Life & Culture

The Jewish playwright who's turned her family's Iraqi story into a play

Dina Ibrahim's new play delves into the history of a Jewish family in Iraq


Growing up in Willesden, playwright Dina Ibrahim did not know much about her father’s side of the family.

She knew that her dad Fawzi Ibrahim was an Iraqi-born Jew who fled Baghdad in 1958 in the face of rising antisemitism after the establishment of Israel.

In Baghdad, where 33 per cent of the population was Jewish in 1948 and where they had lived since 586 BCE, Jews were hung from lampposts in public squares.

She knew that he moved to London aged 16 to study electrical engineering, where he met her mother (who came from an English working-class background in south London) at a dance in Woolwich.

She also knew that her father’s family were unhappy about him marrying outside of the Jewish faith.

“My parents are very different but both working class,” says Ibrahim. “My dad doesn’t talk about his sadness over leaving Iraq. It must have been hard.”

By the time she turned 15, tensions had eased. As a family, they travelled to Israel for the first time where Ibrahim finally met her paternal grandmother, after whom she was named.

“A whole new world opened up to me when I met my grandma,” says 52-year-old Ibrahim, who has now written a play about her family’s story, a story that introduces the audience to a working-class Jewish community in Baghdad in the 1950s.

“She spoke only Arabic, but through sign-language and with the help of family around us we were able to have great conversations. I heard her story, learnt what happened to them all.

“My grandma spoke about not having money, about being persecuted because her children were communists and being put in jail as political prisoners. One uncle was imprisoned because he was a communist, but he was discriminated against more because he was Jewish.

“My family said they were happy living in Israel, but they had left family and friends in Iraq. They had Muslim friends who they had lived in harmony with for years.”

Ten years ago, Ibrahim and her father, who went on to lecture at a college in Willesden, decided to travel across the world to visit displaced family members who had ended up in Israel, the US and Canada.

“Every family member had a different version of what happened. There were funny stories and warmth, and we taped them all, came back and transcribed the conversations.”

Her father chronicled his story and Ibrahim wrote a play, which is part of the Camden Fringe 2023, coinciding with the 20th anniversary of the Iraq War. She has used the play The Mother of Kamal to tell the story of Iraq’s Jews through the prism of her grandmother’s eyes.

It is set in 1948 in the slums of Baghdad. Amid a spate of arrests and arbitrary public executions of Jews, Ibrahim’s working-class grandmother Um-Kamal finds her sons are arrested by the feared and loathed secret police.

Inexplicably, the younger brother Sassoon is imprisoned while the older one Kamal is set free. Rumour and intrigue ensue and Um-Kamal is reluctantly drawn into the orbit of the Communist Party, risking her life to save her son, and hold her family together.

Ibrahim met her grandmother, renamed Reina in the play, at her home in Ramat Gan three times before she died. For her, her grandmother’s story “is a story about a woman’s courage and burden

“You could hear the emotion in her voice when she told the story. To hear her and the strength of what she went through was powerful. My father always described her as ‘streetwise’.

She could navigate the most difficult of circumstances, whether it was haggling for a piece of lamb or smuggling a radio into a prison in Iraq.

“At one point my grandfather, whom I call Abu Kamal in the play, lost his job on the railways. My grandma was able to hold the family together emotionally, she was always calm.”

Now Ibrahim, a graduate of the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, who has her own drama teaching company that works with seven schools across London, says she hopes to tell the story of Iraq’s Jews so it is not lost.

“It’s important to me that the play does justice to the courage and creativity of the working-class Jewish women of the Middle East who guided their families through the most dangerous of times,” she says.

“We grew up not religious at all,” adds Ibrahim, who now cooks the Iraqi Jewish dishes that her father made growing up.

“I get a sense of it when the family comes together, when they share the funny stories that emerge from the pain, like it almost subdues the pain. I want their story to be remembered.”

‘The Mother of Kamal’ is at The Hen and Chickens Theatre, Highbury, London, from August 10-13

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