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  • from Baghdad, Yesterday:The Making of an Arab Jew
  • Sasson Somekh (bio)
    Translated by Ibis Editions


In 1951, at the age of seventeen, I left my native Baghdad and immigrated to Israel. I moved with my family and the bulk of the ancient Jewish community of Mesopotamia—a community that's thought to have come into being upon the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem in 587 b.c.e. Over the course of millennia it experienced various transformations as the country came under the rule of a parade of imperial powers, including the Babylonians, Persians, Arabs, Turks, and British.

My years in Baghdad were, I admit, fairly uneventful. To my good fortune, my life as a whole hasn't been shaped by any particular hardships or by persecution. (In this respect, it differs markedly from the lives of some of my Baghdadi friends who suffered because of their membership in the Zionist or Communist underground movements.) What spurred me to write these memoirs is the fact that—while it has been estimated that by the early twentieth century nearly a third of Baghdad's population was Jewish—there is no longer any sort of Jewish presence to speak of either in Baghdad or in Iraq. I belong, that is, to the last generation of Iraqi Jews who lived side by side with Iraqis of other religions, speaking a common language and participating actively in Iraqi culture.

The Lettuce Beds

In 1939, my family moved to a new house in a neighborhood called the Lettuce Beds (in Arabic, Bustan al-khass). The house was cozy and surrounded by a narrow garden. My father invested most of his savings and energy in its construction. This house was located not far from our previous home, where I was born, and which was but a short walk from the Tigris. Our old neighborhood was called the Eastern Gate, and it was outside the bounds of the traditional Jewish quarters. Our new neighborhood was mostly middle class and mixed, with Jews, Christians, and Muslims living alongside one another.

I was about five years old when we moved, and I remember neither the house being built nor moving into it. I have a picture that my father took around the time the construction was completed. The house was fully modern [End Page 128] (in other words, European) and in the photo it stands alone, girded by a wall. The interior—and this I remember well, since we lived there until we left Iraq—consisted of two floors and six rooms, one of which was particularly spacious and served as a reception room.

Over the course of the months and years that followed our move, houses of similar size, sometimes larger, became popular, and more and more homes like ours were built in this area, which eventually filled six or seven streets that burst with people and greenery. The land itself belonged to the state and was divided into 1,600-foot plots, which were leased for ninety-nine years at a scant price to whoever wanted to build their own house and live there. The neighborhood, true to its name, was the area where the fragrant lettuce of Baghdad was grown. (Several years ago, I read a novel by an Iraqi writer who remained in Baghdad until after the 1991 Gulf War. The book's main characters reminisce about the "good old days" before Saddam Hussein, nostalgically recalling the beloved and refreshing lettuce, which was, says the novel, no longer available to the residents of the city.)

Who lived in these houses? Many of the residents were Jewish, the majority of them clerks and professionals: they were doctors, lawyers, teachers, and small-time merchants. Very rich Jews (and non-Jews) lived far from this area, in vast, luxurious villas. Among them were many of the nouveaux riches who had profited from World War ii and the ensuing years and had built themselves small palaces.

Most of our immediate neighbors were Jewish, including—as I was to learn only years later—the family of the now well-known Israeli novelist Sami Michael. They lived on an adjacent street, but in those days I had...


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pp. 128-136
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