Farewell Babylon: Coming of Age in Jewish Baghdad By Naim Kattan
Souvenir Press, $50. Reviewed by LEON BENBARUK
Farewell Babylon is the translation from the original French book Adieu Babylone (1975) and tells of the writer’s journey through identity.
It’s a story about loss (leaving Baghdad) and discovery, about his Jewish friend Nessim in Baghdad and British colonial rule which sheds some light on today’s Iraq and the relationships between Arabs, Kurds, Bedouins, Assyrians, Armenians and Jews – and about Muslim domination by Sunnis and Shi-ites on the rest of society.
Naim and Nessim are young intellectuals who meet in a Baghdad café where
they discuss european literature and reflect on the difficulty of ‘creating’ a new post- independent modern Iraqi literature.
One night in 1941 Bedouin marauders descended on the city pillaging, raping,
stealing and leaving in no doubt that Jews had to leave. But where do you go in 1941
with the onslaught of nazism? Naim left Baghdad by bus for Beirut en route to France dreaming of Paris.
In Paris he was educated at the Jewish school of the alliance Israelite Universelle
(AIU) known simply as l’école de alliance, prior to going to the Sorbonne on a scholarship
in 1947 to study French Humanities and literature.
The AIU made an enormous impact on those who attended. My father and some of
his generation were educated in Morocco in the 1930s by teachers from there and he
was always talking about his experience and his Turkish mentor Maitre Tajouri.
Whether in Casablanca or Baghdad these young “Turks” were not only the future leaders of the Jewish communities but made the leap from the Middle ages to modernity.
Like most ‘originaires’ (exiles) from Arab countries, naim stayed connected to the land of his birth. For him Arabic was still alive and, to this day, is close to his heart.
Farewell Babylon is not a work of nostalgia nor one of resentment. It is a book
about growing up in Baghdad.
Anyone born in the Mediterranean basin, from North Africa to West Asia, will identify with this book: the trials, hardships and tribulations of a traditional Jewish Iraqi community plus the economic hardships coupled with a once happy, creative community.
Although neither Sephardi nor Ashkenazi, Iraqi Jews, for reasons of statistics and surveys have always been lumped, in Israel, with Sephardic communities just like Yemenite Jews though neither have anything in common with Sfarad (Spain).
Jews lived in Iraq from the time of the first Jewish exile 2500 years ago, brought
to Mesopotamia by king Nebbuchanezzar after he destroyed Jerusalem.
Iraq, or Babylon, became one of the main Jewish centres and Jews were present
1200 years before the Muslims and 500 years before indigenous Christians. yet, in the
eyes of Arabs, Jews and Christians, no matter what they said or did, were always
looked upon as foreigners. No one could convince the arabs of the Marshes or
Kurdish Muslims that Jews were there long before them. A little like a fifth generation
New Zealand Chinese policemen on the beat in Auckland would be simply looked upon
Iraqi Jews were highly integrated and had even adopted arabic first names such
as Ibrahim, Anwar and Naim. However they rarely crossed the divide – socialising
and marriage were almost non-existent, interacting with arabs happened only at work or when buying goods.
Jews excelled in speaking the Arabic language pronouncing it with rounded
vowels and were masters at speaking classical literary arabic, the language of the
Koran. This is important for two reasons. The way you spoke immediately identified
you ethnically and religiously and, more importantly, classical arabic was for philologists, linguists, Arabists and Orientalists. It was the language of orators and commanded respect and veneration – very comparable to war time winston
To put it in modern parlance, you can take young naim out of Iraq but not the Iraq out of him.
I recommend this book as few such books are published in English.
Jews of Arab lands, although well integrated now in Israel and the west, retain a close connection to their countries of birth and their bonds with Arabs will always be strong.
The above review first appeared in the New Zealand Jewish Chronicle
Leon Benbaruk is a Whanganui reviewer