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.
‘The Strangers we became: lessons in exile from one of Iraq’s last Jews’
is Cynthia’s charming coming-of-age memoir: she moved from Iraq to
Turkey, then Israel, settling in Holland, one of few countries then to
offer Iraqi Jews asylum. Cynthia moves to the US to pursue her dentistry
studies. Five countries in 12 years.
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.