New book: “Last days in Babylon”

Marina Benjamin was alway something of a rebel – refusing to speak Arabic to her relatives, preferring hamburgers and beer to the Middle Eastern food at home. But having her own child made her want to reconnect with her Iraqi-Jewish past. Her quest for roots took her bravely to Iraq in 2004 at a time of great danger to foreigners – especially women travelling on their own – and when the country was already sliding into mayhem.

Her book “Last Days in Babylon: the story of a family, the history of a nation” just published in the USA by Simon and Schuster and due for publication in the UK early next year, reconstructs a vivid picture of the Jews of Baghdad through the story of Marina’s grandmother, Regina Sehayek.

Here’s an extract from the prologue, in which Marina describes visiting Baghdad with her guide Mahmoud:

“Mahmoud was well aware of the Baghdadi Jews’ legacy, as most educated Iraqis were. More to the point, he knew that the ancient Jewish Quarter had more or less overlapped large sections of the Old City. But when he realized that I was hoping to find traces of Jewish life in old Baghdad, he had shrugged his shoulders and frowned. “But there is nothing left,” he said. “The place where the great synagogue used to stand is now a shopping centre. All the old houses that used to belong to Jews have been converted into tenements.” Intending encouragement, he added that if we happened to strike up a conversation with some of the neighbourhood’s older residents, they would be bound to remember the Jews. But if I was looking for evidence — for artefacts, vestiges, even resonances — I would be disappointed.

“Unlike other ex-pats attempting to reconnect with a foreign homeland, at leisure to wander freely, talk to people, soak up the experience of being in a place at once familiar and unknown, I began to understand that I would have to make do with scraps. Given that this was Iraq, and that a war was on, I would be grateful even for that much. Nonetheless, I had heard it said that there were things that a keen observer might yet chance to discover; small cigarette-shaped indentations in the doorposts of houses to which Mezuzahs, long-ago pilfered for their silver, had once been nailed, and stars of David ingeniously incorporated into a building’s brickwork.

“And so we pushed on, my hope being that as Mahmoud guided my steps I could drift into a parallel universe, picking up echoes meant specifically for my eagerly attuned ear, while my eye alighted on hidden signs and symbols, invisible to all but an Iraqi Jew.

“Our tour began on the eastern banks of the Tigris at the foot of the Maude Bridge, from where rolls of looping razor wire stretched away into the distance along the top of the pale stone embankment and vast piles of litter, heaped into neat mounds, awaited collection. The bridge had undergone a succession of name changes over the years, but it was still known colloquially as the Maude — after the British General who had liberated the city from the deadweight of Turkish rule back in 1917 and then promptly died.

“Through the shimmering haze of the morning’s heat, I could just make out the old British Residency directly opposite us on the river’s western bank. It was a large villa-style building with tall windows and thin decorative pilasters. Its faded grandeur alluded to the influence that the British had enjoyed here between the two world wars. This was where the indefatigable Gertrude Bell, a gifted Arabist and contemporary of my grandmother’s, had worked as oriental secretary. Bell was one of a handful of Britons who had fought for Iraqi self-rule. Famously, she is reputed to have drawn Iraq’s borders in the sand for the young Winston Churchill’s edification. She had also urged King Faisal — first king of this new-born nation, kludged together from provincial leftovers of the Ottoman Empire — to appoint an Istanbul-educated Jew to his very first cabinet as minister of finance. The Jews were then approaching the pinnacle of their power in Baghdad. They were well-connected, urbane and bent on self-advancement. It was a soaring peak to attain after centuries of being merely tolerated — but also, a dizzying height from which to fall.”

To read the rest of the prologue or order the book online click here

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