You can take Baghdad out of the girl…

Boats on the Tigris (photo: AFP)

This piece was written for Chatto & Windus’s online magazine Night & Day, for their fourth issue which focuses on the Middle East, and appears here with their kind permission. The magazine is here:

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Nostalgia is a condition commonly afflicting refugees. But writer and playwright Samantha Ellis has never been to the place she feels nostalgic for – Baghdad. Read her charming piece. (With thanks: Niran, Lisette, Suad)

For as long as I remember I’ve been homesick for a place I’ve never seen. My parents are Iraqi Jews. I was born in London, but my past was quite literally another country. At four, my party trick was to say, in imperfect Judeo-Arabic, ‘You can put the curly tail of the dog inside a sugar cane tube for forty days and forty nights and when you take it out, it will still be curly.’

I thought all grown-ups spoke Judeo-Arabic and that English was just a children’s language. When I started school, I realised my mistake. I remember anxiously asking my mother to ‘Write me an A in Arabic. Write me a B’ but her alphabet had more letters than mine. I was distraught. If we couldn’t even translate our alphabets, how could we ever really understand each other?
At my grandparents’ house in Wembley, my family sat in a blue- grey cloud around the table where they chain-smoked and talked about Baghdad.

My brother and cousins and I heard stories of sleeping on the roof in the hot summer nights and seeing shooting stars, which they thought were UFOs. They kept a gazelle as a pet. They learned to swim in the River Tigris, thrown out of a boat to fight the currents. They ate water buffalo cream for breakfast, sold by women who carried it on their heads in round, flat trays. It was thick as cake, and the women would slice it with a hairpin for them to take home and eat with warm pitta bread and black, sticky date syrup.

They had ice cream that was chewy because it was made with mastic from crushed orchid roots—I’ve tasted it in a Turkish shop on Green Lanes so I know it exists. But I’ve never eaten masgouf, the enormous flat fish hauled from the Tigris and roasted on the riverbank, with spices, over an open flame. I’ve never seen the sandstorms that turned the skies red or the blind master musicians in dark glasses, playing languorous songs of lost love.

In the 1940s, Baghdad’s Jewish heyday, one-third of the city’s inhabitants were Jewish. Every third house, every third shop — the city almost closed down for Shabbat. No wonder they thought they’d never leave.

The Jews had come to Baghdad as captives of Nebuchadnezzar in 587 BC, forced to dredge canals to link the Tigris and the Euphrates. They wept by the rivers, as per Psalm 137, but when they were granted permission to leave, many chose to stay. Under the Ottomans, Jews were protected – if not equal – but after the First World War anti-semitism grew, from street violence in the 1920s to discriminatory laws in the 1930s, to the farhud of 1941, a riot in which Jews were murdered, raped and their homes and businesses looted. The word farhud means a breakdown of order; the Jews would never again feel at home in Iraq.

So in 1950, when they were told they could sign up for a mass airlift to Israel, many (including my father’s family) registered to go. They were stripped of their Iraqi citizenship, and the Iraqi parliament passed a secret law to confiscate Jews’ possessions and freeze their liquid assets. The Jews who left Iraq left with nothing. After the taskeet, the denaturalisation (an inappropriately bland word for the destruction of a community), only 6000 Jews remained in Iraq. My mother’s family was among them. They hoped things would get better.

But with the rise of the Baathists, things got definitively worse. In 1967, Iraq sent an army to fight Israel in the Six Day War. In 1969, crowds cheered as nine Jews, accused of being Zionist spies, were hanged in the streets. One was my mother’s cousin; he was only eighteen. By now, many Jews were leaving illegally, smuggled by Kurds over the mountains into Iran. My mother’s family made the attempt in 1970 but they were caught at the penultimate checkpoint and imprisoned. They finally got out of Iraq a year later.

My family tried to protect my brother and me from the bad stuff, but they were haunted by what they’d been through, and didn’t always clean up their stories. And I wanted to know.
I hated having my hair touched by strangers. Recently I worked out why; my mother had said that when interrogated in prison, they pulled her hair. No wonder I flinched. And then there was the story of the watermelon. The watermelon came on the day they took the men away. The women and children were terrified and the prison guards brought them a watermelon — just one. Eventually the men were brought back. I still don’t like watermelon.

The first stories I ever told were to fill in the gaps in my family’s stories. I’d watched The Thief of Baghdad and Sinbad the Sailor, and I was convinced my family had travelled everywhere by magic carpet. I had a very clear picture of my grandmother setting off for the copper market (where the banging was so loud you’d have to communicate in signs) perched elegantly on a fringed carpet. I’m writing a children’s play called Operation Magic Carpet about a child who wants to cure her family of nostalgia. Her intense wishing conjures up a genie, who bursts out of a mango pickle jar and flies her to Baghdad on a magic carpet. In an early workshop, watching the actors improvise my fantasy of rescue and return moved me to tears.

The first time I saw Baghdad moving and in colour was in 1990. We sat up watching the news of the Gulf War, and my parents pointed out landmarks. But the footage was from the bomber planes, and the landmarks were vanishing before our eyes.

I still dreamed, then, of going ‘home’ to Baghdad. There is no dignity in being homesick for somewhere you’ve never seen. Sometimes when I talk about being Iraqi in my north London accent, I feel like a fraud.

I spent my twenties chasing authenticity. As a journalist I wrote about my community (I wanted facts, not stories) and tried to learn to read and write but the alphabet never resolved itself out of a mass of squiggles.

I painstakingly transcribed my mother’s recipes, and discovered, among other things, that because I keep my flat at what I think is a normal temperature (not, like my mother’s, Baghdad-hot), I have to wrap my dough in a duvet and give it twice as long to rise. The one connection I didn’t make was marrying an Iraqi Jew. The community in London was warm, noisy and loving but also claustrophobic. We were clinging so hard to tradition that we had turned in on ourselves. I wanted something different.

In theory, I could have gone to Baghdad after 2003. When my friend Marina Benjamin told me about her trip (to research her wonderful history of the Jews in Iraq, Last Days in Babylon) over coffee in the British Library, I felt overwhelmed with yearning. But still I haven’t been back.
It’s not just that it isn’t safe, I’ve realised that going back wouldn’t ever be going home. Baghdad has changed beyond recognition, changed by the advance of modernity, and by war. And so much has been tarnished, or destroyed. There are now reportedly only seven Jews in the city.
As research for my play—and for pleasure — I’ve been reading a new translation of The Thousand and One Nights. Lots of the stories are set in Baghdad and there are magic carpets galore.

But one story shocked me. It’s about a firebird who wants to steal a magic ring from a jinniya. He orders a demon to help him and the demon comes up with a plan. Knowing the jinniya loves fishing, the demon trains a fish, first starving it then feeding it a corpse’s finger. The demon tempts the jinniya to put her hand out to tempt the fish — and when she does, the fish bites off her finger, and with it, the ring.

I’d always thought one day I’d swim in the River Tigris and eat masgouf, but in an echo of the grisly story, Saddam Hussein dumped the bodies of his victims in the river, and even now the police pull corpses out of the reeds. A cousin told me he’d heard the Tigris was “full of arms and legs”. I haven’t been able to get the image out of my head.

It was letting go of the idea of return that has finally made me able to start writing about Iraq. And in my life, too, I feel freer to create my own way of being an Iraqi Jew, and English too. My mother says people ‘cut onions on her heart’, while I say they’re rubbing salt in the wound. I say swings and roundabouts; my father says one day honey, another day onions. We understand each other fine.

I don’t eat cream for breakfast; I eat porridge, possibly the most un- Iraqi food in the world. But I eat my porridge with date syrup. You can take the girl out of Baghdad but… well, this dog’s tail is still, and always will be, curly.

Samantha Ellis’s blog

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