Lyn Julius reviews Flight from Babylon by Heskel Haddad (Magraw-Hill, 1986, reprinted as Born in Baghdad) as told to Phyllis Rosenteur, a detailed account of the last years of the Jewish community of Iraq by an irrepressible man of action.
A cursory look at an online physicians’ directory tells me that Heskel M Haddad, New York-based opthalmologist and eye surgeon, is still accepting new patients. Clearly, retirement is not on the cards for this 79-year-old.
Having just read Heskel Haddad’s memoirFlight from Babylon, (first published in 1986, reprinted in 2004 as Born in Baghdad) I am not surprised. Dr Haddad, as hyperactive as his thyroid gland, is patently as irrepressible now as he was in his native Baghdad.
When he is 11, the anti-Jewish Farhud pogrom of 1941 changes his life. It turns him from Iraqi supranationalist to Zionist – swearing vengeance for his stabbed cousin and best friend Haron, who dies after public hospitals refuse to admit injured Jews.
From then on an active member of the Zionist underground, the brilliant Haddad receives both a religious yeshiva and a secular education, graduating top in the whole of Iraq aged 15. (He never does manage to avenge Haron’s death, saving an Arab from drowning instead.)
The book gives a fascinating overview of the antisemitism pervading Iraq at the time. Two hundred students matriculated each year from the only medical school in Iraq. Jews only constitute one percent, although more than half qualify for entry. Haddad is one of the ten Jews accepted that year. Strings are pulled to alter Haddad’s documents and make him four years older for entry.
The fear of the next Farhud hangs over the Jews of Baghdad. The Iraqi leadership has always used the Jews to take pressure off itself, staging phony rent-a-mob demonstrations. While Haddad likes Arabs, he could never trust them. His father is devastated to find Arab friends had decorated their house with Jewish loot from the Farhud. Haddad cannot even trust his funny and clever friend Rashid, who might blow the whistle on Haddad for being a Zionist.
The Jewish students are routinely beaten up by the Misilmin at exam time. They increasingly keep a low profile as tension builds up over the Palestine question. The government’s silent war on the Jews reaches absurd heights: Jews unpick Stars of David from their prayer shawls and stop wearing watches – then a ‘Jewish’ accessory. The slightest pretext could land them in jail. Eight thousand Iraqis are sent to Palestine to wage jihad, financed by money extorted from Jewish merchants. Jews are sacked from the Civil Service. The hanging of the wealthy anti-Zionist Shafik Ades sends shock waves through the community: even non-Zionists and Communists understand they have no future in Iraq. But by then, Jews must pay 10,000 dinars to leave the country.
When Haddad is forced to smuggle himself out of Iraq after being denounced by an informer, the book becomes an adventure story. Escaping into Iran, Haddad’s departure for Israel is delayed a few months: his medical skills are desperately needed. He treats Israel-bound lice-ridden Kurdish Jews from northern Iran with trachoma and dysentry.
The Iraqi government drives the Jews from Iraq, stripping them of their citizenship and property in a spiteful effort to overwhelm the struggling Jewish state with a seething mass of dependent humanity. The Arabs have the last laugh, writes Haddad, claiming all that confiscated Jewish wealth for themselves.
The complacency of Arabs in Israel angers him, their ‘casual and overnight acceptance of those freedoms we’d never won in centuries among them. Both sides had to want coexistence and the Arabs would not settle for less than a ruling role’.
Haddad finds his despairing family in an Israeli tent camp with its inadequate sanitary conditions and its rationed and revolting ‘Ashkenazi’ food. He becomes aware of prejudice against the Jews from Arab countries. All immigrants to Israel are refugees, but even the welcome given the destitute oriental Jews seems second-class. However, Haddad moves quickly to set up his family in an apartment and they start to rebuild their lives.
His father, a successful building contractor in Iraq, is turned down for a contracting job for not speaking Yiddish. The country is run by the all-powerful Histadrut union, with its fair share of blinkered bureaucrats. Haddad is stymied in his professional ambitions by his Ashkenazi senior at Hadassah hospital. Barely 21, he takes up a medical post in the US. He is also desperate to escape his warm-hearted, but unsuitable Ashkenazi girlfriend Ada.
Dr Haddad settles permanently in the US, but his family remains in Israel. He later becomes head of the World Organisation for Jews from Arab Countries.
Flight from Babylon is a detailed account of the last years of the Iraqi Jewish community. Thanks to the literary skills of Phyllis Rosenteur, who handles the narrative with sensitivity and colour, it’s a great read, all the more compelling for being non-fiction.