Babylon to Baghdad

David Patrikarakos on his family's journey


Last Thursday, I logged on to discover that the last Jewish doctor in Iraq had died. Thafer Elyahou was just 60 years old: he was known for a long career as an orthopaedic surgeon and for treating the poor and needy for free. His death leaves Iraq’s Jewish community now officially numbering just four.

If you, as a Jew, want to get some idea of the history from which you descend, and which you are heir to, consider this: the history of the Jews in Iraq dates from the Babylonian captivity, which is around 586 BC. Ezra, a name familiar to most of us from Synagogue and Hebrew school, was born there. Iraq is still home to a tomb claiming — some say spuriously — to be his, on the south-eastern border with Iran. It was from Babylon that Ezra returned from exile to Jerusalem where he reintroduced the Torah. And this is the only second phase of Jewish history. Saul, the first king of the United Kingdom of Israel, reigned from 1037 BCE. Jews were indigenous to the Middle East well over 1000 years before Jesus was even born, and over a millennium and a half before Islam was founded. We are truly an ancient people.

The land that is now called Iraq, then, matters to Jewish history. And, equally, throughout the history of Iraq, the Jews have mattered. Since the Babylonian captivity we have retained an unbroken presence there. Jews were there for the years of the Islamic Caliphate; for the Mongol invasion after that; and all throughout the Ottoman Empire after that and into the twentieth century. This is the first part of the story of the Jews of the Arab world.

The second part goes like this: When the modern state of Iraq emerged in 1922, Jews played their part in events; they thrived in society - across the Arab Middle East. Just over 25 years later, with the founding of the state of Israel, it was pretty much all over. Jews were no longer welcome. Between 1950-1952 120,000–130,000 of the Iraqi Jewish community alone fled their home of millennia for the Jewish state (many with help from Jerusalem).

Two of those who fled were my grandparents. My known family history in Iraq stretches back centuries. My ancestor Abdallah Somekh was a Hakham and Posek whose rulings, published in the work Zibhei Tzedek, became the handbook for Baghdadi Jews throughout India and the Far East. And there was my great-grandfather, Reuben Somekh, who was Member of Parliament for Basra, Iraq’s second largest city. In religion, business and politics we made our contribution. Nonetheless, my grandparents had to run, and they went not to Israel but to Iran, along with their two daughters.

My family would spend a happy twenty years in Tehran — where a Jewish community in one form or another had thrived for over 2700 years — before the rise of the Islamic Republic would send them fleeing once again, this time to London, where I was born.

From Baghdad to London in just over 20 years is an individual family history that speaks to a larger and even sadder history for the Jews: From Babylon to Baghdad over 2500 years. All gone in 25.

When I look through photos of my ancestors, I see men and women darkened by centuries of the Middle Eastern sun. I see them drinking coffee, eating (kosher) kebabs; and always, always twirling their Masba. I see them davening and reading from the cedar; and talking and laughing and scowling: but above all I see men and women almost indistinguishable from the Arabs I see in Iraq today. I remember my grandfather, with his thick Iraqi accent when he spoke English and the staccato rapid-fire bursts of his Arabic. I remember his cigars and old spice; and I remember his house with its huge carpets and colossal gold lighters and Baklava and backgammon.

That was in North London. Thafer Elyahou’s family remained in Baghdad after Israel’s foundation. Perhaps even more strikingly, they remained there following the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, and all throughout the vertiginous carnage and bloodshed that followed. Thafer still practised Judaism — though he had to do it covertly. Now only his sister and three other elderly Jews remain.

The exile of the Jews from Arab lands is one of the great tragedies of modern history — for both the Jews and their non-Jewish neighbours. So much was lost. But now, perhaps, there is a new hope. Last year’s signing of the Abraham Accords between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain, and which weas followed by normalization deals with Morocco and Sudan, has raised the prospect of an official Jewish return to Arab lands for the first time in almost 70 years.

Make no mistake — these accords are historic. They raise the possibility that decades of injustice might be reversed. Jews might once more take their place alongside their non-Jewish neighbours as fraternal communities, all indigenous to the Middle East. If this happens the region might start to feel its way toward some kind of future that offers not more violence and hate but opportunity: for all peoples.



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