Revisiting the ghosts of old Baghdad

 The Jews were the first to be ripped away from the fabric of Iraqi society by Arab nationalism. In one of history’s ironies, the prime victims today are the Sunni Muslims who started the agitation. Jonathan Spyer, on a rare visit to Baghdad, gives us a eloquent glimpse of  the old Jewish quarter of Taht el Takia, where no memory of its former inhabitants remains:

 Jews used to be the vibrant heart of the market in Baghdad before the mass airlift of 1951

A few hours in the Shorja open market in Baghdad can teach you a lot –
about the Middle East’s past, its present and its apparent
future. What’s to be found there is informative. What is absent –
equally so.

My fixer Yusuf hadn’t wanted to take me to Shorja. I was in Baghdad
for a reporting project on the Shia militias. Between heading for Anbar
with Kata’ib Hezbollah and up to Baiji with the Badr Corps, we had a few
hours of downtime in Baghdad so I suggested we make for the market area
that had once formed the hub of the city’s Jewish community.

I am no expert on the Jews of Iraq.  But a friend’s Iraqi father back
in Jerusalem upon hearing that I was heading for Baghdad had mentioned
the Taht el Takia neighborhood in the heart of the market where he had
grown up and asked me to take some pictures if I had the chance.

“Old Baghdad isn’t really safe anymore. We won’t be able to walk
around,” Yusuf told me as we debated the issue. “After the Jews were
kicked out in the ’50s, a load of poor Shi’a moved in and they have been
running it ever since.”

I tried to ascertain what exactly the danger was. But, like much else
in Baghdad, it wasn’t clear – just a general sense of foreboding, and
maybe justified paranoia, of a kind that seemed pervasive in  the city.

Baghdad carried with it a tense and febrile atmosphere. Roadblocks
everywhere. Muscular, armed men and light armored vehicles outside the
hotels. Logos and pictures of armed Shi’a irregulars on every street
corner. These latter were the forces defending the city against the
Sunni fighters of the Islamic State.

ISIS was just 60 km. away, its black clad fighters waiting behind
their positions. Amid the dust and the summer heat and the collapsed
buildings.

So I understood Yusuf’s reluctance. His driver, an older man and
recent refugee from Anbar, was tired, too, and clearly had no special
desire to head out into the 40 degree heat of the afternoon – still less
if the destination was a poverty stricken Shi’a section of the city.

All the same, I was paying them and didn’t feel like spending the
whole afternoon sitting around drinking tea and smoking, so I persisted
and finally Yusuf agreed. “Taht el Takia? Well, we’ll go there and see
what’s there. But if I say it isn’t safe, we don’t even get out of the
car.”

We set off back into the heat of the afternoon and began the drive to
Old Baghdad. After a while, we reached al-Rasheed Street and began the
search for the neighborhood. The market and area surrounding it were
ramshackle and neglected, looking like they’d last been renovated
sometime in the 1970s.

Yusuf began to ask passersby about Taht el Takia. Everyone seemed to
have heard of it, but no one quite knew where it was. “The problem is,”
Yusuf said, “that most of the people here belong to families that came
in from the countryside when Baghdad expanded in the 1960s so they don’t
really know all the names of these old neighborhoods.”

Finally, from al-Rasheed Street, we reached a warren of small
alleyways and Yusuf declared that this, as far as he could ascertain,
was Taht el Takia. The market had closed for the day; it was late
afternoon and I made to enter the alley.

This had once been the vibrant heart of Baghdad’s Jewish community
though not the slightest memory or indication of that was to be
found. We wandered the deserted, silent alleyways filled with garbage
from the market.

After a few minutes, a plump security man wearing a tatty army
uniform with a maroon airborne-style beret on the back of his head,
appeared and began to shout and gesticulate in guttural Baghdadi Arabic.
“No pictures,” Yusuf told me.

Having established his authority with this arbitrary order, the guard
then became friendly and inquisitive. I told him I had come to look at
the area for the father of a friend of mine who had left in 1951 and
hadn’t seen it since.

“Oh, a Jew , yes?” he said. I decided to answer in the affirmative,
feeling vaguely that to have denied this would have been a sort of
betrayal. “From Israel?” the guard persisted. This was going too far,
and I replied that I had arrived from England.

The guard was amused by this, and with a show of magnanimity said we
could photograph the adjacent mosque and the outside areas, but that he
didn’t recommend going too far into the warren of alleyways, since it
was getting dark.

“Anyone could see that you’re a foreigner and just produce a weapon
and say ‘come with us,” he suggested, grinning broadly. “I don’t even go
in there myself after dark.”

He brought us some bottled water by way of a consolation prize. “By
the way,” he said as we parted, “ask your friend’s dad if he can get me
asylum in Israel.”

There has been a market at Shorja since the Abbasid period in the 8th century. But for some time in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Jews dominated trade in the area. It was the hub of a flourishing community.

In 1951-1952, the long story of Iraqi Jewry came to an end with
the Arab nationalist agitation; the commencement of anti-Jewish laws
from the mid-1930s; growing violence; the Farhud massacres in 1941; and
the subsequent persecution and expulsions.

Almost the entire community was airlifted or smuggled out of the
country from 1949 to 1951; Operation Ezra and Nehemiah brought around
130,000 Iraqi Jews to Israel  from May 1951 and early 1952.

Some 60 years on, in Baghdad the Jews are a ghostly memory. The poor
Sh’ia who moved into their vacated houses and the mass of the population
that came later are neither moved by nor curious about their buried
stories. There are, it is said, seven Jews remaining in the city.

The old synagogues are long since demolished or boarded up. The
mezuzas long prised from the doorways. The Laura Kaddoorie Alliance
Girls’ School, the Jewish Institute for the Blind, the shops of Yehezkel
Abu al-Anba and Fattal. All gone.

As it turns out, the expulsion of Baghdad’s Jews was a portent of
what was to come. The Jews were the first minority to be ripped from the
fabric of Iraqi society. For a long, subsequent period, stagnation
followed and dictatorships of unfathomable brutality imposed their will
on the country. These ensured the dominance of the Sunni Arab minority
while other communities lived an uneasy, truncated existence, visited by
intermittent catastrophe.

That period ended in 2003 with the overthrow of Saddam 
Hussein. Today, in Iraq, similar forces of tribalism and sectarian
hatred to those that ended Baghdad Jewry’s long and illustrious history
are tearing the whole country to pieces.

Nowadays, these forces no longer seek to cloak and disguise
themselves in finery borrowed from the West. There are no claims to
secularism, socialism or whatever. They come as they are ‒ sectarian,
religious and set on revenge.

And with the irony that history favors, the primary victims of
today’s sectarian agitation in Baghdad are the formerly ascendant Sunni
Arabs ‒ the same dominant population for whom Arab nationalism was the
chosen banner in the 20th century. That is to say, the
population that produced those responsible for the expulsion of the Jews
in the 1950s is today suffering a similar fate to their former victims.

This justifies nothing, of course. It is merely notable that the
inexorable ethnic and sectarian hatreds that made Israel a desperate
necessity for Jews and which have formed the basis of Arab opposition to
it ever since are now, more and more, openly visible across the
region. Few (outside of university departments, at least) bother to
claim otherwise anymore. Populations are seeking shelter among their own
kind. The splitting of states is the consequence.

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3 Comments

  • Ibn Khaldun's analyses of 14th century Arab-muslim societies have proven to be valuable. I have not found any anti-jewish writing in Ibn Khaldun work. None. Yes, he describes the semi-autonomous Jewish kingdom of Yemen very well for its economic strength and social organization in Southern Arabia. Ibn Khaldoun's family was originally from Haudraumat Yemen. I believe Ibn Khaldun was an objective social scientist, he described and explained social processes and events as they occurred and consulted other work of other social scientists that preceded him to explain social change.

    He was far more critical (and justly so) of the Arabs for their war-mongering, corruption, arrogance and the LACK OF RESPECT FOR THE RULE OF LAW.

    As for his refutation of some anti-jewish claims advanced by some Arabs, you are right, once does not have to dwell on Khaldoun's work, one can count several references in the Koran that amply indicate that the land of Cannan is destined for the gathering of Israelites (Benu Israel in Arabic). Whether the Koran is the word of God or not, it is clearly for a Jewish self-determination and therefore Zionist in nature.

    Reply
  • "The ghosts of old Baghadad" article piece is a testament of the inability of Arabs to create a stable and fair (if not to say democratic) society, since democracy seems to be incompatible with the muslim creed and beliefs.

    One does not have to go that far to understand this great calamity. One has to look at the present Arab states to get the picture. Under the seemingly stable corrupt goverments, the seed of destruction lay in wait to wreck havoc on the land (i.e., Tunisia, Algeria, Libya and future Morocco). This process has already began in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Egypt and Gaza.

    The famous 13th century berber sociologist Ibn Khaldoun describes in greater detail the hordes of Bedouin Arab tribes that devastate to any territory that lay their feet on. Sometimes these tribes were used as mercenaries by feuding Arab rulers in North Africa to undermine to the contending rulers.

    Here is one of Khaldoun famous quote in French: "Tout pays conquis par les Arabes est bientôt ruiné…" which translates: "Any country conquered by the Arabes is soon laid to waste (ruined)". In Arabic, the saying is short and it is very telling because it rhymes.

    If "something" is Arabized, it is "traumatized". The latter should be "ruined" because ruined in Arabic rhymes with "Arabized". I couldn't find an adjective that means ruined but also rhymes with "Arabized".

    The literal saying in Arabic goes like: "If it is Arabized, it is ruined"
    Traumatized seems closer.

    His famous quotes, social commentaries and analyses of Arab societies in his magnus opus book "Muqqadima" are many, and are always brushed off the side by contemporary Arab scolars as minor and time specific. Yet, they not only describe the state of anarchy and devastation of the 14th and 15th century Arab and Muslim cultures, they are still relevant even today due to the inability of the Arab and Muslim States to be politically stable and live in peace and build solid institutions that accomodate rapid change.

    Reply

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