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Babylon and On

Naim Kattan’s memoir of his Iraqi boyhood tells a familiar tale: Jews were here. Now they are not.

Unknown Author
January 24, 2007

We were already somewhere else…”

With these words, which come towards the close of his newly-translated memoir Farewell, Babylon, the Iraqi-born Jewish writer Naim Kattan restates one of the most enduring paradoxes in Jewish history: that all the while they belonged to Iraq—belonging there with all their being, their history, their love—most Iraqi Jews were scrambling to obtain passports and exit visas to seek out homes and fortune elsewhere. They were already somewhere else. So many of them eventually left Iraq that today there are no Jews left there.

In light of 20th century European Jewish history, the tale is familiar enough. After generations, sometimes centuries in one place, Jews are no longer welcome. When they resist leaving, or try to prolong their stay, or learn to put up with ever-crueler forms of oppression, their lives are made so intolerable that they have no option but to abandon everything and flee. Failure to read the writing on the wall often forecloses even the possibility of flight, thus spelling—as in the German case—looting, imprisonment, forced labor, slaughter.

The inability to read the writing on the wall traces back to the Babylonian King Belshazzar, the man responsible for deporting the Jews to Iraq more than 2,500 years ago. (Warned that his days had come to an end by a handwritten message on the wall interpreted for him by Daniel, Belshazzar died on the very night the message was deciphered.)

Indeed, Jews have such a long history of ignoring clear and present dangers that this blindness is the one wound no Jewish memoirist can resist reopening. “It was too late, and we knew it,” writes Kattan. Yet, while some Iraqi Jews were finding exit doors already closed in their faces, a Jewish-Iraqi senator was busy planning “an enormous building to house a school, a gymnasium, a stadium.” The Jewish senator may have suspected the absurdity of his project all the while he was going ahead with it, but he was willing to turn the other cheek and look the other way, as the Jews of Germany looked the other way, guilty as all were of what the political thinker Edward N. Lutwak has called “the logic of passivity”—the ability to mistake the most idle forms of hope for cunning foresight and prudence. Everyone in the end falls prey to the misguided notion that the banality of history could not possibly repeat itself more than once every century.

And Naim Kattan treads the same path. Farewell, Babylon is the inspired memoir of Naim’s childhood and adolescence in Baghdad during the 1940s. Born in 1928 to a father who worked in the Iraqi postal administration, Naim grew up to consider himself a staunch Arabist with an indefatigable love for his homeland. The Kattans may have been ordinary, observant, hardworking Jews, and Naim was certainly an ambitious young man who was no less eager to publish than he was to find sex however he could. But nothing could have warned his family that 25 centuries of Jewish presence in Iraq would come to a sudden halt during their own lifetimes. Jews, after all, had been rooted in Iraq from before the time of the Persians, before the Greeks, before the Romans, before Islam. The logic of passivity’s favorite maxim is: let tomorrow dispel today’s fears.

Jews had lived in Arab land long before the Caliphate; contrary to so many nationalist claims made throughout the Middle East, Jews were not a foreign ethnic importation but indigenous. It was in Iraq, during the Babylonian Captivity, that the deported Jews wrote the Babylonian Talmud and finally formalized their beliefs into a religious system. Not all Jews returned to the Holy Land after their release by the Persians. Many remained and continued to prosper in Babylonia until the end of the British dominion in the 20th century. They were, as Kattan puts it, “the backbone and sinews of the Iraqi state.” On Jewish high holidays, he tells us, entire segments of Baghdad would shut down. “The signs on Rashid Street blazed proudly with Jewish patronyms.”

But despite their wealth and status Jews were scared. Scared of Iraqi nationalism, scared of anti-Semitism, scared of Islamic fanatics, scared of how Zionism might change the Arab world—scared above all of the Farhoud, a 1941 pogrom that claimed many Jewish lives and whose aftermath resonates on every page of Naim’s memoir. The adolescent Naim can’t even cross town to a Muslim neighborhood without being scared, so that going to the movie theater turns into an expedition through dangerous territory. Jews may not have been obliged to wear special gear or signs, but they were instantly spotted for what they were, if by nothing else than their accented Arabic.”The Jewish manner of speaking was sprinkled with Hebrew words,” Kattan writers, “explained by a long familiarity with the Bible and prayers.”

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