Naim Kattan’s memoirof his Iraqi boyhood tells a familiar tale: Jews were here. Now they are not.
Reviewing Kattan’s book in Nextbook the Egyptian-Jewish author Andre Aciman ponders this fact of Jewish life. And why do some Jews consistently fail to read the warning signs of impending doom, while others are already ‘mentally elsewhere’?
“We were already somewhere else…”
In Farewell, Babylon, the Iraqi-born Jewish writer Naim Kattan restates one of the most enduring paradoxes in Jewish history: that all the while they belonged to Iraq—belonging there with all their being, their history, their love—most Iraqi Jews were scrambling to obtain passports and exit visas to seek out homes and fortune elsewhere. They were already somewhere else. So many of them eventually left Iraq that today there are no Jews left there.
In light of 20th century European Jewish history, the tale is familiar enough. After generations, sometimes centuries in one place, Jews are no longer welcome. When they resist leaving, or try to prolong their stay, or learn to put up with ever-crueler forms of oppression, their lives are made so intolerable that they have no option but to abandon everything and flee. Failure to read the writing on the wall often forecloses even the possibility of flight, thus spelling—as in the German case—looting, imprisonment, forced labor, slaughter. (…)
There are gradual snapshots of discrimination and hostility against Jews, but Kattan never provides a clear narrative of how the relative comfort of Jews under Ottoman rule finally devolved into oppression following World War II. Or perhaps the path from one to the other is so familiar by now that the shorthand version will do well enough. Jews were here. Now they are not. End of story.
Perhaps there is a slightly altered version that might do better yet: Jews were here but they were always already out, always already elsewhere. Maybe this is what being Jewish has always meant from the days of Babylon, and before.
The one little detail no one bothers mentioning, however, is what Jews left behind: their schools, their temples, their cemeteries, their homes, their businesses, their bank accounts, their things. The tale here is so familiar as to stare the banality of history in the face. Even as Jews held on to their things, these were always already being looted.
Naim Kattan will be in conversation with Marina Benjamin on 4 March during Jewish Book Week in London. He will be giving a talk about his journey to find his identity as a Jewish writer on 6 March. For details of both events see Harif.