The Last Jews of Iraq
AROUND THE GLOBE | IRAQ | AUGUST 2015
Hannah Marshall: "This is the picture of my grandfather and his family. It shows my grandfather, his mother
and three brothers. The picture was taken in Basra in 1918. My grandfather is the boy
standing at the back of the picture, with the black jacket and tie."
My grandfather was an Iraqi Jew, who ended up living in a North Wales seaside town. I never met him, but I've always been fascinated by this side of the family. A couple of years ago, I decided to find out more. I got in touch with distant cousins, and cousins of cousins, and friends of cousins - everyone in the Iraqi-Jewish community is linked to everyone else, somehow. The stories they shared were shocking, and revealed a deep-rooted history.
In 1917, a third of the population of Baghdad was Jewish.
Today just seven Jewish people live incognito in the city, their lives under constant threat. You're probably more surprised by the old figure than the new one. A third of the population? In fact Iraqi Jews thrived - they ran successful businesses, dominated the civil service and lived in relative peace and friendship with their Muslim neighbours. Then everything changed.
In the 1940s Arab nationalism, Nazi propaganda and anti-Zionism fuelled by the formation of Israel combined to create a wave of often violent anti-Jewish feeling. By 1951 nearly 120,000 Jews had fled, most evacuated to tent cities in Israel in a huge airlift. They left everything behind.
Today ancient Jewish shrines remain across Iraq, but the synagogues are empty and most Iraqis know nothing about the Jewish history which surrounds them. We're used to hearing accounts of Jewish exile, and tales of violence in Iraq, but this is the untold story.
The people I spoke to explained that Jewish history in Iraq goes back 1,600 years. In 597BC King Nebuchadnezzar captured the Jewish homeland of Jerusalem and brought them as slaves to Babylon, as it was then known. They flourished between two rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates.
I heard stories of parties on sailing boats and of sleeping on the roof in the summer heat. They talked about Muslim friends and business partners, about feeling proud to be Iraqis. They described a Baghdad in which so much of the trade was in Jewish ownership that on a Saturday the souks would go quiet and banks would close.
And, of course, they talked about food - everywhere I went plates of chewy Iraqi macaroons were pressed upon me until I could barely move. The Iraqi Jews in the diaspora have retained their proud tradition of Arabic hospitality.
Alan Yentob, creative director of the BBC, is himself the child of Iraqi-Jewish immigrants. He has never been to Iraq, the dangers are too great, but he grew up in Manchester feeling part of Judeo-Arabic culture - eating Iraqi food, hearing Baghdadi songs and speaking Arabic with his grandmother. He, too, wanted to find out more about his community's history.
For this programme, The Last Jews of Iraq, we talked again to people who remember life in Baghdad, including members of Alan's own family. We found recordings of Judeo-Arabic mvusic from the 1920s, when Jewish musicians dominated Baghdad's music scene.
But we also heard about Jews thrown out of their jobs, people attacked in the street, and young Jewish girls burnt with acid. People remembered their shock when in 1941 Arab neighbours and friends turned on them in a pogrom known as the Farhud.
One man recalled his mother breaking down when she saw the hanging of nine suspected Zionist spies, all relatives or friends of the family, live on Baghdad TV.
The stories of persecution and terror were many but the common sentiment was astonishment that a country in which Jewish people had for centuries been proud citizens could turn on them so suddenly.
And then, just as we finished making the programme, came news of a fresh threat to the seven Jews who remain in Baghdad. An American embassy memo, published by Wikileaks, has revealed their names and identities, which have been reprinted in local Iraqi newspapers. One is now trying to leave the country, the others are determined to stay in the land of their ancestors, despite the dangers.
It all brought home to us the urgency of telling this story now, before it disappears completely. With the news dominated by Middle Eastern tension, it feels so important to hear the tales of my grandfather's world, in which Jews and Arabs lived side by side, sharing their lives, their music, their food and their country.