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Iraq, a dusty tomb of Sephardi memories

letter from Sulaymaniah

    City of Sulaymaniah in Kurdish Iraq
    City of Sulaymaniah in Kurdish Iraq

    The former Jewish neighbourhood in the city of Sulaymaniah, in Kurdish Iraq, is not a happy place. The area is a slum where poor families are crammed into houses whose past grandeur is well concealed under a thick layer of grit and neglect.

    Although it is still called Jewlakan, which literally means “Jews” in Kurdish, little but the name and the memories of a few old timers hint at its unusual history.

    “Jews here were businessmen who sold furniture and kitchenware in stores,” recalled a gaunt woman in her 70s. “The last one, called Shlomo, left for Israel in 1970.”

    The vast majority of Iraqi Jews left or were forced to leave in the years after the creation of the Jewish state in 1948 and, although they continue to hold onto their unique customs and traditions in places such as Israel, the US and UK, they have almost vanished from their historic heartland.

    Daily bombings in Baghdad and Basra keep the nostalgic away from Iraq, but here in the autonomous Kurdish north, where a large degree of safety and stability has been established, a trickle of Jews have returned on visits and to do business.

    Yosef Rahamim, an Israeli originally from Mosul, has been back a handful of times and is fond of visiting the Tomb of Nahum, a Jewish shrine in the Christian village of Alqosh.

    “I live for that place,” he said, over the phone from Israel. “Each time I go to Iraq, I go there. It’s exactly how I remember in 1948. It is as it was.”

    A visit to the tomb — one of the few Jewish places of worship in Iraq that has not been turned into a mosque — reveals that Mr Rahamim’s description might be overly optimistic. It is an empty shell and two of its domes have collapsed. Still, the tomb itself is untouched and, with a little imagination, one can imagine what it must have been like when thousands came for the Shavuot pilgrimage.

    While most Jews do not outstay their 15-day visas, some do linger.

    On a busy street corner in the regional capital of Erbil, Dino Danil, an Israeli-Kurdish journalist, flashes his wallet, proudly showing his Israeli and Kurdish press credentials side by side. “Some people go to Europe,” he said in Hebrew nonchalantly. “I come here.”

    Iraqi Kurdistan, wedged between Iran and a part of Iraq gripped by an Islamist insurgency, can be a rough place. Still, for aging Iraqi Jews like Mr Rahamim, it is hard to stay away.

    “It’s my culture, my language, they understand me, I understand them — what more does one need?”

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