Monday, May 24, 2010

Farewell, Babylon: Coming of Age in Jewish Baghdad by Naim Kattan, first published in French, 1975

Naim Kattan received the 2004 Prix Athanase, Quebec's highest literary award. He also was awarded France's Legion d'Honneur.

Naim Kattan, born in 1928 in Baghdad, left Iraq for Paris to study at the Sorbonne on a scholarship from the French government shortly after the end of World War II and eventually settled in Montreal where he became a prominent writer. In his memoir which covers his years growing up in Baghdad, he stresses that a Jewish community had been in Iraq since the time of Nebuchadnezzar after the destruction of the first Temple in Jerusalem and that he and his friends felt like solid Iraqi citizens who were Jewish. They spoke Arabic and, in fact, he said that Jewish students frequently won the end-of-the-year school prizes for excellence in Arabic.

But there was unrest and discrimination against the Jews that reached a crescendo in June of 1941, when Kattan was thirteen, with the Farhoud – a violent mob-led onslaught against the Jewish community fomented by Germans and Muslims as a reaction against the Jewish population and the British military presence. Although order was restored, the Jewish community remained on edge and many made plans to leave Iraq as soon as the war was over.

Naim Kattan describes those times and his life during them. He became a student at the Alliance Israelite Universelle where, with other Jewish students, he studied Arabic, French, Hebrew and English. Facility in these languages prepared the students for places in the civil service, for the law, and for roles as translators and merchants. He describes the various groups that interacted fairly amicably even after the Farhoud, but we also see the increasing nationalism and anti-Zionism that came to the fore after World War II when the State of Israel was on its way to becoming a reality.

Kattan gives us a very interesting descriptions of neighborhoods, local customs, both Jewish and Muslim, and is especially enlightening about male/female relationships. His discussion of the matchmaking that ensued when his sister was of age to be married conveys in vivid detail how that ritual played itself out. He also spends time describing his education and his intellectual circle of friends. The memoir ends when, in tears, he left his family for Paris.

Note: This memoir will not be helpful to genealogists looking for family names.Kattan seems to have deliberately not included the names of individuals, most likely to respect their privacy. But it is definitely worth reading for the description he gives of an Iraqi Jewish culture that has disappeared. 

To read an interesting description of the Farhoud, that has been likened to Kristallnacht, click here.
Yossef al Siddik – author’s grandfather
    Manasseh – his son
    Ephraim – his son

Yaacoub Benyumine – prominent Jewish lawyer in the Baghdad Jewish community

Battawiyeen, Baghdad, Iraq
Meir Synagogue
Alliance Israelite Universelle
Shamash School
Moshi Café
Al Rafidayn Club

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