Last Jews of Baghdad: Remembering a Lost Homeland (Nissim Rejwan)

Book Review: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Arab

Nissim Rejwan, The Last Jews of Baghdad: Remembering a Lost Homeland, University of Texas Press, 2004

O who will remember, O who will be sure
And still feel the silence as close as before
And was there a season without any rain,
And never, O never, O never again?

The time for dividing and no-one will speak
Of the sadness of hiding, and the softness of sleep
O will there be nothing of peace till the end,
Or never, O never, O never again?

Old man how you tarry, old man how you weep
The trinkets you carry and the garlands you keep
For the salt tears of lovers and the whispers of friends
Come never, O never, O never again
Richard Thompson, ѓNever Again

In the most recent issue of The Jerusalem Quarterly File the lead editorial proclaims what its editors see as the reality of Arab Jewry in starkly dramatic fashion: ԓWhen Native Jews Ceased to be Arabs. ( )

The introduction to the journal tries to make the case that Jews who once lived in the Arab world stopped being Arabs at some point, as if identity was something that could be put on and taken off like a pair of pants.  One of the articles in this journal discusses the case of the Palestinian writer Yitzhak Shami whose seminal novella The Vengeance of the Fathers is a contentious flashpoint regarding the nativity of Jews in the Middle East. 

In the article on Shami by the Palestinian writer Salim Tamari ( ), the present writer is taken to task for misstating the case of the Arab nativity of Jews like Shami.  In fact, Tamari chastises me for characterizing Shami in a way that Shami himself would have contested.  In his article he tries to make the case that ShamiԒs life and writing had no relation to the great political vicissitudes of the times. 

Tamari, as we recently saw in the case of Avi Picards attack on Ella Shohat, is yet another voice attempting to break the links between Sephardic Jewish writers, the historical culture of the Sephardim and the way in which that culture is manifested through the prism of contemporary dilemmas.  Such a tactic has exemplified the way in which the Zionist hegemonic mindset has sought to eviscerate the role of Sephardic culture and explains why that culture has remained outside the common frame of reference in mainstream Jewish consciousness.

So who then are these native Jews who have been characterized as NOT BEING ARABS?  What then is their actual identity?

In the just-published memoir by the Baghdad-born Nissim Rejwan, one of the most eloquent and distinguished Sephardi writers of his generation, a number of answers are provided.  Rejwan is unapologetic about his native Arab identity and tells the story of his life in Baghdad in a manner that recalls the narratives of the seminal Arabic writers of his generation: Naguib Mahfouz, Sonallah Ibrahim and Jabra Ibrahim Jabra Җ writers whose explosive modernistic impulses led to a re-assessment of the way in which Arab self-perception was to be presented. 

The Arab modernist faced challenges from within his own religious and ethno-cultural tradition as well as from the encroachment of the West as a colonial presence in his native land.  These writers exploded a number of the conventions of traditional Arab culture: They explored the world of the poor and downtrodden, a world that had been left unexamined through the centuries of an Arab culture that had served to celebrate the wealthy and the powerful; they articulated the voices of the Arab street and marketplace, the vernacular Arabic language, lahajat al-ammiya that had been deemed off-limits in a world of linguistic purity in the form of classical Arabic, lahajat al-fusha; they explored the interior world of the human psyche with its dark passions and complex mechanisms fully intact.  These writers freely spoke of sexual longing, the desire of the interior self to emerge as a fully autonomous entity, the breakdown of traditional, patriarchal and religious authority and the struggle for freedom and human rights in a political landscape that was, to put it charitably, less than encouraging towards their struggle.

This indeed is the Levantine voice left silent that I have been talking about; a voice that lived through a fascinating and often debilitating transition to a socially and politically repressive world that has now been turned into a question mark.  The Arab modernist was a person who defied the mores and traditions of centuries and sought engagement with new ideas, new trends and new ways of living. 

In the final volume of Mahfouzђs famous epic The Cairo Trilogy, Sugar Street, we are finally left with an inter-family battle between Abd al-Munim, the Islamic fundamentalist, and the Arab secular modernism of his brother Ahmad who has followed in the footsteps of his uncle Kamal, a schoolteacher and budding writer.  This battle between Islamic fundamentalism and Arab modernism is one that Mahfouz articulates in the following exchange between Kamal, the aging modernist son of a conservative Egyptian patriarch and the editor of The New Man, a progressive magazine:

Literature is one of the greatest tools of liberation, but it can also be employed for reactionary ends.  So watch your step.  From the mosque university of al-Azhar and from the Dar al-Ulum teachers college have come a sickening type of literature that has left generations of Egyptians with rigid minds and broken spirits.  But no matter what, science is the foundation of modern life҅  Dont be surprised that a man who is considered a literary figure should tell you this frankly.  We must study the sciences and absorb the scientific mentality.  A person who doesnҒt know science is not a citizen of the twentieth century, even if he is a genius.  Artists too must learn their share of science Science must take the place that prophecy and religion had in the ancient world.

This primal split between religion and modern science, an important feature of the Islamic High Middle Ages as well, marked a generation of Arab intellectuals who grew up in the ferment and controversy over the process of Westernization and its relation to the dictates of tradition and history.

Nissim Rejwan comes from a Jewish family that we very rarely view in our historical mirror; the Rejwan family is barely if at all middle class.  Theirs is a world of sometimes crushing poverty as the patriarch of the family loses his eyesight and is unable to provide for the clan.

So in The Last Jews in Baghdad we are faced with a portrait of a family that is in almost continual turmoil, struggling to survive in the ever-changing world of Iraq.  We see the family in terms of its superstitions and its sometimes narrow moral codes Ŗ all things that young Nissim will reject in favor of the life of the mind. 

Rejwan draws a colorful and complex portrait of his native land with a precision that takes in the drama, joy and tragedy of its recent past.  We are ushered into holiday celebrations, the cleaning out of latrines, the smells and sounds of the Arab kitchen, and most importantly the quotidian daily struggles of the Rejwan family to survive in a society that was in the throes of a painful expansion and contraction.

The Last Jews in Baghdad is a book that speaks of the reality of Jews who never identify themselves self-consciously as Jews or as anything else.  They are members of a society of people who face difficult challenges on a day to day basis.  We see how water was gotten a scarce resource that was extremely precious to the inhabitants of Baghdad.  We see the power of sexual passion in the life of a very young man and how those carnal impulses led him to see the world he was growing up in.  We see how men and women are married off to one another and how money functioned in family affairs.  We are ushered into a world of men and women, children and adults, whose lives were difficult and hard.  Work is a constant motif in the book as making a living is never an easy thing.  Nissim֒s brother Eliahu, at one point the sole breadwinner in the family, is bankrupted and thrown into jail for a short time.  The struggle to make ends meet runs as a constant thread throughout the book.

But what comes as a complete surprise is the dense interconnectedness of this world.  There is no Jewish ghetto in Baghdad as one might expect.  True, the Jews have specific religious commandments and celebrations that separate them from their Muslim neighbors, but we see clearly that in spite of certain ethno-cultural differences the Jews, Christians and Muslims existed in a world that was a unity:

To be sure, the Jews of Baghdad had their own Arabic vernacular which they used in their own houses and in their daily contacts with each other, while at the same time managing to speak with their Muslim neighbors in the latters own colloquial Arabic.  The fact, however, was that people in every neighborhood and of every ethnic and/or religious sect in Baghdad had a slightly different way of expressing themselves.  This was true even where the Jewish community was concerned, what with the differences in class and education being so marked and the fact that there were certain neighborhoods where certain groups of very poor and illiterate Jews used to live, especially those who in the course of the years came to Baghdad in search of work and a better life.

Here we clearly come to understand one of the most vexing principles that grounded life and existence in the Arab world over many centuries: While society was one, such unity was formed out of the patchwork of many sub-group identities that continued to exist under the surface of the society as a whole.  This sense of cultural and ethno-national identity is anti-Western in its moderation: The lines that anchor the Hegelian model of Western national consciousness abstract any and all sense of cultural difference at the expense of the larger conglomerate of national being.  In Hegelian thought, the nation is paramount and cannot permit any ethno-cultural variation or multiplicity.

The Baghdad of Nissim Rejwan was an open civilization where rivalry and passionate struggles existed, but where those struggles were subsumed under the civil entente that had been the norm in the Arab East for many centuries.  Jews and Muslims went into business with one another, shared the marketplace, wished one another well, and interacted in a human manner that often evinced compassion and the humanistic impulses that had enriched Judaism and Islam in their most vigorously brilliant formations.

As the political situation in Iraq becomes ever more precarious, the breakdown of the old system was made manifest in the emergence of the new nationalisms.  We see the effects of the British occupation of Iraq explode into the 1941 anti-Jewish rioting that took the lives of Jews and Muslims alike:

Various versions have been told of what actually happened that Sunday and the following day.  According to official figures, the riots and murders that took place on those two days claimed a total of 110 dead, among them 28 women, and 204 injured Җ and that the victims were from both sides, Jews and Muslims The Jews of Baghdad were caught completely unaware.  To be sure, they had very good reason to celebrate: Here at least was an end to the month-old molestation and harassments to which Rashid őAlis regime subjected them in so many petty and unpredictable ways.  The British, who were fighting HitlerҒs hordes, were victorious.  Thus when they went out to watch the crown regents triumphal march back that fateful Sunday, they thought they could afford to a appear a little defiant, feeling secure in the knowledge that the army and security forces were now fully in control.

The riots, known in Arabic as the farhud, were caused by the failed coup of Rashid ґAli and the re-installation of the British-supported regent Abdul Ilah.  The riots scapegoated the Jews as the Jews were seen to be supportive of the British at the expense of the nationalists.  But this story had been complicated by the fact that the reactionary Iraqi nationalists, many of whom had found in the Nazis a convenient Machiavellian ally, were opposed by liberal Iraqis, mainly those in the Communist party, who did not divide Iraqi society by religion or ethnicity.

Rejwan draws a portrait of a complex Iraqi society riven by competing political groups; there are Iraqi patriots who are prepared to fight the British and their supporters, while there are even more radical nationalists whose hatred of the British spilled over into a rejection of the xenophobic ethnocentrism of the Rashid Ali partisans.

As Rejwan matures, we see him develop into a public intellectual forming a part of a group of Iraqi literati who read the same books and develop into a circle that is deeply reminiscent of those coffee house bull sessions that are ubiquitous in the works of Mahfouz:

Some of my fondest memories of Baghdad, in fact, have to do with my work in Al-Rabita Bookshop, an offshoot of a cultural association of the same name that was founded by a group of intellectuals with leftist political leanings who stopped short of being card-carrying Communistsх  The bookshop, which was opened in the spring of 1946, soon became a meeting place for intellectuals and bookworms of all kinds and although I had already had my own circle of friend and fellow-literati, some of my best and most lasting intellectual friendships and associations had their origins there.  Baghdad of the mid-1940s was a comparatively provincial little place with a rather limited number of people who actually read foreign languages with ease or for pleasure.

After years of teaching himself English and developing a modern, liberal sensibility, Nissim Rejwan found himself in the midst of a group of writers and intellectuals that numbered among its members Buland al-Haidari, the famous Arab modernist poet, Najib al-Mani, Jabra Ibrahim Jabra ֖ the famous Palestinian author and Adnan Raouf.  These men would be torn apart by the emergence of exclusionary ethno-religious nationalisms, but their fierce and abiding commitment to the principles of liberal, secular values speaks of a parallel counter-reality to the prejudices and vicious hatreds that began to take shape in the region under the aegis of the different nationalist movements.

In fact, the final chapters of the book speak of both the harsh exile of the Jews of Iraq along with the creation of a Diaspora consciousness among the members of the Al-Rabita group.  Alongside the tragic end of the Jewish community in Baghdad, a community that had seen Iraq as its millennial home, there is the sadly touching attempt by the members of the Al-Rabita group to find one another in their exiles:

It was largely thanks to Samira al-Mana and Al-Ightirab al-Adabi that contacts were renewed, after forty-four long years of forced separation, with at least two long-lost friends of my youth.  Both Buland al-Haidari and ֑Adnan Raouf had contributed words of appreciation in Najibs memory to the issue devoted to the man and his work on his sudden death, often mixing these with fond memories of the first stages of their friendship with the deceased, Buland going so far as to mention other members of ғthe gang (al-shulla), the days spent in Baghdad cafes and coffee shops, the meeting place that was Al-Rabita Bookshop and ԓthe Jewish young man who ran it and whose name was Nissim Rejwan.

Here we see a complete inversion of the paradigm that is routinely presented in Zionist discourse: Rather than seeing the mythic Israel as his homeland, Rejwan pines for the lost paradise of Baghdad which in the bookԒs subtitle he characterizes as a lost homeland.Ӕ  And although the memoir ends with his flight to Israel a bit of information is provided regarding the manner in which Iraqi Jews were demeaned and discriminated against upon their arrival to their new ֓homeland, a homeland that many of these Sephardi Jews felt they would have been better off never having known Ԗ the struggle of Rejwan and his peers to build a better Iraq signifies their love of an Iraq that was pluralistic, urbane and multicultural. 

Having been accompanied by Rejwan on a trip through the realities of Baghdad in the 1930s and 40Ғs, we are able to more clearly assess whether or not Jews stoppedӔ being Arabs.  First, there is the question of what it means to be an Arab.  Is Arab identity exclusively to be found in the folklore and Muslim religion of the Middle East?  Or is Arab identity a more elastic formation that can be legitimately exemplified by the figure of one Yusuf al-Kabeer, a Jew whose existence would totally baffle those ethnocentrists who define identity in a very narrow and circumscribed manner:

The only part of our conversation I now remember clearly was his caustic comments made, it must be added, in sorrow rather than ridicule ֖ on the attitudes and the high hopes the emigrants were holding as to their prospects in Israel.  Especially astounding to him was the alacrity with which they were rushing to sign away their Iraqi nationality.  In one respect, at least, they are making a grave mistake,Ӕ he said in his always quiet manner.  They seem to think that emigration amounts to no more than a stroll down the banks of the Tigris (tisyaghaӒal shettani).

Al-Kabeer might today be seen as a crank Ԗ a man who believed, as did the Chief Rabbi of Iraq Sasson Khedouri, that the future of the Jews would remain in Baghdad and yet notwithstanding the debilitating years of Saddam Hussein and the persecutions of the Jewish community until it had dwindled to a small handful of the elderly who were too weak to leave, Al-Kabeer֒s words continue to ring true: The Jews of Iraq were a deeply entrenched community whose cultural and religious identity had been carefully formed upon the crucible of the countrys native culture and whose history was destroyed when they left the country.

In a short retelling of the history of the Jews of Iraq, Rejwan affirms the deep cultural ties that Jews had with their adopted home.  It should be remembered that the development of rabbinic Judaism was cemented by the publication of the Babylonian Talmud in the century just preceding the emergence of Islam.  The great rabbinical academies of Babylonia led to the emergence of the Geonim, those heirs of the Talmudic tradition, who count among them the giant R. SeҒadya Gaon (882-942) who initiated the critical transition, completed by Moses Maimonides a couple of centuries later, from pre-rational Talmudism to the scientific rational humanism developed in the first centuries of Islam.

As Rejwan states:

Ambiguity and paradox are almost inseparable features of all Jewish history.  Few episodes in recent Jewish history, however, are as shrouded in ambiguity and paradox as the mass emigration to the newly established state of Israel of Jews from Middle Eastern and North African lands.  The ambiguity here is apparent on more than one level, but it is especially noticeable in the sphere of motivation.  What was the motive force behind this mass exodus?  What made well-established and well-adjusted Jewries like those of Yemen, Morocco, and Iraq decide to pack their belongings and make their way to Israel, many of them leaving behind comfortable homes, prosperous businesses, and neighbors and friends with whom they maintained close and intimate ties?

In Israel of the 1950s and 1960s it was the fashion to speak of the mass aliya from Muslim lands as rescue immigration,Ӕ implying that these ancient Jewish communities were virtually ejected from the lands of their birth and had the good fortune of having loving and benevolent brethren in Eretz Yisrael who gladly provided them with a haven and new homes.  What the historical record says, however, and what some of the people directly involved in those mass population movements testify, seems clearly to contradict this conveniently simple version of the situation.

Indeed, in my own writing I have continued to insist on preserving the native voices of indigenous Sephardic Jews born and bred in the Arab world, and for this I have been excoriated and pilloried by the Zionists and their partisans. 

In The Last Jews in Baghdad we have the articulation of a native Arab Jewish voice that clearly tells us what happened in the Arab world during its most critically contested period as regards Jewish existence.  So much ink has been spilled to assert the primordial split between JEW and ARAB those sharply defined monolingualisms as we have seen them presented in the Zionist mythology ֖ that the actual REALITIES of the Jews and Muslims who once lived together in productive harmony have been subsumed and ERASED by what Sami Shalom Chetrit has called the Ashkenazi Zionist Eraser.

Rejwan does not seek to whitewash the past, merely to articulate his own voice; a voice which, as we have been relentlessly repeating, is one that has been LOST and SILENT in the current discourse on the Middle East. 

The Last Jews in Baghdad is a brilliantly written prcis of interlinked miniatures that serves as a metonymy of life in the Middle East in the 20th century.  It tells the tale of a young man who struggled along with his family to survive materially and developed socially into a luminous intellectual homme de lettres in a world that was being shaken to its very core.  He is sober and matter of fact when it comes to discussing matters that are of the utmost controversy and volatility.  The rhetorical style of his prose maintains an evenhanded coolness and a sense of rational objectivity that bespeaks the genius of the Arab mind: The deep sense of fatalism that undergirds Arab civilization buttresses a stoicism that is at almost complete odds with the image of the region and its inhabitants as crazed and maniacal fanatics who are driven by irrational impulses and raw, violent emotions.

Such indeed is the very picture that Rejwan draws of the Jews and Muslims of Baghdad in his own era. 

Iraq appears as a bustling land of energy and passion that nurtures its children to grow and to build.  Life in the Arab East, as we see it presented in the epic scholarship of S.D. Goitein in his classic A Mediterranean Society, is electrifyingly dynamic and somewhat chaotic.  This chaos should not be mistaken for base ignorance or lethargy in fact the Arab East fed off of such chaos to develop an economic and intellectual civilization that Goitein sums up in the following manner:

During the High Middle Ages, men, goods, money, and books used to travel far and almost without restrictions throughout the Mediterranean area.  In many respects, the area resembled a free-trade community.  The treatment of foreigners, as a rule, was remarkably liberal.  The close connection among all parts of the Jewish diaspora, expressed in contributions to, and spiritual and organizational dependence upon, ecumenical religious authorities in faraway countries was not regarded by the governments of the various states as an infringement on their authority.

Remarkably, the world of Baghdad in the 20th century as presented by Rejwan is completely congruous with the Mediterranean world presented in Goitein閒s masterwork.  While the details of daily life had certainly changed, the broad outlines of life in Baghdad remain much as they were in centuries past.  This does not mean to imply that the Baghdadis were static and ignorant boors far from it, the rich miniatures that Rejwan constructs in this masterful memoir point to a searching and dynamic restlessness that animated the young men and women of this generation. 

The forces of obscurantism and cultural repression are manifested by the corrosive and xenophobic forms of ethnocentric nationalism that emerge in the region in the wake of the colonial regimes of Europe.  And in this wonderful book we see how the courageous young intellectuals of the Arab world, Jewish and Muslim alike, sought to fight the forces of repression and ignorance.

That these voices have been occluded and silenced by the cultural racists and chauvinists does not make them any less salient a factor in our historical understanding.

In The Last Jews in Baghdad we are treated to a rare and articulate example of a lost voice that desperately needs to be heard as a counterweight to the current stasis and impoverishment of the ruling discourse; a discourse that would have it that Jews are not native to the Middle East and serve to form an alien presence that is perpetually fated to live in violent opposition to the Arabs of the region. 

It makes a certain amount of sense from the perspective of ethnocentric Ashkenazi Zionism to make sure that such voices are not heard.  In point of fact the suppression of voices such as Rejwan֒s has ensured that Arab Jews themselves, as I have repeatedly stated, remain resolutely IGNORANT and UNAWARE of their own traditional history in the region.  Rather than support the voice and vision of the brilliant Nissim Rejwan we have been forced to deal with the idiotic and misinformed statements of writers such as Edwin Black whose characterization of Jewish life in Iraq is constructed along the lines of the hoary Zionist myths.

The Last Jews in Baghdad, featuring a wonderfully trenchant introduction by the insightful scholar Joel Beinin (author of the classic The Dispersion of Egyptian Jewry), is required reading, first for Sephardic Jews who remain completely ignorant of their own history; a history rich in the cultural manners and mores of the Arab East, but also for Ashkenazi Jews who need to learn what happened in the Arab world from a voice whose sonority and resonance typifies the nativity of the region.  In addition, the work should serve as a shining example of modern Arab letters to an Arab world that has in many ways due to the Zionist obfuscation of the history of Arab Jewry ֖ forgotten the historical role of Jews in their society.

Nissim Rejwan is sadly one of the last of his generation; a generation misunderstood and misread by the Jews who followed Sephardi and Ashkenazi alike.  His writing is a literate and cultured attempt to heroically set the record straight and tell the story of Arab Jews as they truly lived it, without romanticism and without false sentiment.  It is the unalloyed record of a man who saw with his own eyes and felt with his own heart what happened to his culture and his history.  It is a proud marker of a history gone AWOL; a history that needs to be recovered if we are to have a fair assessment of a world that has degenerated into the incivility and barbarity that currently draws a bold line between Jew and Arab.

David Shasha