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City of Dreams

A memoirist recalls what came after the thriving Baghdad of his youth

Lee Smith
March 18, 2008
Photo: Wikipedia
Photo: Wikipedia
Photo: Wikipedia
Photo: Wikipedia

Sasson Somekh is the dean of Arabic studies in Israel, where knowledge of the language is a skill prized in the military, security, and intelligence establishment. And even in that hard-charging community, accustomed to regarding the Arabs as enemies, Somekh is a legend, whose love of Arabic literature has touched more than a few sensibilities, such as the Lebanon desk officer at the Defense Ministry who fondly recalls his classes with the seventy-four-year-old professor. “Somekh,” says the man from military intelligence, “is the master.”

Sasson Somekh was born in Baghdad in 1934 to a well-off middle-class Jewish family. As he explains in the first volume of his memoirs, Baghdad, Yesterday: The Making of an Arab Jew, published by Ibis Editions, he spent most of his childhood wanting to become a poet. Baghdad at the time was an important center of Middle Eastern literary modernism, but though the young Somekh had meant to climb the Arabic Parnassus, history and politics got in the way.

With the founding of the state of Israel and the rise of Arab nationalism, life in the Arab world became untenable for Oriental Jews, and no community suffered more than the Jews of Baghdad, where the farhoud of 1941 claimed 180 lives. As tensions increased over the following decade, the city’s Jews scattered, some—such as the father of the two boys who would go on to build one of the world’s most famous advertising firms, Saatchi and Saatchi—made their way to London, others to the United States, and many, like Somekh, to Israel.

He landed in 1951 at the age of seventeen and quickly mastered Hebrew, which earned him his first academic job at the Academy of the Hebrew Language. Somekh continued his studies at Oxford, where he earned a PhD in Arabic Literature with the famous Egyptian scholar Mustafa Badawi. As Somekh explains, with a smile, “I told Badawi right off that I was an Israeli, and he said, ‘Who asked you?’”

His 1968 dissertation was on the Egyptian novelist—and only Arab ever to win the Nobel Prize for Literature—Naguib Mahfouz. During Somekh’s tenure in Cairo as head of the Israeli Academic Center (1995–1998), he and the novelist solidified a friendship that had begun fifteen years before and would come to cost Mahfouz much criticism in Arab nationalist intellectual circles. “He alienated all the Egyptian critics by saying the only person who understood him is this Israeli,” Somekh says.

Save for a stint at Princeton during the 1980s, Somekh has taught for more than thirty years at Tel Aviv University, where I sat down with him recently on a warm January afternoon to talk to him about Iraq, Iraqi Jews, and his life in Israel.

What do you remember about the Baghdad of your youth and the Jewish community there?

It wasn’t a big city, maybe half a million, but it was a bustling city with the Jews very much in evidence, active in banking, export and import, and railroad station masters—most station masters were Jewish. The Jews learned French and English and this made them useful to the British. English was regarded by the middle class as more important than Arabic, and I was so fascinated by the beauty of British books, the windows of the English bookstores, like Mackenzie’s. So, the British looked for people to work with and they found the Jews, which I don’t think ever really caused problems with Muslims. I never heard this—that we were considered lackeys of the British.

Sasson Somekh in 1997, when he was director of Israel’s cultural center in Cairo. (Photo: AP Photo)
Sasson Somekh in 1997, when he was director of Israel’s cultural center in Cairo. (Photo: AP Photo)

As for the Muslims, the Jews were closer to the Shia in many ways. The Shia have a thing about all non-Muslims, they will touch nothing that has been touched by a non-Muslim, but the Jews used to work with the Shia and employed them. So some of the Shia wouldn’t go to the mosque on Fridays, which is the customary day for Muslims to go to prayer, because the Jews needed them. For instance, the Shia would light fires for Jews on Friday nights—so the Shia went to the mosque Saturday instead.

What I’m trying to say is that there was a modus vivendi between Muslims and non-Muslim minorities. We knew things had changed when you would walk through the streets and they started to say “Zionist” instead of “Jew.”

There was really no strong Zionist movement in Iraq. Some young Jews drifted towards communism, and a few others to Zionism, but these slogans about building a new life on a kibbutz didn’t impress me. If anyone ever thought of leaving, it was to the U.S. or England.

Then what made you move to Israel in 1951?

I went to Israel because I was afraid the police were going to take me away. I wasn’t a communist but I had leanings that way and my friends were, and the police had taken some of them away. I was only seventeen, so I went to court to say I was eighteen and was allowed to go to Israel and my parents arrived three months later. Iraq was very much changing at the time.

This was a decade after the farhoud?

Yes, 1941 was a real massacre, it was horrible. The Mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin al-Husseini, had come to Baghdad that year and lived not far from us; I used to see him and his men. He incited everyone against the Jews of Baghdad, who were not Zionists. He would appear on radio—“you Jews are snakes,” etcetera—and the simple people believed him. There were lots of Palestinians who had come to teach in Iraq, we needed so many teachers, and these were often under the guidance of the Mufti and his men, and this poisoned the atmosphere further. So, in 1941 there were 100,000 Jews in Baghdad and possibly 20,000 whose houses were attacked. But during the war, the British brought prosperity and the Jewish community forgot about that pogrom. That started to change in 1948 because of tensions over the war in Palestine when soldiers came back angry at Jews. With these new tensions in the air, the Jews remembered those days of the farhoud. The pro-Nazi party, al-Istiqlal (Independence) hinted at another farhoud, saying the Jews should get out before it happened to them again. It was not their official policy, but we heard it.

The real turning point was in 1948 with the hanging of Shafiq Adas, a rich Jew who was a friend of the Prince Regent. He was hanged in Basra, accused of buying scrap from the British and sending it to Israel. So Jews started to leave and the Muslims who were partners with Jews before were scared now, and a good life for the Jews was no more in the offing. Most of our neighbors were leaving and selling their property. My parents were not crazy about the idea of moving to Israel. My father was fifty and didn’t like the idea of such an adventure.

You got to Israel and had to master a new language. Is this what derailed your career as a poet?

No, I read Gershom Scholem’s book on Sabbatai Zevi. Up until then I wanted to be a poet, but this book made me want to become a scholar. The story was exciting—the whole Jewish nation had been excited by this seventeenth-century messiah—but it was the scholarship that excited me. This man Scholem picked up all sorts of secondary material and from this made the greatest story I ever read in my life. So I became a scholar. My first job was as scientific secretary to the Academy of the Hebrew Language. They advertised for a secretary in the paper, after I had just finished a degree in Hebrew linguistics. It was the greatest day in my life, an A+ in that subject. And in my interview they wanted to know how I managed it. They asked, “How did a newcomer master the language like that?” So I got the job, ten years exactly after I first came to Israel.

After a few years, they sent me to Oxford because Israel needed Arabic professors and I was chosen.

What can you tell us about contemporary Iraq and the Americans’ project to bring democracy to the Middle East?

To say that Iraq is like this or that is beyond me at this point; it all changed. During my time, the Shia intelligentsia were largely secular. They were either communists or secular. I believe these people still exist, these critical minds, but the dilemma is that for the first time in history the Shia are ruling the country, and they are opposed by the Sunnis, including al-Qaeda, so the Shia can’t be against the Iraqi government, even if they want to, and they have to abide by compromises with the religious establishment all the time.

Do the Arabs want democracy? I know that when they come to Israel they are stunned by this country, how it works. When Sadat came to Jerusalem, he went and spoke to all the factions in the Knesset, including the communist faction that had one Arab and one Jewish member, and both complained to him about Israel. Sadat put his pipe in his mouth and said, “How beautiful is democracy.”

I am sure the U.S. has made mistakes, but no one could avoid them in Iraq. Some Iraqi intellectuals, in the U.S. and elsewhere, did their best, but they didn’t understand the structure of that society now. My friend Khaled Kishtainy wrote an article in al-Hayat saying that maybe we have to encourage the Jews to come back to Iraq because when they left Baghdad went into ruins and Israel took advantage of their talents. I wrote him and said, “I admire you, but who will come back?” My children don’t know Arabic, like most of the children of Iraqi Jews. So, who is there? Where are all the Baghdadi Jews?