Pretty girls learning Hebrew in Iraq

Marwa Abdel Karim sings a song by Sarit Haddad (photo: AFP)

Now that there are almost no Jews left, modern Hebrew is being taught in Iraq, AFP reports, yet instruction in the language was banned from the 1930s when the country had a community of 150,000 Jews – an irony most probably lost on the 150 now studying Hebrew at Baghdad university. None chose this dead-end career option, the need for Hebrew-speaking spies having dried up in Iraq. We can only hope that the unexpected acquaintance of these students with the music of Sarit Haddadmight help humanise Jews and nurture an interest in Israeli culture. (with thanks: bh)

BAGHDAD — Wearing an elegant pink headscarf, Marwa Abdel Karim serenades her fellow Baghdad University students with a heartfelt rendition of “Filled With Love,” remarkable for the language in which it is sung — Hebrew.

She is one of the 150 students at the university’s Hebraic department, studying the language of Israel in an Arab country that has never had ties with the Jewish state and where most people regard it as an enemy.

For the first time since it was set up 40 years ago, the department organised a festival earlier this month where students sang songs and recited poetry for an enthralled audience of about 100, and gifted tutors with presents.

At the festival, the joyous mood was tempered by bemusement among students at the peculiar circumstances that led them to study Hebrew and the lack of job opportunities for graduates.

None of them originally chose to study Hebrew. They wanted English, French, German and Spanish but inadequate grades limited their options to Persian, Kurdish and Hebrew.

“I wanted to study English but I did not obtain good enough grades in my diploma, so I found myself learning Hebrew,” says Marwa, 21, who enthralled the audience with her song by Israeli artist Sarit Hadad, which she discovered on the Internet.

“My parents are disappointed, but I took my chance with this language.

“When I say to my friends that I study Hebrew they laugh at me, but I intend to continue my studies in Amman and then teach at the University of Baghdad,” she says with a smile.

Before the 2003 toppling of president Saddam Hussein by US forces, students of Hebrew often secured jobs with the intelligence services.

Such employment, however, is now limited because terrorism rather than espionage is Iraq’s major security concern.

“When I complete my studies I will knock on all doors — the intelligence service, the foreign affairs ministry and the newspapers who need translators,” says Ahmed Saadun, 22, a third-year undergraduate.

In a humorous festival sketch poking fun at his own dismal job prospects, he answers a fellow student who asks him what he will do when he leaves university.

“Nothing. But at least I had four years in the company of pretty girls.”

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