Saturday, March 17, 2007

The story of the Jews of Baghdad

The Tablet reviews two books on the emigration and almost complete disappearance of Iraq's Jews. Another long-gone sign of that (relatively speaking) Ottoman pluralism.
While Benjamin constructs for us the context within which this small world was held and understood, both accounts present an Iraq that no longer exists. Both her book and Kattan's, with their depiction of the uneasy conviviality of a former age, are nostalgic; but they also vividly demonstrate the sad contemporary reality that this is the end of that political space in which those diverse peoples and religions that have made the Middle East were able to live side by side. It has taken only two or three generations for that world to be dismantled: in Farewell, Babylon, Kattan recalls experiencing anti-Semitism in the 1930s, when the Iraqi Government sought an alliance with Nazi Germany, raising the horrible possibility of the Shoah being visited upon the Jewish communities of the Middle East.

Over the last century, genocide, war, ideology and emigration have made it apparently impossible for different peoples to live together. The Middle East today is fast becoming a region of many small statelets - all of which are resistant to the possibility of ethnic or religious diversity.

This is the experience of both Jews and Christians in the area; and we are now seeing that historical reality taking its toll on Iraqi Muslims. The beginning of the modern era of Europe is considered by many historians to have been constructed from the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, by which ruling princes could choose the religion of their subjects. What followed that treaty was centuries of religious strife which ended in secular conflict.

In these two striking accounts of Jewish life in the old communities of Baghdad we can hear echoes of this drama played out in the Middle East.

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