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The Jews of Baghdad

Kholoud Ramzi
Seventy-five year old Marcel Azra, one of the few remaining Jewish women in Iraq, has nothing left but memories of the man she loved. For his sake she didn’t leave the country, only for her dreams to be shattered…
7.10.2008  |  Baghdad

Today, Marcel, whose face is lined with wrinkles, lives alone in her house in al-Bataween area in central Baghdad. She is frail and rarely ventures out, depending instead on a neighbouring Christian family for help with her daily needs. Once upon a time she was a teacher in the country’s most famous Jewish school, Franky Ain School (later renamed al-Nithamiyah School), but since retiring she has lived in solitude in her home.

Marcel’s neighbours, Rami and his sister Rita, have helped her for many years. They call her ‘aunt’ and buy her needs, clean the house and look after the garden. They also cook her the Iraqi food that she so loves.

Looking at black and white photographs from the 1950s, 60s and 70s, Marcel recalls beautiful memories of times spent with family and friends, all of whom have since died or left the country. “I have no one. All my Jewish family and relatives left the country. My brother, my sister’s sons and my friends… I stayed here alone. I thought I would marry Sahyoun and so I stayed. But fate did not give me this opportunity. Sahyoun died in an unexpected fight with a Palestinian who was living near our house.”

Marcel says that the incident occurred in the early 1980s because of a dispute between Sahyoun and a Palestinian neighbor provoked by the news on television. The dispute led to a fight and Sahyoun ended up dead.

Despite the incident, Marcel never thought of going to Israel, but insisted on staying in Iraq. “I have no reason to leave. All my neighbours know that I am Jewish and no one has ever hurt me,” she told Niqash. “I do not want to die away from the place where I was born and spent the best years of my life.”

According to 2003 statistics from the Jewish Agency, there were only 34 Jews left in Iraq, most of them elderly at the time of the US occupation. The agency moved six of them to Israel, but the remaining 28 refused to leave the country. Marcel is one of them.

The Jewish community in Iraq is the oldest Jewish community in the world. It dates back to the Neo-Assyrian Empire of 911-612 BC. Jewish literature says that the Assyrians launched several campaigns on Palestine and transported Jews to remote mountainous areas in northern Iraq. When Babylonian Chaldeans ended the Assyrian era and established their state in Babylon (612-359 BC), one of their most important accomplishments was Nebuchadnezzar’s conquest of the Kingdom of Judea in Palestine which led to Jewish captives being taken back to Babylon.

At its heyday Iraqi Jews numbered 130,000 people. The community was known for handicrafts with many working in the gold and jewelry industries. Others joined the political world and in 1921, the minister of finance was a Jew, Sassoon Eskell.

However, following the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 tensions between the Iraqi and Jewish communities emerged, resulting in the emigration of the majority of Jews to Israel. In the early 1950s, only 10,000 Jews remained in Iraq from the 115,000 of 1948. When Abdul Karim Qasim took power in 1958 he lifted restrictions on the remaining Jews and their situation improved. The Baathists, however, renewed discrimination and in 1969 the government executed a number of merchants, mostly Jews accused of spying for Israel. This led to the rapid emigration of most of the remaining Jews in the country.

Many of those who remained were forced to live in silence and fear. Some converted to Islam, especially those living in more conservative areas. Yet, people did not forget their origins, often addressing them as the “the son of the Jewish person”. At the same time, most Jewish buildings were destroyed or converted. Today, the Bataween Synagogue is the last Jewish sanctuary remaining in Baghdad.

Marcel, it seems, is only waiting for death. The old women with blond hair and gleaming blue eyes has collected all her special belongings, memories and treasures of years gone by, in a small wooden box which she refuses to open in front of strangers. She has asked Rami to bury the box with her when she dies.