The Language of Babylon
Life After Baghdad: Memoirs of an Arab-Jew in Israel, 1950-2000
by Sasson Somekh, translated by Tamar L. Cohen
Sussex Academic Press, 170 pp., $22.50
Life After Baghdad: Memoirs of an Arab-Jew in Israel, 1950-2000 is the newly translated volume of memoirs by the Iraqi-born Israeli scholar of Arab literature Sasson Somekh. It is not nearly as beguiling as its predecessor, Baghdad, Yesterday: The Making of an Arab Jew, which appeared in 2007 in one of the handsome little Gallimard—inspired paperbacks put out by the Jerusalem—based Ibis Editions press. Nevertheless, it is welcome, not only for continuing Somekh's story, but for adding another book to the shelf of those produced by the last generation of Jews to have been born and raised in Iraq.
The Jewish presence in what is today Iraq dates back to the 6th century B.C.E. and stretches through the Middle Ages to modern times. After Baghdad became the seat of the Islamic Caliphate in the 8th century, it developed into the political and spiritual capital of the Jewish world, and its rabbis, intellectuals, merchants, and officials shaped what Judaism would be for centuries afterwards. Jews continued to occupy an important place in the city right up into the modern period. The census in 1917 reported that Baghdad's total population of 200,000 was forty percent Jewish, a larger proportion of the total than in Warsaw, Odessa, Vilna, or any of the famous Jewish centers of Europe. When the British took over the region from the Ottomans after World War I and created the state of Iraq, Jews, already receptive to educational and cultural influences from Europe, were at the vanguard of the heady transformations of an imported modernity that included streetcars, cinema, education for women, and a liberalizing monarchy under the British-installed Faisal I.
Under the new regime, many Jews moved into the middle classes, and some became prominent in finance, banking, and trade. Others contributed to the arts and to modern Arabic literature, poetry, and drama. In the 1920s, a Jew served as the country's minister of finance. Jews wrote the first Iraqi short stories in Arabic, and they produced some of the best-known singers and musicians in Iraq, indeed in the whole of the Arab world.
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