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A Seder in Sulaymaniyah

How the story of Passover resounds in northern Iraq

Jessie Graham
April 12, 2006

I had not planned to tell anyone in Iraq that I was Jewish, but my cover was blown when my boss slaughtered the lamb. I don’t know whether he cut the animal’s throat with his own hands, but that’s how I remember it: An Iraqi Kurd sacrificing a paschal lamb for the first Jewish Seder in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq in decades. He roasted the meat with rosemary, garlic, and olive oil.

In attendance: A half-dozen Muslim Kurds, a German atheist, a Zimbabwean Pentacostal, a German Lutheran, a Korean-American army wife. I was the only Jew at our table that night in the garden, but it was the most sincere and joyful Seder I have ever attended.

I have always wanted my family Seders to feel a bit more meaningful. After all, this is a Jewish holiday that everyone can relate to: Slavery. Exile. Liberation. But our Seders are the same every year: My grandfather barks orders, deciding who will read what from the dog-eared haggadahs my grandmother must have picked up at a Hadassah bazaar 30 years ago. We delight in reciting the ten plagues and getting drops of red wine on the white tablecloth.

As my grandmother loses her mind to dementia, we’ve tried to hold on to the tradition. The responsibility lies mostly with me. I am the only one who reads a little Hebrew out of her six grandchildren. I’m one of two who were bat mitzvah. Every year, I try to inject a bit more Judaism into our Seder. And every year, I fail.

* * *

On my second day in Iraq, my translator took me out for a tour of the Kurdish city where I would make my home for the next year. He pointed out the park built atop a field where Saddam’s forces once performed executions. He took me to the market where village women with tattooed faces sold small bunches of narcissus to signal the arrival of spring. On the outskirts of town, past the endless maze of cement-block houses built by the nouveaux riche, was a neighborhood of mud-walled houses and small, winding allies. “We call this Jewlakan—the Jews,” he told me. “This is where the Jews once lived.”

My translator sounded nostalgic about the departure of his Jewish neighbors, even though at 26 he was too young to have seen even the last of them flee. Iraq’s Jewish community was one of the oldest in the world. Abraham was born near Babylon. A photographer I know is the son of Iraqi Jews who were born in Baghdad. He grew up in Great Neck and he told me his parents always thought of themselves as Arab Jews. Jews were an important part of Iraqi society up until the 1930s, when anti-Jewish sentiment began to build. My translator said the last of the Kurdish Jews left Sulaymaniyah by 1970.

I thought this reference to the exiled community would be an anomaly during my year in Iraq. But it wasn’t. Iraqis mentioned Jews all the time—not always in reference to Israel and often with more affection than I would ever have expected.

I had taken a job teaching journalism to Iraqis from all over the country. The Iraqi who hired me advised me not to tell anyone about my faith. Other journalists who had worked in Iraq said the same. So for the first time in my life, I planned to pass. But as what? A born-again Christian? A Muslim convert? An atheist?

* * *

In his 1989 book, From Beirut to Jerusalem, Thomas Friedman writes about being the only full-time Jewish-American reporter in West Beirut during the Israeli invasion. He didn’t hide his religion from those who asked about it directly, but he didn’t offer it up either. “I quickly discovered, though, that people assumed you couldn’t possibly be Jewish,” he writes. “After all, what Jew in his right mind would come to Beirut?”

These days in Iraq, the assumption of some—really, a radical few—is that the entire Western media is populated entirely by Jews. Jill Carroll, the Christian Science Monitor reporter who was held hostage in Iraq for three months, said she recited the Lord’s Prayer in an effort to convince her captors she wasn’t a Jew. She said her kidnappers assumed all members of the Western media were Jewish and she fought to convince them otherwise in order to save her life.

Kidnapping wasn’t a concern in the quiet Kurdish city where I would be living. The Kurds have a reputation for being secular and are especially fond of Americans. But my students would be Iraqis from Fallujah, Ramadi, Mosul, Basra, and Baghdad. They would come from all faiths and ethnic groups. I wasn’t sure how they would respond to meeting a real live Jew. Would Iraqi people get it when I explained that my family had no connection to Israel and that my mother’s worst nightmare is that I become Orthodox? I thought the concept of being a cultural Jew might not make it in translation. So I set out to pass.

From the start, I failed miserably. Religion is a formidable part of Iraqi life, and my students inevitably asked me about my faith. I’d smile and shrug, changing the subject. One of my favorite students was an old newspaperman from Kut. He spoke fondly of the time when Jews lived in his city on the Tigris to the southeast of Baghdad. He was embarrassed by the sectarianism of today’s Iraq and he saw the Jews of yore as a sign of a worldliness he now longed for. I didn’t tell him I was Jewish in part because I thought he already knew.

But my coworkers were more difficult to dodge. They were young journalists, eager to learn about the world. The war—and the wave of foreign correspondents it attracted—had given them a crash course in Western culture, and they were hungry for more. They were fluent in English as well as Kurdish and Arabic. All were fiercely secular, except my translator, who was trying on Muslim fundamentalism for size.

But my translator was full of contradictions. He was equally obsessed with Agatha Christie books and Moqtada al-Sadr speeches. He was born in Halabja, the Kurdish town gassed by Saddam in 1988. He’d been a Kurdish nationalist until the American invasion of Iraq, but he’d recently traded that ideology in for a brand of radical Islam born on the streets of Fallujah. He had watched—and enjoyed—every episode of Friends. He also railed endlessly about the soulless West. “Everyone there is disconnected,” he would say. “No one believes in God.”

On my second night in the country, my translator took me to his brother’s house for a baby naming. We ate okra on a woven mat with his nieces and nephews. The family passed out candy and offered endless cups of strong, sweet tea in tiny glasses. The children crowded around me and tried to teach me Kurdish. The baby’s father took an informal poll at the party in order to choose the child’s name. Everyone liked Heshu, the Kurdish word for a cluster of grapes. A cousin who was an imam blessed the baby. I would watch Heshu grow during my year in Iraq, looking at her increasing girth and strength as a measure of my months in the country.

The family treated me as an honored guest. The bearded imam thanked God for the birth of the baby and asked me to say a few words. “This baby is lucky to be born into a family where there is so much love,” I said sheepishly.

Even in the midst of all this joy, my translator’s family did not want to forget what their people had suffered. At the end of the night his brother pulled me aside to show me a set of picture postcards of the 5,000 Kurds who died in Halabja’s poison gas attack. He wanted to make sure I knew what had happened to his people. Like so many Kurds, he was afraid that the world had forgotten them. Or worse, that no one believed it had happened at all.

“I have a secret to tell you,” I said to my translator a few days later. “I’m Jewish.”

He wasn’t surprised. He knew on some level, even if they had not said it directly, that other journalists he had worked for during the war had also been Jewish. One had taken him to dinner in Baghdad for a Seder of sorts.

I told him because I wanted him to know that I had a family, just like he did, and a sense of tradition and duty. I wanted him to know that I had dinner with my grandparents at least once a week growing up. That I felt guilty being away from my family for the holidays. I couldn’t have told him anything about who I was without saying that I was Jewish. Maybe it wouldn’t have meant anything to him. But I realized it meant a lot to me.

Perhaps it wouldn’t have been a sin to lie, but it did feel like a mitzvah to tell the truth. Iraqis were welcoming me into their homes and looking to me as their teacher. Wasn’t it only fair that I gave them a little of myself?

The next person I told was the blue-eyed long-lashed Casanova of our staff. He loved to drink whiskey. One night at the Chinese restaurant—the only decent place to eat in town—I taught him to say “L’chaim” when he toasted. He batted his eyelashes and reveled his perfect, guttural chet. He taught the blessing to all his friends, secular intellectuals who felt subversive uttering a Hebrew word.

* * *

Less than a month into my gig, Passover approached. I told my boss I’d like to make a meal for the half-dozen staff members who knew my secret. My boss had spent most of his life in London. His father was a former peshmerga, a Kurdish freedom fighter, who had returned to help rebuild the country. My boss brimmed over with excitement about the prospect of a Seder in his garden. He invited the whole staff to the Seder, doubling the number of people who knew I was Jewish.

My boss spent the day sipping red wine and roasting the lamb. He spread long white tableclothes over the tables in the garden. I spent the day channeling my grandmother Anna, who worships food. I made roasted potatoes with garlic and dill, a lemony carrot and parsley salad, a Greek salad, green beans, and a minted yogurt salad. There wasn’t time to find matzo, so I made do with traditional Kurdish bread. As I laid out the paper-thin sheets of nani tiri, I thought about the Kurdish people, who have experienced so much suffering. Their bread was the kind of bread that one could pack up in a hurry and keep for a long time. Kurdish women soaked it in water to give it body, but of course we would eat it dry.

I made charoset with apples, wine, and walnuts—though I later found out Iraqi Jews traditionally use date syrup in theirs. I used the red radishes my grandfather likes for the bitter herbs, because I couldn’t find any horseradish. My boss roasted the lamb and brought six bottles of surprisingly good Greek red wine.

I was so focused on the meal that I gave little thought to the haggadah. A friend had suggested using a nontraditional version downloadable from the Internet. I loaded it onto a laptop and went to the table.

The Iraqi summer had already descended on us, so the air was thick and hot that night, with only a hint of a breeze.

“I hear this is a holiday about slavery?” said the most literal of my colleagues, a philosopher and arak drinker.

I taught the table to say the shehechianu. And then I suddenly became my grandfather—rushing through the story of the Exodus as if I was in a speed-reading competition.

“Slow down,” the philosopher said. He wanted to know more about Moses, who features prominently in the Koran. I told them he was abandoned as a baby and grew up in the palace of the Pharaoh, unaware that he was Jewish. But somewhere in his heart, I wagered, he must have known his true faith.

I had failed at concealing my true faith, just as Moses had, and took it upon myself, albeit in much smaller measure, to lead a group in tracing Moses’ earlier footsteps, through the story of liberation.

For the first time, I was telling the story of the Exodus to a group of people who had known oppression and liberation in their lifetimes. The Kurds at the table felt that they had been liberated by Saddam’s defeat. But even their most joyous occasions were laden with reminders of the suffering they had endured.

As we sat in that quiet garden, others all over Iraq were hiding in their houses or hunkering down in their basements. Even if they were relieved by the fall of the old regime, their lives were becoming increasingly unlivable. I knew my students from outside the Kurdish region felt that their personal liberation was still far away. I made up my own blessing. I asked everyone at the table to pray that all Iraqi people would one day experience freedom. I also asked them to pray that we would all always remember what it was like to be slaves and that we would never subject other human beings to a similar fate.

I don’t remember that night clearly because I drank the required four glasses of wine. I’m not a drinker and I don’t like red wine, but I couldn’t resist toasting along with the table. I told everyone to fill their glasses to overflowing as I had once seen Lubavitchers do at the only traditional Seder I’d ever attended. But it wasn’t just the alcohol that made me giddy. I was also experiencing real joy. The air buzzed with it. My face flushed with it. It was the kind of joy that is meant to be intoned in Jewish prayer. Thank you God, for bringing this group of people together to perform this ancient ritual for the first time in this place.

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