‘Baghdad by the Bay’ united by experience of exile

Iraqis of all denominations now living in the USA are united by their experience of exile. Muslim and Christian Iraqi expatriates, however, are still shocked to meet Jewish Iraqis. Jonathan Curiel reports on ‘Baghdad by the Bay’ in the San Francisco Chronicle.

“For Iraqi Americans in the Bay Area, the misery in Iraq is always present in their lives, even if the war zone is 7,000 miles away. Salih and others do what they can, whether it’s sending money back home or starting a nonprofit organization that benefits Iraq. They can also do something here that in Iraq might be deadly: Reach out to Iraqis of different religions. In the Bay Area, Iraqi Americans who are Shiite, Sunni, Christian and even Jewish interact with regularity – the sort of commingling that once existed in Iraq.

“Like many things having to do with Iraq, this commingling is complicated. Often, it happens on special occasions, as in 2005 when Iraqi Americans voted in polling stations for an interim Iraqi government, and Muslim, Christian and Jewish Iraqis shared in the opportunity to elect members of Iraq’s Parliament. Beyond these formal gatherings, there are the impromptu meetings like the one that Elias Shamash had a few years ago at Kinko’s on Van Ness Avenue.

“Shamash, a Jewish Iraqi who grew up in Baghdad and has lived in the Bay Area since 1978, was at the San Francisco Kinko’s when he noticed the clerk wore a name tag that said “Bassam.” “I said, ‘Where are you from?’ And he said, ‘Baghdad.’ I said, ‘Come on, I’m from Baghdad, too. When did you leave Iraq?’ He said, ‘1970’ – the same year as me. He is Muslim. We became friends. … I tell him I have a restaurant. He brought his wife to eat. They’re nice people. They’re friendly.”

“Iraqi Muslims in the Bay Area are shocked to meet Shamash. He says he’s often the first Jewish Iraqi they’ve ever encountered. Shamash, 57, had good relations with Muslims during his childhood in Baghdad, even during the late 1950s and early 1960s, when – after the establishment of Israel – Iraq’s government began cracking down on Jews and accusing them of treasonous behavior. The 1967 war between Israel and its Arab neighbors, and the rise in Iraq of Saddam Hussein, led to an exodus of many of Iraq’s remaining Jews, including Shamash and his family.(…)

Besides their common heritage, Iraqis in the Bay Area are united by the risks they’ve taken to leave their homeland or return to it. Elias Shamash risked his life to leave the only country he had known. Part of a Jewish family that was rooted in Iraq for centuries – possibly more than 2,000 years – Shamash escaped from Iraq in 1970 by sneaking over the border to Iran. At the time, Iraq’s Jews were being monitored by Iraq’s government. Shamash, his brothers and their father dressed as Kurdish soldiers; his sister and mother dressed in veil and abaya, the shroud-like overgarment that’s common in the Arab world. At the Iraq checkpoint, they didn’t say a word for fear they would be revealed as Jewish. Had they been caught, they probably would have been executed.

“It was unbelievable,” said Shamash, a Marin County importer. “My family was (in Iraq) for generations. We didn’t know anything but Iraq.”

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