Two Israeli actors of Iraqi origin have founded a multicultural repertory theatre dedicated to staging the heritage and forgotten stories of Jews from Arab lands. The project is called ‘Shahar’ (Dawn).
Actor Uri Gabriel and actor and playwright Gilit Yitzhaki were inspired to start their project following the success of ‘Eliyahu’s Daughters’ (Habanot shel Abba), a play about two generations of an Iraqi-Jewish family which survived the Farhud pogrom, escaped from Iraq and came to Israel. The play, which was written by Yitzhaki, has been playing to packed houses up and down the country.
Introducing the Shahar project in a Facebook video clip, Uri Gabrieli says:” this is the dawn of a new day!״
He and Gilit Yizhaki have set up a website (English version available – click top right) to attract funding.
Backers purchase tickets from the website for a play to be staged in February. The aim is to collect the 120, 000 shekels needed to finance Shahar’s first production. If the target is not met, contributors will receive a refund.
The next production, The Rebel from Tetran, will be based on Salim Fattal’s memoir In the alleys of Baghdad. Shahar will also run workshops, discussions and social activities.
How does a Jewish refugee from Iraq cope – not just with physical displacement, but cultural exile? The question is stylishly answered by Cynthia Kaplan Shamash in her witty and exhilarating memoir, The Strangers we became. Lyn Julius reviews the book in the Jerusalem Post:
Cynthia Kaplan Shamash was just nine when she was taken alone into a
room by the Iraqi secret police and accused of spying: her interrogators
dismembered the doll she was clutching to see if it had a bugging
device inside it.
Cynthia still has the doll, a lasting reminder of
the antisemitism her Jewish family had endured in the 1970s. They made
a failed attempt to escape, followed by five weeks of detention.
Cynthia, her three siblings and parents eventually leave Iraq with a
passport, but their home is sequestered and their possessions stolen.
The day of permanent departure arrives, the children incongruously
dressed in their smartest clothes.
On leaving Iraq, she captures beautifully her
first sighting of the sea, the welcome ringing of ‘phones – Jews were
not allowed telephones in Iraq – but also the estrangement of exile in
the West. Perhaps because they hoped their father stood a better chance
of finding a job, the family choose not to join their raucous relatives
in Israel and resettle in Holland instead.
The small number of Jewish refugees from Iraq
are housed in a dour Amsterdam apartment block with Surinamese
immigrants for neighbours. Mastering Dutch is difficult. Cynthia’s
Jewish school is no less alien and the pupils cliquey and spoilt. Her
attempt to to gain popularity by taking up horse-riding literally
barely gets off the ground.
Cynthia’s father is 24 years older than her
mother – and sensing the couple’s unhappiness, the family’s well-meaning
social worker sends him away from the family home despite his fragile
health. But the separation kills him. Even for unhappy couples, Iraqi
custom dictates ’till death us do part’. After her husband’s death the
widow will not remarry.
The refugees must navigate between different
worlds: uninhibited liberalism and conservatism, Dutch rationalism and
Iraqi superstition. Whereas a Dutch person might offer a visitor a cup
of coffee, an Iraqi hostess will cook a whole meal for them. There are
later challenges – such as how a girl from a sheltered background might
Aged 12, like a character from a Bronte novel,
Cynthia is sent to live with an ultra-orthodox family in London’s
Stamford Hill. The experience is not the disaster one might have
expected. The religious, if austere, atmosphere gives Cynthia the
structure which has been lacking in her life.
She returns to Holland determined to do well
academically – somewhat more devout than when she left, yet with the
confidence to face the world.
This is a vivid, witty, exhilarating and at times
disarmingly frank, read. Some things are best expressed in
Judeo-Arabic, which Cynthia obligingly translates for us. These are the
lessons of exile: strive to do well, make your family proud, be
optimistic, resilient, and don’t look back.
Iraq-born Benjamin (Fuad) Ben-Eliezer, ex-defence minister, general and veteran politician, has died aged 80. He was the first Israeli minister to meet Yasser Arafat in 1994, and had a clubbable relationship with President Mubarak of Egypt. In his later years his reputation was tarnished by allegations of corruption. The Times of Israel reports:
Known as “Fuad” to friends, family and among the public, Ben-Eliezer was born in Basra, southern Iraq, in 1936.
At age 12, with the founding of the State of
Israel, Ben-Eliezer was forced to flee Iraq alone. Traveling by foot
with a group of Jews, he headed toward Tehran. He described the journey
in detail in 2011 on the Uvda TV program, saying he was beaten
repeatedly along the way and rescued from a swamp without his shoes.
In Tehran, his mother had told him, there was
an aunt who owed the family a favor. For eight months, he recalled, his
mother had quizzed him on his ability to speak his family name and the
aunt’s address in Farsi. Upon arrival, he made his way to her palatial
home, repeated the proper words, and saw the door slammed in his face.
candidate Reuven Rivlin, right, seen with former presidential candidate
and then-MK Binyamin Ben-Eliezer in the Knesset during presidential
elections, Tuesday, June 10, 2014. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Sobbing uncontrollably on the way back to the
temporary refugee camp in Tehran, he said the tears suddenly dried up
and a realization set in: “That’s when I realized it was over. You will
live alone. You are alone. Iran hardened me,” he said. “My emotions
cannot be penetrated and harmed without me allowing it to be so.”
In Israel, Ben-Eliezer, who spoke the Queen’s
English and accentless Arabic and Hebrew, was drafted to the Golani
Brigade in 1954. He fought in the Sinai during the Suez War in 1956 and
commanded the Sayeret Shaked recon unit during the Six Day War.
Afterwards, serving under then-GOC Southern Command Ariel Sharon, he led
many of the cross-border counterstrikes against terrorists operating
from within Jordan.
In early 1968, Ben-Eliezer set out with 12
men, on two helicopters, toward Petra, the ancient Nabatean palace in
Jordan, which Israeli military intelligence claimed was being used as a
base for Fatah terrorists. As the lead helicopter landed, the gunmen
opened fire, wounding Ben-Eliezer and the military correspondent Ron
Ben-Yishai, who described the event in an article for Ynet.
Bleeding from a bullet wound to the ankle, he
directed the second chopper to safer ground and radioed Sharon, saying,
“There is a pretty big enemy force there. I can continue the mission but
it’s borderline…your call.” He did not mention that he [and Ben-Yishai]
had been wounded in the initial approach.
Later, in the mid-seventies, he was one of the
first Israelis to travel covertly to Lebanon and establish ties with
the Christian Phalange forces there.
Shai Tsabari performs ‘Lecha Dodi’ in Krakow in 2014
Brought up in Bat Yam, Shai Tsabari is a well-known Israeli musician of Yemenite origin who has just performed in the US. He is at the centre of an exciting Israeli musical trend to blend traditional liturgical poetry with modern rock, jazz and Middle Eastern influences. Interview in The Tablet:
Bat Yam has its miseries, but Tsabari’s childhood hardships weren’t
financial. “We lived there for the community,” he said. “In synagogue,
my dad would sit next to his friends from the cheder [religious
school] in Sana’a. Community was very important to him, because
immigrating was so difficult. I grew up feeling that there was us—the
community—and outside there was big, Western Israel. ‘Be careful of
them, they’re wolves, they’ll gobble you up!’”
It was a deeply musical home, though Tsabari did not realize it at the time. His father is a cantor and a mori,
the honorific Yemenite Jews give to those who teach young boys how to
read from the Torah (Yemenite Jews traditionally don’t celebrate Bar
Mitzvahs as the children participate fully in services years before they
hit 13). “He taught me a lot about Yemenite prayer, about the Yemenite
reading of the Torah,” Tsabari said. “It’s a very precise sort of
reading; you can’t make one mistake—of melody or pronunciation—because
everyone is an expert.”
Tsabari’s paternal grandmother was a singer, but not in the typical
sense: She was a mourner for the community. “She would lament the dead.
It’s a freestyle art with its own internal logic,” Tsabari said. “You
console the bereaved until he cries, so that he will get out of his
state of shock.” She would also sing at births, Henna (engagement)
parties and weddings. “It’s a very different sort of singing. In Arabic,
not in Hebrew. She would take a darbuka or a platter, drum on
it with her ring finger or a spoon, find her groove and make up words.
She sang songs about me, how much she loved me, how happy my parents
were when I was born. Or about the bravery of Moshe Dayan and how we won
the Six-Day War!” he said. “She was the best singer I’ve ever heard.
She was complete freedom.”
Shai Tsabari: This is a text from a 1,000-year-old
prayer book, the Saadia Gaon Siddur. Most contemporary Hebrew-speakers
have trouble understanding the words, but there’s something about their
rhythm which is almost like rap and made me want to set them to music.
A-WA, who are really successful in the United States,
sing on this track. We performed in Krakow together. It was their first
time outside of Israel, and they asked me for tips ahead of the show.
Today they could teach me.
After completing his military service at 21, Tsabari began attending
classes at the Rimon School of Jazz and Contemporary Music north of Tel
Aviv. Only then did he realize how organically musical his childhood
was. But he also realized that the Israeli music scene of the mid-’90s
had little room for his style. His grandmother’s singing, it turned out,
was completely unrelated to Western musical scales he was learning. In
class, he was given modern lyrics to compose a melody to. He sang it as
he would verses from the Torah, complete with the traditional Yemenite
phrasing. “That’s your safe space,” the teacher told him. “Leave it.”
Tsabari felt that that space was his calling. He left the music school
Tsabari spent his 20s struggling with the desire to make music. He
worked as a cook and a magazine editor, always flirting with music on
the side. Crucially, he worked as an assistant to Nitzan Zeira, head of
the music label Nana Disc. Zeira published albums by some of Israel’s
top recording artists, while Tsabari knew exactly how much milk they
took with their coffee. In 2007, Berry Sakharof, the closest thing to
rock royalty that Israel has, was looking for someone to do back-up
vocals for a project he was working on with the musician Rea Mochiach.
Called Adumey Hasefatot, or Red Lips, it was an
evening of poetry by Solomon ibn Gabirol, set to music by Sakharof and
Mochiach. Zeira recommended Tsabari, who showed up for a week of
“That week changed my life,” Tsabari told me. “It was like opening a
door and stepping into paradise. I was working with world class
musicians on real Jewish avant-garde.” The trend of rock musicians
using piyutim – classic Jewish liturgical poetry – whether as raw material or inspiration was at its height by that point. Red Lips
took the trend to the next level, fusing rock, jazz and a thousand
flavors of Middle Eastern music into the mix for what was to become a
landmark concert tour and album.
There has recently been a flurry of reports (including onPoint of No Return) that Sassoon Heskel’s home, the “House of Dreams,” in Baghdad was destroyed earlier this month. Researchers for Diarna, (the geo-mapping project), inside and outside of Iraq have confirmed that a house once belonging to Sassoon Heskel was destroyed, but the “House of Dreams” still stands.
See Diarna‘s report:
Sassoon Heskel, the one-time finance minister of the Republic of Iraq, had two residences in Baghdad, both near the Tigris River and Al-Rasheed Street. People generally only know about one of his houses, and not the other, leading to the confusion. The house most people know about is the house near the Al-Sinak Bridge and Al-Rasheed St., which is known as “the House of Dreams.” Located at 33.328854, 44.403940, this is the house that Najem Wali described in his 21 March 2011 article “A visit to the house of dreams” and which Diana S. describes in the post-script of “Sassoon Eskell and the House of Dreams” posted to the Point of No Return blog on 13 September 2011.
The House of Dreams had an interesting history after the Ba’ath Party came to power in Iraq. The House was used for a number of different purposes: as a telephone exchange, a theater, army barracks, and most recently and currently, the offices of the Iraqi Independent Film Center. At this point, we can confirm that this house was not destroyed.
Diarna’s map showing the two houses of Sasson Heskel (courtesy)
The other house in Baghdad that belonged to Sassoon Heskel was located near the Al-Ahrar Bridge and Al-Nahar and Al-Rasheed streets, this is the house that was recently destroyed. An article in the Arabic language version of Russian Times about the destruction of the house states that it was located near the Al-Ahrar bridge. Further corroborating this, is the statement of a government employee commenting in this video that the destroyed house was nearby the house of Albert Sassoon Heskel. Additionally, the footage of the destruction in the video, corresponds more to the general scenery of this other house than the House of Dreams. See here for an image showing the house of Sassoon Heskel and the house of Albert Sassoon Heskel, with the House of Dreams located some distance away.
This website is dedicated to preserving the memory of the near-extinct Jewish communities, of the Middle East and North Africa, documenting the stories of the Jewish refugees and their current struggle for recognition and restitution.
Point of No Return
Jewish Refugees from Arab and Muslim Countries
One-stop blog on the Middle East's forgotten Jewish refugees - updated daily.