I was born a Jew in Baghdad, in the Muslim country of Iraq. My roots there go back centuries: Legend has it that our first Khazzoom ancestor was born in Baghdad six hundred and fifty years ago. In 1951, at the age of 18, I left my family and theMoreI was born a Jew in Baghdad, in the Muslim country of Iraq. My roots there go back centuries: Legend has it that our first Khazzoom ancestor was born in Baghdad six hundred and fifty years ago.
In 1951, at the age of 18, I left my family and the country of my birth, Iraq, to settle in the new state of Israel. Along with more than 850,000 other Jews living in Arab lands, I was escaping persecution and seeking sanctuary in the Jewish homeland after Israels war of independence. With the rise of Arab nationalism during the nineteen thirties and forties, the everyday hatred directed toward Baghdads Jews by our Muslim neighbors snowballed into fearsome terror. Still, we didnt decide to upend our lives lightly. Most of us who joined this migration left behind homes, loved ones, businesses and bank accounts in order to live in peace and security among fellow Jews.
One of my aims in writing my story is to document a way of life that vanished with this exodus: the rich Babylonian Jewish culture that had flourished since ancient times in Iraq. I also want to put the current bloodshed in Iraq in a larger historical context. Though not on a scale comparable to that in present day Iraq, much of the torture, assassination, bombing, kidnapping, hand cutting and beheading that dominate todays headlines (and that mistakenly many tend to attribute to the presence of our troops in Iraq) – much of that is what we lived through and endured, except that at the time there were no TV cameras and no reporters to report to the world on what was happening.
Iraq was always, and remains, a violent society. Saddam Hussein was not an aberration. He was a product of that culture of violence. I witnessed this inherent violence of Iraqi society over and over as a child. However much I tried to erase it from memory, terror is imprinted on my soul. What remains-what I have been unable to shed-is a harrowing instinct to be prepared to flee at any moment.I was young and had little to lose by way of material assets when I left Iraq. But my departure marked the first of many tearful partings and separations that would be my familys fate amid the incessant turbulence in the Middle EastLife in Israel was a huge comedown for the refugees that streamed in from Arab lands, swamping the new nations ability to provide jobs, housing, and even food.
More painfully, we encountered discrimination, were often branded Arabs and derided for our language and customs. So in 1958, I once more ventured into the unknown. I again took leave of my family-- to get my doctorate, marry, start a family and build a career in the United States and Canada.
The price of freedom has been almost unbearably high. The dispersal from our homeland, the expropriation of our assets by the Iraqi authorities, the years of anxious separation and the demoralizing economic strains of life in Israel would ultimately tear at our once-close family bonds.
The passage of time has helped repair the breach, but it came too late for some of my relatives. They died penniless and alone in Israel.I am an American now, living a comfortable life as a retired academic in beautiful, sun-splashed California. But even in this free and open society the dark frights of the past have ambushed me at unexpected moments.When the U.S. invasion of Iraq began in 2003, people asked me how I felt about it.
I could only say that I hoped Iraq would move toward becoming a more humane society, and in the process serve as a catalyst for the transformation of the Arab world. But as I write this, such an outcome seems elusive.Sometimes people ask me if I would not want one day to visit Baghdad, my birthplace.
My answer is-and always will be--an emphatic Absolutely Not. I left Baghdad in April 1951 and I will never return. --Sacramento, California, 2010