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The Last Jews in Baghdad

Remembering a Lost Homeland

By Nissim Rejwan

Publication Year: 2004

Once upon a time, Baghdad was home to a flourishing Jewish community. More than a third of the city’s people were Jews, and Jewish customs and holidays helped set the pattern of Baghdad’s cultural and commercial life. On the city’s streets and in the bazaars, Jews, Muslims, and Christians—all native-born Iraqis—intermingled, speaking virtually the same colloquial Arabic and sharing a common sense of national identity. And then, almost overnight it seemed, the state of Israel was born, and lines were drawn between Jews and Arabs. Over the next couple of years, nearly the entire Jewish population of Baghdad fled their Iraqi homeland, never to return. In this beautifully written memoir, Nissim Rejwan recalls the lost Jewish community of Baghdad, in which he was a child and young man from the 1920s through 1951. He paints a minutely detailed picture of growing up in a barely middle-class family, dealing with a motley assortment of neighbors and landlords, struggling through the local schools, and finally discovering the pleasures of self-education and sexual awakening. Rejwan intertwines his personal story with the story of the cultural renaissance that was flowering in Baghdad during the years of his young manhood, describing how his work as a bookshop manager and a staff writer for the Iraq Times brought him friendships with many of the country’s leading intellectual and literary figures. He rounds off his story by remembering how the political and cultural upheavals that accompanied the founding of Israel, as well as broad hints sent back by the first arrivals in the new state, left him with a deep ambivalence as he bid a last farewell to a homeland that had become hostile to its native Jews.

Published by: University of Texas Press


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pp. ix-x

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Foreword: Jews as Native Iraqis: An Introduction

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pp. xi-xxii

Nissim Rejwan tells us, quoting W. H. Auden, that he always fought for the right to remain ‘‘a private face in a private place.’’ Readers of good faith will want to respect his declared intentions. Yet those who have found their way to this memoir are, like the author himself, unlikely to have avoided the bruising impact of the powerful political forces that overwhelmed the private interests and...

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Preface: On Taking Stock

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pp. xxiii-xxiv

Dear Chava, Karl Barth once wrote that every autobiography is perforce a dubious enterprise. This, he explained, is because the underlying assumption of autobiographical writings is that ‘‘a chair exists in which a man can sit down and contemplate his own life, to compare its phases, to survey its development, and to penetrate its meanings.’’To be sure, he added, every man can and ought to take stock of himself. But he cannot survey himself...

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Chapter 1. In Old Baghdad

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pp. 1-8

It has often been said that New York is a Jewish city. I think one can safely say the same about Baghdad of the first half of the twentieth century. At the time of writing, barely twenty Jews, most of them elderly, live in my hometown. The one monument these Jews have left is a synagogue where, as their ancestors did from time immemorial, they keep praying for ‘‘the welfare of the city,’’ as Jews in the...

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Chapter 2. The Rejwan Tribe

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pp. 9-16

There are two theories concerning the etymology and origin of the name Rejwan. According to my late father, one of his ancestors was so red in the face that people used to remark: ‘‘He’s as red as rejwan’’—the word rejwan being colloquial Iraqi Arabic for purple, crimson, or red, the original word in classical Arabic being urjuwan. In those days people did not usually have surnames, men...

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Chapter 3. Mother and the Placebo Effect

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pp. 17-25

Had she been a social scientist or a cultural anthropologist, I am sure Mother would have become a great advocate of the theory known as ‘‘the self-fulfilling prophecy’’ and would have been the first to elaborate the theory, even before William I. Thomas and Florian Znaniecki proposed it in their classic, The Polish Peasant in America and Europe. Thomas and Znaniecki advanced the...

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Chapter 4. Na‘ima

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pp. 26-37

Na‘ima, my eldest sister, died peacefully in her sleep one night in November 1980, aged seventy-seven. A few years before her death, I made a habit of visiting her in her tiny immigrant housing flat in Netanya, where I usually stayed a night or two. Na‘ima’s memory was phenomenal. For hours on end she used to answer my queries about those early days, describing the conditions in...

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Chapter 5. Early Initiations

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pp. 38-51

Father was my only source of mental nourishment for at least the first seven years of my life. Homebound and with pretty little to do, he used to spend hours explaining things that used to perplex me and answering my nagging questions. I don’t remember having asked any of the questions usually put to parents by clever and highly imaginative boys—such as the one as to whether...

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Chapter 6. Schooling

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pp. 52-61

A New York friend of mine, a writer notorious for her outspokenness, once wrote in a letter in the course of one of her periodic reprimands: ‘‘Why, Goddamnit, didn’t your father and mother send you to the Baghdadian equivalent of cheder? Ideas of human values did begin, you know, before the Voltairian Enlightenment, and even the Enlightenment’s ideas are Isaiah’s.’’ ...

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Chapter 7. The Great Crash and Us

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pp. 62-73

I don’t know how these things work—nor, I suspect, do professional economists. In later years, of course, I learned about the Great Crash of 1929; but then that happened in a distant land and to well-to-do folks. The precise effects that crash was to have on a tiny, primitive mercantile community in a provincial town like Baghdad—the mere fact that there could have been such effects—...

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Chapter 8. Hesqail Abul ‘Alwa Hires a Helper

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pp. 74-84

It was only toward the end of 1945, when Iwas almost twenty-two, that I finally got my secondary school certificate. It was a very narrow escape, so to speak, since in the final exams I failed in history and by some mistake or a miracle got 54 in mathematics. The problem of having to sit again for the history exam at the end of the summer vacation caused me a great deal of anxiety throughout the...

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Chapter 9. Living in Sexual Deprivation

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pp. 85-96

In the mid-1950s, observing young men and women in their teens embracing, kissing, and ‘‘necking’’ openly in the streets, buses, and underground stations of London, Paris, Rome, Tel Aviv, and Jerusalem, I could not help thinking of the long years of sexual deprivation of the youth of the Baghdad in which I was born and grew up. And I own that these feelings were not always free of a kind...

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Chapter 10. Idle Days

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pp. 97-110

The years 1937–1939 I spent in almost total idleness as far as work and regular schooling were concerned. The elementary school certificate, marking the successful conclusion of the six forms of primary school, I had finally got in 1938. To besure, this otherwise indifferent piece of paper entitled me to admittance to an Intermediate School; but what with one thing or other—mainly...

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Chapter 11. Distorted Visions

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pp. 111-125

One day early in 1971, making my usual round of the bookshops, I picked up what I would say was almost a personal book—a book which, by virtue of its time, its quality,and its contents amounts to a faithful record of my intellectual and mental development during a crucial decade of my life. The book was The Collected Essays, Journalism, and Letters of George Orwell, all in four...

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Chapter 12. Rashid ‘Ali’s Coup and Its Aftermath

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pp. 126-138

The one and only productive thing I remember doing during the whole month of May 1941 was reading the bulky William Collins’s edition of The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. I was then out of a job anyway and in the second form of my intermediate school; I don’t quite remember whether there was school during that month of war, but our stay in Beit Abu Ya‘qoub enabled me to have my own quiet corner to read. ...

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Chapter 13. Bookshop Days

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pp. 139-149

At some point my mind began to wander—I cannot say exactly when. I was sitting there in this university auditorium attending a very special and exclusive seminar given by Professor Bernard Lewis, one of the most distinguished historians of the modern Middle East. The subject was Arab-Jewish relations, Jews in Medieval Islam, and ‘‘anti-Semitism in Islam.’’ The lecturer was speaking...

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Chapter 14. A Deepening Friendship

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pp. 150-158

The first poem that I was to read and appreciate in English was Eliot’s ‘‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.’’ It seems like a strange start—almost as if you began a book with the last sentence. But in my case it was rather natural—a result of the circumstance that, on the one hand, I had no formal education of any kind in English and in English literature and, on the other, my...

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Chapter 15. The Start: Movies, Book Reviews

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pp. 159-168

The circumstances which had led me, seemingly so arbitrarily, to stop contributing my ‘‘regular and popular’’ reviews to the Iraq Times precisely in August 1948 had to do with the first Arab-Israeli war and the debacle of the Iraqi army in that war, and I don’t intend to go into them. Here I will try and recapitulate the circumstances in which I started writing regularly for that English-language, British-controlled Baghdad daily. ...

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Chapter 16. Out in the Cold

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pp. 169-179

The date of the editor’s letter was July 24, a Saturday, so that my last book review was to appear on Wednesday the 28th of the month—a notice of barely four days. Also, while it was true that the paper paid me for the reviews and the columns (the total came roughly to about twenty pounds a month, a handsome enough pay by the standards then prevailing), Anderson’s allegation about the depression of business did not quite convince...

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Chapter 17. Disposing of a Library

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pp. 180-187

By early 1950, what with me being out of a job and members of our circle studying to be lawyers or employed in various minor government positions, the fact of my decision to emigrate was known to all my friends, so that the act of bidding goodbye to them spread out over a period of a few months.The material aspect of the move was easy enough to tackle—no real estate to sell, no furniture...

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Chapter 18. End of a Community

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pp. 188-197

It is all but impossible to pinpoint a date or an event with which the position of the Jews of Iraq began to deteriorate and take the course leading finally, and inevitably, to the destruction of the community. Some observers link it with the farhud. Others maintain that the whole process started only with the adoption by the U.N. General Assembly of the Partition Plan for Palestine late in 1947. ...

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Chapter 19. Farewells and Reunions

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pp. 198-208

On March 2, 1950, the Iraqi minister of interior, Salih Jabr, introduced to parliament a draft law by virtue of which Iraqi Jews were to be permitted to leave the country provided they gave up their nationality. Jabr told the deputies that the government was prompted to take this measure owing to the mass exodus of Iraqi Jews by illegal means. He explained that, since martial law was...

Appendix A. The Jews of Iraq: A Brief Historical Sketch

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pp. 209-217

Appendix B. A Selection of Book Reviews from the Iraq Times

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pp. 218-237

Index of Names of Persons

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pp. 239-242

E-ISBN-13: 9780292797475
E-ISBN-10: 0292797478
Print-ISBN-13: 9780292702936
Print-ISBN-10: 0292702930

Page Count: 268
Publication Year: 2004

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Subject Headings

  • Jews -- Iraq -- Baghdad -- Social conditions -- 20th century.
  • Rejwan, Nissim.
  • Jews -- Iraq -- Baghdad -- Biography.
  • Jews -- Iraq -- Baghdad -- Social life and customs.
  • Baghdad (Iraq) -- Ethnic relations.
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