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Jewish Journal

Memories of Iraq

"I left with tears in my eyes," says a Jewish man who longs for once-flourishing life there.

by Joel Kotkin

February 27, 2003 | 7:00 pm

Naji Harkham, who left Iraq for Israel in 1951, fondly recalls life in Baghdad.

Naji Harkham, who left Iraq for Israel in 1951, fondly recalls life in Baghdad.

His Hebrew name is David, but he still goes by his Arabic nickname of Naji. At 82, he sits at a table at the Luxe Hotel in Los Angeles and recalls a life and a civilization now gone, an Iraq that will never be again.

"When I left Baghdad in 1951," Naji Harkham recalled of the day he left for Israel, "I left with tears in my eyes. To me, Baghdad was good. I had so many Muslim friends who didn't want me to leave."

To someone used to tales of Jewish refugees, particularly from Eastern Europe, the notion of a sorrowful parting from exile seems extraordinary. But in Iraq, indeed in much of the Near East, Jews did not see themselves as the kind of marginal, oft-victimized community of shtetl lore.

These Jews, to a remarkable and often forgotten extent, were very much at home in the predominately Islamic cities of the Middle East. In places like Baghdad, Casablanca, Cairo and, until only two decades ago, Tehran, Jews felt very much at home, tolerated, even highly respected members of ancient communities.

So although many of us would welcome the toppling of Saddam Hussein, even at the cost of destroying a good piece of Baghdad, we might also say a prayer for the memory of better times, when Jews flourished in the Islamic world and, perhaps, hope that someday, Muslims will recognize the benefits that tolerance brings.

For those like Harkham, who remember these earlier times, there still remains a kind of pride in the longevity and accomplishments of the Jews in these countries. In Iraq, for example, the Jewish community can trace its roots back to the Babylonian captivity -- except that we often forget that a large portion of those exiles chose to stay behind in that cradle of urban civilization. From there, they wrote the Talmud and built much of what is now considered the foundations of Jewish law.

This is not to say that being a Jew in the Middle East was always easy. Powerless and then stateless, they were forced to live within the rules set by the dominant rulers -- the Greeks, Romans, Persians, Arabs and Turks. Yet, in comparison with their brethren who were stuck in Europe after the fall of Rome, those in the ancient East had it relatively good.

This was particularly true after the rise of Islam. Mohammed clearly was divided about the Jews. Their monotheistic theology and legalism appealed, even inspired his religious formation. On the other hand, their obstinate refusal to accept his revelation infuriated him.

Ultimately, he consigned Jews to a kind of purgatory. As dhimmis (people of the book), they could be tolerated in Muslim society but only as a kind of tax-paying, second-class citizens.

Given the choice between rule by Muslims or intolerant Roman Catholic or Orthodox rulers, many Jews, as well as some smaller Christian sects, naturally favored the Arab ascendancy. They are believed, by some historians, to have aided the seventh century Arab conquest of both Jerusalem and Damascus from the Byzantine rulers.

Compared to European norms, Islamic policy to the Jews was enormously enlightened, and their material conditions also improved. Under the rule of the new Islamic empire, Jewish traders conducted commerce from Spain and Egypt to China.

The generally tolerant religious policy of the Arab and Persian Muslims, and later the Ottoman Turks, toward other faiths accelerated this expansion. Although highly restricted in terms of inheritance and intermarriage, Jews, Christians and others enjoyed official protection and often gained prominence not only in commerce but also the arts, science and even public administration.

Of course, this was not a totally integrated society. Throughout much of the first millennium and beyond of Islam, many cities had significant Jewish, Christian and, in Iran, Zoroastrian quarters. This persisted in Iran, noted California State University Los Angeles geographer Ali Modarres, until the 1970s.

"Zoroastrians, Jews and Christians dominated whole neighborhoods, " said Modarres, who has studied Islamic urbanism for a generation.

Yet these were not ghettoes in the classic European sense. They constituted integral parts of the urban landscape. "There were Jewish synagogues and nothing was hidden," Modarres said. "When I was in school, my Jewish classmates were Persians first, Jews second."

To be sure, there were occasional outbreaks of persecution in most Islamic countries. But in the best of cases, such as in the Cordoba-based Islamic kingdom in Spain, or under the Safavids in Persia, Jews flourished to an extent not seen till the contemporary United States. As the 16th century Persian Jewish poet Imrani wrote:

"Had not your favor been granted to guide me,

Who would have ever opened this closed door before me?

As you brought me to a foreign land,

You bestowed upon me milk and sugar."

In the aftermath of the Inquisition in Spain, the Islamic world provided a larger refuge than the more celebrated Netherlands. To the Ottomans, still competing for supremacy against Christian Europe, Jews were seen as an economically advantaged population that could provide their Empire with a cadre of skilled workers, including cartographers, swordsmiths and metallurgists.

Indeed the sultan was astounded by his good fortune in receiving thousands of Spanish refugees.

"And you call this man, the king of Spain, a politically wise King, he who impoverishes his kingdom and enriches ours?" asked Bejazet II, whose descendants would be treated by Jewish physicians for the next several centuries. "I receive the Jews with open arms."

Even in the last century, as the Ottoman Turkish regime fell apart, Jews in places like Iraq continued to flourish. Under the British-backed regime that replaced the Ottomans after World War I, young Jews like Harkham  believed that they had a bright future in what was, after all, their homeland. King Faisal I, who ruled until his death in 1933, described the Jews as "the sword of the country," because he saw them as a critical element in the country's modernization.

"It was easier to be a Muslim, for sure," Harkham recalled, "but it was not too bad to be a Jew either."

Iraq's Jews, who numbered approximately 130,000 by the 1940s, were prominent as doctors, lawyers and administrators, as well as merchants who dominated the import and export business. Most Jews certainly did not see their future as Israel or the United States, Harkham explained. Indeed they started to speculate massively in what would later become "new Baghdad," an extension the old caliphal city and still a part of the current metropolis.

For a young man growing up at the time, it seemed natural to play with Muslim friends, have them stay with his family or he to stay at  their's. It was also not strange to go to public school, where, among other things, he learned to memorize the Koran by heart or later, as he did, enter government service or even the army to serve the kingdom.

Yet by the early 1940s, he recalled, there were signs of trouble, the ramifications of which are still with us today. In 1941, a group of army officers and politicians, headed by Rashid Ali al-Gaylani, briefly seized power. Allied to the Germans, they espoused a kind of Arab nationalism that saw no place for Jews in Iraq.

For the first time, in modern history there were state-sanctioned pogroms in Iraq, resulting in hundreds of deaths. Only the intervention of the British and the restoration of the royal regime prevented the permanent dislocation of the Iraqi Jews.

Although defeated by British power, Al-Gaylani represented a new prototype. His ideology -- Arab nationalism, anti-Semitism, totalitarianism -- remains the bulwark of Saddam Hussein's Baathist Party regime today, which now celebrates him as a hero.

Under the current regime, Al-Gaylani's narrow, intolerant world view has been extended to other parts of Iraq's polyglot population, including nearly a million Persians who were driven out in the early 1970s and the Kurds, whose brutal suppression continues to this day.

The final chapter for the Jews of Iraq, ironically, was opened by the very event that European-descended Jews saw as their salvation -- the founding of Israel. Once the Zionist state was formed, the position of Jews in the Arab countries quickly became untenable. The best the government, which had once been friendly to the Jews, could offer was a one-way passport out of the country to Israel.

For many sophisticated Jews of Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries, this was not an ideal choice. "I did not want to leave the country," Harkham said. "I did not want to live in Palestine."

Yet for Harkham, Israel was the only harbor, even if not a favored one. Capitalistic, cosmopolitan and raised in exile, many preferred to go somewhere other than what was to them socialistic and somewhat claustrophobic Zionist state. Eventually, like many educated Jews from Muslim countries, Harkham took his family elsewhere, settling in Sydney.

Most of his children, including Yuri, the founder of the Jonathan Martin and Hype women's fashion houses, later re-emigrated to Los Angeles, which along with London, has the largest Iraqi Diaspora communities outside Israel.

Later, these Jews -- bearers of traditions from the Islamic lands -- were joined by tens of thousands of others, those fleeing the theological regime in Iran. Those Persians, even more than the former Iraqis, Moroccans and Syrians, also brought a piece of the Islamic world with them. Their mixed memories conserve a world once the nurturer of Jews.

For some, particularly the older generation, these memories still matter. Even now, Harkham hopes somehow to get back to Baghdad, both to see his old Muslim friends and revisit places where so much Jewish history was created. Perhaps, he prays, he will come on the heels of America's arms, perhaps to help reconstruct a piece of the past and a spirit of tolerance that once existed along the banks of the Tigris.

"I would go back there to visit," he said, "to go back to the land of the prophets, where Ezra is buried. There is big history there. A part of the Jewish people still lies there."  

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