A London-born writer travels to Baghdad to find the city that suffused her family’s imagination
Marina Benjamin at home in London. (Photo: Neil Bennett)
Marina Benjamin went to Baghdad for the first time in March 2004. She made her way to the Old City, where the Jews once lived, and in the twisted streets, among the souks and coffee houses, searched for her family’s past. She wanted to know why her relatives—Iraqi Jews in exile for half a century—still lived in the Baghdad of their memories.
As a teenager in London, Benjamin ignored her Iraqi Jewish roots. She could not understand her family’s hunger for a homeland that rejected them. She didn’t learn Arabic. She was more interested in being British than she was in learning about her family’s past. When she turned 16, her parents began to search for a boy for her to marry—someone from a good Baghdadi family. Benjamin’s instinct was to run away.
Following the death of her grandmother, Regina, Benjamin began to feel the pull of the heritage she had previously rejected. In Last Days in Babylon, she traces the footsteps of her grandmother, born in Baghdad in 1905. It was not an easy task. “I had to face up to the fact that this Jewish history had been written over, rubbed out, vanquished,” she writes. “It remained alive in living memory, of course, but even now that was fading.”
You went to Iraq in part to explore your own identity, and your family’s identity. Did you come back with a greater sense of that?
I think the real change happened before I went to Iraq, and that change was brought about, funnily enough, by 9/11. It was in that post-9/11 climate that I think I began to feel more distinctly Iraqi. It was partly the positioning in the public arena of what Iraq as a country was. That jarred with my inherited nostalgia of this country that I had been brought up to believe was something different—boat rides on the Tigris, picnics eaten under the shade of palms. That coupled with the lack of nuance of any portrayal of the Middle East in the Western press really made me feel my allegiances towards the West where’d I’d lived, with which I had identified all my life, were shifting. And it made the imperative to explore that identity a little bit more critical for me.
Also from a purely pragmatic level, there was this feeling that at last, I could actually get there.
In the book, you focus in particular on the story of your grandmother, Regina, who died in 1992. When did you make that choice?
The author’s grandparents, Regina and Elazar, on the left as newlyweds on the banks of the Tigris, 1928.
I had only known her in exile, and because I was weaving myself into the story, it was a wonderful way of connecting me to the past…. I have a picture in the book which, for me, encapsulates the whole story. It’s a picture of my grandparents as newlyweds in 1928. They’re standing on a jetty with their backs against the Tigris, flowing behind them. My grandmother is in what looks an abaya. It’s less heavy than a chador, less cumbersome, but it covers Western clothing, or indeed, any clothing. I look at this and think, my goodness, in just two generations, the distance is extraordinary. My life is so different. My identity is so different. How can this be? And, how can I get close to her?
Were you able to get close to her?
I think I was. It was almost as if I felt her presence over my shoulder, many times, writing the book. I remembered more about her as I was writing.
Was your trip to Baghdad a fruitful one?
It was extraordinary because it was such an intense period. I was almost never in my hotel. I was almost always with the last 22 Jews of Baghdad, whom I’d tracked down one by one. Now there are only 12 left. Or, I was with my guide, asking him to take me to Babylon, which was a crazy thing to do at the time because it was very dangerous. I felt this compulsion to see the land on which the Jews had actually lived. I just wanted to do things as simple as walk on the same earth. Maybe that was because there was a lack of palpable evidence. The history had been so thoroughly erased that one needed to get in touch with such basic things as walking on the same ground in order to feel any kind of resonance.
You were there at the end of the time when journalists were still able to move around somewhat freely.
That’s right. It really was the end of what I think of now as a sort of postwar hiatus of unrealistic hope. I was there at the moment when that hope was souring and you could feel the change.
Even among some of these of these last Jews, there was hope?
Definitely. They didn’t really know in which direction things would go. There was still this sense of possibility. The Jews who I spoke to were not Jews who were willing or ready to simply pack up and leave. That was part of their interest for me. They’d clearly elected to identify themselves as Iraqis as well as Jews. They seemed to me to be very much like the Jews one would have found in Iraq a hundred years earlier, before Zionism made inroads into the community. They saw themselves as Iraqis; they were very Arabized.
More Arabized than your family had been?
Absolutely, because there is no Jewish culture around them. What they’re clinging to are half-remembered liturgies and half-remembered rituals, and bits and bobs of Jewishness that were the flotsam and jetsam in this much swifter stream of Islam.
There was still a struggle—the same struggle that existed in your family before they left Iraq—between those who wanted to help the community stay and those who wanted to help them leave. And there were still people in the community who very much wanted to stay. What happened to them?
Those who left in the end were mostly the elderly, those who needed medical care, and who had younger relatives in Israel, and whose children were in fact encouraging them to go. The ones who stayed were the younger ones. They told themselves they were staying to wrap up business interests, or to undertake one or another temporary chore, whether it was an academic course that they wanted to finish, whether they needed to sell a house, whether they were waiting for a parent to retire—there was always an excuse. But there was also, certainly, an underlying pride in the history of the community. I felt that it was very strange, because this pride, although heartfelt, and genuine, and in many ways merited, couldn’t give the Jews any real stamina, because they were so decimated as a community and so oppressed as individuals under Saddam’s regime that these were really not people who could rally to support a cause. They were barely able to deal with their own survival.
In your book, you seem torn about whether these last Jewish residents of Baghdad should remain or should have an opportunity at a new life elsewhere.
I was torn. Partly, I suppose, because of who I was, and that I couldn’t help carrying with me the hopes of those Iraqi Jews in exile that there would be some kind of return. If not repatriation, then at least a kind of open border—that Jews might be welcomed in Iraq, perhaps to help rebuild the country. This was part of the optimism that followed the early postwar period, before the insurgency gathered pace and strength. And it was very difficult not to bring some of those hopes with me, even though I quickly got disillusioned with the reality of life in Baghdad, the struggles these people had to undergo as individuals.
I was surprised, when I was in Iraq in 2005, that some Iraqis seemed to share the hope that Jews would return. To them, Jews represented a time when Iraq was truly cosmopolitan. Did you encounter that kind of thinking?
Elazar and Regina in Taht al-Taki, 1935. (Courtesy of Marcelle Benjamin)
I’ve read that sentiment on Jewish message boards on the web, where Arabs say, “please come back to Iraq, we so admired the Jews.” There was very much that feeling that the Jews have become symbolic of a time when Iraq was the best that it could be, when it was rich, cosmopolitan, diverse, and a peaceful and harmonious place which saw itself marching into the modern world shoulder to shoulder with other Arab states, like Egypt. Arab nationalism affected not just Iraq, but other countries too, and they came to have a much narrower sense of their own national identity, perhaps defined in contrast to the emerging state of Israel.
Your family stayed in Iraq until the early 1950’s—longer than many other Jewish families. When was the moment when your grandmother really knew that she needed to leave?
Regina (center) with family in Bataween, 1949. (Courtesy of Marcelle Benjamin)
I think the real change came after the state of Israel was founded. Because then it became this reality that could no longer be denied, or could no longer be swept aside. Israel existed, Zionism was to blame, and Jews and Zionists were equal. Once all those steps were made, in the mind of the Iraqi, the Jew no longer felt comfortable there. And there was a very real tide of enmity towards Jews, both at a popular level and a governmental level, after 1948. People were arrested, persecuted, houses were searched, and Zionism was a state crime. I think in those circumstances, most Jews realized that it was going to be very difficult to stay.
I think it was it your grandfather, Elazar, who you said dismissed the Zionist movement as European through and through.
That’s right. That was a very typical position among the Baghdadi Jews, especially among the educated classes. Among the lower classes there was a kind of populist Messianism that Zionism could plug into, this idea that the state would be restored, the Jews would be saved, and if you had very little to lose in your life, you could pin all those things on such hopes. But the educated Iraqi Jews were part and parcel of the Arab culture of the time. They were prominent in journalism, in literature, in music, in politics. These were people who were not going to up and leave, chasing the dream of the restoration of Zion.
Yet no matter how much Iraqi Jews repudiated Zionism, eventually non-Jewish Iraqis made the choice about which side they would take. The choice was more complicated for the Jews. They were conflicted.
The question that was relevant to that generation of Jews was: Are you an Iraqi first and then a Jew? Or, are you a Jew first, and then an Iraqi? I thought that was very interesting. This choice was the simple distillation of that whole historical episode of the expulsion of the Jews.
Ultimately, though, they couldn’t really make a choice.
Or, if they made a choice, it didn’t affect the outcome. They may have thought of themselves as Iraqis and then Jews, but they were expelled nonetheless.
You have a young daughter. What will you tell her about being an Iraqi Jew?
She’s going on four. She’s half Iraqi and half American, which I find quite interesting. The book, in many ways, was written for her. It was written so that she would have this direct link to her family history, of a history that’s disappeared and won’t be recaptured. I don’t believe that the Jews will ever go back to Iraq. There will always be an exile. I wanted to give her a glimpse into a past when it was otherwise and to hand her something of the richness of that past as well, in terms of those domestic rites and rituals and the food and the humor and the closeness of family ties, and all those things that characterize the way the Jews lived in Iraq. To preserve something of that, before it faded.