge between the Arabs and Israel and also to direct their government towards an accord with the Arabs to achieve peace and respect the rights of the Palestinians.

"Unfortunately that never happened. Most of the peacemongers and friends of Palestine are Western Ashkenazi. The Eastern Jews supported the right-wing. That support has become an obstacle against achieving peace as the radical right-wing always get the Eastern Jewry's vote.

"I can understand their hesitation as in the beginning they had to prove to the European Ashkenazis their loyalty and enthusiasm for the country and their complete detachment from their original Arab countries. However, it has been 60 years since the establishment of
the State of Israel and their migration there. They have shown their loyalty and attained important positions in the country.

"There is no one now in Israel that doubts their loyalty. In fact they are more zealous than the Ashkenazis. It is time for them to speak up about reality and the need for a dialogue with the Arabs based on justice, fairness and the admission of mistakes on both parts. They need to do that for Israel's future and the future of their children and the children of all the inhabitants of the region."

Read original article (Arabic)

My comment: For all his sympathy with Iraqi Jews Khalid al-Kishtainy misunderstands them. If they have failed to be a bridge between Israel and the Arab world over the Palestinian question, if they continue to vote for rightwing parties, it is not because the Eastern Jews have needed to prove ther loyalty to the Ashkenazi establishment. They feel angry and hurt that the monstrous injustice committed against them by Arab regimes - their uprooting, loss of heritage and stolen property - has never been acknowledged. But Mr al-Kishtainy's view of justice is still disturbingly one-sided. His flippant line, 'wailing and lamentation are part of the Iraqi personality', suggests that Jewish suffering is exaggerated. If this is the best we can expect from 'sympathetic' figures such as al-Kishtainy, who have made a valiant effort to retain their links with Jews and are a welcome sight at events such as last June's Halalel, then what hope is there for reconciliation with Arabs and Muslims in general?

Update: Thanks to Eileen and Freddy K for translating the comments thread (13 July)
Ahmad Barbar, Germany:

Do the occupying Jews have the right to speak? Every Jew who immigrated to Palestine has the right to return to his original country with honour. There seem to be no reciprocal arrangements.

Salah Hamed Al Delany, Malaysia:

“Dear Khaled, thank you for your truthful words about an important sector of the noble Iraqi community. I believe the dialogue with the Palestinians will be logical and beneficial only if the Palestinians give up their slogans and agitation, and everything that affects the negotiations between them and the Israelis. The Palestinian leaders need to be more pragmatic in dealing with their own issues. Otherwise, the situation will go on for many more years.

Nabil Haniya, United States:

National affiliation is bigger than any other affiliation. Language is the unifying factor and it helps bring people together. I still remember when I used to visit my brother in an
Israeli prison in Ramallah, in the early 70’s, there used to be an Israeli soldier in his 50s who could speak Egyptian Arabic and used to treat the visitors kindly, and he used to listen to Em
Kelthoom songs on his radio. Our Arabic heritage cannot be erased from an individual’s life once it has been lived, it becomes part of the culture.

Amer Ammar, United States:

“My dear Sir, how can we confess in Iraq that we have wronged the Jews? Our fathers and us have been fed hatred against the Jews to the extent that their knowledge, their star (of David) and their dress have become our most feared things. Whereas, if we looked at the old pictures of Baghdad and the various cities then we would see that their dress and the star were present everywhere without any ill feeling towards them.

Our ancestors and their Jewish friends lived with each other and were neighbours. So what happened? What is the crime of the thousands of Iraqi Jews who loved their country and
contributed towards its advancement and construction, only to be rewarded with expulsion and persecution (Farhoud). It is important that the new generation should take the first step
towards rebuilding the trust and no better place to start when with our brothers who are already living in this country as it is certain that they never did commit any crimes, worst than the
crimes of the past dictatorial regime or the present democratic regime.”

Dr Nassar Al Dossari, Saudi Arabia:

“My Dear Sir Khalid Al Kushteini, It is unbelievable the way that I follow your writing as in God’s name I really admire you. My dear sir, as far as the Palestinians are concerned, they
are disunited between Hamas and Mahmoud Abbas. The Arab mentality is a cause of that disunity as they do not believe in dialogue and the acceptance of the other party and building
itself properly. The strong countries in the world only respect other countries that are as strong or even stronger.

We (the Arabs) are sleepy nations. God to whom he ascribed all perfection and majesty said: “prepare for them whatever strength you can muster”. However, he did not define the strength whether it should be in numbers, in manufacturing, in morals, in military might, socially or

History shows that the harvest of the Arab brain differs from the harvest of the Western brain, so the Jews managed to be superior by hard work and infinite national unity. You have
also mentioned Jewish arts so I would like to add that those who taught the great Iraqi musicians Jamil Bashir how to play the oud (the lute) were originally Jewish. You have every respect from me my dear brother.”

Hamza Allewi, Kuwait:

There was a time when an an altogether different Iraqi society - different from the sectarian society at present - had progressed. This society comprised diverse individuals who adopted Iraq and in particular its culture. They were formed from immigrants, beginning with the Sumerians and ending with the Arabs. That is a special characteristic that is rarely found in other countries in the area. As those Jews who came as captives two thousand years ago managed to integrate deeply in Iraqi society. Qualified studies always confirm that the Jews made a major contribution to the renaissance of modern Iraq and that they were an educated group who had liberal leftwing ideals which made them differ a great deal from the other Jews who came from other Arab or Middle Eastern countries. Perhaps it is this reason that made Iraqi Jews different even after their expulsion as they kept their Iraqi identity in one way or another.

Saleh Buafby, Morocco:

Mr Khaled, you have spoken about Iraqi Jews in an effort to make them special but in reality you could have been talking about Moroccan Jews in Morocco. I believe that Jews in general have special qualities which they have kept wherever they settled.

Haidar Al-Bayatti, Malta :

“My respected Mr Khaled, can I enquire why these days you have increased your articles in relation to Jews and especially the Iraqis amongst them. With my respect to all the Jews and our cousins and to you all my respect.”

Linda Menuhin-Abdul Aziz, Israel:

“I have never missed reading your interesting articles and generally I tend to agree with your views. However, this time I must disagree with you regarding the political stance of Middle
Eastern Jews in Israel.

They are not afraid of the European Jews but are afraid of the reality of the Palestinian Issue, which pushed them to go toward the right.

The Middle Eastern Jews had liberal ideas in the beginning but sadly these conflicted with the reality of the Palestinian issue.


Anonymous said...

I am always puzzled why the Palestinian issue is brought up in every talk, lecture or article about the Jews from Arab countries. Halahel wasn’t a conference to discuss why, when and how the Jews of Iraq can help in solving the Palestinian problem but it was a CELBRATION OF THE HERITAGE OF THE JEWS OF IRAQ and nothing else.

I wonder whether speakers or writers feel the pressure to raise the Palestinian issue whenever the subject of the Jews of Arab Countries is discussed. Is it to balance so they won’t be accused of traitors?

The Jews of Iraq, Egypt, Libya, etc were let down by their fellow-homeland of
years when they had to leave their rich heritage, roots and history of over 2600 behind and start a new life from scratch as refugees in an adopting country whether it is England, Canada, Israel or any other country.

The celebration of Halahel just proved to all that the Jews might have been taken out Iraq but no one could take Iraq out of our hearts.

I think that the Arab intellectuals have a very important and vital duty to talk and write about the injustice done to their Jewish countrymen, especially now when information is widely available to all, and not to repeat old slogans. In fact, in Halahel conference I was pleased to notice that there were signs that this is already happening despite it being at its very early stages. In fact as Halahel conference led to a reception in honour of Prof Sami Moreh organized by the association of the revival of the Iraqi Heritage chaired by Emily Porter and attended by Jews, Muslims and Christians, and from different minorities of the Iraqi society.
Niran Basson-Timan
Co-organiser of Halahel

Eliyahu m'Tsiyon said...

The Arab observer, relatively restrained in his remarks for an Arab intellectual, did mention the Farhud, but he does not acknowledge the 1300 years of oppression/dhimmitude under Arab/Muslim rule when the Jews were reduced from a major part of the population in what is now called Iraq to a relatively small minority [before 1948]. Nor does he acknowledge how Mesopotamia/Iraq deteriorated in those centuries since the Arab conquest. Where is the wonderful irrigation system built long before the Conquest which made the land between the rivers so green and flourishing??

omar said...

i do totally agree with what mrs.niran basson said and i wonder also why is that ?
why the associate palestinian in an iraqi affair ?
why the always try to contaminate the nice weathers ?
why they try to deform the facts ?
those people wouldnt leave iraq unless the hadnt been put in a very difficult circumstances.
my grandpa say that when israel defeated arabs in the 1967 the iraqi government 9at that time) fired the jews from the social works and social clubs and put alot of tyhe into the jails without any accusation but for being jews