The children and grandchildren of Jews from Arab countries are taking a keen interest in their roots: Take Sandy Rashty, whose parents and grandparents fled Iraq, where only three Jews remain. She traces her family’s story as part of gal-dem‘s Forgotten Diasporas series:
The flowers in Iraq were special. I remember their smell. Each one was brighter than the next, each with a different scent. The roses were so big. I remember swimming in the Tigris River in Baghdad. It was cold, but clean and fresh. The water almost tasted sweet. We lived in a house overlooking the river. I grew up there with my parents, siblings and a dog named Lassie. I used to call down to the sellers from the balcony, asking what fresh fish had been caught that day.
“It was a different life. It was a time when we could all play, laugh and sing together.”
These are the memories of my grandma, who was born in Baghdad to an Iraqi Jewish family in 1927. She shares her story with me over a pot of Arabic tea at her home in north-west London.
She has a proud identity, having grown up in a small but established community in Iraq that dated back more than 2,500 years. Prominent members of the community included Sir Sassoon Eskell, Iraq’s first Finance Minister who served under King Faisal I in the early 20th century; Reneé Dangoor, crowned Miss Iraq in 1947; and multiple poets and musicians including Saleh and Daud Al-Kuwaity.
Many Iraqi Jews were named after Hollywood stars like Grace Kelly and Rita Hayworth, wore Western clothes and were taught both English and French in Baghdad’s Jewish schools, including its main secondary school, Frank Iny, where my parents first met as students.
My grandma remembers the country before the modern wars, rise of extremism and the purge of its once vibrant Jewish community after the establishment of Israel in 1948.
But in 2021, the picture is very different for Jewish people in Iraq. The community, which once made up a quarter of Baghdad’s population before the Jewish State of Israel was established in 1948, now has just three members left after the death of orthopaedic doctor Dhafar Fouad Eliyahu in March this year. He was among the few who refused to leave the country.
So, how did a whole community – one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world – disappear?