Farewell, Babylon: Coming of Age in Jewish Baghdad

by Naim Kattan /Translated from the French by Sheila Fischman
218 pages,
ISBN: 1551927993

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Remembering Baghdad
by Nancy Wigston

Thirty years ago, when Montreal writer Naim Kattan published this memoir of Jewish Baghdad, horrors from Iraq were not being shown on the nightly news. Quite the contrary. In 1975 the war that had gone wrong for America was ending in ignominy on the other side of the world, in Vietnam.
In a new preface, Kattan recalls the vanished pluralism of his native city, where, until recently "Arabs, Kurds, Jews, Christians, Chaldeans and Armenians, Shia and Sunni Muslims" inhabited well-defined private worlds. "They did not mingle, meeting only at work." Fragile and precarious as this equilibrium was, it functioned well enough. After all, Jews had lived in what was once Babylon for twenty-five hundred years. Kattan justly claims that his memoir is neither a work of nostalgia nor of resentment, and commiserates with all his fellow exiles, now numbering four million. He also reminds us that "the father of all the monotheistic religions," Abraham, was born at Ur, not far from Baghdad. "His word endures . . . that is his victory; it is also our hope."
While Kattan's preface brings us the voice of a man fifty years exiled from his home, the author of over thirty books, the recipient of major international honours, his memoir brings to life the teenaged boy he once was, the kid with a thirst for learning and for life. His war was World War II, viewed through the eyes of a young Jew living in a country whose emerging nationalists were allied with Germany. Yet the teenaged Kattan desperately wanted to believe his own generation would forge new bonds between Muslim and Jew, using literature as the expression of this ideal. He also aims, in the wry words of critic Dennis Lee, to "finally contrive to get laid." His world is vivid as the air he breathed, as the friends and family inevitably left behind.
Kattan plunges us directly into his complex adolescent milieu. Young intellectuals are gathered in a cafe; some boast of their latest finds-Hemingway, Saroyan-while others speak in favour of the legendary Arab tale, the Thousand and One Nights. Kattan's best friend, the endearingly prickly Nessim, suddenly insists on speaking in the "Jewish dialect". Sprinkled with Hebrew terms, this isn't a true dialect, but a version of their common language, Arabic. This unexpected assertion of a way of speaking that usually gets a laugh from Muslims is at first resisted by Naim, who responds neutrally, "in the Arabic of the Koran," until forced to acknowledge his Jewish tongue. All the while Nessim touts the virtues of Balzac and Stendhal. "We stood there in luminous and fragile difference," Kattan recalls, two youths at last speaking in public the same way they would at home: "In a pure Jewish dialect we made plans for the future of Iraqi culture." Their Muslim friends Said and Janil gamely borrow Jewish expressions and join in. On this rare night of communion, masks are dropped, and the young writers of Iraq are briefly united.
There's tremendous pathos in this scene, for we can't imagine it occurring now. What Kattan is really showing us is the pathos of youth itself, which believes it can reinvent the world. Kattan and his fellow Iraqis are "emancipated liberals and revolutionaries who were working to demolish the walls put up by prejudice and misunderstanding." Walls and veils are natural metaphors in this Middle Eastern world, but prove rather more obdurate than the youthful optimism that would demolish them. "A few explanations, some judiciously recommended reading, and our companions' eyes would be opened, finally, and forever. And then the light would shine in all its brilliance."
Attracted to the anti-British nationalists, yet hearing the whispered talk of German atrocities at home, Naim has already borne terrifying witness to the Farhoud. This home-grown slaughter occurred in 1941, after the British defeated the Iraqis. Bedouins invaded the abandoned city, choosing to pillage only one tribe: the Jews. When Nessim's uncle protested, "They pushed him into the bathroom, held him down, stretched him out on the floor and slit his throat, like a sheep." Three hundred was the official death toll. Luckily, Naim's family lived in one of the new suburbs-which he remembers as an Eden, where his father would take him on Saturdays to buy fresh vegetables. Although they elude the invaders, and government is restored, their coming exodus is now preordained. Overseas relatives are contacted, passports secured.
Even as Kattan's Baghdad assumes a fly-in-amber quality, what remains fascinating is the way the various groups regard one another. A Jewish mother scolds her child by calling him a Muslim, while a Muslim mother's reprimand is just the opposite. Although boundaries are generally firm, exceptions occur. On one occasion, his paternal grandmother, a powerful woman respected by people of both cultures, takes her wide-eyed grandsons to a Muslim circumcision party, on the Muslim side of the Tigris. Distant family members who live in the Shia section allow Naim to observe the Muslim "passion" from behind closed shutters. Men flagellate themselves with whips and chains in memory of the deaths of Hassan and Husein, martyrs for the faith. "The dramatic game, the ritual of release" becomes connected in the boy's mind with the Farhoud that will come in his teens.
The slow dance with western culture that will lead to his scholarship at the Sorbonne, is shared with his schoolfellows, Muslim and Jew. Everyone wants to taste the life in Paris, London, or New York; the difference being that the Muslims will return (in 1951 most Iraqi Jews left for Israel, forsaking their property). As Kattan makes steady progress toward his goal-arriving at his first editor's office wearing the short pants of childhood-the other thing that obsesses him is sex. Kattan's tone is self-mocking, whether sketching his passion for an illiterate servant girl who loses patience with him, or his first, disastrous time at a brothel.
But it's the raw powerlessness in the women's stories that stand out even more starkly over time. Kattan groups several tales about girls whose honour was either lost or merely brought into question. In Jewish Baghdad, girls come in two categories: the marriageable and the whores. When his own sister reaches the "old" age of 24, she is married to a strikingly unattractive shopkeeper. Naim gallantly offers to save her, while knowing his gesture is ridiculous. In one of the book's most touching moments, she says she'll always love him for it, but no, this is her choice. When his elder brother compares the humiliating plight of a Muslim bride, a family neighbour, to slavery, their mother cuts short the conversation: "We aren't in Europe or America."
"On the surface life was normal," Kattan writes with serious understatement, "only plans for leaving seemed final." Around this time the nadir of his sexual journey occurs, in the worst of the red light areas, where prostitutes with "amputated hands, missing eyes, limping legs" approach Naim and his friends. These women, and the men who are their masters, create a recurring nightmare-"all the corpses walking though a clamour of music and coarse laughter." Trouble is, "these men and women were identical to those [he] met everyday." At last he leaves on a bus for Beirut, en route to Paris. Through tears he looks out the window, relieved that he does not have to throw stones at the howling dogs pursuing him. It's a powerful end to a haunting memoir.

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