A new comedy film called The Infidel is creating a sensation in the British press: it is about a British Muslim who, in a matter of minutes, discovers he was adopted and that he was born Jewish. Why is the film considered so controversial, even outrageous? In the West, Jews and Muslims are seen as polar opposites, eternal adversaries. To put them both together in the same script seems guaranteed to offend members of both religions.
In fact a Muslim who discovers he’s a Jew is not as outlandish as it sounds. There is the case of the Jew from Kuwait. The Jewish girl brought up by her Muslim neighbours after her family abandoned her in their chaotic exodus from Egypt. The Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi, whose Jewish grandmother makes him a Halachic Jew. Mixed families are known to live in Kurdistan, Egypt and Lebanon. Thousands of Muslim Yemenis are dimly aware of their Jewish roots. One Jewish convert was even President of North Yemen.
Traditionally, the two communities kept apart in the Middle East, and intermarriage has always been rare. But the mass flight Jews from Arab countries has left behind a number of Muslim-Jews in the no-man’s land of identity.
In Iraq, only seven or eight bona fide Jews remain. Baghdad-born Shmuel Moreh, emeritus professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, has been quoted as saying: “There are others, but they barely know that they are Jews; in many cases, their parents did not tell them.” The rest have become Muslim or are in hiding for fear of being murdered by terrorists if they do perform some outward act of Judaism, such as embarking on a Jewish pilgrimage.
Firas al-Hamdani thinks that his family was among the last Jews to leave Baghdad. He managed to move to Holland in 2007. He contacted Point of No Return for information about Jewish relatives.
“My family and I tried to stay as long as possible in Iraq, because we didn’t want to leave our country. We had our work, life and social network. Every year we promised ourselves, next year life will be better. We were threatened a lot by terrorists and they always wanted to kill us, because we were Jewish. Two years ago we couldn’t be safe anymore and we lived in real terror. We couldn’t sleep at home, moved from friend to friend. They tried to kill me three times, but thanks to God, I’m still alive.
“First I made sure my sisters and mother left the country. I left last and flew to the Netherlands. My family was in Amman during this time. The UN made sure they could move to Chicago (my young sister and family) and Berlin (my other sister and mother).
“For a long time, we have been looking for our relatives and as a son I’m always hurt by seeing my mother cry about her lost mother and sister. This is the pain we take with us every day.
At the time of Saddam they took us every six months to question us about if we had any connection to our Jewish family. We didn’t have a quiet life, because they constantly accused us of being spies. We couldn’t do anything at that time and it was also very difficult. Why didn’t we leave all this time? Same reason as after, we loved our country and were always waiting for our family to search for us.
“After the war the situation became a little better because we did not have terrorists coming from outside the country. As you know this changed soon enough. The terrorists came and all they wanted was to kill us because we were Jewish.
“Now we all are safe and very thankful. The only thing I want is to find my family and one day, when Iraq is safe again, I will go back.
Firas’s story is the heart-breaking tale of a split family. His mother, who was born in 1943, was apparently separated from her mother and sister.
” My mother was always teling us this story,” he told Point of No Return. “She says she was six years old when she last saw her mother, Sarah Jacob. Her father used to take my mother, Suad, to my aunt Naima’s home. My aunt (Sarah’s daughter from a first marriage to a Jew) at the time was married with three children: Ferial, Farid and Widad Habib. They used to play together almost every day. When my mother asked about her mother, they sometimes told her she went on a trip and will return; at other times, they told her she was in hospital.
“And then she started losing all her loved ones. They all left, one after the other. In the end when she became a young woman and her father died, she was more eager to find out what had happened to her mother, but nobody knew. Some thought she had gone to Israel. Others said she had died.”
Firas’ mother Souad Awad would have been six at the time of the great airlift of 1950 – 51 to Israel, Operation Ezra and Nehemiah. According to the latest information Firas has received, Suad’s mother had left for Israel with her own mother, sister and her sister’s family. Why did she abandon a daughter of six, Suad, and another daughter, Muna? The explanation seems to lie in the fact that they planned to be reunited in Israel. Sarah’s second husband, a Muslim, although non-practising, would, they imagined, join her later. He apparently sold gold and sent money illicitly to Israel to support her. Sadly, he became ill with heart problems and died in 1957. But his daughter Suad passed on to Firas the awareness that he was Jewish.
Firas appeals for information about his relatives in Israel, but so far his inquiries have led to nought. His mother’s cousins Ferial, Farid and Wihad, who would be in their 60s by now, may have changed their names.
Meanwhile in Holland, Firas is engaged to be married to a Dutch girl and the couple are expecting a baby. He has tasted freedom as a Jew, and wears his Magen David with pride.