Iraqi-Jewish archives: the interpreter’s story

 A giant ripping out the heart of a community: that is the arresting metaphor which Tewfik Boulenouar, a US army interpreter present at the discovery of the Jewish books, documents and Nazi-like records found floating in the Mukhabarat basement in 2003,  chose to describe what Saddam Hussein had done to the Jewish community of Baghdad. This secular Algerian-born US citizen found his life changed by the experience. Read his moving account as told to Miriam Kresh in the Jerusalem Post: (with thanks to all who emailed me about it) 

Together with three soldiers – Chief Warrant Officer Richard “Monty”
Gonzales, reservist and interpreter Tewfik Boulenouar, and Sergeant
First Class Lou Diaz – and several journalists, they ventured into the
flooded basement.

“We went down there, and from the stairs we saw the flooding,” says Boulenouar in a recent telephone interview.

Gonzales waded in and led the way.

“It was funny the way Gonzales did it,” recalls Boulenouar with a chuckle.

“He
chose Diaz, who was a specialist in WMDs. And he said, ‘And you,
Tewfik, because you’ve got a big mouth.’ I was always glued to his
side, because of my fluent Arabic.”

Boulenouar was 48 when he was
sent to Iraq as a translator. An American citizen since his twenties,
he’d grown up in Morocco and Algeria.

“My parents were Algerian,
political exiles in Casablanca. They were wanted by the French because
they were activists for Algerian independence. After independence in
1963, we left Morocco and moved back,” he says.

“In Casablanca, I
lived in a building with French, Moroccan, Italian and Jewish people,”
he adds. “Everybody spoke French and Darija, the local Moroccan
dialect. We were a close-knit community, so I experienced a mixture of
people from an early age.”

Boulenouar has fond memories of a Jewish babysitter, a woman who lived across the hall.

“In
her home, I was really exposed to Jewish culture. I saw their
menorahs, sat with them at their festival meals. What I really
remember, more than anything,” he admits, “was the food.”

He has lived in the US since 1974, serving in the army as a paratrooper.

After
9/11, he explains, “I felt I had to reenlist as a reservist. I was 48,
divorced, with two daughters, the younger only five. I got called up
and was deployed to Iraq as an Arabic interpreter. I had to do all
kinds of things. Once, my team was stuck in a crazy traffic jam in
Baghdad. I was the one with the Arabic, so I got out and started
directing the traffic so we could get out of there and move on.”

It
was a risky thing to do, as the man in the American army uniform was
an easy target as he stood in the thick of a traffic snarl.

A few months later, Boulenouar found himself in the Mukhabarat basement.

“The water was up to our waists. It was filthy with sewage, and even dead animals floating in it,” he says.

“We
examined each room,” he goes on, “and finally found the one where the
Jewish artifacts were, at the end of the corridor. I was first inside.
When I saw what was there, the books and objects, I was stunned. I just
stood there in the water, looking at everything, shocked. There were
books, manuscripts, menorahs, sacred objects. Things plundered from
yeshivas and synagogues, and probably from people’s homes. I felt a
tremendous sadness. How could they do that to a whole community? I
suddenly had this vision of a giant hand buried inside the chest of a
Jewish person, grabbing his heart, then tearing it out. I kept
thinking, Why?” He took several objects, one an old manuscript, and
brought them to Rhode.

“He was waiting for me at the top of the
steps,” he says. “I handed them to him. He looked at the manuscript and
said, ‘Oh my God, this is from the 1500s.’ There was also the Torah
scroll from the 7th century. He was almost in tears. You could tell.”

Among
the waterlogged books and ancient documents was something else,
something sinister – metal cases full of records about the Jewish
population of Iraq.

“That give me a chill in the back of my spine,” Boulenouar says somberly.

“It
was documentation on the Jews living in Iraq, everything filed and
organized like the Nazis did it. Every detail: where each Jew was born,
where they lived, where they studied and worked. Personal photographs,
hospital records. The Mukhabarat had the community under surveillance.
They were making sure that none of them were spying for Israel.”

(Pentagon analyst Harold) Rhode
and (Iraqi senior politican Ahmed) Chalabiarranged to have the water pumped out of the basement, and
hired workers to take out what could be recovered.

“We took the
books and documents out to the sun, set them out on the ground and
guarded them. Harold [Rhode] commandeered an airplane and had them sent
away for restoration. I had this sense of loss and sadness when the
books left,” Boulenouar says.

“When I returned home, I read The
Gifts of the Jews
by Thomas Cahill, which opened my eyes further to the
many great things Jews have given the world,” he says.

“Likewise,
I felt that I’d been given a gift – a full sense of what it means when
something is kadosh – sacred. Rescuing Jewish holy books was a
spiritual experience, something that changed me. It made me view the
world differently. I’ve become kinder; have a greater sense of what it
is to be part of the human family. That was a gift I was given: the
ability to empathize. I felt closer to my Jewish friends when I came
back, although I couldn’t explain it at the time.”

Boulenouar says he’s still secular, and also a realist.

“I’ve
seen what evil does. What was done in the basement was evil. But this
experience awakened something buried in me for a long time: a sense of
the sacred. It consumes me; there’s not a single week that goes by
without my thinking of it. It was one of the seminal experiences of my
deployment in Iraq,” he states.

“The evil people in the world
have to be fought and won over at the same time. There’s too much hatred
out there. I don’t see peace in the future,” he says. “But our duty in
life is to constantly try to establish bridges.”

The Jewish
community files were rescued with the rest of the artifacts, counting
over 2,700 books and thousands of documents whose dates span the 16th
century to the 1970s. The restored materials have been gathered
together as a curated collection; some are now on exhibition, touring
the US.

“I’d like to see the exhibit; I’d love to see the objects again,” Boulenouar concludes.

“The
question is, where should they end up? There are less than 10 Jewish
people left in Iraq, if that many. Why should the books go back to
Iraq? The only place they’ll be safe is in Israel.”

Rhode’s and
Chalabi’s rescue operation required massive physical efforts,
string-pulling and utmost speed. The Iraqi government was doing nothing
to retrieve the precious trove from destruction.

The Culture
Ministry finally agreed to let the documents be taken abroad on
condition that they be returned after their restoration.

The
question now remains: to whom do these documents, letters, rare
manuscripts and personal papers that illustrate hundreds of years of
Iraqi Jewish life and were obtained by theft, really belong? Should
they remain in the US, which invested $3 million in their restoration,
or should they be moved to Israel, where most of their owners, or their
descendants, now live? Or should they be placed back in the hands of
the Iraqi government? In the meantime, the archive is remaining in the
US.

The exhibit of the restored articles may be viewed online at www.ija.archives.gov/.

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