David Kheder Basson is celebrating a special anniversary – 50 years since he left his country of birth for good. But first he and his family under went a rollercoaster of shocks, raised and dashed expectations, before he could obtain a precious passport to freedom. He told his story in the Arabic Al-Gardenia:
Dedicated to all those who sought freedom from tyranny and persecution by leaving their birth homeland.
Fifty years ago, on Sunday Jan 9 1972, for the first time in my life I boarded a plane – a BOAC flight that originated in Karachi, stopped in Baghdad and was bound for London. This is how I left the hell of Iraq, never to return again.
Following the Six Day war in June 1967, when Israel defeated the combined three armies of Egypt, Syria and Jordan, the remaining Jews, particularly in radical Arab countries, became scapegoats.
Iraq at that time was ruled by a nationalist government headed by prime minister Taher Yahia and president Abd al-Rahman Aref. Iraqi Jews numbered 3,500, mostly living in Baghdad and Basra, with a few families in other towns.
Soon after the war, persecution of the community resumed at a level not seen before – houses and businesses were under constant surveillance, telephones were disconnected, bank accounts were frozen and only limited withdrawals were allowed, and import licenses were either rescinded or not granted. In addition, secondary school graduates were not allowed to attend university, men were fired from their jobs, families and individuals were expelled from social and sports clubs and our community and sports club (Mahlab Menahem Daniel) was expropriated by the army.
Dozens of men were imprisoned and tortured. Many were later released but other measures remained, including restrictions on movement beyond five kilometres, with the need to inform the security authorities and getting prior permission to travel.
In July 1968, after a coup d’état led by the Ba’ath party, the status of Iraqi Jews deteriorated further. The presidency and government were headed by Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr from the military wing of the Ba’ath party, but the strongman was Saddam Hussein from the civil arm of the party. To show force and frighten potential opponents as well as the people in general, the government started attacking the weakest component in Iraqi society – the Jews. They rounded up Jews from Basra and Baghdad, threw them in jail and tortured them. Then they claimed they caught a spy ring for Israel and under torture some of those imprisoned died, others confessed to the fabricated charges.
A kangaroo court headed by a clown Colonel Ali Hadi Woutwout sentenced nine Jews to death by hanging in mid-January 1969.
Horror struck on the morning of Jan 27, 1969 when the bodies of nine innocent Jews, who were hanged in prison a few hours earlier, were displayed in Baghdad’s Tahrir square and Um Albrum square in Basra. Also hanged were another five innocent people, one whose father was Jewish, two Christians and two Muslims (just to show that this farce was not directed against the Jews only). Some half a million Iraqis chanted pro-government chants and danced in Tahrir Square on that terrible date. They even consumed food with the bodies in full view.
Members of the government attended this cannibalistic display. They delivered revolutionary speeches that inflamed the masses. They affirmed their intention to eradicate the fifth column (the Jews). Despite international protests, the government and its security forces continued, for the next two years, to execute, kill and torture Jews, and by the spring 1973, the number of executions and murders reached nearly 50 men and women. The Jews realized that there was no hope in Iraq, but they were trapped. They were eager to get out of Iraq, whenever the opportunity arose.
The central government in Baghdad was at war with the Kurds in northern Iraq in intermittent rounds since Iraq gained its independence. In the spring of 1970, a ceasefire was reached between the government in Baghdad and Kurdish forces and large-scale military operations ceased. Northern and Iraqi Kurdistan became open to “tourism” and the Jews were keen to travel to the north for recreation, after the lifting of restrictions on internal travel, and to explore how and what routes they would take to escape.
In June 1970, the Jewish family of Fouad Sawdayee managed to escape to Iran, taking a very difficult and dangerous road through the mountains. In the summer months, dozens of individuals and families escaped with the help of Kurdish smugglers (most of them through Erbil to Haj Omran and from there across the border). They left their homes, with all their contents, carrying one suitcase of clothes. They continued to escape until mid-September, when a large number of Jewish men, women and children were arrested in Kurdistan as they were waiting to escape. They were returned to Baghdad and imprisoned in a center belonging to the Baha’i’s. They were later released after paying a very large bail arranged by an Iraqi Jewish lawyer, Yaqoub Abdel Aziz (who was kidnapped in 1972 – his body was never found).
The escapes resumed during the harsh winter months through Sulaymaniyah and then to the Iranian border. They stopped for a few months. In the summer of 1971, fleeing Iraq resumed again in a serious and more organized way with the help of the Kurds and in coordination between Iran and Israel. Iran allowed escapees to stay for a few weeks in Tehran until the procedures were completed to transfer them to Israel or to other countries granting entry visas.
With many of my friends escaping and no future in Iraq, I was also anxious to flee, but my father being a well-known figure and reluctant to leave illegally, I was afraid he would be arrested and harmed. So I waited with growing frustration every day – My father was one the pioneering journalists in Iraq, thought of himself as an Iraqi patriot and did not leave in the mass emigration of Iraqi Jews in 1950-51. Now, several events came altogether.
First, I finished my first degree in Chemical Engineering from the University of Baghdad in 1970. I applied to universities in England, on the basis that it could help my departure. I was not expecting to be accepted because the university refused to supply me with a graduation certificate, being a Jew. But based on recommendations from the head of the Chemical Engineering department, the late Dr. Suham al-Madfai, and from other foreign lecturers as well as my school headmaster, I got accepted to study for my Master ‘s degree in several British universities.
Second, my secondary school – Shamash, where I taught for couple of years – was able to revitalize a scholarship funding program in England for Iraqi-Jewish students. I was informed by those responsible for the management of the Fund (who had not received a request for more than eight years), that they had agreed to grant me a scholarship for the scholastic year 1971-72, whenever I could reach England.
Third, in the summer of 1970, my father convinced me to give him a chance to use his political and journalistic connections to try to get me a passport rather than my having to flee. At that time, in the government of Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr there were two ministers who were good friends of my father – Aziz Sharif and Saleh al-Yousefi. My father had known Aziz Sharif, who was Minister of Justice, since the mid-Forties when Sharif founded the al-Shaab (People) Party. My father was member of another party, al-Ithad al-Watani (National Union), headed by Abd Al-Fattah Ibrahim, editor of its newspaper. The two parties merged and my father was appointed editor-in-chief of al-Watan (the Motherland) newspaper which the mouthpiece of the new party. After the dissolution of this new party, Sharif joined the Iraqi Communist Party and also issued a left-wing liberal magazine called al-Thaqafa al-Jadidah
( “the New Culture”) in which my father published articles. In the early 1970s, Sharif was invited to join the Ba’ath government as representative of the “National Democratic Forces” sympathetic to the liberal democrats and communist parties.
In March 1970, a ceasefire (“The March agreement”) was signed between the government of Iraq and the Kurdish forces headed by Mustapha al-Barazani. Saleh al-Yousefi was elected on behalf of the Kurdistan Democratic Party to be in the government as minister without portfolio. My father befriended al-Yousefi in the 1960s when he founded the al-Taakhi ( Brotherhood) newspaper as the mouthpiece of the party. My father wrote for al-Taakhi in the early sixties when he retired as a full-time journalist after the 1963 coup d’état against Abdul Karim Qasim.
As far as I know, my father asked the two ministers to mediate with the government (Saadoun Ghaidan was the Minister of the Interior) on my behalf to allow me to travel to England to continue my studies. The request to the two ministers was on the groundsthat my father, though an Iraqi Jew, was an Iraqi patriot who had served his country faithfully and had suffered imprisonment and deportation, and remained in Iraq after most of the Jews had left. His son is now accepted into universities in Britain and would like to travel for postgraduate studies.”
No passports were granted to Jews since 1964, except for very rare cases such as the family of Dr. Gourgi Raby, Shaul Sasson Kadoorie, son of the chief rabbi and his wife(Shaul was imprisoned and tortured in Qasr alNahaya (the Palace of the End) for a year and a few elderly Jews known for their well-connected ties. Therefore, being able to obtain a passport for a young Jew was at that time an impossibility.
The first stage in applying for a passport was to obtain the approval of al-Amen (the Public Security Directorate), headed by the notorious butcher Nazim Kazar – assuming that one does not have an open “file” in al-Amen. After the mediation of Aziz Sharif and Saleh al-Yousefi, the minister of the Interior, Saadoun Ghaidan, presumably gave instructions to the al-Amen, signaling his approval. Accordingly, al-Amen gave its approval on 7th September 1971. It was big news that a young Jew had obtained this approval.
The next stage, after al-Amen approval, was to send the file to the Ministry of Interior, and within a few days the approval was given routinely. Then the file was transferred to the Department of Travel and Nationality to issue a passport. So, we waited impatiently to get the approval of the Ministry of Interior, with no idea that there could be a problem on the horizon.
Weeks passed without news, and finally, after more than three weeks, the Ministry rejected the request. It was an unexpected shock.
We went back to the al-Amen, and after a week, they told us that the application was approved and that there was no update to withdraw the approval. My file was transferred again to the Ministry of Interior and after a few weeks we were told that the Ministry of Interior also declined to give approval, for the second time. Meanwhile, the university course for a Master’s degree had started and I had to write to inform them of the delay in my departure and to request a deferment. This they agreed to.
With more than half of Iraq’s Jews fleeing (we don’t know the exact number), the Iraqi government seemed to conclude that it would be easier to allow Jews to leave legally and confiscate their property after they leave. Meanwhile, the government could claim that it was not violating human rights and discriminating against the Jews. In any case, the Jews in the early Seventies became a secondary issue, as Saddam began to liquidate his rivals before seizing power at the end of the decade. The Iraqi authorities slowly began to grant approval for passports to elderly Iraqi Jews and then to others, including young people (as long as they were not on the banned list).
But my own approval was not forthcoming. I and my parents were mentally exhausted and my father felt remorse for not “being able to do what he had promised”. We went back for the third time to al-Amen, and their response was, “What is your problem, why do you come back to us – the application was approved! “
From the documents in my possession, it appears that Aziz Sharif or Saleh al-Yousefi presented the matter to Saadoun Ghaidan again, and he gave his consent. As a result, the Ministry of Interior wrote to the Directorate of Nationality (Identity Division) on November 23, informing it of its approval, but when we went to the Identity Division, it informed us that it was necessary write to the Ministry of Interior again to get its opinion because there was a previous refusal, despite the approval of the minister!
So, the obstacles persisted and after more than three weeks of not hearing from the Ministry of Interior, we decided that there was no point in approaching the Ministry in the same way we had done before. What made matters worse for me psychologically was that it was now December and the beginning of the harsh winter in northern Iraq, where it was difficult and dangerous to escape through the mountains of Kurdistan. I was like a bird imprisoned in a cage.
To make matters worse, I was granted an entry visa to Britain even without the need for a passport. This is another sub-story worth mentioning. The British government knew that any Iraqi Jew leaving Iraq, by any means, would not return, and therefore would seek asylum as a refugee. Hence the British Consulate in Iraq was instructed not to grant any entry visa to Iraqi Jews. The entry visa had to come directly from the Home Office in London after a guarantor promised to take financial responsibility. Therefore, the head of the Jewish community asked the British Embassy to send, via diplomatic mail, my visa application with the necessary supporting documentation to the Anglo-Jewish Association (AJA). The AJA, based in London, was responsible for administering the Iraqi Jewish Students Scholarship Fund, hence they would act as the guarantor (with the Jewish Refugees Committee). At the time, it was not known to me which of these Jewish organizations would be helping or financing me. I found out about AJA only after I opened a sealed letter on my flight from Iraq. That letter was given to me a few days earlier and was told not to open it until after I left Iraq. Three weeks after contacting the AJA, I was informed that I had an entry visa to Britain waiting for me at the British Consulate.
Now I go back to the main story. I was without hope and very angry after getting my British visa because I was not able to leave – legally or illegally. I remember how I had a gold chain on my neck with the word Shaddai in Hebrew engraved on it. Shaddai is one of the names of God. My mum ordered the gold chain for me as a safety net – if I needed money I could sell it. Out of desperation, I took off the chain and gave it to my mother saying: “I have everything a young man dreams of – admission to the most prestigious universities in Britain, a scholarship, an entry visa, but I am forbidden from traveling and there is no way to escape. Why does God do this to me? I am like a hungry person standing at the door of a room with a table laid with the most delicious foods, but I am only allowed to look at them.”
We decided to write a letter addressed to the Minister of Interior on December 15, in which I would raise my case and plead for his mercy. But how could we ensure that he got it? Now the bravest woman I’ve known – my mother (maybe like other mothers) – decided to take the letter and deliver it personally to the minister! She went to the ministry and waited for Ghaidan to leave. After several hours of waiting in the cold December weather, she saw the minister’s car leaving the gate and jumped in front of it and stopped it. The guards leapt up with their machine guns, but the minister realized that she was a relatively oldish woman (in her mid-forties), so he lowered the car window and inquired about the matter. My mother pushed the letter in front of his face and told him that this was a letter from her son, Khedher Selim al-Basson, requesting a passport. He replied, “I remember his name mentioned in the cabinet months ago, and we agreed to issue him a passport.” My mother answered bravely: “Yes, but your ministry refuses the request”. With an angry face, he said “What?” and took the letter and signed his approval.
Now, of course, no one in the ministry or Directorate of Travel and Nationality could refuse, so the approval came within days on December 21. We thought my problem was over. We discovered that it still lay with the Ministry of Interior. A low-ranking clerk put up obstacles to show other Jews that he could stop even a solid application like mine, so they had better pay him a bribe. My mother cursed him and months later he had a traffic accident: he broke his legs and could never walk again.
My mother took the file containing the approval of the al-Amen and the Ministry of Interior to the Directorate of Travel and Nationality. A few days later, on December 25, the Travel Directorate issued its approval : a passport was issued to me on December 27, 1971. Although the passport was valid for two years, for Jews it was for a period of three months: hence they had trouble obtaining entry visas. I went to the British Consulate just a few days before it was closed due to a dispute with the Iraqi government and I was able to get the entry visa stamped on the passport.
I booked to travel to London by BOAC from Karachi on Sun 2 January 1972. Since I was only allowed to take only 200 dinars and since we didn’t know what financial aid I would receive in the UK, my mother decided she should supply me with four suitcases, full of clothes and many other necessary and non-essential items, so that I would not need to spend money for the next 10 years! “. I also packed useful college Engineering books and personal items including my stamp collection, photos, etc. My father sent some of his books with me in preparation for his future departure. In total, on Saturday 1 January 1972, we sent about 120 kilograms of unaccompanied luggage!
I said farewell to the few remaining childhood friends who had not left Iraq by then and two of my college friends. On the morning of Sunday January 2, my mother threw water behind me in the front yard (an Iraqi custom symbolizing travelling and returning safely) and I left with the family for Baghdad airport. There at the inspection desk, I received the greatest shock of all. The security officer in charge of checking took my passport, looked at it, then looked at some papers and disappeared with the passport for what seemed to me ages. What now? I asked myself.
After more than half an hour the officer appeared again to say that I was forbidden to leave Iraq.
What ? The passport was newly issued!
He replied” “Yes, we have a travel ban on an engineer born on September 2, 1949, with all your descriptions, his name is Khedher Selim al-Basoom – (not al-Basson, a common mistake mixing n & m), but despite the misspelling of your name, it is certainly you”. He then added that the delay was due the difficulty in reconciling how I obtained the passport on December 27 while my name was on the “No Travel List” in a memo issued on December 16. We asked who initiated the memo and he told us that the ban request was issued by the University of Baghdad.
I went home and we couldn’t believe what had happened – ‘the bite reached my throat,’ as the Arabic saying goes, and stopped there. We checked the next day about the issue of Baghdad University requesting a travel ban. We discovered that the university required, before approving the rescinding of the ban, that I pay 1000 dinars – 250 dinars for each academic year. This was because I got a free college education. Usually, a graduate serves four years in a government job ( as a chemical engineer it meant working in a factory). After that his debt was paid. But jobs were not available to Jews! and I was already working in our private school as a teacher. Now we had to solve this problem. We did not have such an amount to pay in a short period (large in those days – equivalent to 12-18 months of a good salary).
I pledged to pay the full amount in monthly instalments of twenty dinars for “violating the commitment to service.” My mother guaranteed me for the one thousand dinars, and we were able to find a joint guarantor for my mother – a school colleague where she worked. This was how we were able to lift the ban on my travel on January 4, 1972. I was only interested in the airport but my name was on the travel list ban at more than 40 border crossing and exit points. After I left Iraq, my mother started paying the monthly instalments. When my parents got ready to travel in July 1973, my mother paid the remaining amount to her colleague – about 600 dinars, so that so she would not bear any responsibility in case she wanted to leave Iraq and lift any potential travel ban.
Again, we booked the flight to London on January 9, 1972 – 50 years ago. That morning I forbade my mother from throwing water behind me: I didn’t want to return! This time I really boarded the flight in the middle of the morning – I couldn’t believe I was actually on board. I was afraid that at the last minute I would be blocked and even thought that the ‘plane would return to the airport. After 20 minutes of flying, the air hostess came to me where I was sitting in economy class, having bought a cheap ticket as a student. Fear returned for a moment, but the air hostess told me that she was arranging the seats and asked me if I wanted to move to first class! What a surprise and of course I said yes – perhaps luck finally smiled at me. I sat next to a Frenchman who worked for the French Oil Company ERAP. Since I knew French, I told him it was my first time flying, but talked no more.
I looked out of the window and saw a large body of water. I asked him what it was, and if I remember correctly, it was al-Tharthar lake, north west of Baghdad. After about an hour into the flight, I saw mountains and asked him again where we were. He told me that we had crossed the Iraqi border and these were the mountains of Turkey. I shouted “Thank God”. He looked at me with a surprised and questioning face. Only then did I realize that there was no chance of forcibly returning me to the hell that I had left behind.
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.