Wandering Jews | Book Review | Chicago Reader

Wandering Jews 

A short-story collection follows Iraq’s former Jewish population across borders and oceans.

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Farewell to Dejla: Stories of Iraqi Jews at Home and in Exile Tova Murad Sadka (Academy Chicago Publishers)

There are now about eight native Jews in Iraq. But 60 years ago there were as many as 140,000, most of them in Baghdad. Though they were an integral part of Iraqi society, the government's anti-Zionist fervor after the founding of Israel brought them to a crisis. In 1950 and '51, five bombings targeted Jewish establishments and synagogues in Baghdad. Though casualties were low, panic set in. When the Iraqi government decided to let Jews emigrate to Israel, virtually the entire community left.

Tova Murad Sadka, who grew up in Baghdad, joined this exodus, moving first to Israel and later to the U.S., where she lives now. In Farewell to Dejla, she uses the short story to explore the travails of Iraqi Jews, both in their homeland and in dispersion. Though marred by crude ethnic and religious stereotypes, her book offers a sensitive treatment of a community's existential fears and an exquisite probing of the painful and comic aspects of culture clash. It's especially resonant in light of the current situation in Iraq, where Islamist terrorists have taken advantage of the Bush administration's postliberation incompetence to wage war on the country's remaining religious minorities. A mass exodus of Christians has resulted, transforming Iraqi demographics; many Yazidis of northern Iraq and Mandaeans of the south have also been forced to bid farewell to Dejla (the Tigris River) and Al-Furat (the Euphrates).

Of course, Iraq has always been overwhelmingly Muslim—which makes me wonder whether it's receding memory or ignorance that leads Sadka to distort certain aspects of religious culture in Farewell to Dejla. For example, although Shiites revere Abbas, grandson of Muhammad, they don't consider him a prophet, but Sadka refers to him as one. Sadka's characterizations of Muslims—or, in her faintly antiquated usage, "Moslems"—are almost uniformly negative, and the men come off as particularly unappealing. The only exception is the kindly old boatman in the title story, who refuses payment after giving the narrator her final ride on the Tigris before she leaves for Israel. Otherwise, if lechery, greed, and boorishness aren't damning enough, there's violence and duplicity: "The Moslems' smooth tongue. The sharp dagger at short notice or no notice at all."

Yet Sadka's feminism sometimes pushes her animus in unexpected directions. In "Shoula and the Moslem Man," for instance, Shoula's Jewish brother is just as oppressive in his way as the Muslim pervert harassing her from afar. And in "The Rooster Crows," a Muslim woman rebels when her husband decides to marry their young daughter off to a friend and take the friend's own young daughter as his second wife.

And without excusing her ugly caricatures, Sadka's overall depiction of Jewish life in Iraq as tense and fearful may offer a corrective to the nostalgia-soaked reminiscences of Iraqi Jewish memoirists. Several accounts of Jewish life in Iraq before the exodus are wistful journeys to an improbably innocent time and place. In Sadka's Iraq, Jews have to bribe the police to ensure their safety—and even then, "If a Jew and a Moslem fought in the street, the few Jewish passersby would run off fearing for their lives, while a crowd of Moslems gathered, out of nowhere, to join the fight on their brother's behalf. As for a Jew going to the police, it was a waste of time at best."

Sadka sets "Their First Pogrom" in the midst of the Farhoud, a notorious outbreak of violence and looting during a power vacuum in 1941. Although the rioters killed 28 Muslims, Jews were specifically targeted and suffered disproportionately: the head of the Jewish community at the time of the Farhoud estimated the number of Jews killed or missing at 130 (Sadka puts it at 300). A decade later came the bombings. (Historians continue to debate the identity of the bombers, with theories ranging from anti-Semitic nationalists to the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad attempting to increase immigration to the Jewish state.) The Iraqi government waited until the emigrating Jews had registered and then confiscated their assets without warning. Thanks to additional restrictions on the amount of money and personal belongings they could take with them, most arrived in Israel with little more than the clothes on their backs.

The middle section of Farewell to Dejla, with its tales of hardships and indignities faced by Iraqi Jewish immigrants to Israel—"In Baghdad they called us Jews," complains one character, "and here they call us Arabs"—is the strongest. The most potent of the collection's 16 entries can be found here. "The Crossroad," whose length almost makes it a novella, emerges as a profound portrait of an immigrant struggling to reconcile the values of his upbringing with his new environment. Soon after arriving in Israel from Iraq, 36-year-old Naiim marries a 19-year-old girl from Turkey. He doesn't foresee trouble, as "most Iraqi men were married to younger women, and there was nothing wrong with their marriages," but this isn't Iraq. Sadka deftly plots the couple's divergent emotional trajectories, and never paints Naiim as the stereotypically domineering Middle Eastern man. On the contrary, an exasperated, sometimes helpless Naiim finds himself hemmed in on the one hand by a headstrong wife who has fully acclimated to life in Israel and on the other by a society led by European Jews who have devised a deceptively simple way to destroy his confidence: "Ashkenazim mocked Middle Eastern men for their hot tempers—their actions supposedly guided by emotion, not reason."

Sadka's prose is competent but rarely inspiring. One of the few exceptions is a poetic passage in "The Millionaire's Aide," the second of two otherwise unremarkable stories set in the U.S. that conclude this collection. At a party to celebrate his engagement to an American woman, successful, assimilated Robert finds himself drawn to a Middle Eastern belly dancer. Sadka evokes the stubborn tug of Robert's Iraqi origins. "The exotic music began to whine, reviving old memories of Bedouin shepherds and flute melodies in vast dry valleys," she writes. "Brown and shapely Whilhemina swayed languidly. Her eyes held a distant look while her neck and arms extended upward as though in worship of an unknown God."

Even without such flashes of eloquence, Sadka's decision to write in English would have been wise. Iraqi-Israeli novelists such as Shimon Ballas and Eli Amir, who write in Hebrew, and Samir Naqqash, who wrote in Arabic, remain virtually unknown in the English-speaking world. Even the most celebrated novel about Iraqi Jewish life, Sami Michael's Victoria, has been translated from Hebrew to English for publication in the UK but never published in the States. Farewell to Dejla appears here at a time of heightened interest in all things Iraqi, and will hopefully spur the publication of more fiction and nonfiction exploring the largely ignored history of Iraq's Jews.   v

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