If there’s one thing last year’s Arab Spring probably taught us, it’s that the Middle East, even though the region might be seen by some as being politically and culturally stagnant, in reality it’s deceptively dynamic. Change can occur slowly and imperceptibly, like some mighty glacier gradually carving out the terrain until everything has been changed profoundly and irreversibly. On the other hand change can happen quickly, chaotically and without warning, just like the many protests and armed rebellions that have swept across the Arab world over the last year and a half. But regardless of how one looks at it, in the Middle East, just like any other part of the world, change happens. This is one of the reasons I like books that show how much the Middle East has changed over the years, including memoirs like Crossing Mandelbaum Gate, To Jerusalem and Back and The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit. All three of them to varying degrees give the reader a glimpse of a Middle East that differs from that of today. It’ s probably no one’s surprise that when I came across Marina Benjamin’s Last Days in Babylon: The History of a Family, the Story of a Nation during one of my visits to the Middle East section of my public library I had to grab it. After finishing it last weekend I’m glad I did. Published in 2006, I found Benjamin’s memoir a straight-up, nothing fancy, but still enjoyable account of not just the author’s life but that of three generations of Iraqi Jews.
Few people know that until the early 1950s, roughly one-third of Baghdad’s population was actually Jewish. From the waning days of the Ottoman Empire until the establishment of the State of Israel, many of those Jews served as city’s merchants, civil servants, physicians and international traders. With strong family and business connections in Tehran, Bombay and Calcutta Baghdad’s large Jewish community looked not to Ashkenazi Europe but to the lands of the East. Using her family as the focus, her book chronicles the life and times of the City’s Jewish Community, right up to and including its modern-day exodus to Israel in the early 50s. Later, near the end of the book, she returns to Iraq during the chaotic days of the US occupation to successfully locates and interview the few surviving remnants of this once large community.
The world of the Mizrahi or Jews from Arab lands is little known to those outside Israel and the Middle East. If one would like to read more on this subject, I’d recommend Rachel Shabi’s We Look Like the Enemy: The Hidden Story of Israel’s Jews From Arab Lands as well as Ariel Sabar’s My Father’s Paradise: A Son’s Search for His Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq. Since he learned Arabic from his Iraqi Jew mother and also visited with members of Morocco’s small but lively Jewish community while researching a murder in Casablanca, Joseph Braude’s The Honored Dead: A Story of Friendship, Murder, and the Search for Truth in the Arab World might also be worth checking out. Of course, when it comes to books that deal with the creation of the modern Middle East, including the nation of Iraq I highly recommend Janet Wallach’s Desert Queen: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell. Lastly, while I’ve yet to read it, judging by Edwin Black’s lecture on Book TV, it looks like his 2010 book The Farhud deals with the pogroms and challenges Iraq’s Jews faced during the run-up to the Second World War.
By year’s end I hope to feature other memoirs by authors from throughout the Middle East. With a small stack of these books on my desk ready to be read it looks like I have my work cut out for me. To me this probably means I should stop blogging, shut down the computer and get back to my reading. Sounds good to me.