The son of an Iraqi-Jewish mother, Joseph Braude ‘s work took him across much of the Arab world, but it was only when he met two of the last Jews in Baghdad that he felt he could be himself. Sentimental but elegantly-written essay in Best Life magazine.
“Maybe this passion to listen, to understand, to explain is the inevitable fate of a man born into a family whose history straddles the fault lines of today’s sectarian conflicts. Perhaps it all leads back to my mother, who became a refugee from Baghdad at age 5, one of more than 120,000 Iraqi Jews who fled their native soil in 1951 after 2,800 years of continuous history in Mesopotamia. But a refugee never entirely leaves the city of her birth. Memories of the place trail her through life, then live on in her children’s dreams. My brother and I grew up hearing her speak of a Baghdad that no longer exists—a peaceful multiethnic city, once a jewel of the Middle East, which has been fading from the war-torn landscape of Iraq for decades.
“Behind high vine-shrouded stone walls, my mother listened to her nanny tell animal fables under a palm tree’s restful shade. Roses, gardenias, lemons, strawberries, and okra grew in a garden flanked by water fountains. My mother tells me there were family outings in a colorful bustling town, of pastoral scenes at home that changed with the seasons. When winter’s cold crept into her house, the Persian carpets were spread across the chilly tiles on the ground floor, only to be rolled up and transplanted to the rooftop for the summertime, “when the family went up and slept in the open air to keep cool.” The Tigris River, too, brought a welcome breeze during the hot season: “We would take a boat to a little island in the Tigris, and your grandfather and your uncles would catch fish and spit grill them for our picnic.”
“Why, then, did she, her parents, five siblings, and tens of thousands of Iraqi Jews leave this wonderful place—nearly all at once? By the time we’d grown old enough to learn the answer, the sunnier parts of my mother’s youthful Baghdad had seeped into us.
“Even as a 5-year-old, my nose knew the smell of an Iraqi kitchen: Tbeet, a centuries-old Babylonian dish that cooks overnight on the Sabbath, features stuffed chicken quarters and whole eggs in their shells sitting in a reddish-brown cloud of rice, cardamom, diced tomatoes, cinnamon, and onions. This dish, she quipped, sometimes had to serve as a Baghdad mother’s tool of last resort to dissuade her son from leaving Judaism for Islam—not an unheard-of occurrence. “You can abandon our community, but are you ready to give up the eggs in this tbeet?” was supposedly the question that stopped many a prospective convert in his tracks.”